Interview: Yacob Berhane — Pariti

We chat with the co-founder of Nairobi-based Pariti about getting started in entrepreneurship.

Yacob Berhane and Wossen Ayele co-founded Pariti in 2019. The company nurtures businesses in underserved markets in Africa by connecting them to talented employees, making it easier to access capital, and introducing company founders to experts and mentors.

Here we break down Yacob’s motivations, his work at Pariti and advice for fledling entrepreneurs.

What do you do as CEO?

It’s a mix. My main job is to remove any blockers and provide resources for my team. What that actually translates to in a day-to-day process is, for example: My head of product has some design schemes or some roadmaps that he needs my input on. Or just the initial basis for how we’re going to approach something. We’ll have a work sprint schedule, start off with what are the questions we need to have asked, and then who do we need to answer those questions. Usually they’re centered around what jobs need to be done, and is it a job versus a task, and think about how does that connect back to the user we’re trying to provide a solution for.

So my day flexes between quasi-deliverable work and quasi-strategy work, to engaging with investors, understanding how they’re seeing the ecosystems, ways to better inform them, help them be better at their job, which, at the end, is going to help founders who we are mainly focused on.

How did you get interested in the world of startups and helping support early-stage companies?

When I was in undergrad, I took an entrepreneurship class. We had one project for the whole class: to assess problems that we found interesting and come up with different solutions. And at the end of it we’re going to pitch to angel investors. So I did that and it went really well, as far as an experience for myself. And the angel investors we pitched to actually asked me: “We will fund this. Would you forgo your job offer if we fund this?” And I was just, like, “No. I don’t think I’m in a position to start a business. I feel like there’s a lot of maturing I need to do personally and professionally before I’d really be comfortable taking money from someone else and also asking other people to join and put their careers and their financial futures in my hands, to a certain degree.”

So I went into banking, and I was doing investment banking and got a great skill set and learned a lot, but then I realized that I was just really, really far away from working with entrepreneurs.

And then I had an opportunity to move to Johannesburg in South Africa and co-founded an accelerator. It’s like the saying “the rest is history.” That kind of led me down this path.

What motivates you?

It’s really amazing to hear the stories of entrepreneurs — like, why they started a business. And I’m very interested in understanding all the different industries. So I get to constantly learn. Every day, I’m learning a lot of different things because we’re working with so many different founders who are solving problems in so many different spaces that I have to constantly get smart about. And you just get to hear that human side of why they started the business, which is really just a blessing to do that.

And if you help a founder build a business that changes their community, it’s really impactful to see what these people are doing because they really are changing people’s lives.

So what does Pariti look for in companies? Or what kind of companies do you look for the most?

I wouldn’t say we look for any particular type of company because we, as a platform, want to help companies grow. And the direct service we provide through helping them grow is either helping them find project-based talent to help them get certain things across the finish line, or helping them raise money.

Now, the only consistent thing that I think we look for on the founders side — not necessarily from the business side — is: Are they interested in learning how to be better founders? And do they have a community aspect to it? Do they look at things in a way that, if we’re able to help them, are they going to be able to help other founders as they come up behind them? Do they have that mentality that a rising tide lifts all boats? That’s something that we generally look for. And everything else is case by case, I’d say.

What is that community you want to see behind founders, why is it important, and who makes up this community?

The community that we want to see behind founders is a give-first mentality — create more opportunity for transparency and trust. There is a big scarcity mindset in a lot of entrepreneurial ecosystems, but it’s heightened in emerging markets because capital is less available, deals can take much longer to get. So, if you don’t have that give-first mentality and that communal aspect to how you look at the ecosystem that you’re operating in, there’s really no way for the ecosystem to develop. You will generally just have, I guess, maybe little fiefdoms or something, where one person becomes successful, but you don’t really know why they are successful — like, what did they do differently than this other founder who was in the same space, same time, et cetera. And then that’s just not good overall for elevating the ecosystem.

And entrepreneurship is critical in emerging markets because there’s just rapid population growth and people who need to be employed but there just aren’t enough jobs to employ these people. So how do you solve that? You need to empower entrepreneurs through giving them knowledge, resources, and also have the mentality that someone helped them so hopefully they will help someone else.

What are some of the biggest opportunities or challenges in Kenya or East Africa that budding entrepreneurs might be able to tackle — or might be most pressing to tackle?

There’s a lot. Education would be a big one because so many things stem from that. If you have a better education system that allows people to be more creative and to create these environments for critical thinking and taking initiative, that would be phenomenal.

There are also financial products, like savings. They have things called SACCOs here, which are like communal savings programs. So, Sam, Yacob, Wossen, we all know each other, we all put ten dollars into a pot every week, and at the end of the month, one of us can take that money out, use it for whatever we need it sometime. Figuring out a way to digitize that would be extremely impactful because it would have a lot more financial impact. But I think that has to be solved by a Kenyan person — someone who understands the culture and has that experience, and also has the ability to have trust and buy-in from the people in that community.

There are healthcare solutions that need to exist, banking for small businesses. Right now, if you want to get a business loan, it’s really hard. This is a huge space. It’s being tackled currently, but no one has successfully cracked that space.

Agriculture: There are companies that are focusing on smallholder farming and elevating the quality of smallholder farming.

I think in East Africa, the one unique value proposition is that mobile money is extremely prevalent here. So, you have that advantage. Whereas in other parts of the continent, it’s very low penetration.

Those are fundamentally nation-building solutions: education, food, healthcare, transportation. It’s really exciting.

Everyone has their own path to success in business and entrepreneurship, but what ingredients do you think are necessary for any prospective entrepreneur to find success and make an impact?

Grit is a very important thing. You’re going to get rejected a lot. You’re going to have a lot of no’s, you’re going to have a lot of failures. But you need to be about the long-term perspective and understand that this is a learning opportunity.

Being a life-long learner is really important to being an entrepreneur. The rate at which you learn and digest information and actually apply it is extremely critical. We all learn differently, but being able to understand how you learn is a very, very important thing as an entrepreneur.

Being curious is also extremely critical. Being outgoing helps a lot; that way, you can actually have a bigger network — not just to be popular. You want to be able to get information to come to you effortlessly. So the better you are at creating relationships and having your own little communities around you, the more information flows to you, so you don’t have to put as much effort into seeking out knowledge. It’ll organically happen through coffee meetings or dinners or just simple chats.

What other advice do you have for high schoolers who have an interest in technology or business or entrepreneurship?

I think in today’s world, it’s important to understand how products get built — the hybrid between technology and business. So, being able to see that “here is a pain point, here is a problem for someone” — what are jobs to be done to solve this problem? For there to be a product or a service, do I need to build it myself or are there no-code solutions out there? How do I really assess the depth of this problem? And how do I determine if I am uniquely positioned to solve it? A lot of that is just going to come from repetition, right? Exposure to different environments.

If you’re in high school right now, I would learn how to code. You’re young enough to where you have the time — if you are just going to school and you’re not having to have a full-time job or help around the house with bills, et cetera. That’s not a lot of people’s reality. But if you do have the flexibility and the time to learn how to code, I would definitely do it.

There are so many books you can read around understanding how products get built and how markets get shaped. Being able to connect dots is a critical-thinking process that you probably have to get a framework for. A lot of times, it’s really good to be an apprentice or intern for someone.

Identify the things that you like and have some general inclination to, and then identify the things that you’re not naturally good at. And what I mean by that is: I had jobs in finance, data, strategy, operations. And I realized I really don’t like operations — I’m not an operations person, which is OK. You just have to know what you’re going to be really good at. My co-founder is a very strong operations person, a consultant, a lawyer, a really structured-framework type of person. Which is extremely helpful.

And then you identify: “Do I have the capability and the capacity to do this and get better at it? Is it a good use of my time to get better at this, or do I just need to make sure I complement myself with someone who has these skills?” That’s really critical.

It sounds like books, school, apprenticeships, and internships are the kinds of places and methods for picking up a lot of this knowledge and self-awareness.

Yeah. It will create so many different avenues. If you’re curious, you will have conversations with people, especially when you’re young. Everybody wants to make time for someone who’s young.

You’d be amazed at just how much reaching out can do for you. Taking the initiative and also being thoughtful of when you reach out to have conversations. So, if I’m reaching out to Sam and I don’t know Sam, maybe I go on his LinkedIn and see someone who does know him. I might ask that person for an intro, try to figure out a little more about him. And if I can’t get an introduction, maybe I’m just going to see what his LinkedIn activity is like. And maybe just cold-message him, but send him an article and say, “Hey, I see that you post about these kinds of things. Here’s an interesting article. I would also really love to have 15 minutes of your time, and this is what I would like to talk about.”

So have a general interest in the person. You don’t want to come across parasitic. You want to come across: “Hey, even though I am younger than you, I took some initiative to say I think you’d appreciate this.” And if I’m asking you for your time, I want to be clear on why I’m asking it. So: “Here are some things that I’m curious about that I think you’d have some really good perspective on.”

And that just goes a long way, and that leads to having mentors. I’ve had really great mentors who have helped me understand how to reach out to people, how to appreciate people’s time — and it makes a big difference. And that is how you develop these relationships, and those relationships will compound over time, and the amount of knowledge that you’ll get from that is going to be tremendous.

And that’s how you hack that community aspect of: “I don’t need to know everything Sam knows. I just need to know Sam.” Because then I can talk to Sam about what Sam knows. And he can share that feedback with me, which would be a lot better than trying to replicate his entire life experience.

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Tech & Entrepreneurship Ladder provides high school students in Kenya with a platform and mentorship to create innovations using tech entrepreneurship.