Toronto 29 October 2016. Thione Niang was in Toronto to launch a local branch of the Give1Project. Addressing a 50 + crowd, the co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa shared his journey as an entrepreneur. Thione Niang is a successful entrepreneur, writer, Co-chair of GEN44 Barack Obama’s presidential campaign platform for youth, founder of Give1Project, co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa. In March 2013, he is named by Complex Magazine as one of the 10 young activists who is changing the world.
Born in Senegal, he became a father at 16 and found himself ostracized by peers and the wider community. Soon after he decided that the United States was his best option to re-invent himself and he set-out to get his first Visa. He was refused, but undaunted he re-applied four times, each time vowing that he would keep coming back until he was successful. Five years later, with a valid visa at hand, he scraped together the $700 required for his flight and landed in the US with $20 in his pocket.“People think that everything I have done is because of luck, but in fact, it is about hard work. When I arrived in the US, I realized that I had two choices, to sit in Harlem living in a Senegalese bubble spending all my time watching TV and listening to radio from back home, or I could make my own future. By sheer luck I ended studying in one of the most critical states for electoral politics in the US and when I saw some of the problems people were facing I wanted to contribute and have a seat at the decision-making table.” He dedicated five years working entry-level jobs to send money back home and stretching his earnings to support his budding interest with Democratic Party grassroots political races in Cleveland.
Recognizing his infectious passion for political engagement, he was offered the opportunity to be a campaign manager for Senator Shirley Smith and went on to hold a number of elected local, state and national positions within the Young Democrats organization. This he achieved despite the many naysayers who doubted that there was a place for this aspiring young man who had yet to acquire citizenship.
Speaking on Entrepreneurship, Thione observed that ultimately entrepreneurs are people who are keen to find solutions to problems. “My first business Thione Niang Group was established to find solutions and today I advise thirty governments around the world. The key is to find a purpose, why am I here, where do am I adding value? As Barrack Obama said: life is bigger than a good job, nice home, and flashy drive. The sad reality is that diaspora around the world is not doing enough to mentor young people back home. Instead of investing in our communities we buy flashy homes, cars, clothes etc.….. we perpetuate the myth that success is easy. “
Thione pointed-out the dangers this poses to African nations, especially when they have some of the fastest growing youth populations in the world. “The key thing for me to see is that when we give of ourselves freely we do not know how it will be returned to us. From my experience, you do not need to have all the answers, like Dr. King said, take the first step. Akon Lighting is the result of Akon’s support who is world renowned R & B superstar Akon, my skills at political and government relations and Samba Batily a solar energy solutions innovator. It’s a unique business model that offers solar solutions to households in villages across Africa. They’re pre-financed with a $1 billion credit line with international banks and financial partners.
“The beauty of the project is that there is no greater need than power for Africa, so the business case is obvious, and we are transforming lives in 15 countries working with 5,200 people to install and maintain the lights.”, he said. In October 2015, Thione was appointed by President Obama and the Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as Ambassador at the US Department of Energy representing minorities in the energy sector.
Over the past five years, Thione has brought his considerable energies as a political strategist to 72 countries as the founder of the Give 1 Project. His organizations are in 30 countries and have more than 24,000 members. Last month bright young leaders from all over the world were hosted once again at the White House. A published author, Thione singed copies of his autobiography MEMOIRS OF AN ETERNAL OPTIMIST which are available for sale through Amazon.
Njeri Rionge, President and CEO of Toronto-based Networks, Research and Business Capital (NRBC) spoke at the opening of the session and shared her experience as an African entrepreneur. Njeri recounted her trajectory from a hair dresser to one of Africa’s internet pioneers, and today where she is the founder of NRBC Inc., whose purpose is to drive smart money to support emerging companies based on the African continent. Njeri reflected on her experience living and working across East Africa, Europe, the US and now Canada.
“At the end of the day, the challenge facing us today is scaling-up opportunities here in Canada and across the African Continent. The challenge for us is to focus not only on the Canadian market but see how you can pivot and reach African markets. A key obstacle for many people is fear, which I recognize that it can be crippling. If I sense fear I send it out the door- as it counter-productive. I turn those thoughts into thinking how best to meet the needs of my customer. Many people say that you must focus on your business plan or your financials. This is true- In my experience, it is a 2-3 year process to develop a sound plan that is nuanced to the different markets that you are targeting. But ultimately it always comes down to the customer and is I satisfying their needs.”
“Bankability is determined by how well you are integrating knowledge into the structure of your business. Your track record matters, and being able to showcase inflows and outflows from the business. The key to being a successful entrepreneur is having a diverse pallet of experiences which can be brought to bear to fulfill a multitude of roles that your business require”, she said.
Njeri encouraged the participants to look for opportunities to broaden their experience, particularly in areas that are outside their comfort zone.