Over the last three months, we had Milly Dubouchet here at Hotels.ng as part of her Africa Business Fellowship program. I had a sit down with her on her last day at the office two weeks ago and she spoke about her time here in Lagos, the African start up culture and her projections for the ecosystem.
S: Hello Milly. Thank you for sitting down with me for this. Please what is your program about and how did you end up here in Lagos at Hotels.ng?
M: The name of the program is Africa Business Fellowship. It’s an initiative to increase the business relationship between the US and Africa. Essentially, a couple hundred people applied and 14 of us were selected to be paired with a host company, based on our qualifications, experience and our background. We didn’t exactly choose the companies and we didn’t know the countries we’d end up with. So, I didn’t choose Nigeria; Nigeria chose me, so to speak. I just only knew that the options would be Nigeria or Kenya or South Africa or Ethiopia or Rwanda.
S: So, since you didn’t choose, how did the match up get sorted? Did fellows get assigned by AFB or did the companies make their requests based on who they needed?
M: So, they basically had a bunch of companies in Africa that were interested in getting a fellow. Like, yeah, we have this project that we could have somebody come and help us with… And, depending on the companies that expressed interest, then they went through all of the applicants and then match Fellows up with companies based on their suitability to the companies in question.
S: Okay. What is your take on the African start-up culture and what are your projections for the years to come based on your short time here?
M: It’s been an incredible learning experience for me. I went to South Africa for the first time last year, and that was very different from the experience here in Lagos. I mean, SA is much more developed and modern, like Europe and, you know, all the things that people say, but I knew that West Africa would be a little different – and I wanted to know what it was like and how different it would be.
Culturally, it’s been a real eye-opener to see that people could live two completely different lifestyles here and not be very far from one another. You know, seeing the dichotomies that exist here have been really fascinating and, more than anything, taught me to not take things for granted. This has been more of a personal journey for me than anything. Culturally, the experience has been shocking but not incredibly shocking – I think people expected to be more shocked. I think, maybe it’s because I come from New York City – it’s already fast paced and kind of crazy. My family is from the Caribbean Island – my father is from Cuba and my mom is from the Dominican Republic. When I go to the Dominican Republic, it looks a lot like this. People on bikes, there’s a lot of flooding, and, you know, pretty much the same things you find here in Lagos. So, because I’ve experience all of that, this is not shocking to me like people expected. So… What do I project for the future? I mean, there’s a lot of potential here, a lot of opportunities, you know, a lot of things that should change, but, obviously, those things take time, like infrastructure and, like, yeah, the things that everyone knows, like the obvious things. And I know that it’s a big animal to take on. And there’s a lot of people in Lagos that need and demand things to be a certain way, but, you know, government is an issue, corruption is an issue, like all these big problems – I feel like they’ll continue to be a problem for a long time.
On the start-up culture, there’s so much room to grow here that it’s impossible for it to plateau anytime soon. Like, there are so many brilliant people here – so many people who are passionate and who are hustlers who just want to create better lifestyles for themselves and have creative energy. I was always told that there was a lot of that here, a lot of people who were entrepreneurs, but actually seeing it, it’s fascinating, like, because you don’t see it that much. Like, in NYC, yes, there are a lot of entrepreneurs, but it’s a totally different ride. Like, most of the time, when you hear people having random conversations, they’re talking about their jobs – the companies they work for. They’re not talking about their own companies or things that they’re looking to build. But here, everywhere I go, someone is having a conversation about what they’re doing, or one of two or three things that they’re doing and it’s incredible. I just think that if they had access to the right resources, they could do a lot more and, oh yeah, there’s so much potential to do a whole lot, so it’s only going to grow for sure.
S: Okay, that kind of ties into my next question: What do you think this ecosystem needs more of to effectively thrive?
M: I think what we need is people of influence – people with power, people with money that have some sort of influence here to invest in the talents that exist here. Like, I don’t know, and I’m not saying that to say that it’s not happening. Like, I don’t really know how much of it is happening – Like, I’ve met so many really smart people that have the potential to do really great things, but they don’t really have access to the money. Or the support, like, just the mentorship – the people to guide them to do it. I feel like, where does someone go here? Like, if I’m someone who has a product that I’m looking to develop and I’m really smart and I have plan, I have this idea and me and my friend, we’re going to work on this thing, but we need access to capital – we need money. I feel there’s a lot of talk around investment. Like, people are always talking about investors and funders and whatever, but I come from a background like, how do you make it happen yourself without having to give up control and give up a piece of your dream to someone else? Like how do people bootstrap here? Like, do they bootstrap? Or do they have no choice but to immediately think, well, let me go to the people with money who are willing to give me money if I give them something. So, I feel like, more of people just willing to give to those who need the money, who are willing to and have the potential to contribute to the environment here in really big ways, without making people feel like all they have to do is ask somebody for money and give up some of their company. The investment landscape seems to be really vast here, but I’m a fan of bootstrapping – at least at first. For as long as you can. Like, do you have to seek investment? I think a lot of people just kind of go to that as default without even thinking it through first. I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs here and it’s almost always like, oh, investment, you know, I’m good. But do you need to yet? Do you even know what you’re going to do with the money yet? These are the questions, I guess.
So, my background is personal finance, you know, helping people to manage their money better, save money to get out of debt, credit and all of those things. I’m not too familiar with what that system looks like here. Like, do people borrow money a lot to start a business? Or do they get a loans? Because it seems like, first step, get an investor. I’m also opposed to loans too. Like, how can you avoid owing somebody else anything to get your idea off the ground? But I don’t really know if people are leaning on banks to get loans. Are there programs that exist that support entrepreneurs – that give them small loans so that they can kind of like build something. I’m not so sure.
S: Final question. You’ve been at Hotels.ng 3 months now. What has the experience been like for you here?
M: It’s been a ride, it’s been a crazy ride. But honestly, it’s been challenging, but it’s been challenging in a really great way. I mean, for me, it’s a lot of new things at once. Because I have a background in finance and Biz Development, like entrepreneurship – that’s my area. I don’t have a background in sales at all, like, I’ve never done sales before in my life. So, I was just willing to take on the challenge to see what I could learn and what I could develop here. And it makes me really happy to have been able to contribute to the significant difference that we’ve made in that regard. Like in my mind, I was like, I’m going to be here 3 months – almost 3 months, like, how much am I really going to be able to do? But if I could at least develop something, like, plant a seed that can then be further developed, then I’m happy. And it seems like we’ve been able to do that, which is awesome. I’ve been really impressed by everyone here. Like, there’s a lot of really smart people here, a lot of people who are just good people, who I see so much potential in. Like, you guys can do whatever the hell you want. Like, I know you can. You know, and there’s so much room to do a lot here. So, it just a matter of, again, getting access to those resources and continuing to grow and then just executing and making it happen. But, it’s been really, really incredible. Like, for me, it’s like, I will forever be connected to this company. Like, everyone here will forever live with me, whether I’m here or not. So, if there’s a way for me to continue to contribute, I’m happy and willing to. We just have to figure out how to do that.
S: Thank you so much for everything, Milly.