Interview with Henok Wendrad – a visionary entrepreneur
Henok Wendrad is one of Ethiopia’s growing entrepreneurs. He has been appearing on popular websites this past year. He won first place at the 2016 Startupper of the Year Challenge by Total Ethiopia and People’s Choice award held at the cultural innovation center in Seattle.
He did not get to where he is by sheer luck but by a promising strength and dedication many lack. He was kind enough to share his very inspiring story with Student Ethiopia in the following interview.
- Please say a little about yourself, your childhood and growth. Include birth place, siblings, education history (where you graduated from high school, where and what field you studied in University) …
I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Casa-Inchis area. When I was 3, my parents enrolled me in a kindergarten located around Mexico square. After a month or so, I started to get bored and hated the school because the teachers were so cruel and they used to beat any one making a noise. Unfortunately, I was the noisy one; So I got most of the beating. One day I succeeded in sneaking out of the school compound. However, at that age I had no idea where to go next. So I started crying wondering in the street. One of the passerby ladies noticed my situation and approached. She started throwing all sorts of questions. Before I was enrolled, my dad did a great job of teaching me the basics like our house address, his and my mom’s work place and the likes. So I was able to tell the lady where my mom and dad work. She took me to her office, and called to tele-operators to get a phone number of my dad’s work place. Anyways, she succeeded and my dad was called to pick me up. Everyone at home panicked and was grateful at the same time. They decided to wait for one more year before I started school, and after a year I started from grade one at Le’elt Zenebework Primary School. For high school I went to Teferi Mekonen School. In my national exam I was able to score the passing mark to join higher education and got enrolled to AAU, Science Faculty (4Kilo Campus).
This was the toughest year of my life regarding education. Since I was not good with numbers, I scored F on the first semester for Math exam. I was so sure that I would be dismissed on the second semester, but since I liked the college life I decided to stay and see how things would turn out. When the results of the second semester were revealed, I’d got two more F’s in Calculus and Physics, a total of 12 credit hours a year. Fortunately, I scored A and B in the rest of the subjects and my GPA was enough to proceed to the second year. I was placed in Chemistry department on the second year with a minor in Math. Once again I was hopeless.
Two weeks through my sophomore year, I went to Debre-Zeit with a friend and got a chance to visit AAU’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. It took me 10 minutes to fall in love with the place and the subjects at the faculty. So the moment I went back to Addis I filed a transfer request. At first my department and the office of registrar refused to accept my transfer but, I took the case all the way to the president’s office (the then president Prof. Andreas Eshete) and he gave me a letter supporting my transfer. I was too late to apply but with luck and persistence I was allowed to attend Veterinary Medicine. I studied veterinary medicine for 5 year and I loved it all the way through. I graduated with Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree with a CGPA of 3.1.
- What hopes did you have for your future before all this? What did you want to become when you were a child?
Just like every kid I used to wish to be a football player, a pilot, a doctor and many more. Later on, I was interested more in doing business. Mostly I was inclined in artistic business ventures like advertising and cinematic ventures. That’s why my first startup was an advertising firm.
- I’ve read on another written piece that your life course changed after the incident with your friend’s death. How has that played into your current life? Do you think you would have been as innovative had you simply finished your education as planned?
Yeah, well those days were so tough for me. It was hard to perceive what happened. I was young and death had no place in my mind before that. It was more like a wakeup call. I admit it has its own contribution for how I lived my life afterwards. To the most part it affected the concept of time. It eliminated the concept of later, or tomorrow or next week. I realized that the only time and space that is given for me is the here and now.
With regard to the innovativeness and creativity, I don’t consider that that incidence provided any input. I was a weirdo before that. I was able to question the unquestionable and the taboo amongst my friends. I tried to find the meaning of life and the true reality of reality itself even before that. I was kind of a rebel, and so many people thought I was out of line. But those moments are the most treasured moments of my life, since that’s when I was freed from the restraints of the illusions of the society. For this behaviors that I reflected I was even referred as an anarchist by my teachers and my friends as well.
- What are some of the things you value most in life?
I value the serendipitous nature of nature itself. I believe that there is no coincidence in life, and there are no ordinary moments. I also have a strong value towards family and its concept in general. Spirituality also has a huge space in my life in my own way.
- What are some of your hobbies?
I have different hobbies in different times. Some of them I don’t practice them now; but I might in the future. But in general I like hiking, walking, meditation, painting, writing, and designing.
- Who are some of your heroes and why?
Steve Jobs, Ellon Musk, Deepak Chopra and My mom of course. I like these people because they have some qualities that I want to acquire. The first two have an amazing quality of hard work, innovativeness, comebacks, and success. Deepak Chopra has helped me in redefining my perception of spirituality and my mom owns all the aforementioned qualities.
- Say in detail about some of your current successful ventures and those you have pursued before? What obstacles have you faced in realizing them? How do you challenge your obstacles?
As I have stated above my first venture was an advertisement firm that focuses on designing & printing marketing materials for various organizations. I started the business because I loved doing graphic design. The company was not able to last more than 18 months because we all were focused on the designing task and almost forgot the marketing and customer relation part. After I got bankrupt from the advertisement firm, I started a fast food business with the money I was left with and some borrowed money from family. The fast food business is not a conventional business. Instead what I did was I designed a cart and gave it to a welder to materialize it for me. He made the cart with wheels, and I put everything a kitchen requires in its compartments like an LPG cylinder, oven, ice box, ketchup, oil and the likes. Then I went to YouTube and learnt about making burgers. I succeeded in my third or fourth trial, I built a recipe of my own and hit the road with 15 burgers. Back then, I used to live with my mom and I remember when I took the cart to the streets to sell my burgers, she was crying because that’s not what she wanted for her son with a doctorate.
To make it worse, all my mom’s friends saw me on my way to Meskel Square (that’s where I planned to sell because of the Sevastopol cinema) and they all advised me to get a decent job like everybody else. But since it was my first day I was hopeful that I would succeed and shut them up. I was expecting to sell each and every one of my burgers that day. I got there approximately around 3pm in the afternoon and waited until 9pm, and I was only able to sell 2, both for me. I was confused that day and I lost the guts to go out on the next day. So I decided to bring a friend. That day, while I was frying the meat on the stove he started dancing and cheering and slowly people started gathering around the cart and before I knew it I had my first order from a real client. That was an awesome feeling. By 8 pm, we sold all the burger we had and only one we ate for ourselves. That’s the day I understood the value and idea of marketing. My vision back then was to place up to 5 carts in busy areas of Addis and build a culture of fast food. I did the business for about 5 months and was able to generate profit beyond my expectation. But I never stopped looking for more opportunities. In one hand, I was looking for co-founders (partners) to invest in my fast food business so that we can place more carts in more places, on the other I was submitting various project proposals for NGOs. Even though I loved the business, there was one thing that kept bugging me every single day. Which was, my mom’s cries. She literally cried every time she saw me selling burgers in the streets. This coupled with the unfortunate employment opportunity I got at an NGO made me decide the worst decision of my life. I quit on my business and applied for a white collar job that paid me less than my business.
After that, I jumped from one employer to another without satisfaction. I was also doing some informal side businesses but, those were not the kind of businesses I wished to have in the long run. After a couple of years lost in the wave of employment, I decided once again to come back as an entrepreneur. With some of my friends we bought a domain name, designed a website that exclusively promoted and sold Ethiopian products to the world. We all had no idea what we were getting in to, because none of us had the IT skills required to manage a website with such sophistication. However, the host that sold us the domain provided us with a very simple software to build the website (a simple drag and drop operation). Anyways we finalized the website and started looking for investors. In less than a month since we launched our website, we got our investor in a serendipitous way. We were able to sell 25% of the company share for 40,000 birr and with that we created a promotion company. But that was it. We couldn’t get the website anywhere. We couldn’t get visitors at first but, after a while people started to visit. But we couldn’t sell anything because we didn’t have an international bank account that could be attached with PayPal. We tried to bring in new partners with IT background but none of them could give us the help that we needed. So to exist as a business we deviated from IT and started organizing events. We were able to organize couple of events, but since we were far from where we began, our vision as partners started to diverge and in time we decided to liquidate the company. This was the business that thought me much about communication between colleagues, partnerships, having a vision, seeing the end in the beginning, and above all, management.
After that I launched a very annoying business which had no room for innovation or even thinking; A mini market. While I was at this shop, I realized that the items with the most turnover were Injera, Potato Chips and Cigarette. So one day I went to Tobacco Monopoly and asked to have a permission to distribute and learned that it requires huge capital and installment. I left it there, and went digging about Injera baking business. I secured a huge market for the Injera even before I started making it. Then with my wife, we started making Injera and gradually we closed the shop. The market was good but since none of us have the required knowledge in making Injera, it became frustrating. By the side I started making potato chips. At first securing the market for the chips was hard but, later on I designed a new way of packing it, by inserting fortunes in the package adopted from the famous Chinese fortune cookie. We got good market and it started to grow. One day the government decided to put 100% increment on the price of oil and we were out of the market before even tasting the ripening fruit of the business. By then, we were extremely bankrupt and in a pile of debt. The only asset we were left with was our education. Confused with what to do next, we started tutoring.
When my wife and I started to work as tutors, we never thought we would reach to a level where we could benefit others financially. By far, we have three evolutionary phases in our endeavor. When we began our journey with one operation, one tutor-tutee match up, we were able to benefit only ourselves and the students. We were only killing two birds with one stone.
We name each phase by the common “two birds with one stone” idiom. Here are the phases:
As stated above, at the beginning of our career it was a “two birds with one stone” approach, meaning only the two of us helped students achieve their academic goals, and in return we achieved our financial target. By word of mouth, more and more students in need of tutors started to contact us and their number went far beyond our human capacity to address them all. This point is the birth of The Three Birds Phase by outsourcing the incoming clients to other qualified professionals who were usually our friends or friends of friends.
This is our current standard operation that aims to benefit three parties in just one operation. At the moment we have more than 240 registered tutors in our database. Whenever our clients (students, parents and/or guardians) need a tutor, based on their specific requirement we match them with an appropriate tutor.
This operation benefits the tutor by enabling him/her to have an extra income (for some tutors this is the only means of income), the student gets the academic support that he/she requires to succeed in their schooling and we get our commission. This is a standard operation system which benefits the tutor, the student and our company to achieve our co-dependent goals at once.
In the near future, we aspire to launch a new approach to maximize our impact in the society to more than three beneficiaries. The five bird approach will be implemented by our agency and volunteer tutors. The main objective of this package is to benefit students of low income background by providing finance and tutoring services from in-house contributions of our standard operations.
The plan is to solicit volunteer tutors from The Three Bird Approach to donate 5% of their tutoring incomes including our commission and use the money to hire University or Preparatory students for a lower price (that need the money) and engage them to provide other students (of lower grades) that cannot afford to hire tutors of any kind.
- Say a little of some of your personal achievements?
Of all my achievements so far, I love the one I am currently having with Mak-Addis Tutors. For one, I am contributing to the society by providing employment opportunities and for students extra help on their academic endeavors. Because of it I was enrolled on a 12-week awesome leadership training by the Young African Leaders Initiative – Regional Leadership Center and became certified. I was also packaged in an accelerator program by Reach for Change-Ethiopia, another amazing program for social entrepreneurs. In the 2016 Startupper of the Year Challenge by Total Ethiopia, my project is first place winner. And recently, I am winner of People’s Choice award on the jam session held at the cultural innovation center in Seattle that is organized by Hack the CD, Comcast and the government of the City of Seattle.
- What are some of your future plans? What can we expect of Henok Wendrad?
It will be a lie if I say this is my plan. The time in which we are living won’t allow us to plan since the technology is changing almost every year now. We can’t tell for sure what can happen five years from now, what kind of disruptive technology might come. But one thing is for sure, I will pursue on my start up to reach more people to achieve their goals. But still, we keep our options open for remodeling based on the need of our customers. I am also planning to write a book. It’s just a plan though.
- What have you to say to students who quit their educations to pursue different paths or because school was too difficult?
To be honest, I am not pro of quitting education. Especially once you join a higher institution, not because the education is valuable but because the life in college is valuable. That’s where one will have a chance to explore oneself. That’s where one can start the journey to the inside of one’s soul. That’s where one will learn the basic social skills like sharing, helping others, getting help, communication and the likes. That’s also where fun is.
But if quitting is a must and there is no other option, I say be open minded and opportunistic. Opportunity is everywhere, but it’s only visible for an open minded person.
- What words of wisdom do you have for rising innovators in Ethiopia?
- If you decide to be a rebel, an innovator, be thick skinned for criticism and negative comments. That’s the price you pay for the rest of your life.
- Be quick to fail and learn, and repeat that. That’s where your secret sauce is.
Interviewed by Qal Fessehaye