larisse Iribagiza was twenty-two years old and still a student when she cofounded DMM.HeHe in 2010. Formerly HeHe Labs before joining DMM.com Group Japan in 2017, DMM.HeHe (colloquially called HeHe) is an innovative tech firm that creates business-optimization solutions, enabling companies across Africa to offer products and services seamlessly on demand. Clarisse cofounded the company with fellow University of Rwanda classmates Richard Rusa, Sixbert Uwiringiyiana and Davy Nshhuti while completing an incubation program organized by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Global Startup Labs. The inspiration to become a tech founder came from her work as a student of computer engineering coupled with her learnings from the MIT incubator, which she felt she could apply to the real world. In addition to her role as CEO, Clarisse is a member of the Presidential Youth Advisory Group at the African Development Bank.
How did you become interested in computer science and impact entrepreneurship? What inspired you to become the founder you are today?
I think my parents had the greatest impact on me. My mother was entrepreneurial and my dad stressed the need to get a good education. They both encouraged me to pursue the things I was passionate about, good at and that could create an impact in the world. As well, from an early age, I had an affinity for technology and loved problem solving. It was when I was working on my computer engineering degree at the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology that the nexus of these two passions gave birth to HeHe, which was launched out of an MIT-run incubation program that I was privileged to be a part of. My cofounders were recommended to me by mutual acquaintances who were somehow able to discern that we would likely make a great team. Like any passionate entrepreneur, I was always sharing my work with people and was always on the lookout for people with whom I could share this journey.
What was the original goal behind founding HeHe?
Our simple goal at the start was to connect people to products and services they might be looking for around the city with ease. We wanted people to have this available at their fingertips, so mobile and geolocation technologies were and have always been central to our product design. Through several product iterations, experiments and lessons, we continue to pursue this goal and have expanded our vision to encompass digitizing supply chains across the continent. When I was very young, my family struggled with access to clean water, but I only associated it with outages once in a while. It was eye-opening for me to go into this community and see people who had never had access to clean piped water. The only water source within a ten kilometer radius provided unclean water, and that unclean water contained crocodiles. The local school there had a low pass rate for national exams, and I wondered whether this was connected to the water supply. Research found that the water contained huge amounts of lead, and if you consume lead from a very young age, you will have developmental issues. I learned that thirty percent of children there were stunted, and that this was connected to the lack of access to clean water. I became a better advocate. I understood the problem more and it all started to become more of a reality for me. I decided that I was going to invest my life in this.
How would you define the need that HeHe is tackling, and what makes your approach and philosophy unique?
Ultimately, we want to enable people to live life abundantly and to have access to the goods and services they need in order to achieve that goal. Our tagline is “Delivering Abundance,” and we aim to do that by creating a perfect market where we can effectively match supply and demand. Digitizing supply chains is the first step in achieving that. Often, we are taught to look at life like it is a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. As a result, we tend to approach business this way. This mindset limits many businesses from forging the right kinds of relationships with their customers and other businesses, therefore limiting their growth. We adopted the abundance philosophy to guide our innovation process by always seeking to create mutually beneficial relationships with our customers and with our partners.
What were your early struggles and challenges while starting up HeHe and how did you overcome them?
My early struggles and challenges were mostly around building a great team with a collective vision and passion for what we had set out to do. I was able to overcome this by actively engaging my network to connect with like-minded people who would become my future cofounders and the rest of the team I work with today. Other challenges included having to think long-term and remain laser-focused on our vision while trying to counter the noise of short-term trends or the tendency to simply focus on the next quarter.
Our ethos is really about having an abundance mindset, completely believing that you are enough, you have enough and enough is coming in your future.
What do you believe was your biggest mistake, and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake was taking for granted the need to constantly keep growing and learning new things. I got to a point where I was not intentionally working on improving my skills and knowledge in order to deliver better results for our customers. Instead, I let the demands of my work get the better of me. So, I took a break and with the help of my husband wrote a growth plan that helped me to get out of this rut. I also joined an MBA program, and then propelled my company to the next level of growth through an acquisition.
What do you believe was your best decision as a founder?
My best decision as a founder was to focus on my areas of strength and partner with people who would complement me in areas that I am not necessarily good at or passionate about. I learned this from a principle called the Hedgehog Concept, created by the author of the book Good to Great, Jim Collins. I have since made this a required reading at the company as part of our Innovation Academy initiative. The Hedgehog Concept entails focusing on what you are passionate about and becoming the best in the world at it, so that someone is willing to pay you to do what you do. I also like to remember a quote from Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not what you do, but how much love you put into it that matters.”
How have you built the right team for your vision, and what are the pillars on which you hire the right talent?
Our vision is always what comes first. We all believe in what we are doing and work collectively to achieve it. And this is how we primarily hire the right talent, by looking for people who have similar ambitions and love the work we are doing and can contribute to it. This requires every member of the team to have a high level of self-awareness and a degree of clarity of purpose. It goes back to the Hedgehog Concept I mentioned. This has been much more difficult than it sounds, and we often do not spend enough time answering these questions for ourselves, which shows how important it’s been for building the right team.
Have you cultivated any personal work habits? How do you keep yourself disciplined and inspired?
I try to always make sure I am learning and growing in my areas of expertise, whether through formal education programs, networks or books. I keep myself disciplined and inspired by surrounding myself with people who know my dreams and ambitions and keep me accountable for working towards achieving them. Through the HeHe Innovation Academy, we’ve designed programs to keep us, me included, growing and learning.
What philosophies and activities have you instilled in your team culture? What makes your team unique?
Our ethos is really about having an abundance mindset, completely believing that
you are enough, you have enough and enough is coming in your future. And we preach this through the HeHe Innovation Academy to our teams and partners. It is an overarching philosophy not just for product innovation, but for all aspects of entrepreneurship, from team building to investor relations and so much more.
What are the biggest challenges you see ahead, and also the hopes you have moving forward?
The abundance philosophy was embraced by our team as an answer to some of the biggest challenges in our entrepreneurial ecosystem, choosing to think abundantly,
or in terms of win-win scenarios, and long-term in our approach to creating innovations for the continent and beyond.
What are your top work essentials?
Internet connectivity and a quiet working environment.
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most-used app?
Google Drive closely followed by WhatsApp.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
You were created for a purpose, so live each day in pursuit of that.
What’s your greatest skill?
I’m not sure.
This article is included in Startup Guide Kigali, alongside more founder stories and expert insights. Order your copy now!