Josiah Kwesi Eyison
hen Josiah Kwesi Eyison decided to start a venture in Ghana, he didn’t want to have the same entrepreneurial story as everyone else. Instead, he wanted to build competencies in people who would go on to help impact society. To uphold this core vision, Josiah started the iSpace Foundation to train people and give them a platform to start their own businesses. Since the organization’s launch in 2013, Josiah has built iSpace into a foundation and hub that supports local startups and entrepreneurs, is an inclusive source of employment and continuously builds out its educational offerings. Josiah lives and works between Ghana and the UK.
Your initial inspiration was to build people up in order to build society. How do you keep yourself engaged and inspired from this original vision?
If you’re given the resources of business and tech to solve problems in society, you can create wealth out of it, whether it’s just feeding yourself and your family or employing people to solve societal problems. There’s also the fact that many local kids don’t have access to what a lot of upper- or middle-class expats have, and yet we expect them to compete at the same level. How can we engage kids if they’ve never interacted with the technology before? This is why we give underprivileged kids the opportunity to rise out of their environment by giving them skill sets for the future. We also decided that because we have the space, the resources and the expertise, we could create a program solely dedicated to women to teach them how to be developers and founders and more. That’s what keeps me engaged, the social impact of what we’re doing.
What are some of the early struggles you faced, and how did you overcome them?
In the beginning it was more personal challenges, and then on the business side it was about not getting enough resources or support. My family is in the UK and I’m in Ghana, so I’m flying back and forth a lot and not seeing my kids enough. It’s been financially, emotionally and mentally draining. It came to a point where I wanted to quit because it was a classic case of, “I’m not going to lose my family trying to play the hero.” I’ve kind of overcome that.
The other business challenge was dealing with an environment that was not supportive. It was almost like the NGO mentality, in the sense that the longer we keep caring about the problem, the more funds we can raise, whereas I came in with my bullish mentality of thinking problems could be solved. There wasn’t a lot of funding for projects, so I had to invest my own personal resources into solutions. Dealing with the average entrepreneur mindset was also challenging. We come from an environment where people are expected to be walked through everything. It took time for these people to understand that failure is natural and a by-product of success, not a hindrance to it. From a cultural point of view, there was also the challenge of women not really being allowed visibility in our environment, so we had to tackle those cultural issues.
How did you address these issues and turn iSpace into a successful business model?
It’s a classic case of deciding to focus on social impact first and the commercial side of things second. I wanted to make sure that entrepreneurs moved from ideation to development, incubation and generating revenue before charging them to use the space. I’ve been able to support a lot of developers who can execute projects for the private sector, whether it’s building an app or a website or offering consultancy services. Though we operate as a foundation, we’ve still had to have a commercial-enterprise mentality. We use some of the developers that we train to execute projects, and then when they get paid, we’re able to put some of that money back into the hub.
What do you believe was your biggest mistake as a founder?
The biggest mistake was to assume that we were ready for entrepreneurs and startups. We were seeing what Kenya and South Africa were doing, and we thought we could do that too, but we didn’t take infrastructure into account. Kenya and South Africa have good internet connectivity and stable electricity, as well as lots of universities and companies based in the region. We did not take that into consideration. We just blindly went in thinking entrepreneurs will come and use the space. We also didn’t understand the ecosystem as a whole – we just looked at what entrepreneurs needed from us as opposed to what was already in place to support entrepreneurs.
What was the best decision you made?
The best decision that I made was to realize my mistake and then set up systems to engage all of the other stakeholders we’d missed initially. I didn’t give up on my business model, but pivoted and got involved with universities, banks, private sector partners and the government to understand what the ecosystem needed. Focusing on capacity building was another one of the best decisions I made. I didn’t wait for entrepreneurs to come to me when they were ready. Instead, I initiated programs to get them ready as quickly as possible. I became more proactive rather than reactive.
What led you to set up the business in Accra? What makes the city’s ecosystem unique?
I was born in Accra, and that’s the region I knew. We just naturally started it there. If I had the chance to start over, I would have gone outside Accra. We spent a lot of money on rent, whereas had we opened outside the city, a lot of the money that we invested in the space could have been a seed fund for startups. Naturally, we chose Accra because this is where a lot of the organizations we wanted to work with were based. Also, when you move outside Accra, internet, electricity and other infrastructure is harder to come by, so we chose the easier route by thinking Accra was the best place to be. The by-product was that it was very expensive.
I think what makes Accra a unique startup scene is it’s a mixed bag of locals, experts, returnees and more, so you get the whole buffet of startups. It’s not like other counties where it’s either very local or very expat-oriented. Here, you have Europeans, the African diaspora, locals, people from all classes, all mixed together in this space.
What are the pillars on which you hire the right team members for iSpace?
Being passionate comes first and having the willingness to learn comes second. One of the main things I look at is that when you see a problem in society, you have the passion to fix it. You also have to be willing to learn because a lot of the skills we’re looking for are things people don’t have yet. If you’re willing to learn and be put through the paces of training, that’s what will most likely get you employed. Anyone who is willing to learn from scratch can join my team. My team also reflects the core values and mission of iSpace.
Always look at your problem like it’s an elephant. You need to chop it into little pieces in order for you to eat it. So, my advice is to look at your problem like a huge problem, then unpack it into pieces.
What do you do to bolster your team culture in and out of the office?
We all work in one office, have discussions together and have a flat kind of hierarchy. Whether you are an intern or a CEO, your ideas are always welcome. We also organize events for the team. Recently, during Black History Month, I paid for the team to travel outside the city to learn more about the history of Ghana. We also have cinema dates, where all of us go and see the latest films together. Now with the COVID-19 lockdown, we have a ten-press-up challenge. Every morning, you have to post a video of you doing ten press-ups. I’m using that to keep my people physically and mentally active so we don’t feel disconnected. People get to check in each morning and at night,
so we know that we’re all safe. We’re very much like a family.
As a founder and entrepreneur, how do you keep yourself disciplined?
For me, it’s always about knowing that I don’t know things. I seek to learn all the time, and to challenge the norm. They say that the best way to learn is to teach because once you’re teaching, you’re learning. I’m always learning how to become better as a person and as a business leader. I always have to be reading, talking to people, listening to podcasts and looking up to other mentors. I always want to put the community first; to do that you have to do what the community needs, and in order to do that you have to learn from them.
What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs and startups?
One piece of advice I normally give people is to unpack their ideas in stages. In most of my classes, I ask the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is always, “in bits.” Always look at your problem like it’s an elephant. You need to chop it into little pieces in order for you to eat it. So, my advice is to look at your problem like a huge problem, then unpack it into pieces. You also have to learn from competitors and mentors. If you operate in an environment where there are no competitors, you should be worried, because that means that your idea is too far ahead of its time. Finally, don’t concentrate on making money, but adding value. Once you add value, people will pay for it.
What hopes do you have for the future?
We need to understand that we should not only focus on building startups that are sexy. We have to build startups that are forward thinking and reflect the heart of the environment that we are living in. We need to be very social capitalist in a sense about the SDGs, poverty, gender, education and all of these things. We need to put society at the heart of what we’re doing, rather than just thinking about pitching and making money. Your startup has to be able to solve a societal problem. Building a startup should be data- and future-driven.
What are your top work essentials?
My team. Nothing can be done without my team.
At what age did you found your company?
I started iSpace when I was thirty-five.
What’s your most used app?
WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Gmail.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Be humble, but also know when to speak up.
What’s your greatest skill?
My tenacity and my empathy. I bring people together and I don’t give up.