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Eric Kacou has made his mark in an environment that is a world away from the plush executive offices to which many MBA graduates aspire. In doing so, the 35-year-old has helped transform a country clouded by a dark history into one of Africa’s new bright hopes.
Ten years ago, at the request of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, Kacou was involved in the launch of the Rwanda National Innovation and Competitiveness programme, along with Michael Fairbanks, the development expert and author.
The initiative is credited with helping the country revive its private sector and boost the competitiveness of export sectors such as tourism and coffee following the 100 days of genocide in 1994.
After two years away studying for his MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia, Kacou returned to Rwanda and took over leadership of the programme, remaining in charge until last year.
“The world is taking notice of Rwanda as a beacon of hope in Africa,” says Kacou today. Key to the country’s transformation, he believes, is the nature of its leadership and a focus on home-grown and entrepreneurial solutions to its problems.
Kacou’s experiences in Rwanda are at the heart of his new book*, which encapsulates what he sees as his mission in life: to equip entrepreneurs and the leaders of the world’s poorest societies with the mindsets and tools to thrive at the “bottom of the pyramid” – the largest but poorest socio-economic group – and create prosperity for their societies.
Born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, Kacou’s first trip outside Africa was to study at HEC Montreal in 1993. After attending an exchange programme at Essec in Paris in 1995, he graduated in 1997 with a BA in business and was hired by Monitor Group, an international strategy consultancy.
Three years later, he was part of Monitor’s country competitiveness team that was spun out – with backing from venture capitalists – as ontheFrontier, later becoming OTF Group. One of Kacou’s first assignments with the new company was to help develop a national tourism strategy for Rwanda.
By 2002, however, he had spent five years as a business strategist serving both low-income nations and corporations, and was ready for a dramatic change, both in terms of personal growth and his professional impact.
He says: “While my experience was exhilarating, I found my toolkit wanting. Going back for the MBA was a way to bridge the gaps.”
Kacou appreciates the learning experience of an MBA programme. “I think it’s very important,” he says, “because it gives you a sound understanding of different domains of business such as finance and marketing.”
However, he says that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall benefits of his two years at Wharton, with three aspects in particular that stood out.
The first key lesson he learnt was the importance of asking the right questions.
“In the business world, it is very easy to find the answer to any problem if you frame the problem right,” he says. “Most people don’t have the luxury of doing that, so they can miss the real issue and fail to answer their question.”
Acquiring this ability during his time at Wharton has been critical to his subsequent career, he adds.
A second and closely linked benefit is the ability to think in a systematic way. “You see the world literally as an ecosystem, in which the context fosters some mindsets that drive some actions, and they lead in turn to specific outcomes,” he says.
This way of looking at the world is detailed in Kacou’s book, where he dissects what he calls the “survival trap”, a vicious cycle prevalent in markets at the bottom of the pyramid in which businesspeople and leaders apply the same solutions to solve problems.
“Einstein said the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” says Kacou. “Being stuck in the survival trap is a predicament most individuals, businesses and countries in the developing world face.”
The third benefit of the MBA programme, he says, was that it allowed him to hone his leadership skills.
“Leadership is the ability to function with people who are unlike oneself to achieve a goal of mutual benefit,” he says. “And when I say ‘function’, it’s about being effective, whether [colleagues] have different training, cultures or mindsets.”
Perhaps illustrating the influence of systematic thinking, Kacou rattles off a host of other reasons why the Wharton MBA attracted him – its international alumni network, for one.
“When I matriculated, Wharton had more than 600 alumni from Africa – I think the first alumni out of Africa graduated from Wharton in 1953,” he says.
He has exploited this network extensively. “Since graduation,” he says, “I have visited about 25 countries and in every one I used the Wharton network. Whether it was opening doors or making connections, my Wharton affiliation helped.”
Wharton’s leadership in academic circles was also important. “Most Wharton faculty are global thought leaders in their area of expertise,” he says. “In most disciplines, including finance, healthcare, marketing and entrepreneurship, it is ranked among the top schools in the US and globally.”
Finally, the school struck him as one that was particularly involved with its students, tailoring courses to suit their interests and involving them in the curriculum.
Last year, Kacou was named as one of the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leaders” – a mark of recognition from the Davos organisation of potential high-flyers.
Having resigned from OTF last June, he is back at school, completing a year-long Mason Fellowship in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and preparing for the next stage of his career.
His immediate focus after leaving OTF was to complete the book, his first. Some of what he learned at Wharton provided the raw material that, when mixed with business case studies and his experiences working in Rwanda and other developing countries, shaped the insights in the book. It aims to help businesses find opportunities at the “base of the pyramid” and encourages leaders to think about business in a new way. An example is Kacou’s concept of “intelligent capital” – recognising that businesses in the developing world need new skills and mindsets along with dollars if their strategies are to succeed.
With the book written, Kacou aims to start a new chapter in his career this year with a venture of his own. His commitment to supporting Rwanda’s “ongoing metamorphosis” remains strong, he says, “but now I want to help bring the right mix of capital and insights to entrepreneurs, managers and leaders across the continent and other low-income regions.”
* Entrepreneurial Solutions for Prosperity in BoP Markets: Strategies for Business and Economic Transformation (Pearson Prentice Hall, $29.99)