Beyond the Frames: David Harlley and the venture holding company investing in Sub-Saharan Africa
Beyond the Frames features movers and shakers from the African continent and within the diaspora. Game changers in their own right, they use creative and innovative ways to make a positive difference in the black community. This month, we feature Mr. David Harlley - co-founder and CEO of Third Way Capital, an engineer, lecturer and writer. Ghanaian born and raised, he gives us insight into his venture holding company and the journey he took to get there...
Tell us, what did your life look like before Third Way Capital? Where were you working and what were you doing?
Right before Third Way Capital, I worked as Regional Director of Operations for an engineering firm in Toronto, Canada. l was part of a leadership team responsible for 150 engineers, designers and project managers. I also had a seven-year career as a design engineer prior to business school, and my subsequent shift into operations.
Growing up, what did you want to be? Did you ever imagine becoming an entrepreneur?
I can remember wanting to be a veterinarian. Then, like many boys in Ghana, a footballer and then I wanted to be an economist. There were pretty much no full-time entrepreneurs in my family so as a kid, I never would have thought of entrepreneurship as a potential path. Sure, people had side gigs, but everyone was a professional of some sort – engineers, doctors, secretaries, accountants. My family certainly did not encourage risk taking. Now that I think about it, the entrepreneurs in my life, who were largely friends of my parents, seemed to be regarded as mavericks. The kind that lived from day to day with no true success to show for their toil. Perhaps that has been a lot of the perception of entrepreneurship in Africa in the past. It is part of the narrative Third Way Capital is trying to change.
Let's talk more about your company. What made you decide to start a venture holding company for African businesses specifically?
I have always hoped to have the opportunity to invest in Africa, regardless of what my career path might have been. I went to business school imagining I would come out a general manager, climb the ladder of some company, and build enough wealth to do some angel investing. Instead, I came out knowing I wanted to be at the sharp end of the stick creatively. I had met entrepreneurs in school and they felt much more like my tribe than the consultants or general management types. Not that I don’t love that stuff, I do, but I didn’t want to just keep a big ship floating. I wanted to create something that previously did not exist...
So, if you take that and merge it with my desire to contribute to the investment landscape in Africa, it became a question of how do we go about scaling creativity. The entrepreneurship system or ecosystem in Africa has an underwhelming past, but clearly a very bright future. It just seemed to me that the best use of my efforts would be to create something that allowed others to create something else, scaling creativity in this ecosystem.
What has been the most rewarding part of the journey so far? And also the most challenging?
The most rewarding has definitely been working with companies. When I say companies, I include those who pitch to us, or who progress to some stage in our process but do not ultimately gain investment from us. They are still inspiring. They are still doing the hardest thing you can be doing in the African context.
Working with portfolio companies (companies we have invested in) is rewarding in other ways. Knowing we are going to be involved for the long-haul and can therefore invest in building lasting relationships with their founders and teams. They are generally really hungry for what we have to offer, and excellent in their own right. They know their businesses, they know what they are doing.
The most challenging would simply be fundraising. Negative attitudes still prevail. A lot of would-be investors we talk to would much rather provide charitable capital than investment capital to Africa - the tax write-off from granting or charitable giving is seen as more dependable than a return from an investment. This is a narrative that is changing, but unfortunately not quickly enough.
Where does the passion for social impact of your company come from?
It seemed obvious from the beginning that business in Africa has to be interpreted in the context of social impact. There is so much to do on that end of things, and the current thought (not just mine) is that business and the private sector are best placed to shift things in its social arena. I'll put it another way - assuming the African private sector over the next 20 years will generate previously unseen economic activity, those levels of activity will have social effects, whether good or bad. So, we have a responsibility to take a holistic view of production and ensure the benefits of the impending economic expansion are widely distributed. We are to ensure whatever negative effects accompany expansion, are minimized.
If your company accomplished only one thing, but it would make you happy – what would it be?
The biggest thing for me would be to contribute to re-telling the story of what is possible in Africa. People tend to look at Africa and say the system is broken, and until it is fixed, it is pointless to invest. What they are missing is that so much of the “system” is simply how much capital is available. I think you’ll find when we finally have capital flowing easily through the private sector, Africa’s own inefficiencies and wastefulness will loom much less large. Attracting enough capital to “cover these sins” is all about story telling. In Africa, those of us in the position of being early movers will have to do more than be successful at obtaining a good ROI. We have to tell the story of entrepreneurship in Africa well.
Is there anyone that’s influenced you throughout your life journey? Who are they and what was that impact?
I cannot say there is any one individual that has been a constant influence in my life so far (outside of my family). I have lots of different influences. Funnily enough not many of them are from the business world. Perhaps that is testament to the fact that I probably don’t fit readily into mainstream business or business philosophies. I connect with vision and ideas. I am increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of pretty much everything, so a person like Desmond Tutu is very relevant to my worldview, but so is Roger Federer. I tend to grab bits and pieces. The trends that emerge though, in terms of what I learn are along the lines of service, self-sacrifice, excellence, hope, optimism, enthusiasm, audacity, courage, love as well as vision and creativity.
What advice would you give to any upcoming entrepreneurs?
Make sure you care about whatever it is you are building. Compelling products, the kind that really provide value to consumers and society, are born from passion. It is of course possible to become very rich off an extractive approach to business, but believe me, the trade-off is your soul. The second piece of advice I would give is, though an openness to failure is a pre-requisite, don’t become comfortable with it. You only really learn from failure if you are doing your absolute best to succeed. If you are going through the motions so you can call yourself a serial entrepreneur, you never really learn the lessons that matter.
How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?
It is probably best to reach out via email. I cannot promise to get back to everyone as we are very busy at all times. However, if you have a compelling reason for connecting, chances are we’ll be able to make some time for a conversation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.