I'm Salim Virani. I used to design peer learning programs, and these days I'm having fun building stuff.
I should have seen it coming.
It’s one of those things that people talk about, but their descriptions don’t do justice to the experience. Now that I’m back, I have the feeling that something life-changing happened to me, but in a soft, subtle way. Like, hang on, what just happened? Where did this new energy come from?
I just got back from a visit to MEST - Meltwater Entrepreneurial School Of Technology in Accra, Ghana. It’s a highly competitive Masters programme, followed by an incubator, that is well-respected around Africa.
You could call it the YCombinator of Africa, as some do, but that’s like calling Game Of Thrones the TV version of the Godfather Trilogy. It sort of works, but it misses a lot. The X of Africa is rarely anything close to the X of the USA or Europe.
This isn’t really about Africa though. It’s about talent, and people, and the energy that’s created when you get that right.
I learned how important this is from it’s founder, Jorn Lyseggen, a friend who I met only when I had the courage and the impertinence to write about an opportunity I felt we were missing. Can we take the best of tech and entrepreneurship education, and empower The Next Billion to solve problems that all-to-familiar to them? It soon became a side project: Village Accelerator.
Jorn is a modest guy. He was interested in me, and impressed with some of the stuff I’d done - Leancamp, Founder Centric. And when it was his turn to introduce himself, “oh, a few trade exits, and with my latest company, I love the people too much to think about an exit.” That company is Meltwater. It has over 1,000 employees and $200M in annual sales. It’s what created and funded MEST, the eponymous non-profit school and incubator. Epic. I had no idea.
I hadn’t considered looking up Meltwater’s revenue until now. The other aspects of Jorn and Meltwater overshadowed that. That’s how Jorn is - he’s a cool guy to hang out with over a beer. He cares about people.
Up on the wall in the Meltwater Incubator, which is separated from the school by a wooden bridge built by the students, are a bunch of proverbs and quotes from African leaders. Among them is a single quote from Jorn:
“Talent is talent everywhere.” - Jorn Lyseggen
Jorn runs Meltwater and MEST like a true captain, and agendas are tuned to his decision-making, but when you see him socially, he’s unassuming. The focus is usually on others.
Thirty people from Meltwater, the company, paid a visit to the school while I was there. It was like cousins coming to visit their MEST family. The Meltwater crew, the MEST fellows and students. They’re all epic. They have an expression I heard a few times, “hero by day, hero by night.” I was recovering from an immune system problem which drained my energy. I honestly started to feel like a lesser human being among them. Not just their stamina, but their positive attitudes. I want to be like you guys! But how could I keep up?
They were loads of fun to party with, and were up early the next day helping out at the school. Here’s the thing though - I did keep up.
I could get up early - sometimes hungover - and jump into my day. I wanted to be with everyone; I was energised by the prospect of hanging out and learning and working with such motivating people. I even extended my trip and kept going at the same pace.
They a lot of care in choosing people. The school, incubator and company are buzzing with people who all really want to be there for the right reasons. There’s a kind of feedback loop that resonates between everyone. It’s empowering.
So many people in Meltwater - at all levels - were really supportive of me. They offered advice and encouragement.
I was invited to give a guest lecture to the students, and to help judge the startup pitches. I felt a little awkward. Sat next to the Meltwater leadership and some of the continent’s top investors, I was unaccomplished. What did I have to offer? Yet they saw something in me.
I tried to be helpful. Being someone who’s so focused on early stage startups, I was able to ask the right questions. I could read the students, and help them articulate the value they created for their customers.
But there was a common problem - they weren’t ambitious enough.
It’s kind of like a world record. World records feel unbreakable, like an absolute maximum. That is, until someone finds a way to break it. Then, it gets broken again and again in spurts.
First, we need to know it’s doable. Then we can figure out how to do it.
The MEST startups all have tremendous technical, business and communication skills. They’ve won TechCrunch Disrupt globally, they’ve exited, they’ve done business with global powerhouses. They’d kill in any accelerator I’ve seen. They have so much potential, but their 3-year outlooks for their businesses didn’t match. They could aim ten or a hundred times higher.
With Village Accelerator, I’d thought that if I get it right, we could spread it to 3,000 informal mini-accelerators, empowering around 30,000 founders - in around 5 years.
Being around Meltwater, I felt inspired to ask another question - why not 30,000 founders in a year? Why not more? What if that wasn’t ambitious enough? What if I was doing a disservice to the concept, and to my skills and mission, by assuming the potential was capped?
30,000 founders or more in a single year is doable. The real question is - how?
Having seen how connecting ambitious people with the right motives creates such a powerful momentum, I realised another mistake. I’d been treating my many initiatives like separate side projects, mini-startups that needed to prove themselves. What I missed by being so concept- and validation-centred was that the most motivated people in each project were isolated from each other.
This experience tapped into my core orientation - impact. I have a mission to empower people to help others and create wealth and a vision make it happen.
Dream big, and create the environment to actually do it. That’s the approach I’ve seen that makes Meltwater tick.
So I have to step up my game to match such a worthy ambition. I feel unleashed.
I reflected on the assumptions I carry that limited this potential, the baggage I needed to drop, the role models I needed to seek out.
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a fairly radical view on the future of education, and how we can untap a lot more human potential quickly. It’s time to go for it. I’ll share this shortly as a thesis on this blog. (Sign up here.) I’ve also started a new experiment as a concrete next step.(Check out thesources.co for a sneak peak.)
Most importantly, I’ve started bringing all my like-minded, ambitious collaborators together. The Source Foundation is born!
I’ve got MEST to thank for this jolt.
I’m going back to MEST in October, and I’m bringing everything I’ve got when I come back.
Want to come with me?
I’m working on a communication tool for loose community groups and unconference-style interactions. It focuses on individual autonomy rather than top-down coordination.
I recently became a Kernel fellow, where I was exploring models for self-directing communities of care, the history of economic cultural norms, and the connection between mimicry, memes and our sense of belonging.
In the past, I designed peer learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures and The Royal Academy Of Engineering. I also played a role in creating the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.
Choose happiness (2021)
Emotional Vocabulary (2020)
Project portfolios (2020)
The history Of Lean Startup (2016)
Entrepreneurship is craft (2014)