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Skoll Scholar Blogs: Austin Harris

Next in our series of blogs from this year’s Skoll Scholars is a post from Austin Harris.  Austin is the founder of Inkomoko, a Rwanda-based business accelerator for high-potential SMEs. 

Austin Harris

“I began my career working in finance, working first with a startup M&A and then a major bank. I appreciated the skills I gained, yet rarely felt a strong connection with the impact of my work. Throughout my career I have taken time to travel and volunteer in the developing world, witnessing hardships of many and the positive transformations that can be yielded by socially minded businesses.

In the beginning of 2010, I transitioned from traditional finance into microfinance, hoping to apply my work experience to financial services in areas of need. I worked in Bangladesh and then Rwanda, witnessing first-hand the transformational effect of lending and the notable growth in borrowers’ lives. In contrast to my former jobs, I felt proud of my contribution to a product that provided beneficial change.

Over my life, a variety of entrepreneurial projects have captivated and inspired me, continually building a desire to create a socially beneficial and sustainable business. In January 2012, I started Inkomoko, an accelerator firm in Rwanda that has been providing the necessary consulting, capacity building, and financing services for SMEs that are creating innovative products and services. The companies we are supporting are helping to expand and strengthen the Rwandan economy, and will serve as a model for others who are planning their own entrepreneurial ventures.

I am inspired most by providing growth to the developing world through the private sector in a way that can be both viable in business and impactful to the public. I believe supporting innovation through business will broaden industries as well as supply new career opportunities. I trust that original goods and services can benefit the people of a country as well as address many of the developing world’s pressing issues. My hope is to deliver the means for entrepreneurs to build constructive businesses. I also hope to be a conduit for investment in SMEs to help grow these businesses and broaden the areas they serve. This often overlooked sector is large in scale and has the ability to benefit all socioeconomic levels. With support and guidance, these SMEs can be a driving force in self-driven development.

A hurdle I strive to help overcome in the investment of SMEs is reducing the unknowns and strengthening the connection of the business to the outside world. By consulting for these companies, providing mentors who can report on company progress, and establishing a track record through our own financing, we develop a wealth of information and establish a history with SMEs. The intimate level of due diligence reduces the unknown factors in financing companies of this size and at this stage in development. It also opens up alternate forms of financing to reduce necessary collateral and provide affordable support with flexibility. Through our accelerator track, we can provide greater reassurance on the strength of the SME’s business and present a more comprehensive picture, giving investors greater understanding of viable SMEs and their prospects in the developing world.

My experience at Saïd will provide me greater understanding of financial services and business operations so I can expand the benefits of supporting and actively guiding SMEs. Saïd will deepen my knowledge and strengthen my ability to both improve my own business and advance other socially-minded businesses. In addition, the Skoll Foundation connects me to a wealth of knowledge and a supportive community. The Foundation will offer exposure to the successes and difficulties of others in similarly-minded tracks, and a learning opportunity that can be applied to my own venture. The combination of Saïd and Skoll will provide the support and guidance for me that I strive to extend to the businesses in Africa. “