My good friend Mariska and I once shared a private joke which actually isn’t such a joke for me anymore: WWEHD – What Would Erik Hersman Do? I still ask myself that question in board meetings, team dinners, corporate negotiations, even waiting in line at the bank.
When I first saw Erik Hersman, he was waiting in the boardroom where I used to work. I was twiddling my thumbs in a 9-5 job while I waited a few months to go do a Masters degree in London. Although I had thought about the idea of eLimu, I was convinced I would need the letters “M” and “A” next to my name before I could do anything about it.
Erik was wearing his black leather jacket, holding his motorbike helmet under one arm and flipping through pictures on his phone with the other. Pictures of a bare open space on the 4th floor of Bishop Magua Plaza. I was a little star struck – I slunk back to my desk to Google the White African and make sure this man was actually in the flesh 10 meters away from me. He told me about plans for the space and I was skeptical; I honestly didn’t even get it.
But then he did it. He actually did it. Did what he set out to do on the 4th Floor of Bishop Magua Plaza. He built the iHub space and they came; they flocked there with laptops and smartphones and thick framed glasses and t-shirts with ironic messages. He pulled in every resource and contact in his network, every idea and creative thought in his mind to make it a beautiful and meaningful space that would work.
By the time I was supposed to go to London, the entire universe (heavily influenced by how Erik Hersman had turned the tech space in Kenya on it’s head) conspired for me to wake up and realize that what I should do instead of going to London is just….get on with it. Erik’s “get shit done” attitude is infectious. As I started dropping into the iHub more regularly (often just to beat Idd Salim at fooseball ;-)), I would bump into Erik, tell him what I was thinking/doing/planning. I quickly realized that time with Mr Hersman is precious. In a few minutes, Erik would hear what you have to say, cut through any crap you might try to feed him and pad your story, give you about a dozen brilliant ideas/contacts and enough encouragement for you to go away with a good balance of self-satisfaction and motivation to do better. And just like that, he will walk away and start chatting to another budding coder/ entrepreneur/ designer/ consultant. Lads like knowing he’s someone they can play football with and women like talking to someone who is not sexualizing them based on how they are dressed. I once overheard Erik telling an Ushahidi intern that her first assignment was to have coffee with everyone on the team. Even those 30 seconds in just his proximity meant I learnt something cool and fascinating. Side note: when I grow up I want to take the eLimu team to places as cool as Lamu, Miami, London and even Bellagio!
You will never hear Erik being too embarrassed to talk about motives to monetize and that’s why his advice is so brilliant: if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. Whether it’s diners, subscribers, VC’s or donors, he has a knack for knowing what people want to hear and see; and what sets of circumstances will make them more likely to believe and buy. I once asked him if I could leverage and monetize the fact that I was the first Kenyan on Instagram (@AmkaKenya :-D) and he thought about it for a whole 15 seconds before earnestly saying, “No.”
Speaking of Instagram, glance over Erik’s feed (@White_African) and you will see evidence of someone with authentically cool and inspiring hobbies; a father who engages and encourages his 3 beautiful little girls to grow up to be 3 wonderful young ladies; a husband who loves, appreciates and respects his wife deeply; a friend who is capable of having a ginormous amount of fun with.
Now, of course when you do so much (please do actually click on this link and re-familiarize yourself with the magnitude of awesomeness and hard work Erik Hersman puts on his plate), there will be so much room for error. Unsurprisingly, you will make mistakes, piss people off, incite jealousy, etc. And of course when you are constantly doing things that no-one has ever done before, there is no “best practice” so in hind-sight, people will always have an opinion about how you could have done better, what you should have done different. So when I hear someone opening their mouth to slag Erik Hersman off (usually opening with something like “I mean no doubt he has achieved amazing things/I have nothing but respect for him but…”), I put them in a special “be wary of but generally ignore” box where people who criticize Jay-Z and Beyoncé sit and sip on Hatorade. What I envy about Erik is his ability to see it all and filter the dumb shit from the constructive stuff. The dumb shit he doesn’t give airtime to – it rots in the cyber toilet where it belongs.
I sometimes look back at the person I was before eLimu the way you look at a terrible ex: what was I thinking? Why was I so hung up and held back by such pathetic excuses for not trying to be better, bigger and more brilliant? Why did I think that no-one would be interested in what I have to offer because of the colour of my skin, my terrible Swahili, my squeaky-when-nervous voice, my crooked smile, my irrelevant degree, my uncontrollably frizz-prone hair…the ridiculously inane list goes on…? Erik Hersman is the reason I won’t ever bother to dye my white hair and he is the reason I started eLimu. Yes, he is the inspiration behind me putting all the excuses why I thought I shouldn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t succeed into a bag and drop-kicking it over the hedge of bullshit the tech community is surrounded by.
Some mentors you Skype with once a week. Others don’t even know they’re your mentor. Either way, if you have a White African in your life, be sure to give them a big “asante sana” today.