Building Social Entreprises that last: a Conversation with Adrien Bouillot

Get to know our team! This week: Adrien Bouillot, our very own CEO! This interview is the seventh of a series featuring the outstanding team from Chalkboard Education. Check out previous interviews too!

How did the inception of Chalkboard Education come about — why a social enterprise?

Generally speaking, I feel that there are a lot of great technological solutions to not that important problems. In most big cities today, we can get food delivered in a few minutes, or rent a scooter to get around in style. It is great that we do so much with technology, but for some reason we still have about 2 billion people that have either no or limited access to any training whatsoever. To me, this made no sense: it’s not a very complex problem to solve technologically, but it still hasn’t been solved at scale!

Meanwhile, it so happens that I had training in technology management. So I simply decided that, if I was to manage innovation and the creation of new products, I wanted to create something to solve this problem. When you think this way, it does not take long to turn entrepreneur ; and to realize social enterprises are the most viable route to solve big social problems.

How has the journey been with regards to starting a business in the African Ecosystem?

It’s been a roller coaster! It is never dull, and I guess that’s a significant advantage of this line of work: you’re constantly challenged, and that’s exciting. There’s one thing people often tell me about entrepreneurship ; that you are your boss, that you can do whatever you want, that there’s a lot of freedom.. Oddly, I don’t actually feel this way. I do make a lot of choices on the surface, but they’re always driven by something — whether it is a customer, our learners, the market, the money.. An entrepreneur rarely makes their own choices: they make the best choices, sometimes against their will! That’s the job. But I like it: when you start a venture, you essentially get dragged into adventures you don’t know where they lead! It’s fun!

What has been your approach in growing your team and determining company culture?

The team is the single most crucial element in the company, in entrepreneurship, and honestly in everything. In practice, this means that we can make up for many errors in the entrepreneurship journey — and I have made a lot of errors! We can miss talent, but we can never make up for a bad team. I am lucky to have learned this early enough: building a strong team was a most critical aspect I focused on from the very beginning. Company culture goes alongside it: we must foster psychological safety and make sure everyone feels comfortable and able. Even the best team will not function if it is not in a position to use its talents.

I put in a lot of effort in finding suitable profiles aligned with my vision of work and with what it means to commit to a project. Circumstances change constantly, and the company vision evolves, but a person’s core values and ideas usually do not change that much. Once you find a person aligned with your values, which I believe is extremely important at the beginning of an entrepreneurial adventure, these people will be able to stay with you much longer. You need this, because you won’t go anywhere without a committed team that is efficient and effective at their work.

I think the team is the single most important investment for any company, and in particular for a tech company. I have an anecdote: one year, I decided to raise the salaries of key employees even though the company was having financial difficulties. Our investors was actually surprised, and called me for explanation! I told them the truth: yes, we were going through hard times — and this is why we need our team to stay engaged! We cannot afford to loose it now. In short: I will cut corners and costs everywhere — but not on the team. The team is what pulls you out of hardship - never the other way around.

What are your thoughts on the prospects of education and its importance in building future generations?

Education is the single greatest challenge that the world has to solve today. You cannot solve anything else if you don’t solve education first. When you think of issues such as healthcare, environmental protection, corruption, crime, poverty — all of these issues boil down to education. If people have access to proper education, have access to appropriate opportunities, they gain the ability and the skills to solve all the other problems they care about: some will become doctors, other will become engineers, farmers, or maybe build another education startup! Education will solve every other problem we are facing: and it takes time, that’s why we need to work so hard today. We cannot live on a planet where billions of people don’t have access to education — it will never work.

“If people have access to proper education, have access to appropriate opportunities, they gain the ability and the skills to solve all the other problems they care about.”

Berkeley-Haas Africa Business Forum, Berkeley, California, 2018

Now to the solution, that’s pretty hard because even though I am an Edtech entrepreneur, I don’t believe in Edtech being the one and only solution to everything. We have had face-to-face schooling for millenaries, in every ancient society in the World. If it has been working for so long, then this is the way to keep going. However, Edtech and e-learning are an essential arch for when traditional schooling doesn’t work or is insufficient. There are many areas where formal education does not work well: due to lack of resources, isolation, lack of skills, special needs, or else, a lot of people are restricted from accessing education and this is where Edtech is essential.

What is your vision for eLearning and Mobile Learning in Africa and beyond?

COVID has changed everything on the EdTech market: more institutions realize it is a mature market with strong solutions they can leverage, and we can only welcome this trend!

The next step is to change investors and the business community’s opinion on Education Technologies, particularly in Africa. Today, funding is lacking, and brilliant entrepreneurs end up bootstrapping with scraps, which hinders on innovation and prevent the industry from solving the problems we are trying to solve. But this will change! Sooner or later, an African edtech unicorn will emerge (maybe Chalkboard Education) and we will all be moving forward.

When I look at the few companies that found some product-market fit on the continent, my vision is that Edtech must expand both horizontally (to new territories and communities) and vertically (offering new services). Doing low-tech training is not enough: the real opportunity is to bring the best technologies — I am talking adaptive learning, chatbots or AI-grading — to the most hard-to-reach communities. Learners’ expectations are growing fast, and they deserve not only access to training, but an engaging and effective training experience!

Like I said earlier: this is a social business, and the enormous impact it will have on the populations that need it most makes it an extraordinary business opportunity ; one that should attract not just impact investors or charitable initiatives, but also VC money, banks, and tech giants. I believe this is coming to the continent fairly soon now, in the coming years. I am already seeing how the philosophy has evolved in the last years, and Covid and African unicorns emerging in different industries are only accelerating this process.

President Emmanuel Macron visiting the Chalkboard Education offices in Accra, Ghana

What challenges have you faced since starting a technology company from the African market?

I think the number one challenge is that no one will come and help you. I want to be harsh, but honest: most incubators, accelerators, and other startup competitions on the continent are a waste of time. And the few that show real commitment and impact (such as Google’s, which is great) are simply too rare for most entrepreneurs to have their chance — particularly when their team is located out of the main capital cities and cannot travel to access new opportunities.

Without access to funding, serious governmental policies promoting entrepreneurship, or well-funded support structures, African entrepreneurs are playing the game in Hard mode! They can only bootstrap by themselves, grow their businesses very slowly and carefully, and find a way to feed themselves while doing all that. When European or American entrepreneurs benefit from awesome environments, tax incentives and technical assistance, African startups get nothing, and have to compose with hostile environments, high costs of doing business, lack of talents to hire, and lack of infrastructure.

As a result, despite all their talent and goodwill, most of them do not make it. Those who do, however, make extraordinary leaders, and it is time for the World to notice! Companies that come out of this continent are gems of resilience, relevance, and robustness. They overcame so many hurdles and obstacles that they are virtually invincible, and should be a model and a source of inspiration for all of us — at least, they are to me.

Adrien Bouillot at Google Developers Launchpad Accelerator, Lagos, 2018

How does the company navigate between making social change and profitability?

Well, they come together; we cannot create social change if we are not profitable. Why would they be incompatible? In our case, if we are not profitable, we will not survive. And if we do not survive, we do not provide our services nor make our impact. Profitability — which means cost efficiency, strategic planning, and market awareness — is the cornerstone of our activity! Besides, our customers including a lot of Nonprofits and International Organizations that evaluate us on our impact, we are very much directly incentivized to produce social change. In fact, that is what we are paid for!

Is the company moving in the direction you projected? How do you believe the company has evolved since you began it?

That’s a great question because, surprisingly, I don’t feel it has changed too much from the initial vision. I think the most significant shift was to not focusing only to Academia. We realized that access to education and training is a broad issue, in which all sorts of actors had a role to play: schools and universities of course, but also companies, charities, and various international agencies. So we tweaked our software to fit their needs and started marketing to them. But fundamentally, we built more or less the mobile-first e-learning software I was thinking of back in 2015.

One major learning we realized over the years and did not know when we started, is that a technological solution is never enough: you can have the best and most disruptive piece of software ever, it won’t do anything if people are not using it. This is why we added professional services to our initial business idea: by doing instructional design, e-learning consulting, or content creation, we are helping organizations that are new to e-learning roll out good quality programs and ensure better results. Initially, we were a bit shy to go beyond tech and on this terrain, but today we believe this was an excellent move: we are showcasing the full extent of what e-learning can do, fidelizing our customers, and making a great case for more potential customers to follow!

Chalkboard Education team with students in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, 2019

“I think that we’re going to see a lot of very successful businesses, simply because they are solving social problems and social problems are the most significant problems to solve today and tomorrow.”

Do you think anyone can head a firm, and what kind of experiences prepare you for such a position?

Yes, I believe anyone can be a CEO! This is important for me to say, because I hear many young people telling me, “I don’t think I could do what you’re doing. I don’t have the skills. ”. I think this is not true: I did not have the skills either, yet here I am. We learn! Repeating for people in the back: anyone can be an entrepreneur and a CEO, most especially young women! This is true for a very simple reason: everyone is different, and everyone will make a different type of CEO. You don’t need to copy Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. There is no one way to be a leader, and there is no one way to build a company.

Now, of course, this does not mean you can improvise! Be yourself and be proud, but you do need to learn and apply a few essential skills: active listening for example. Being a CEO means listening a lot; to customers, to your team, to investors, to advisors, etc. You spend your day listening to people, but you need to be active: at the end of the day, your role is to weight all this input, and identify the best decisions from it. For the rest, you should get ready to continuously learn on the job: accounting, management, leadership, legal, product design, customer relationship, etc..

Actually, I want to go a step further: humans are wired to be entrepreneurs. Hunter-gatherers had to be on the lookout, reactive, fierce and creative: they were entrepreneurs! There is no difference between a tech CEO, myself, your neighborhood shopkeeper, and a prehistoric hunter-gatherer: it is all literally the same thing!

What are your interests outside work?

I’m a bit of a nerd for a lot of different things. I kind of have a sweet spot for transportation, trains, and urbanism — for those who know, I am a long and proud NUMTOT! Apart from that, you will either find me reading at home, running around, or partying late nights. I just cannot stand in place for too long!

“It is not just that the future will be more socially oriented; companies that solve big social problems are the future, simply because these problems are the largest markets that exist.”

What do you think is the future for technology companies that are oriented towards social change? Do you feel more companies should be oriented towards social change?

Yeah, I do! Companies should not only be oriented towards social change — they play a role in this endeavour, and bear responsibilities! I might be wrong (we will see what the future brings) but I think socially-oriented companies are the future. It is not just that the future will be more socially oriented; it is that companies solving big social problems are the future because these problems are the largest markets that exist.

If you look at just the numbers, whoever finds a solution to global warming, or a cure to malaria, or who scales access to clean water, will certainly become one of the most important leaders of their times — and a very rich person. This alone should attract increasing numbers of wannabe entrepreneurs and inventors: social issues are becoming so important to consumers that businesses that are not some shade of social will become irrelevant very fast. I might be too optimistic though, maybe I only say this because I run a social business!

Still, I think we will see more and more very successful social businesses, simply because they are solving social problems, and social problems are the most significant problems to solve today and tomorrow.

Thanks, Adrien!

About Chalkboard Education

Chalkboard Education provides a mobile-based, offline-first Learning Management and Impact Measurement System dedicated to training rural, hard-to-reach or underserved communities. Currently used in 10+ countries in Africa and South America, Chalkboard Education is available worldwide.

Educational technology in Africa and emerging markets https://www.chalkboard.education/