Courtney Rountree Mills, is the co-founder and executive director of Sinapis Group, a social enterprise that empowers aspiring entrepreneurs in Kenya. She talks to EDNA GICOVI about her passion for growing excellent entrepreneurs and her love for business.
Some children who have an interest in business during their school years commonly sell crafts that they have made themselves, like jewellery, bookmarks, stickers or different forms of artwork. Others learn how to bake cakes and pastries, which they sell to friends and family. For Courtney Rountree Mills, it was a little different. After her family moved from the city of Houston in Texas to an agricultural area in the city of Corpus Christi, also in Texas, in the United States, she started rearing lambs, an endeavour she immensely enjoyed and also realized she could benefit from. She sold the lambs to the farming community around her, and also competed in livestock shows.
She was about 14 at the time and made good profits from the sale of lambs, which enabled her to save and put some funds towards her college education, in addition to a down payment for a car. “That’s when I fell in love with business,” says the soft-spoken but firm Courtney, adding that as she started to enjoy business, she also realised that it didn’t have a limit. “With some professions, there may be a limit to where you can reach but with business, there’s so much variety. You could be selling lambs or starting an Internet company and all of these are categorized under business. There are unlimited opportunities and potential in business,’ she says.
She majored in business at the University of Texas where she pursued her undergraduate studies. A high achiever, Courtney was enrolled into the business honours programme at the university, which had about 100 students and this presented her with the privilege of receiving specialised attention in her studies. “I learned about many aspects of business in my coursework and loved it even more,” she says.
During her senior year, she worked with Procter & Gamble, doing brand marketing for Olay, an American skin care line, and one of Procter & Gamble’s multi-billion dollar brands. She did consumer market research looking to increase the users of Olay’s facial moisturiser products, in addition to finding out how to get the younger segments of the population interested in the product from an early age. “I became really interested in understanding customers’ needs and the psychology behind that,” she says.
After her graduation, she worked for McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, which advises some of the largest Fortune 500 (an annual list of 500 most profitable industrial corporations) companies in the world, in addition to different governments and institutions. For Courtney, what was really interesting about working with McKinsey was getting a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at some of the biggest brands in the world and looking at a brand from the CEO’s perspective.
“I got to interact with the CEOs and the top executive teams often and hear about the challenges they were facing. For each company we worked with, we were trying to solve different problems. We did about three months engagements with different companies,” says Courtney about her time at McKinsey. She however declines to mention any of the Fortune 500 companies she worked with, stating that McKinsey values client confidentiality and has a principle of never talking about specific clients they serve. “Any of the big global brands that you know of is probably a McKinsey client,” she says with a knowing smile.
After working at McKinsey for several years, Courtney worked with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, a charitable foundation that aims to transform the lives of children living in urban poverty through better health and education. During her time there, she helped develop the foundation’s expansion strategy to South Africa. She then proceeded to the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where she mastered in public policy, and within that, focused on economic and international development. “What was interesting to me, being someone that loves business, was how to stimulate the private sector, especially in Africa,” she says. Courtney began developing the idea for Sinapis in graduate school while working on her thesis on angel investing in East Africa.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK…
While doing research for her thesis in Kenya between 2008 and 2009, she noticed that that there was not much help for business start-ups. There were also a lot of barriers that faced business start-ups including lack of access to capital, lack of adequate networks within the industry, and lack of advanced business training and daily strategic and analytical support.
“By training, I mean intensive training for bright 25 to 35-year-olds with great ideas, who can handle advanced materials and who need to learn how to run their businesses in a professional way that meets international standards,” she explains, adding that, “Taking SME owners through this kind of training was something I found to be really important and felt that if we could get that right, then investors would come because they would see the potential.”
Courtney wanted to set up a programme that would eliminate most of these challenges. “One of the biggest challenges I found was that there was a real problem with ethics and a lot of investors had been burned by unethical entrepreneurs, which is bad for the many business people who actually uphold ethics. Many people fear investing in entrepreneurs here because they have seen some take the money and disappear. When the investors actually stay, their interest rates become sky high to compensate for the risk of investing in a market that doesn’t have strong ethics,” she says.
It seemed to Courtney that there was a problem in the integration between work and faith, regardless of the fact that Kenya is said to be 80 per cent Christian and there exists churches nearly everywhere. “People have a Sunday life that is completely different from how they live during the week, and sometimes feel like they have to conform to corruption in order to survive. This is prevalent everywhere in the world, not just here. There’s a feeling among business owners that in order to survive in a market where everyone else is being unethical, you also have to be the same way,” she says.
This is what essentially lay the groundwork for Sinapis. “What I wanted to do with Sinapis was not just build up great business leaders, but also ensure that people really understand that running and growing a business can be a God-given calling on their life and that God loves business and that they can run their businesses in a way that glorifies Him. By doing this, they can have a transformative effect on their community,” says Courtney. Her aim was to engage people and their faith and help them integrate this with their business, in addition to understanding how these two work together.
Courtney later teamed up with Karibu Nyaggah, a Kenyan entrepreneur and graduate of the Harvard Business School, and Matt Stolhandske, a senior research fellow at the Havard University, to perform a feasibility study and launch the organisation in Nairobi. In November 2010, they launched Sinapis, a social enterprise with a mission to empower aspiring entrepreneurs in the developing world with innovative, scalable business ideas by providing them with a rigorous business education, Christian business and ethics training, world-class consulting and mentoring services and access to seed capital.
Sinapis has an intensive training programme, similar to a mini MBA, which is customised for early stage enterprises. Sinapis works with innovative entrepreneurs in Kenya and requires them to put into practice what they have learned in class in their own businesses, in addition to meeting certain targets. To advance, one has to be a high performing entrepreneur. At the end of the programme, the best entrepreneurs receive seed capital for their businesses. The businesses that receive seed capital are also entitled to full-time support from a Sinapis Entrepreneur Consultant for up to six months following receipt of capital.
“It’s a tough programme. Most of our entrepreneurs will tell you they didn’t sleep for the entire duration of the programme or it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done but they will all tell you that they are in a significantly different place than when they started,” says Courtney.
Sinapis looks for businesses that are highly innovative, scalable, and sustainable, and also considers the personal character of the entrepreneur. He or she has to be dedicated, smart and willing to put in significant effort to grow his or her business.
This year, the organization is looking to partner with churches by making different parts of their programme available to churches in Nairobi, who will then offer training to entrepreneurs from their congregations through established professionals, also from their congregations. Sinapis will launch the programme this month. “If it works as planned with the churches, we would like to see the programme benefit all of Kenya and eventually Africa,” says Courtney.
Courtney has learnt that it is important to help entrepreneurs understand what excellence is and how to cultivate it, and also help them understand that a dream is just that, a dream. “A lot of entrepreneurs have big dreams but if they don’t put in the work to make them materialise, it’s never going to amount to anything. It’s rewarding to see people put in effort in their dreams and make a lot of progress in their businesses. Kenya has unlimited potential.” She looks forward to seeing Sinapis grow in leaps and bounds and have measurable impact.
To budding entrepreneurs, Courtney says, “Be customer-focused from the start. Get out from behind your desk and your computer and get out there so you can understand your customer’s needs and wants, whether the problem you’re looking to solve actually exists, and if people are willing to pay for whatever you’re offering. When you start with that, you’ll be surprised how quickly you start to understand the market, which can help you have a better product and push your business forward. If you have an idea, start with the customer and move backwards to the product. Don’t just assume that it’s a great idea.”
Courtney is married to Ian Mills, an economist and lawyer. In her free time, she likes reading, outdoor activities like horse riding and hiking, and also travelling around the country with her husband.