Charlene Chen, Trinity ’03, was introduced to computers at a young age by her father, and she has always embraced her love of technology. When she came to Duke, she chose to major in computer science, adding a psychology major to fulfill her passion for people and why they do the things they do.
Chen, who is now the London-based chief operating officer of a pan-African payments company called BitPesa, calls herself “a classic example of someone who fell into entrepreneurship.”
“I’m living proof that you don’t have to be born an entrepreneur to become one,” she said.
After graduating, Chen joined Deloitte Consulting as a CRM Systems Analyst, which she said was a wonderful foundational experience. But still, she felt that there was something missing.
“I kept waking up and thinking there had to be something more to life than IT consulting,” she said.
She was doing a lot of volunteer work for local nonprofits in her free time and began to realize she wanted to do something more socially impactful in her career.
Chen decided to get her MBA to become more well-rounded and add to her technical skillset. It was at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley that she was first introduced to entrepreneurship.
During and for four years after business school, Chen held product and project management roles in social enterprises and non-profit organizations such as KickStart International, TechnoServe, and Grameen Foundation, living in various countries in West and East Africa.
“I was moved by the entrepreneurs I met through that work,” Chen said. “In many African countries, small-scale farming is the main source of income in rural areas. It really taught me that anyone can start a business and that entrepreneurship is happening everywhere.”
After working in the nonprofit sector for a number of years, Chen realized that she wanted to move back into the for-profit sector so that she could still do social good under a more sustainable model.
Around that time, a close friend of hers was launching one of Africa’s first Bitcoin/Blockchain companies, and she asked Chen to join her on the journey.
Chen’s only previous startup experience was from her sophomore year at Duke when she when she was a software intern at a local startup called Reactive Search. But she decided to take the leap, and in January 2014, she joined as the Chief Operating Officer of BitPesa, where she manages global operations, sales and marketing, and customer service.
BitPesa’s mission is to significantly increase the efficiency of business-to-business payments to, from, and within frontier markets. By leveraging Blockchain settlement, BitPesa allows businesses to avoid making international wires, making the process of sending and receiving money cheaper, more convenient, and faster – within minutes if transferring to a mobile money wallet, and within hours if transferring to a bank. The company currently operates in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Senegal, but facilitates payments all over the world, including the US, Europe, China, and the UAE.
Chen said that building something from scratch is a double-edged sword.
“Entrepreneurship is incredibly rewarding because you have much more influence and ownership than you would in a larger business,” she said. “But it’s also a very emotional roller-coaster whereby failures can feel much more personal.”
But ultimately, she’s glad she took the risk to join and build a startup.
One of Chen’s favorite things about her team, which has now grown to more than 20 people across five countries, is its diversity across gender, race and nationality. BitPesa’s team is over 50% women, and comprises of citizens of Kenya, Nigeria, the U.S., Estonia, Taiwan and India.
She advises other would-be entrepreneurs to take jobs at existing companies before starting their own companies. That way, they can learn from other leaders.
“I am a better entrepreneur now because I worked for other people before,” Chen said.
To learn more about BitPesa, visit its website.
To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.