How A Trio of Universities Helped Support A Growing Company

Published: 3 years ago | 0 comments

The young men came from similar backgrounds – all three of them had parents from Nigeria, and they grew up hearing about the sad state of the Nigerian economy.

They came together with a goal to help solve the problems they heard about so often in their youths. And now, from across three U.S. universities, the three student entrepreneurs have launched a company called Releaf to try to tackle some of Nigeria’s biggest economic problems.

Releaf works to connect Nigerian agribusinesses with consumers they can trust. On the platform, agribusinesses can indicate which commodities they want to sell. The platform then presents a list of verified buyer contracts, which the sellers can apply to fill. Releaf then verifies the seller, leaving buyers to make the final decisions regarding the contract and the potential seller.

The platform also shows networks of businesses and buyers that a user’s contacts trust, functioning much like a referral from a friend.

Releaf began to come together in summer 2015. Uzoma Ayogu, a 2017 graduate of Duke University, founded the company with Isaiah Udotong, a rising senior at MIT, and Ikenna Nzewi, a 2017 graduate of Yale.

Recently, Releaf secured a $120,000 investment from prestigious startup investor Y Combinator, which will allow the team to scale the business on the ground in Nigeria. The company, operating in stealth thus far, has already verified over 600 agribusinesses and facilitated over 100 connections, but it is now publicly allowing agribusinesses to apply for verification. Releaf aims to map out Nigerian agriculture in its entirety over the next 12 months by registering 20,000 businesses.

But the three co-founders didn’t start as successful entrepreneurs in an exciting time of investment and rapid growth. Instead, they started as student entrepreneurs trying to build a business in their free time, and they were all involved with their universities’ respective entrepreneurial offerings.

“It’s been interesting because there has been additional pressure from so many different directions,” Ayogu said.

Ayogu is a member of the 2017 class of Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs, a student entrepreneurship program administered by the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. The program provides a summer stipend and mentorship to help students build their own ventures.

Although the team had already been working on Releaf before Ayogu was accepted into the program, he said his membership in the program pushes him and his team to perform better because of the program’s insistence on quickly validating or invalidating all assumptions.

Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs has also taught the team that things in a business can change quickly, so they should focus on identifying their biggest constraints and fixing them instead of thinking multiple steps ahead.

“At Duke, one of our core values is to help students make a positive change in the world, which is evidenced in one of the University’s key themes, ‘Knowledge in the Service of Society,’” said Howie Rhee, managing director of student and alumni affairs at the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. “From our first meeting, Uzoma’s passion was clear, and his mission with Releaf embodies this key theme. We are thrilled to have played a part in helping to encourage his startup and guide his team along the path.”

Although Releaf is currently looking to monetize via investors’ subscriptions to their platform, the team shared its vision for the company’s future.

“We envision it as capital infrastructure that can make doing business in Nigeria easier overall,” Ayogu said. “If we can collect real-time data on one of the world’s fastest growing populations in the underserved middle market, we can use this data to improve the ease of doing business – and hopefully there is some impact community-wide. We’ll be able to show that the private industry can also reap returns outside of the 1 percent.”

Eventually, the team hopes to expand Releaf beyond Nigeria to other African countries.

Udotong has also taken advantage of many of the opportunities offered by MIT’s entrepreneurship arm, the Martin Trust Center. Releaf has been awarded about $7,000 from MIT Sandbox, which helps incubate student ideas.

“MIT Sandbox is very entrepreneur-friendly, even if you’re in the early stages,” Udotong said. “It’s been helpful for Releaf because we’ve had to have a clear plan of what to do with money we’re awarded before we even apply for funding.”

MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship has also been tremendously helpful, Udotong said. The center focuses on entrepreneurship in the developing world and funded a trip to Nigeria so Udotong could do market research and connect with businesses.

Udotong has also been involved in other offerings from the Legatum Center, completing an independent study to focus on his company’s value proposition with Georgina Campbell Flatter, the center’s executive director.

“The Legatum Center seeks to support MIT students who are committed to principled entrepreneurship in emerging markets,” Campbell Flatter said. “Isaiah fits the profile of a Legatum Fellow perfectly. Whether this business or the next is success, Isaiah is committed to a lifetime of learning and helping make the world a better place. He is committed and driven by impact and has a for-profit business model that will allow for sustainable and scalable impact in Africa.”

What’s been even more valuable than funding, Udotong said, is the mentorship he’s received. Mentors like Campbell Flatter helped him to make sure Releaf’s ideas are sustainable.

“My experience at MIT felt very tailored to all of our needs,” Udotong said. “We came this this idea, and they said, ‘Let’s help you get this off the ground.’”

Nzewi, who also got a small amount of funding from Yale, said that working with university entrepreneurship programs has taught him how academic institutions approach ideas and ventures differently from investors. Investors may be willing to invest in a big idea or talent, but university entrepreneurship programs and competitions require a well thought-out business plan.

Because the team has advice from mentors coming from every angle, the team at Releaf has had to decide when to unplug and actually try to implement ideas before seeking more advice.

“It’s easy to get bogged down in the cycle of a student entrepreneur constantly taking in advice, but you also have to make sure you’re doing what you need to do to move your business from zero to one,” Nzewi said.

Although he sees differences between university entrepreneurship programs and the actual world of entrepreneurship, Nzewi said he’s glad university entrepreneurship programs exist and that individuals have taken a personal interest in his venture.

One of these individuals is Cassandra Walker Harvey, associate director for social entrepreneurship at Yale.

Walker Harvey first met Nzewi when she saw him pitch at a pitch feedback session, and she reached out to see how she could help his team.

Since then, Nzewi has taken advantage of many opportunities at Yale, from working on applications with the help of Walker Harvey to participating in Yale’s Venture Creation program.

Walker Harvey said it’s been impressive to watch Nzewi grow as an entrepreneur and watch Releaf pivot and grow into a sustainable business.

When Nzewi first pitched Releaf to her, he pictured it as a philanthrophic endeavor he’d try to run on the side. Now, the three co-founders are fully committed, with the two graduated co-founders planning to move to Nigeria to run the company.

“Yale has a strong DNA for social entrepreneurship because many of our students come here to solve some social challenge,” Walker Harvey said. “But we have to allow students to innovate in a safe space with resources and support so they have an opportunity to try out solutions. People like Ikenna – these are the entrepreneurs we need to face the world’s challenges. He’s got such a spark, and I know he’s going to make a big change in Nigeria and probably globally.”

Nzewi said the team has benefited from having co-founders from three universities.

“I’m grateful our team is spread out through various universities because it has allowed us to tap into different resources,” Nzewi said.

To learn more about Releaf, visit its website.

By Katie Jansen, Duke I&E
Photo provided by Releaf

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