Made in Africa: A World Changing VENTURE
Wakanda captured the hearts of people around the world and Uganda captured James Crawford’s.
With our fifth PITCH competition under our belt, we’re consistently impressed with the ideas and passion our participants possess. Our TOP 6 teams were the most sophisticated yet with their refined business models and traction. This gave our judges quite the challenge to choose the winners. Thanks to Steve Heffernan, Co-Founder of Mux, and APU alumnus B.S. '03 MBA '08, Nancy Coy, CEO of the Blessing Club, Pat Feely, former CEO of Radical Games Ltd., Gina Ferriere, Senior Regulatory Project Manager at Watkins-Conti Products, Inc. and Eugene Johnson, CEO and Founder of ZYRL, for volunteering their time to provide their feedback and offer their startup expertise.
I had the pleasure of talking with CEO and founder of Venture Leather Company and our Zuventurez PITCH 2018 first place winner, James Crawford '09, about his experience and how the $15,000 prize money, donated by Visiting Angels Glendora, will directly impact his business. His leather company in Uganda invests 100% of their profit back into local businesses that cultivate strong and supportive communities through Venture’s work.
James Crawford is an APU ‘09 alumnus, UCSD MA ‘11 grad and part of the APU Athletics Soccer '07 Championship Team with an outstanding All American '08 season. James has a vision and passion for investing in communities by creating jobs, building relationships and creating quality products to support his vision for a beautiful partnership. And did we mention his bags are gorgeous!? Watch out Prada!
Check them out: https://www.ventureleather.com
Let’s Jump Right In…
[Bethany] How did you find out about Zuventurez?
[James] “I was invited to give a talk to the School of Business and Management last fall about what I’ve been doing with my business in Uganda. Through that talk, Cindy R. Peck, APU B.S. '08, M.A. '14, mentioned APU’s startup program, Zuventurez. I hadn’t heard about it before so I looked it up, got connected with Jay Sherer, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and that’s how it all started.”
What has been your favorite part of the experience?
“I definitely think getting plugged into the network. There’s a great group of mentors and all the judges were very willing to give their time to connect me with someone. They took the initiative to do that. I appreciated all the constructive feedback and the community of people who really want you to succeed and believe in you.”
Every team that participates in Zuventurez gets a coach as a resource to help them through the process. Venture had the privilege of utilizing the expertise of finance expert Rick Fujimoto, APU alumnus, to aid them in their development.
What advice would you give to future participants interested in Zuventurez?
“Be okay with being uncomfortable. That’s what doing business is, especially with your pitch. You won't ever have everything covered, so you need to learn to be okay with being uncomfortable when you don't know all the answers. Some people feel insecure about not being very polished or too early with your idea. So, learning about being persistent through that process and getting feedback that stings a little is a huge skill to have as far as starting a business.
How has Zuventurez helped you through this process?
“Zuventurez definitely clarified certain areas that I need to strengthen. It’s forced me to clarify my message, identify the problem and understand who my customers are. When you’re just jumping in and trying to make things happen with your idea, putting it down on paper and communicating it really helps define what it is you’re doing and striving for. It’s helped my day-to-day decision making of the business. I wasn’t able to attend the workshops in person because I was out of the country for most of them but I was able to watch them online.”
Check out our season 5 workshop videos HERE!
When did you come up with your idea?
“The core idea was born when I was in grad school studying Global Policy and Strategy 7-8 years ago. Rather than funding charities in the developing world I wanted to fund businesses through the products sold in the U.S. It really didn’t start to take to life until about 3 years ago when I was working for a company in Uganda. That’s when I realized I needed to start my own business. I focused on leather, networked and found my business partner, Roy. At the time, it was just an idea and I didn’t know how to execute it.”
Tell us a little about what prompted you to start vlogging your journey. When and why did you start vlogging? What do you think is important for your viewers to see?
"One of the frustrations I have with other organizations or companies in Africa is that they only produced highly edited videos which show extreme highs or lows. Those videos are powerful but it doesn't help you or I identify with people in Africa, real life isn't lived at the extremes. A core reason why good intentions go wrong is that we can't relate to Africans -- we implicitly view them as different and implement ideas that we would never do in our own communities. Ugandans and Africans are people just like us who deal with the same issues but in a different context.
I had no prior experience in film and while editing is not my strongest skill, when I looked into vlogging I realized the unique connection it creates with the viewer and the workers in the factory. I started vlogging with my trip in March 2017. Vlogging shows a raw, entertaining take on being there, connects me with people and builds trust with the viewers. Edited videos hide a lot that organizations would never want to show their donors and supporters. I don't want others to simply assume I am doing great things for the people in Uganda, I want to prove it and show them. The good and the bad, the smooth and the bumpy road, because it's real."
What do you hope your business’s social impact inspires others to do?
“I want people to know that you can do real business in Africa. There are small businesses out there but people tend to accept that they don't have the potential to be profitable or that they have to make significant sacrifices to make it work. I want to establish that there are incredible opportunities to do REAL business in Africa and we can't change that stigma if we don’t dream big. I want to inspire others to know that you can make great products in Africa because Africans and Ugandans can do incredible things. If we work alongside them, we can find personal fulfillment and fulfill their dreams."
This year was our most sophisticated season yet with 4 out of the 6 teams being alumni, including you! How did it feel to win the 1st prize— what were your thoughts?
“It took a while to sink in. When you have a business, you’re so passionate about what you’ve been doing that you have this inner hope/expectation that ‘of course, I'm going to win! My business is the best!’. You have to realize that it’s not about what you think, your passion doesn't compensate for something that may be lacking in the business' needs. The judges helped me understand what’s working with the business and offered suggestions on how to scale. Winning was awesome but…The biggest prize is building a successful business that you’re passionate about.”
How did the rest of your team in Africa respond to the news?
“I’m sure my partner Roy has already told everyone in the factory, he was definitely encouraged and immediately went into, ‘Okay! What’s next? When are you coming? What are we making?’. We’re definitely excited but one of the greatest things about Roy is that he has a big vision like I do. We want to celebrate and we’re so grateful to get to work, create jobs and build things that accelerate what we’ve already been able to do.”
How will the 15k prize money help your business -- do you have any specific plans on where it will go?
“Right now the biggest hurdle we have is establishing traction online and gaining credibility in the product, online you can’t see and feel the product like you can in person. We’re working on developing a team to launch a crowdfunding campaign this summer for a launch party and connect with influencers to really get Venture out there and in the hands of consumers. The prize money will help us to hit the ground running.”
What will you be doing with that giant check?
“[laughs] Good question! I don’t know… because I’m going back and forth from the U.S. to India and Uganda, I don’t really have a place that I’m at for a longer period of time. But I feel like it needs to have a home, be framed and put up on the wall or something!”
Just carry it around with you and at the airport!
“[Laughs] Yeah, right!”
Anything else you’d like to add/like for the audience to know?
“Thanks to you and the rest of the team. APU didn’t have this program when I was a student and one of the things that I realized early on in the process of Zuventurez PITCH was that it’s okay to do things that you’re not ready for. I know that a lot of people may have apprehensions about their ideas because they don’t have a product to show for it, but it’s part of the learning process. I’ve had plenty of meetings that did NOT go well early on but you gain perspective through those experiences. "
"There’s always something you can gain when something doesn’t go the way you wanted it to. It really reveals how much you care about your idea and business. Do those setbacks take you off course or do they embolden you to go forward? It’s a mentality.” -- James Crawford, wise words from a true entrepreneur.