Empowered by the Challenge
The serial entrepreneur reflected that it ought to be possible for a tropical, lower income country to bypass the need for an expensive infrastructure in order to ensure that the population had access to electricity. The idea came to him during an excursion to Lake Naivasha, a wildlife haven an hour’s drive or so from the capital Nairobi.
After graduating he set about establishing the Givewatts company, which supplies solar-powered electricity to homes throughout East Africa.
“I was trying to apply the lessons from IMD in terms of thinking of how do you approach this market opportunity? And that’s how it came about.”
Givewatts, which has become an established enterprise with local management, does not only enhance quality of life in a direct way, it aids educational and social development. Access to electric light in an evening increases the study hours of school-age children, boosting literacy and enrolment in higher education.
“We saw improvements in grades the first six months of getting access to this light, of between 15% and 25%. They spend more time studying … which is also interesting because you get better grades, you can continue to higher education.”
He is motivated by both humanitarian principles and a restless, entrepreneurial spirit. He was one of the web pioneers in the early 2000s, having set up dotcom enterprises as part of a business that also advised advertising agencies on developing their online presence. The websites struggled in an era before consumers were accustomed to online purchasing and did not survive the dotcom crash, but in a slice of fortune he had sold his shareholding beforehand.
In Jesper’s experience, most IMD alumni, for all that they may appear to be in a privileged position, have overcome some trauma or other obstacle, spurring them to a higher level of determination. In his case, the separation of his parents when he was just eight affected his performance at school, resulting in an unhelpful and obviously inaccurate labelling as “slow” by some teachers.
This prompted a fascination with psychology; the interaction of performance, personality and context, and the complex links between emotion and intellect. The reasons for a dip in performance at school were clear to him, but misread by his teachers.
His postgraduate studies included psychology, without any particular career plan to become a psychologist. Indeed, his early career featured considerable variety, including a spell as a civil servant, working for the Swedish Development Agency. When he decided that his career needed a stronger direction, he opted for an MBA. Having applied to several schools, a decisive factor was IMD’s selection process.
“It took more effort to apply. And for some reason that appealed to me.”
He adds: “It’s the only school that had a whole day set aside for interviews where you met faculty, you met potential classmates, fellow applicants. They grilled you for I think nine hours in total, including lunch, but I mean, lunch was also like an interview process. I came away from the interview, and I called my wife and I said: ‘If I don’t get in here, I’m not doing an MBA. There’s no point.’”
He found the groupwork intense yet also thrilling and empowering. Was the MBA at IMD actually a more demanding experience than real-world business?
“Much more,” he replies, emphatically. But it is a safe space in which to learn. He recalls the pressure to prepare a presentation in a group for a case study, the critical feedback, then being given 18 hours to prepare a fresh one.
“I remember the pain of that and how good it is for me now to remember back to that, whenever I’m in a really hard, tough situation … Thinking about it now gives me strength.”
Since stepping back from an operational role at Givewatts he has pursued a portfolio career as a non-executive, public speaker, and with the Stockholm Resilience Center, a sustainability research unit, part of Stockholm University.
He takes a holistic perspective of the concept of sustainability, around reorienting the business model to accommodate planetary boundaries. “We’re right up to them now … we will be forced by nature, by the law of nature, to adapt.”
His career demonstrates that entrepreneurial flair and managerial ability are core abilities within this reorientation. The boy labeled “slow” became a business leader who has worked with dizzying speed. There are significant achievements at the career mid-point, and surely many to come.