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Building Operations for Africa’s Most Valuable Fintech

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Awa Koné, MBA ’17, always wanted to get involved in Africa’s bustling business ecosystem. Since early 2020, she has been doing just that at the fintech startup Flutterwave.

Awa Koné, MBA ’17, Global Head of Operations, Flutterwave

“I was invited to come to Lagos and spend a week with Flutterwave to get a sense of what they were been building,” says Koné, who previously worked in Zurich for the European reinsurance giant Swiss Re. “That week turned into three weeks, and I ended up getting an offer.”

As global head of operations for the payments platform, Koné appreciates everything she learned during her time at Flutterwave, which has greatly expanded on her experiences as a student in the MIT Sloan MBA program and a leader in American and European companies.

“We have people in Europe, in the United States, and in many African countries, so understanding how business is done across multiple geographies has been a very interesting challenge, both from the perspective of my team and for the partners we work with,” she says.

Business across geographies

Upon starting her MBA at MIT, Koné knew that she wanted to be involved in business in Africa. “I’d never worked or traveled much in Africa, even though that’s where I’m from, but I wanted to build a network there,” she says.

After graduating from MIT Sloan in 2017, Koné served as a consulting actuary for the Seattle-based firm Milliman, then joined Swiss Re as vice president of West and Central Africa, a role that required frequent travel throughout the continent. Then, in late 2019, she reconnected with the Flutterwave team—including co-founder and CEO Olugbengba Agboola, whom she previously met at the MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference.

Yet the first nodes of Koné’s African network were created long before then. As an MBA student, she served as president of the MIT Sloan Africa Business Club, which hosts events like the annual Africa Innovate Conference, exposes students to business and job opportunities across the continent, and facilitates networking.

As part of one of her classes, Koné also led trips to Namibia and Botswana as part of the MIT Sloan Study Tours program. She also participated in various trips on the continent through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), MIT for Africa, and MIT Global Startup Labs (GSL), which provide students with immersive and educational travel opportunities. Along with her studies, these experiences introduced Koné to presidents, ambassadors, and business leaders whose lived lessons were instrumental in teaching MIT Sloan students about global perspectives.

“I wanted the ability to see the world and to understand business across different geographies. This was important to me, especially in the context of Africa,” says Koné. “They gave me a lot of exposure to the perspective of cultural diversity in the workplace.”

The importance of listening

Another important lesson Koné took to heart at MIT Sloan concerned the necessity of listening to others as a key leadership skill.

Many of the countries she visited have not always been portrayed favorably in Western media. Koné suggests that had it not been for the opportunity to meet visit these places and meet local leaders and individuals, her knowledge of them would have remained limited and biased.

“It’s important to go out there and listen, to seek the truth, and to be open to the fact that there may be more than one side to every story,” she says.

Koné also traces her emphasis on listening to 15.321 Improvisational Leadership, the popular course taught by Daena Giardella (Senior Lecturer). Throughout the highly experiential and interactive class, Giardella guides students through numerous group exercises and pairings designed to practice their improvisational skills as future business leaders.

One of the most monumental lessons of the course has to do with active or “high stakes” listening, and Koné sees evidence of its success in her work at Flutterwave, where she has enjoyed the challenge of helping to build a team from the ground up.

“It was such a powerful class for me because it really helped me, not only from a communication perspective but from a decision-making perspective,” she says. “Numbers are easy for me, but managing people is not always. That’s a skill I have had to hone, especially at a smaller startup like Flutterwave. It’s been a very challenging experience, but it has also been very fun and rewarding to build the culture and the team. As the team grows, I grow. We’re expanding and learning together.”

Crafting a new (culinary) narrative

As her work at Flutterwave continues, Koné is also pursuing new ways through which to explore her growing African business network.

Her latest is N/UM, a premium consumer packaged goods company she co-founded with former Swiss Re colleague Kudzai Bingepinge that boasts a line of artisan salts hand-harvested in Southern Africa. The pair’s mission is to use African gastronomy and storytelling to craft a new narrative for the continent.

These continued networking efforts reflect the biggest lesson that Koné and many of her fellow MIT Sloan alumni learned upon graduation.

“One of the biggest challenges we experience is thinking that once we get our diploma, everything will be perfect, but in reality, that’s only the beginning. Now, we have to figure out what to do next,” says Koné.

“My biggest piece of advice for any recent MIT Sloan graduates or younger alumni is to just continue on your path. It’s not always easy, but that’s the beauty of the experience. Life is the ultimate teacher.”

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933