Entrepreneur and innovator, Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola sat down with the AWP Network to discuss key lessons she’s learned since starting WeCyclers. The AWP Network also extends a warm congratulations to Bilikiss for being selected as a 2013 Echoing Green finalist. With an MBA from MIT, a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University, and an undergraduate degree in computer science from Fisk University – Bilikiss moved back to Nigeria determined to fix the urban waste management system. Her Lagos-based company is focused on giving low-income communities in developing countries a chance to capture value from waste and clean up their neighborhoods through an incentive-based recycling program.
How did you come up with the name WeCyclers?
Actually, I didn’t. The idea for this company came up in a development ventures class at MIT. The professor leading the class, Joost Bonsen, gave us the name and he has been very instrumental and supportive in helping to move the company forward.
What inspired you to start this business?
I have always been interested in ideas that focus on repurposing waste. As I previously stated, the idea for WeCyclers came up in my development ventures class at MIT. During this class, I met other people interested in doing something about waste in developing countries. Also, I worked at a large company for a few years prior to MIT so I think that this was a combination of several factors, one of which was that the timing was just perfect.
Who is your target market?
Our idea is focused on developing countries, particularly low-income individuals. However, during our pilot, we discovered that there is a demand for WeCyclers from people within every strata of society. People are excited about recycling and they want to do their bit towards building a sustainable planet.
How have you financed your business?
We have raised most of our funding from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sources. I think that MIT is the most supportive school for entrepreneurs period! If companies started by MIT alumni were classified as a country, it would have the 11th highest GDP of any nation. Companies like Bose, Dropbox, Hewlett Packard, and E*TRADE were all started by MIT alumni. There is a culture at MIT that focuses on making student-led ventures succeed. My company has received funding from the MIT Founders Skills Accelerator, MIT D-lab, and MIT IDEAS. We have also raised funds from our supporters who have a great understanding for the importance of promoting recycling – LAWMA, Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmithKline, and Shoprite have all provided us with funding.
What is your competitive edge?
Our competitive edge is our incentives platform. We are building a strong network of people who are excited about recycling.
What is your five-year business plan?
We see a big opportunity here in Nigeria. We hope that in five (5) years we would be able to build a strong recycling network.
What challenges do you face or have you faced thus far?
Our two main challenges are funding and low awareness for our work. Doing business in Nigeria is also very challenging.
What five key things have you learned since starting your business idea?
I have been working on this idea for over a year now and I have learned quite a bit.
1. I have learned not to sweat the small stuff – you have to be very good at time management and sometimes you do not have the luxury to obsess over unimportant things.
2. I have changed quite a bit as a person. Before WeCyclers, it was quite difficult for me to communicate how I felt. I always felt the need to be polite but now, I am more direct and I stand up for what I believe in.
3. I have learned the importance of networking. You only learn when you are interacting with others.
4. I have learned to take some time out for myself.
5. I have learned to delegate and trust my team.
What five things do start-up entrepreneurs need to know?
1. Believe in your idea even if other people are trying to convince you otherwise. It is great to incorporate people’s feedback into your work, but if you do not agree with them, stick with your plan.
2. Network! Network! Network! I cannot stress the importance of networking. It is very vital to growing yourself and your business.
3. Be comfortable with uncertainty.
4. Help out other start-up entrepreneurs when you can.
5. Learn how to negotiate – negotiating is a very important skill.
What advice do you have for youths looking to start an idea but say ‘there is no money’?
The easiest way to get funding is to build a team. You will be surprised at how quickly your idea will take off when you have a solid group of people that are equally passionate about it. Also, like our parents say, two (or more) heads are better than one. The diversity as well as the expanded network will amplify your chances of funding the venture.
How do you think Nigerian youths can continue to support one another?
I find that Nigerian youths are supportive of one another. We have had a large number of young volunteers who are excited about what we are doing and want to see us succeed. I would say they should continue to help out when they can.
How many jobs have you created so far?
We have created 15 jobs so far
How can we support and improve innovation in Nigeria or Africa?
We need to invest more in education. You cannot innovate when you do not have a good education. Also, we need more technology incubators and accelerators like the Co-Creation Hub (CChub). The team at CCHub has been very supportive. They are working hard to ensure our success. It will be great to see more organizations like CChub in Nigeria and throughout Africa – dedicated to supporting aspiring entrepreneurs.
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