By Laura Gossman

(Authors note: Courtney Roundtree Mills, 29, is the co-founder and executive director of Sinapis, a social enterprise that empowers aspiring entrepreneurs in Kenya.)

When we were 14, most of us bagged groceries, babysat or mowed lawns to earn a few extra bucks to spend on the latest teenage trend. Courtney Roundtree Mills, on the other hand, reared lambs. Living in an agricultural area in Texas, she sold the lambs to the farming community and made a good profit. “That’s when I fell in love with business,” said Courtney.  She saved most of this money towards a car and her college education.

As a business major at the University of Texas, she went through an elite honors program where she was then afforded the opportunity in her senior year to work with Procter & Gamble doing market research. “I became really interested in understanding customers’ needs and the psychology behind that,” she says. After graduation, she had significant business experience working for McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. These experiences gave her insights into major challenges that CEOs face as well as skills on how to develop scalability strategies for anti-poverty programs in Africa.

While doing thesis research in Kenya between 2008 and 2009 for her Masters in public policy from Harvard, Courtney began developing the idea for Sinapis. “What was interesting to me, being someone that loves business, was how to stimulate the private sector, especially in Africa,” she says. She noticed there were a lot of barriers that faced business startups, including lack of access: to capital, to adequate networks within the industry, to advanced business training, and to  strategic and analytical support. “By training, I mean intensive training for bright 25 to 35-year-olds with great ideas, who can handle advanced materials and who need to learn how to run their businesses in a professional way that meets international standards,” she explains, adding that, “Taking  small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners through this kind of training was something I found to be really important and felt that if we could get that right, then investors would come because they would see the potential.”

Group Picture - Sinapis 2012 Entrepreneurs

Group Picture – Sinapis 2012 Entrepreneurs

 

The biggest challenge Courtney found was investor burnout and fear, due to their experience with unethical entrepreneurs who take the money and disappear, which is discouraging for business people who do uphold ethical standards. “When the investors actually stay, their interest rates become sky-high to compensate for the risk of investing in a market that doesn’t have strong ethics,” Courtney said.

It seemed to her that there was a problem in the integration between faith and work, regardless of the fact that Kenya is said to be 80 percent Christian and there exists churches nearly everywhere. “People have a Sunday life that is completely different from how they live during the week, and sometimes feel like they have to conform to corruption in order to survive. This is prevalent everywhere in the world, not just here. There’s a feeling among business owners that in order to survive in a market where everyone else is being unethical, you also have to be the same way,” she says.

This gap of faith and work integration provided the foundation for Sinapis. “What I wanted to do with Sinapis was not just build up great business leaders, but also ensure that people really understand that running and growing a business can be a God-given calling on their life and that God loves business and that they can run their businesses in a way that glorifies Him. By doing this, they can have a transformative effect on their community,” says Courtney. The word sinapis, the scientific term for the mustard seed mentioned in the Bible, fits the DNA of this organization.

 

Entrepreneur Consultant, Maja Cerar, working in a small group during class with Sinapis entrepreneurs Denis, James and Moses.

Entrepreneur Consultant, Maja Cerar, working in a small group during class with Sinapis entrepreneurs Denis, James and Moses.

Courtney later teamed up with Karibu Nyaggah, a Kenyan entrepreneur and graduate of the Harvard Business School, and Matt Stolhandske, a senior research fellow at the Harvard University, to perform a feasibility study and launch the organization in Nairobi. In November 2010, they launched Sinapis, a social enterprise with a mission to empower aspiring entrepreneurs in the developing world with innovative, scalable business ideas by providing them with a rigorous business education, Christian business and ethics training, world-class consulting and mentoring services and access to seed capital.

Sinapis has an intensive training program for early stage enterprises, similar to a mini-MBA. At the end of the program, the best entrepreneurs receive seed capital for their businesses and full-time support from a Sinapis Entrepreneur Consultant for up to six months following receipt of capital. “It’s a tough program. Most of our entrepreneurs will tell you they didn’t sleep for the entire duration of the program or it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done but they will all tell you that they are in a significantly different place than when they started,” says Courtney.

In 2011-2012, Sinapis was chosen to be a part of the first cohort for Praxis, an accelerator program for Christian social enterprises. Sinapis was chosen as one of the top 3 winners and awarded $20,000. The mentors she was able to meet were invaluable to her. Peter Greer of Hope International and Chris Crane, the ex-CEO of Opportunity International were some of the most influential. Courtney shared “What I most appreciated about Praxis was the fact that it is helping Christian entrepreneurs such as myself stay true to my faith and remain committed to keeping Christ central in my programming. This can be difficult when many of the larger mainstream donors cannot or choose not to fund faith based organizations, and I think many Christian social entrepreneurs downplay or even remove their Christian motivation or programming just to get funds from larger donors. Praxis gave me the encouragement to stay focused on my original motivation for starting Sinapis, to glorify God in service of His people.”

Since Praxis, the model of Sinapis has moved from a direct trainer model to a “train the trainer” model through churches in order to scale and maximize its impact. To do this, they are creating partnerships with churches where they provide volunteer trainers that are expert practitioners in the congregation and train them on how to conduct the training. The church provides space for the training within their church, volunteer trainers and a coordinator who manages the logistics. Sinapis provides the curriculum, power points, trainer manuals and participant manuals (basically everything they need to run the program). This is with the help of Acton School of Business.

 

Susan training entrepreneurs at Mathare Worship Centre

Susan training entrepreneurs at Mathare Worship Centre

“The benefit of this model is that we can scale rapidly and in a cost efficient way. We can then take the top performers out of all of our church partners and take them into the Sinapis fold to give them more customized consulting, mentorship, and access to capital.” Her first set of church partnerships launched just last week. She said, “If it works as planned with the churches, we would like to see the program benefit all of Kenya and eventually Africa.” Courtney’s passion for business started with lambs, but it was nurtured beyond profits with the mustard seeds of faith, mentors and the people of God using their own expertise for the common good.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and new mother to baby Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

 

Comments are closed.