H@H: Ep 11 – Paulina Lee interviews Akonkwa Mubagwa an engineer, entrepreneur, musician, and student of life. Akonkwa was raised in Zimbabwe, the US, and Belgium, and has studied and lived in Paris and Switzerland before becoming a full-time MBA student (class of 2021). He is a two-time entrepreneur with a passion for the advancement of technology in Africa. Together with Wing Tse, he founded Winko Solar which aims to provide affordable solar energy and internet connectivity to rural villages in West Africa and the DR Congo. Akonkwa is Jacobs Fellow, a Maxwell Fellow and a Belgian American Exchange Foundation Fellow.
On childhood interests – “I was really into two things: music and technology. Those are the common denominators throughout my whole life…There’s the opportunity to create and at the same time you can create something that’s permanent that stays behind, but that you can share with others and that they can use and that has an effect on them.”
On the his fellow Haasies – “But since I’ve come here, I’ve been influenced by others way more than I expected before. That’s very humbling and it’s very rewarding at the same time.”
- Zero to One by Peter Thiel
- The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Attack on Titan on Hulu
- The Last Dance (available on Netflix July 2020)
- 13th on Netflix
- Check out Akonkwa’s song that we featured throughout the episode: We’re Gonna Be All Right
[00:00:05] Paulina Lee: I’m Paulina Lee and this is here@haas, a student run podcast, connecting you to Haasie and the faculty that change our lives. This week on here@haas, we are joined by Akonkwa Mubagwa, an engineer, an entrepreneur, a musician, and a student of life. And of course, a full time MBA student from the class of 2021. Welcome to the show.
[00:00:31] Akon Mubagwa: Hi, Paulina. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:33] Paulina Lee: Thanks for coming on. How are you doing today?
[00:00:36] Akon Mubagwa: I’m good. I’m excited to do this. This is a first for me, so, I’m looking forward to it.
[00:00:40] Paulina Lee: Great! Well, we are so excited to have you. Tell us about your background and how you came to Haas.
[00:00:46] Akon Mubagwa: I guess I will start from the very beginning. My parents both immigrated from Congo to Belgium so that my dad could do his PhD. He obtained a scholarship to do his PhD in medicine and so they moved here to Belgium. And my two sisters were born before me and I was born in Belgium.
[00:01:05] And immediately after that we moved to Zimbabwe where I spent part of my childhood then to United States where I spent another part of my childhood and then back to Belgium where I did most of my high school education and then college as well. Growing up as a child, I was really into, I would say two things, music and technology. Those are the, I’d say, common denominators throughout my whole life. I think the reason why I like both so much is because there’s a lot of detail. There’s the opportunity to create and both with technology and with music, and at the same time you can create something that’s permanent that stays behind, but that you can share with others and that they can use and that has effect on them.
[00:01:53] And also that creates an emotion within them too. So, I think those were always things that I was passionate about. And I guess when it was time to go to college, I was really good at math. At the time it was winning some mathematical competition, or let’s say, mathematics Olympics in Belgium, and so I thought, ah, engineering. There was like this entrance exam, a lot of mathematics.
[00:02:18] So I studied engineering in Belgium, computer engineering more specifically. And, there I learned how to write algorithms. While I was studying, there was the economic crisis. And I realized actually that I knew nothing about the world of business or the world of economics. We had one economics course but that was all. It was barely an introduction and the teacher himself was an engineer. And I started dropping into some of the econ classes from the management school at the university I was in in Belgium, and had the opportunity to follow some of these courses. One of the teachers ask me, okay, so you’re coming in here, but I don’t think you’re one of my students.
[00:02:56] Why are you studying engineering? The question that kind of sent me reeling because I probably had never asked myself that in the time that I was there. It made sense. Straight forward. Engineering is tough. It’s good career and so I was like, it is true.
[00:03:11] I mean, I never really questioned why I studied engineering. And when I thought about it, all the reasons why I loved engineering were still there, but he told me, why don’t you consider also going for management after engineering.
[00:03:23] So I applied to HCC in Paris and luckily got admitted. And so, I moved from Belgium to France to study management and entrepreneurship. I spent over a year there. While I was in France, I met Wing Tse, who was a chemical engineer also, who had went through the fast of engineering and decided to study management and who became today one of my best friends.
[00:03:46] And one of the reasons why I mentioned this is because later on, we decided that we both had an enthusiasm for the synergies between the continent of China, where he is from and Africa where I am from. And we decided to write our pieces while we were in management school over the stakes of sourcing from China to Africa.
[00:04:10] In the beginning we chose the topic because we thought this is something that we have a lot of let’s say insider information on. We master the topic and we can deliver something of quality and we get along fine. So, we have the same approach to work.
[00:04:23] But while we were working on this, we were thinking, well, there’s actually real opportunities there. There’s something that can be done. And we’re kind of thinking about the idea of starting a company along those lines, but it was still in the stage of maturing and we were nearing the end of our program.
[00:04:39] We both wanted to start our professional experience, ideally in a big company, and get to learn the best practices and become professionals and move away from being students. So that’s what we did. I started my career in consulting and he started his career in purchasing in China.
[00:04:55] I was away from engineering for quite some time. And so, when I came back to consulting, I decided to go for technology consulting which was that the best combination between applying technology, which I loved, and having the opportunity to be introduced to a large array of clients facing different issues.
[00:05:14] And while doing that, I stumbled into the field of computer forensics which has basically everything that’s related to fraud in the field of technology. And that’s a very broad area. It ranges from evidence collection. Let’s say a CEO has a plane crash and unfortunately does not survive, but he had the iPad in the plane with all the accesses to the company’s accounts and data and CRM.
[00:05:43] Well then there’s ways to extract that data still and get that information.
[00:05:47] And then, I stumbled more specifically in the field of forensics in the case of financial transactions. And that’s really where the journey of forensics started from, in Germany where I was supposed to be only there for two to three weeks as a technical expert helping, designing frameworks and algorithms to detect the outliers in the financial transactions. But the investigation blew up and I stayed in Germany for over four years.
[00:06:14] Paulina Lee: That’s from a few weeks to four years.
[00:06:17] Akon Mubagwa: It’s a very long time, but it was a defining experience for me. I made a lot of very good friends. I learned so much. I switched from the Belgian office of the consulting firm I worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers to the Swiss office and continued working on the same project in Germany. One of the things that I stumbled upon was that there is a certain inertia in a very large firm and the agreements that they signed with their clients, and that has ramifications on the way we work, but also on the technologies that we use. And the nature of forensics is that you always want to be ahead of the curve and you want to be agile and use the best of the best technology possible to address the issues that you want to address and to find out the outliers that you want it to detect. Technology moves at a pace that is way more faster than the agreements that exist between companies and big companies, such as a consulting firm and a client. And so, it was difficult for us to be agile in that way because of that context.
[00:07:14] And I felt that I had the maturity enough that I could move away from that and start my own practice and be able to service my own clients while having the agility to use all the technology that was available or the open source technology.
[00:07:29] And so for me, that was really a paradigm shift from being an employee to being an entrepreneur, starting my own business, contracting my own clients, developing my own business while at the same time conserving the subject matter expertise, meaning doing the job that I was actually doing before.
[00:07:47] The nature of a consulting practice as a business is very different than other companies because there is only human capital in the sense that you have consultants, clients. You build these consultants and you take what’s in between. So, if all your consultants leave, you left with nothing, which is not the most comforting thought because it takes a lot of time to build these relationships, to train these people and to place them and to see their careers flourish.
[00:08:18] And so I was feeling that I wanted to maybe move towards something where all the work that I have done up until now was encapsulated within the company. And one of the ways to encapsulate this kind of work is maybe to have a company that’s centered around a product. And so that’s where Wing Tse, one of my best friends who I met in grad school in France, came into place.
[00:08:43] We were continuing talking to each other on a daily basis just throughout our friendship. But I picked up the idea that we had thought about almost six years ago, which was, why not think about the area of solar energy in Africa. China is one of the biggest producers of solar panels.
[00:09:02] Africa is one of the biggest markets for solar after South America. We see a lot of consumption there, but there are still some problems that products are overpriced. The quality is not necessarily there, the features of the product are not necessarily dimensioned for the rural regions. And so, we were kind of seeing a gap there.
[00:09:24] And some strength that we had, we had a strong network in China. I had a network in Africa. We had the engineering understanding of the technologies that were being used. And so, we were starting to connect the dots. I finally went through the mechanism of starting a company and starting a business.
[00:09:42] I was less apprehensive of all the mechanism that went through that and wanted to try to do the leap from going from a human capital business to a more product-oriented business, more capital intensive.
[00:09:56] So about two years ago, Wing and I decided to try to launch the company, specifically creating solar appliances for the African market by exporting them from China to Africa. And we realized two things.
[00:10:14] One is that the African market didn’t necessarily always have the ability to pay for the devices that we were trying to sell. Two, there was an enthusiasm for Africans, for us to build the products ourselves and to have something that is made in Africa. And there was a bonus revelation was that it’s very hard to start a business while you’re working full time at the same time.
[00:10:38] Paulina Lee: You were still in Belgium at the time.
[00:10:40] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. And then flying obviously to Tanzania, to Togo, wherever we were trying to start the business and Wing was still in China.
[00:10:49] Paulina Lee: Hm. So completely different continents.
[00:10:52] Akon Mubagwa: Completely different continents. Yes. The only advantage I would say is that we share the same time frame. So, traveling from Belgium to Africa is less hard on the fatigue and on the body because you don’t have to deal with jet lag. We decided that we needed to come up with a better plan than trying to start a business while we were working both full-time.
[00:11:14] Because in that competition, we can never win against people that are fully dedicated to it and might have even more experience than we do. And the plan we came up with was to both go for MBAs in order to strengthen our respective networks, but also because it gave us two years to incubate the idea of a startup and actually launch it while not having the pressure of leaving our jobs and then having no results.
[00:11:42] You know, it’s a scary thing, especially in Europe and I would guess from what Wing was telling me, even in China as well, you have a stable paying job and then all of a sudden you would leave it and then you’re launching a company and every month people are asking you, how’s the company doing?
[00:11:58] How’s it going? Are there any results? Is it growing? It’s a very stressful process, right? On the other hand, if you’re in an MBA program, well, how’s the MBA going? Well, the MBA is going fine. I’m in my first semester.
[00:12:13] Paulina Lee: Exactly. You buy a two-year buffer.
[00:12:16] Akon Mubagwa: Exactly. I’m recruiting. It’s all right. You know, I’m working on this idea on the side, but nothing special.
[00:12:21] It’s okay. It gives us two full years to incubate this idea. So, Wing got accepted an MBA in China. It saves and I got admitted at UC Berkeley at Haas. And we were coming specifically to do this. So, for me it was really a golden opportunity because as somebody who was always interested in entrepreneurship, having the opportunity to launch a startup in Silicon Valley is a dream come true.
[00:12:47] It’s that for us was the biggest stage where we can try to do what we’re trying to do. And what it meant was a shift from, we are on one hand limited by the resources that we have, and now that we’re here, it’s up to us to do our best and to bring this project to fruition. So that’s what led me to Haas.
[00:13:08] Paulina Lee: I love that you have such an interesting background and you’ve lived all over the world and done some really interesting different jobs that I just haven’t even come across in my short time. Before starting at Haas, you did a couple of different roles in consulting. Do you think one of them was a defining role during your time at PWC or starting your own consulting business?
[00:13:38] Akon Mubagwa: There is one rule that exists in consulting, which is called PMO, project management office. It entails managing the billing aspects of the project and the human resource aspects of the project and the technology consulting.
[00:13:53] Not everybody wants to do this because it’s easier to focus on the deliverables, the technical deliverables, the code, instead of focusing on the bigger picture. And I was tasked to do that at some point because it’s the natural part of the evolution of a consultant and because it was an opportunity for me.
[00:14:12] And in the beginning, I really hated it and struggled with it. I struggled with it a lot because it required attention to detail and things that I wasn’t necessarily skilled in. And it was really a shift away from being a technical expert to being exposed to the client and having that accountability.
[00:14:30] But I think, ultimately, doing that was one of the steps that led me to. After that, creating my own business because I was seeing the bigger picture because I was under an understanding what was at stake. And so, from what I thought initially was an unfortunate circumstance came out to be one of the most defining moments in my career.
[00:14:53] Paulina Lee: It’s such a great perspective because I feel like so many times we’re given roles and we look at it and we think to ourselves, why the heck would I ever take this job? And then it’s usually the ones that you learn the most from that you get the most experience out of because they’re so out of your wheelhouse that there’s so much growth and opportunity to learn.
[00:15:17] Akon Mubagwa: Yes, that’s true. I remember one of my friends and mentors, Romandie Rondo Husky was telling me at the time, you know, this is going to be difficult. But it’s going to be important for you and it’s going to do good things for you. Maybe not immediately, but on the long term. And I’m very grateful for that.
[00:15:34] Paulina Lee: And as we think about your consulting business that you started after that, how long was your business in operations before you decided to pivot?
[00:15:45] Akon Mubagwa: It was an operation for two years. I started just myself, technically as a freelancer and then scaled it to by having other people in there, and is still running, still have one person there, working for it. But it’s very passive right now. And I think I decided to pivot almost three months after starting it.
[00:16:09] Once you see something work for me, it always parks up new possibilities. I’ll give a simple example. If I’m planning on going to the movies on a specific day and it turns out that the movies are not available and I have to go home and watch a show, my line of reasoning is then, well, since I’m deciding to go home and watch a show and I’m not going to the movies. There’s so many other things that I could do to write, what is my new range of possibilities? And so, I guess once I started the business and that worked out, I was like, Oh, I just started a business and it worked out.
[00:16:45] So now that I know how to start a business, what are the businesses that I want to start and where can I go with this? And that’s how it started.
[00:16:53] Paulina Lee: You got a taste of entrepreneurship and you wanted more.
[00:16:56] Akon Mubagwa: Yes, absolutely.
[00:16:59] Paulina Lee: And when you came to Haas, what surprised you most about being in school?
[00:17:06] Akon Mubagwa: What surprised me most? That’s actually a very good question. I believe when I arrived at Haas, the thing that surprised me most was the people. One of the things that made Haas distinctive was its culture from an outside perspective or from a prospective student’s perspective. And they say that, but when you get to experience it, it’s even beyond what they say. So the range that the students have, the experience that they have and the way that they carry themselves with that experience is very unique because instead of it being put to the Ford where everybody’s measuring each other and boasting about what they can do with their experience, you actually have to spend enough time getting to know people before it is revealed, all of their experience, what they’re really good at, what they’re passionate about.
[00:18:03] And then, it’s such a pleasant discovery because there’s such a diversity of talent. At least for me, it was humbling. And the thing that surprised me the most of this was that I was used to before, and I say this in a non-arrogant way, influencing others and having influence on others.
[00:18:22] And I thought coming into this experience, I would be influenced, but I also expect it to influence others. But since I’ve come here, I’ve been influenced by others way more than I expected before. That’s very humbling and it’s very rewarding at the same time.
[00:18:37] Paulina Lee: I think Berkeley does a great job recruiting and accepting students from all sorts of different backgrounds. And I’m right where you are in terms of, I’ve just been so humbled and the people that I’ve met, people like you and people across the different programs that it’s just been unbelievable.
[00:18:57] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. And sometimes it can be a bit scary because then it’s like, well, what do I have to contribute here?
[00:19:05] Paulina Lee: You’re like, do they know? Do they know they let me in. Don’t tell them. I snuck in.
[00:19:12] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. So, you know, I have fought a war. I have not started multimillion-dollar businesses. And so, so many interesting things that can be daunting, but in the end turned out to be opportunities because we get to spend time with these people and learn and emulate what they did. And that, for me, is a gift.
[00:19:28] Paulina Lee: Let’s talk about your company a little bit more that you and Wing started. What would you say is your vision for the company and how have you guys defined success?
[00:19:38] Akon Mubagwa: So, our vision is that we want to enhance security and isolation in the most rural regions in Africa by providing power, light, internet at an affordable price while creating local jobs. And the way we want to go about doing this is providing a box and a smartphone, which is a solar powered box that allows people to charge your devices.
[00:20:06] It connects to the antenna and allows them to connect to the internet. And it allows them also to connect like bulbs and it has a battery for nighttime use. So, it’s an all in one box that people use. We want to be able to distribute this throughout the whole rural Africa. Why? Because the current offering is only going to cover maybe 60% of the population in the upcoming years, and they’re focused on the best mass market, which is the urban regions where the people have the biggest ability to pay and where they can make the most margin.
[00:20:36] And that makes sense from a capitalistic perspective. But we also have a social objective or social mission, which is just because people in more regions don’t have the biggest ability to pay, does not mean that they don’t need power. Right? And does that mean that they don’t need internet and that they don’t want to be connected or that they don’t suffer from isolation due to lack of connectivity.
[00:20:58] And so we don’t want to wait to sacrifice one, two, three generations. We want to be able to get there now or as fast as possible while these generations are still in time, where they can learn and where they can access all of these resources. And we believe that if we succeed in doing so, if we succeed in building that box locally and having a product that’s made in Africa that Africans use, the success will be an example that will push forward the narrative for Made in Africa.
[00:21:27] Because then investors have an example of a success story and that it can make them believe more in the fact that there is possibility for capacity building in Africa and quality at a competing price and level
[00:21:40] Paulina Lee: I think that’s an amazing vision to have for our company because I think it’s not widely known in the world the lack of connectivity in all countries, and then especially in a continent like Africa where you have these super rural communities. And even as you look at Africa being a really big and upcoming economy, I think the work that you’re doing is just going to continue to spur that growth across so many different economies and communities down there.
[00:22:11] Akon Mubagwa: I think so. And it’s a paradoxical thing because usually you would see it with competitors as competition, but for us, because there’s also a social objective, well, we think that it’s good if I see another company that’s also trying to build products in Africa. This is amazing. Let’s get it moving forward.
[00:22:26] Let’s get it moving in that direction. It’s over 600 million people. You can imagine two times the population of the US and the dark, no power plugs, no internet, nothing. Every single day after 5, 6:30. That’s incredible to imagine. Right? But that’s the reality. And we are, we’re so shifted that we sometimes forget that what we experience is the exception and not the norm.
[00:22:51] Everybody wants the same thing. Just because you’re in a rural region doesn’t mean you don’t want access to internet, you don’t want to have some light. And light means a lot of things. Light means that you have less criminality in the night because people can steal more easily when it’s dark. It means that you can see when there are dangerous animals like snakes or whatever they are in the house. That might be dangerous for anything that’s laying on the ground if people are sleeping on the ground.
[00:23:15] It also means that you can learn how to read after dark. That means that you can communicate. It means that you can receive communication on the best way to handle an epidemic.
[00:23:25] I know that epidemics is the topic of the moment and COVID is very serious. Africa has been having epidemics for the last 20 years, different sorts of Ebola, other ones as well. And so that problem that we’re experiencing right now here of needing to be connecting and needing to get information is a problem that it has been a constant for the last two decades on our continent.
[00:23:47] And it’s something that we really feel needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
[00:23:53] Paulina Lee: It’s such an inspiring business concept because, at first glance, it looks like any, almost kind of like a tech startup, right? You want to provide connectivity; you want to provide solar and battery to these rural communities. At the same time, on a second level, you’re providing so much more.
[00:24:12] Everything that you just mentioned, all the social impact work that really brings it to life and really brings it full circle. And I think the question I have for you is, this is the second company that you’ve started, what have you learned from the first company that you’ve brought to your second one, and also what has been the most challenging part on the second company?
[00:24:33] Akon Mubagwa: What I’ve learned from my first company is that you need to build relationships of trust with all the parties involved. That means with your clients, with your employees, with your accountant, with a legal framework your companies operating in. Because all of these, all of these contribute to the image of your company, to your reputation, but also to your ability to conduct your business in the most efficient way possible.
[00:25:10] I think the biggest challenge for us is that we are not the typical the company, I guess, that people would or might want to invest in. It is, first of all, hardware, meaning it’s capital intensive. It’s in another continent than here. It’s in Africa. I mean, there’s a lot of people that we talked to that have never even been on the continent.
[00:25:35] So it’s a very foreign concept to them. There are social aspects to it. And I say that because sometimes I hear social impact as if it’s an industry. It’s just a characteristic of our company. And so the fact that we have a social objective means that all our decisions are not always towards having the biggest bottom line possible, but also fulfilling our social objective.
[00:26:00] That means that because we’re capital intensive, we need to raise funds in order to develop our business. And then we need to go to investors and find the investments that we need. And that means that that conversation doesn’t always start in the most easiest way.
[00:26:15] We’re trying to tackle a very hard problem that is not as sexy, but it’s a real problem. And so, we feel we need to tackle it nonetheless. But that means that we have to accept that there is some explaining, a lot of explaining that we need to do and that it might take more time than what we see, our peers or other companies experience.
[00:26:34] Paulina Lee: That’s so true. So, the CMO of Atlassian, Robert Chatwani, spoke recently at a Haas welcome reception, and he said something that I love that I wanted to pick your brain about. He said, find your purpose and design your life around it. So, I wanted to ask you, do you think you’ve found your purpose with this company or what truly matters most to you?
[00:26:57] Akon Mubagwa: Well, I find meaning in my life and the interactions I have with other people. For me, life is an ongoing conversation made of human to human interaction and that’s the underlying layer, right, of everything else on top. And so, I’m defined by the relationships I have and the quality of those relationships, and that is what gives me purpose in my life, is tending to these relationships and making sure that I take care of them and that they remain the best as possible.
[00:27:31] Anything else for me is built on a layer on top, which is important. I experienced it, but it’s still more abstract. Even the company. So, for me, the company is on top, but it goes down to a lower level or lower layer, which is people have needs. People I care about have needs. I see them. So, on a human interaction layer, I see people that are in a need and under the layer on top, I’ve been given the skillset to be able to address that need, and I want to go on top to try to do that.
[00:28:04] But at the end it comes down to why is it that people like me don’t have access to the same resources that I do and what can I do about it? And I think that is what gives purpose in my life. and it starts with my family, the people I care the most about and extends to other people as well. The way I can do it, regardless if it’s by writing a song or if it’s by creating a company that has that impact or if it’s by having a family in the future and by being a good brother, a good son, a good father, that is what gives me purpose in life.
[00:28:41] Paulina Lee: One of my managers. Yeah. Training called five roles, and it’s basically an explanation and a prioritization of picking out these five roles that matter to you most. And she always says, you know, put yourself first because you have to be good with yourself first before you can do anything else. But it really helps bring to life exactly what you say, you have to put family and friends and those really important relationships in your life first before everything else.
[00:29:11] Because, you know, if you go after certain things and those relationships fall by the wayside, you’ll often get to the end and just feel very different about the whole experience and the whole journey. So, I love what you said, just that quality of relationship and you can really see it in the way that you work and the way that you’ve talked about your experience at Haas as well.
[00:29:32] Akon Mubagwa: Thanks. I’m glad that that comes through because it’s something that is actually very important to me and very fundamental. It’s easy to forget it sometimes because it’s not always there. There are a lot of everyday constraints, obligations, duties that can stress away from that.
[00:29:47] But I practice meditation. I actually meditate every morning. It allows me to kind of re-center and not stray too far away from that.
[00:29:55] Paulina Lee: I love meditating as well. It’s a practice I’m still working at over the past year, year and a half, but it gives you just such a sense of calm, and I know it sounds like overused, but like really grounded that you just have such clarity going into the day.
[00:30:11] Akon Mubagwa: Yes, yes, absolutely. You prefer meditating in the morning and evening?
[00:30:15] Paulina Lee: In the morning.
[00:30:16] Akon Mubagwa: In the morning as well. Yes. We had an accounting professor here at Brooklyn, professor Yaniv Contiki who actually shared his experience about a 10-day meditation retreat where you spend 10 days without saying a single word.
[00:30:29] And you reach levels of clearness in your mind that you might not obtain otherwise because there’s always interference because of phones, emails, work, and this is something I’m thinking about and looking into.
[00:30:42] Paulina Lee: You’ve mentioned something when you were answering that previous question about your music, and so I’d love for you to just tell me a little bit about your music. You obviously have a big passion for it.
[00:31:04] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. Music has always been a part of my life. I think in my family in general, we all loved music tremendously. I think, for me, music is a way to encapsulate stories. And so, growing up it was a way for me to go through stories because I lived the stories that I heard in the songs.
[00:31:24] It was a way to entertain myself, and at the same time, because I grew in the pre-internet era, there was always like MTV on the television. And that was a way that we were connecting as a youth, with each other. Right. So, music was important in that way.
[00:31:37] And it’s the opportunity to create, to play something and see emotions be generated in somebody else in front of you, playing with other friends in high school and being able to lay thoughts down in a way and having other people respond to it is, I think, one of the gifts that life offers. And if you can take it, why not?
[00:31:58] Paulina Lee: Yeah. Music, I think builds on a lot of what you said, right? Building community, being in touch with those around you and just like giving back while also expressing yourself.
[00:32:09] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. And for me it’s been a companion all my life and every feelings that I’ve had, whether it’s sadness or joy or with frustration. And I think every song has a story. I used to have a book where I wrote all the little pieces of the songs that I liked because there is, for every story almost, there’s a song that has been written, and if not, then it’s an opportunity to write one.
[00:32:32] Paulina Lee: Definitely. Well, we’re in the month of May now, and that means you’ve completed halfway through your MBA experience.
[00:32:42] I know, I know. It’s crazy.
[00:32:45] Akon Mubagwa: That hurts Paulina. I don’t know how I feel about this.
[00:32:50] Paulina Lee: It goes by so fast. I’m right there with you. So, as you think about one more year, what are kind of your big goals and aspirations to make sure that you’re making the most of this experience?
[00:33:07] Akon Mubagwa: I think, it’s a real paradox in the MBA program because a lot of the MBA program is about the future, right? You were on a specific path. And then you stopped and wanted to have a mental conversation with yourself about where you are in life, what you’re doing, and maybe accelerate further or going a different direction.
[00:33:28] But it’s looking in the future. But at the same time, so much can be said about being in this particular moment and living this particular moment because it’s also a part of the journey. And so as much as I can, I want to experience next year for the year that it is. Be even more open to what it brings that I did not expect.
[00:33:50] Paulina Lee: I think that’s great. I think it’s so easy, especially as you’re planning out courses and making even business plans to just constantly get ahead of yourself. And I find that in my own work, right. I’m always planning 6 to 12 months out, that by the time I hit that 6 to 12 months, I completely forgot to stay present in the current business environment.
[00:34:12] So I love that just staying present, staying open, just soaking it all in as much as we can while we’re here.
[00:34:19] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. The best time is now, right?
[00:34:22] Paulina Lee: Exactly. Exactly. And you’ve lived all over. Do you think you’ll stay in the Bay and manage the company from here, or will you move back to Africa? Who you moved back to Europe, move to China? Where do you think you’ll land?
[00:34:37] Akon Mubagwa: I think there will be some extensive time in Africa, at least 60% of my time. Where I will be there rest of the time, well, highly depends on how our company is structured. I think it’s looking like it’s going to be the Bay area, but let’s see what the future holds because there’s the, as I said before, the time shift, the nine-hour time shift that makes traveling back and forth kind of difficult.
[00:35:00] But I really liked the Bay area. It’s a very unique place. I’ve only been here for one year. Still a whole other year to stay, but I wouldn’t mind staying a bit longer.
[00:35:08] Paulina Lee: Well, I want to transition to another fun part of our interviews that we’ve been doing. It’s called this or that, and so I’m just going to run through a couple of different topics and you tell me what you prefer. So, audio books, eBooks, or paper books?
[00:35:24] Akon Mubagwa: Paper books.
[00:35:25] Paulina Lee: Paper books. Anything that you’re reading right now?
[00:35:28] Akon Mubagwa: I’m re-reading from Zero to One from Peter Thiel. I’m reading another book called The Man Behind The Microchip. It’s about Rob Noyce and the invention of the Silicon Valley. And then I’m reading, 1984.
[00:35:42] Paulina Lee: Okay. It was a very serious books.
[00:35:46] Very interesting.
[00:35:47] Akon Mubagwa: You can flip them lightly.
[00:35:51] Paulina Lee: For your music own music consumption, what do you prefer to listen on? Spotify, Apple music, YouTube?
[00:35:58] Akon Mubagwa: Spotify for the last nine years. Yes. Hardcore Spotify fan. Same, right.
[00:36:04] Paulina Lee: Yeah. Same.
[00:36:05] Akon Mubagwa: Although there is a feature about Spotify that drives me crazy and I would like to address it right now while I have an audience, so to speak. Why is the order of the playlist never the same? Why can’t I ever understand or find the playlist that I was listening to five minutes ago?
[00:36:20] It’s been driving me crazy since 2011. I wrote a letter to Spotify about it, didn’t get an answer. Let’s see. But it’s a pain point in my life on a daily basis.
[00:36:31] Paulina Lee: Maybe we’ll be able to snag a Spotify engineer who can fix that for you.
[00:36:36] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. Yes.
[00:36:39] Paulina Lee: Are you watching any Netflix or Hulu?
[00:36:42] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. I rediscovered Hulu recently. I used to be a fan of anime. I used to subtitle anime as well. I was in college, from English to French, and so I just finished watching Attack on Titan, the third season, which was pretty interesting. And, that’s about it. And I’m looking forward to watching the ESPN 30 for 30, The Last Dance on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the nineties era because it’s an era that I’ve seen and I want to have to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about it.
[00:37:15] Paulina Lee: For sure. Are you a morning or an evening person?
[00:37:19] Akon Mubagwa: I am on, well, it depends on the time of the year. Because here we have sunshine all the time, I would say here I’m a morning person.
[00:37:28] Paulina Lee: Hmm. Versus elsewhere, you’re sometimes an evening person or just because the way the sun sets.
[00:37:34] Akon Mubagwa: Yes. For example, in Belgium, in the winter, when you wake up at 9 or 8:30, it’s still dark. It’s very cold. And so, you don’t want to get out of bed. You don’t want to be productive. Whereas here in Berkeley Hills, I wake up and the sunshine is there and the birds are singing and so I’m like, this is a beautiful day.
[00:37:54] There’s so many things I want to do. Let me get out of bed and start this day.
[00:37:58] Paulina Lee: That’s such great perspective. I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere where it’s still dark at 8:30 in the morning.
[00:38:05] Akon Mubagwa: It does strange things to your mind. Let me tell you this.
[00:38:08] Paulina Lee: I bet. I bet. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It was so great hearing your journey.
[00:38:14] Akon Mubagwa: Thank you, Paulina. Thanks for having me.
[00:38:17] Paulina Lee: And thanks for tuning into here@haas. Know a Haasie that has a story to tell? Nominate them on our website, onehaas.org. And if you enjoyed this week’s episode, please subscribe and leave us a rating and review. And don’t forget to share this podcast out with your favorite bears.
[00:38:34] Until next time, I’m Paulina Lee, and this is here@haas.