Recently a great online community for people with ideas IdeaMensch published an interview with our CEO Dimitri Zakharov. We post it on our blog as well so that you can read interesting facts about early days of Impact Enterprises and learn about Dimitri’s professional ups and downs and his insights on simple living.
Dimitri Zakharov is CEO and Co-Founder of Impact Enterprises, the first socially conscious outsourcing company in Zambia. Over the last two and a half years, he has helped pioneer the impact sourcing model for social entrepreneurship in southern Africa as a means of providing valuable employment to underserved communities. As an outsourcing provider, Impact Enterprises works with start-ups to manage their content, support their customer outreach and reduce their cost. To date, Impact Enterprises has employed over 115 Zambian graduates and have worked with over 40 companies across 4 continents.
Before coming to Zambia, Dimitri served as a Kiva Fellow in Azerbaijan, working with microfinance institutions to create new loan products for start-up businesses. He also worked for S&P Capital IQ, a leading financial technology company, managing sales for financial institutions in New York City. He has served as Director of Fundraising and Administration for the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, an Indian NGO providing high quality education for vulnerable children.
Dimitri graduated from NYU’s Stern School of Business with a degree in Finance and International Business.
Where did the idea for Impact Enterprises come from?
Our story starts with our President, Dan Sutera, who launched our partner non-profit, Impact Network, 5 years ago in Zambia to run an e-learning program in village community schools. As a six-time tech entrepreneur, being on the founding team of Yext and Sharefile, he was always looking out for business opportunities in Zambia to address the huge unemployment problem.
Zambia is a southern Africa country of about 14 million people where unemployment for 20-24 year olds is at 59%. Those who can’t find work often go into the informal economy, the majority being agriculture. But Zambia is a politically and economically relatively stable country with few tech competitors.
In 2012, Dan came across the idea of “impact sourcing” thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation’s recently launched Digital Jobs Africa initiative. By the beginning of 2013, he had brought on our COO Brett Stickels, who was previously working in Namibia, and myself, with a background in financial management, to launch the first impact sourcing services provider in Zambia.
At Impact Enterprises, beyond simply providing jobs, as a social enterprise we are committed to the professional development of our employees. Through internal workshops, lectures, and assignments, we strengthen their work during employment with the company and function as a springboard for pursuing higher education or better employment opportunities.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My role has significantly changed thanks to our internal operations becoming much more formalized. For the first two years, I lived in Zambia focusing on structuring all aspects of our operations. I woke up before 6AM every day to open the office, spent all day managing client projects and handling training, and stayed until 10PM corresponding with clients. Back then, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and didn’t even have a fridge for the first 6 weeks! Luckily things improved.
Now my role is mostly focused on business development, so I’ve been splitting my time between New York and London. I’m by no means a morning person so I prefer to listen to my body’s rhythm. I set my sleeping around a sleep clock and I don’t drink coffee. I find I’m much more productive if I’m not forcing myself awake. It makes for a slow morning, but I use that time to catch up on news and email digests, with the exception of any immediate work priorities that may come in overnight.
I try to fill my days with meetings, so my week varies depending on what my schedule looks like. We’re often working on several internal projects, such as an application, writing a media piece, putting together a presentation, creating new training materials, so I work on these between my meetings. This might be for quick blocks between meetings, but I like working from various locations. It gives me a fresh mind. This can make for a very haphazard schedule so I have several to-do lists that I carefully follow.
My work hours vary daily depending on what’s happening at any time. Some weeks we’re flooded with new client requests and I can barely keep up with my inbox. Others we might be cruising. I use that free time to explore – reading articles, watching lecture videos, brainstorming ideas for the operations. We get inspiration from all sorts of places so it’s nice to have that space to really think about something other than my daily tasks.
How do you bring ideas to life?
My first experience working in social development was the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project which runs a world-class K-12 boarding school for Dalit (untouchable) children. We saw such amazing transformations in the lives of the students thanks to the quality of education they provided. I’ve always had a passion for education and I’ve tried to implement the same values I saw at Shanti Bhavan in my work.
When we were getting our operations in order on the ground in Zambia for the first couple years, I really took on a role of being a teacher and mentor. We had to train our employees on radically new project tasks, devise curriculums for new hires, created a management training program to prepare our middle managers, and reviewed daily issues to learn from our mistakes. I love helping people improve – my passion really comes through when I’m leading through teaching. We have such a great community of people in Zambia that are hungry for career opportunities, so we’re doing the most we can to help them learn and improve themselves.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Having worked from the front lines in Africa, it’s fantastic to see the growing confidence and awareness of the tech and entrepreneurship scene in Africa. It’s been said Africa has a major PR problem. Luckily, social media is providing better transparency of what life really is like in far off places, and it’s really much more normal than we imagine it! This means entrepreneurs are being taken more seriously, which is opening broad new opportunities for these economies. Since 2000, the sub-Saharan economy has quadrupled.
There’s a survey from EY called the Africa Attractiveness survey that asked 500 executives where they think the best and worst market opportunities in the world are. The ones who had never worked in Africa said it had the worst, while the ones who had operations there said it had the best. Once you’ve been there, you immediately realize the potential.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I believe in simplicity. I travel between 3 continents throughout the year, so I’m often living out of a suitcase and that forces me to simplify my life to the extreme. You have to minimize your distractions and focus on what’s really valuable to you. To me, that’s improving myself personally and benefiting the people around me. I don’t bother holding on to material things, like souvenirs, anymore. I stay off social media and rarely post anything. Even when I take pictures, I try to capture just the really precious moments. The superficial things we try to collect often just clutter our lives.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I did an internship at a relocation consulting company. They essentially planned all the logistics for companies moving offices. It was really slow work – there weren’t enough tasks in the day, and even those were simple. (That’s what I got for applying to internships at the last minute.) But this was a family business that had been in operation for over 20 years, and they were the best, and you got to see the nuance that they approached these assignments with. Down to things like where on boxes the labels would be applied to or pour over blueprints to figure out the most efficient way to use the freight elevators. You really come to appreciate someone who thinks at that level of detail – it’s like an expert watch maker. It’s more than just making everyone’s job more efficient. There’s a real beauty in that.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Oh man, probably everything! It seems like every day we were making mistakes and putting out fires. That’s what happens when you try to launch such an ambitious business in a brand new setting.
When we were first launching, we had the idea that we would focus on transcription work and phone support. These are high value services and Zambia, with its English based population, seemed like a reasonable fit. But when we started our first projects we realized these were far too advanced for us to handle, even with our best employees. For instance, our guys had a very slow typing speed because Zambians don’t get enough exposure on computers.
After our first 6 months, we had to do a big pivot and reconsider our service portfolio. We refocused on what we call medium-skilled tasks – things like lead generation research, media moderation, data entry, and shipping processing. Even still, when we were taking on these new projects, our guys were making what seemed like rudimentary mistakes. So we had to develop a training program that started from the ground up, down to the basics of using the internet and effectively doing research.
That first year we played a lot of catch up to get our team properly prepared for what we were asking of them. This was an intensive process to develop the curriculum on the spot, which was made even more difficult because we were already up and running and had to manage our normal day to day. In retrospect, we could have been better prepared to understand the talent we were bringing in and what we needed to do to close the skills gap.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I’m constantly learning, especially on topics that have nothing to do with my work or background. As the CEO, it’s incredibly important to see things from multiple perspectives. Recently I’ve been rereading my old high school textbooks on U.S. and European history. When I was in school, this stuff just seemed like useless facts, but now that I’ve actually traveled and lived in Europe and Asia and Africa, it’s amazing to understand the foundations of these cultures and underlying forces of society. You start realizing that our current situations, movements, problems, and ideologies are a result of phenomenal changes over time.
I especially love these ‘artisan videos’ on the internet of experts working on their craft. It’s mesmerizing and gives you so much appreciation for how they see the world. Often times, we silo ourselves with our peers, like in shared office spaces, and forget how much more there is to the world.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
The most difficult question I’ve ever asked my employees is, “What do you want this company to be?” This is a deeply unnerving question. At the heart of it is the notion that you are giving up control to the vision that is so personally meaningful to you. But you have to give ownership to the employees, particularly in our case as a social enterprise. When our employees came back to us, they offered an even richer vision that my own, approaching the challenge from different perspectives and attempting to accomplish more than I had even considered. Letting go on my proprietary control proved why we accomplish more together and why employee participation is the key to sustainability for businesses.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
There’s so much activity happening around startups and tech, and as head of our company I often compare myself to others in the news. There are so many stellar stories every day about young, ambitious, super talented leaders who are building the greatest companies ever and you can’t help feeling inferior. This is my first time being a CEO. When we were first starting, I had no idea how it was possible to create a successful business like theirs and have anyone care. As we started picking up new clients and getting more attention, it felt like I was pulling back the curtain. I realized how informally a lot of things work and even the superstars deal with the same issues as us.
When I’m feeling down about myself, I try to remember the quote, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Just one? I’ve got a hundred! What many developing countries are lacking is quality goods and services for the rising middle class. Africa already has the youngest population in the world and will have the fastest growing economy in the next 5 years. The problem is the market is flooded with cheap, low quality goods, particularly from China, and the education system isn’t training the workforce to meet the growing demand of services. Pretty much look at any business that we take for granted in the West – plumber, car mechanic, real estate broker, hardware store, movie theater, late night convenience store – and it’s probably still lacking in developing countries. These aren’t sexy, cutting edge ideas; they’re basic, staple businesses that provide for our daily needs. Best of all, they’re stable, tried and true industries that are in growing demand.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I have two. I was in London for a few weeks, and spent $75 on a one month membership to a rock climbing gym. I really loathe exercising, but I’ve recently been getting into rock climbing – it’s like a playground for adults and there’s this problem solving aspect to it. You spend loads of time trying to make it through a route and you don’t even realize how great a workout you’re getting. Really works you mentally and physically. Plus you meet great people who are helping each other out. It’s a really social sport.
I also bought a used piano keyboard for $75. I’ve been playing music since I was 7 years old, mostly guitar and saxophone, and I never really learned piano. It gives me a new hobby to learn and is a nice break when I need it to switch off my brain from work.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I’m all about simplicity, so I barely use any tools beyond the basics. My phone has the bare minimum of apps, and I’ll delete something if I find I have no need for it.
Keeping lists is absolutely essential for me to stay organized. We keep a list of internal tasks inInsightly, which I’ve found to be the simplest CRM platform. I have Rainmeter installed on my Windows computer, which runs beautiful desktop widgets. I use that to keep a very clean to-do list on my desktop. Also, I have my daily errands list on my phone using just the native phone notes app – nothing special. I’m constantly reviewing and revising those lists, otherwise I’d never be able to keep track of my day.
I also love Pushbullet. This allows sending content between my devices, and I find it much easier than different sync options between applications.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Working Poor by David Shipler (and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich). Everyone should read this. It’s such a powerful account of the realities of the lower class today and how inequality has put them into a harrowing position. We have millions of people struggling to get by and provide just the basic needs for their families, and they haven’t received the dignity they deserve. I’ve seen some terrible social conditions in places like India and Africa, but we forget life for many isn’t that different here at home. These are good people who are doing the best they can, but often it’s not enough due to factors outside their control. If we can lend them that voice and empathize with their situation, we can realize how we’re all collectively responsible for shaping our reality.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
My background is in economics and finance and I really like NakedCapitalism.com, by Susan Webber. She does a great job chronicling socioeconomic events and the daily links post is fantastic. I also enjoy James Altucher’s blog. He provides some really good no-nonsense advice from his life lessons, even if it is a bit snarky.
I love listening to Intelligence Squared, particularly how John Donvan moderates the U.S. debates. There’s a great interview with him on Slate’s Working podcast and it’s astounding how well he handles these incredibly complex discussions. He makes a great point how important it is to be as prepared as the debaters and actively listen to both sides throughout the event. I think we can all learn from his skill.
I also get a daily email newsletter called ‘Now I Know’ by Dan Lewis. Every day he sends out an amazing story of something interesting. He started writing the newsletter as a side hobby and puts in so much effort to make every story fascinating.