Tanzanian tech guru shares his Harvard experience

Tuesday June 25 2019

Edwin Bruno (right) with Nori Gerardo Lietz -

Edwin Bruno (right) with Nori Gerardo Lietz - Senior Lecturer of Business Administration in the Finance and Entrepreneurial Management Units at Harvard Business School. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By Mpoki Thomson

Many people around the world dream of studying at an Ivy League college in the US. For Edwin Bruno, a Tanzanian tech expert, this wasn’t just a dream, but an ambition for which he dedicated time and effort to achieve. In 2019 that ambition came to reality after he was enrolled to study a course on Private Equity and Venture Capitalism at Harvard University.

Bruno, Founder and CEO of Smart Codes – a full service digital agency in Tanzania has had quite a number of milestones since founding the digital agency. In 2016, at the age of 29 he was recognised by Forbes Africa as a billionaire in the making.

His time at Harvard University opened his mind to a world of different possibilities in education, technology and business. He shares with Success magazine some of the major takeaways from studying at Harvard and what Tanzania can learn from his experience.

How did your journey to Harvard start?

I’ve always believed in planning. You can plan your life trajectory in advance in order to see where you want to be in the next few years.

Being at Harvard didn’t just come out of the blue. I laid the ground work three to four years back. I had a projection of what I wanted to do – within that, I wanted to upgrade my education as well.

After graduating with a degree in Software Engineering, my dream back then was [maybe] to pursue a Masters at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But after venturing more into technology and business, Harvard became the ideal choice, considering its affiliation with MIT.

To add to that, my pursuit wasn’t solely based on individual goals. Smart Codes as a tech agency aims at nurturing the next generation of tech enthusiasts not only in Tanzania, but Africa as a whole. This necessitated more networking in order to find solutions on how we will help Africa as a continent. Such solutions include finding global investors from different regions.

In order for this to happen we need to understand how they [investors] work. So my experience at Harvard gave me an opportunity to understand about private equity and venture capitalism and further enhance my understanding of the investment side of the trade.

Getting admission to Harvard isn’t easy. Tell us about the application process.

I applied for the program a year in advance. The application process isn’t easy because competition for admission is stiff. Our class had about 45 students selected from a pool of about 200,000 applicants, most of whom are reputable businessmen who’ve owned and sold businesses across the world, and are now looking for new business ventures. Harvard provides global knowledge on business and investment. It doesn’t matter whether you are from the US, Europe, Africa or Asia.

From Africa it’s only I and another businessman from Nigeria who were given admission.

As someone who’s predominantly tech-based, was it difficult getting to learn more about the business side of the trade?

It wasn’t difficult. This is due to the mode of teaching at Harvard. It is more structured and the modality is through what is known as ‘case studies’. Everything which is on our syllabus reflects actual happenings in the business world. Professors and experienced businessmen from some of America’s biggest companies such as LinkedIn, NASA were invited to conduct classes. We also had visits from businessmen who successfully ran and sold their businesses, and also those who failed. This aimed at giving us the real picture of how the business world works.

We are taught on how to deal with success and failure.

The class also involved more collaboration and networking. It taught us on how to initiate conversation in terms of business negotiations.

What were some of the key takes in terms of business and investment negotiations?

Some of the important takes from the teaching process, is that, money isn’t always a priority when it comes to dealing with an investor, at times it is the last thing. What you need to focus on is your long-term goals and how far you want this [deal] to take you in your journey.

An investor can provide you with more networks and facilities, then money can be the end-game in terms of transaction.

If your focus is on money, you can go to the bank and get a loan. But when you talk about investment, especially venture capitalism, it’s more of someone who can come into your business and transform it. So it’s like you’re hiring a director, who can pay you back.

What do you think is the right way to enterprise in tech?

I remember during a discussion with the rest of the Harvard members, we talked about how students feel emboldened when they reach campus. They feel like they can do anything. Such confidence is important because it will help you spike any idea you have. Sometimes you might have an idea and tell it to people, but because they cannot execute it, they feel like you also can’t do that. So having belief in your abilities is key to attaining your goals.

Another key factor is collaboration. When you have an idea, you can’t implement it on your own. You need to look within your network to identify other people you can partner with in order to make the idea a success.

For example, you might have an idea or product as an engineer, but you need someone with marketing skills to help you market your product. In the same line, you might need someone with management skills, another with finance skills. Your partners can be co-workers even before the idea starts making profits.

It’s important to note that, how you choose your partners matters – it’s an art. You need to properly understand how to get your co-founders. How to select your board of directors, and how are you going to look for finance. This is important because investors will look at who your co-founders are. Do they add value to your idea or project?

Is acquisition of knowledge from a top university all it takes to succeed in life?

It’s not just about the education or the formula through which it’s imparted. It’s more about the network. For example, when you get an opportunity to study at a certain university, you will be able to create useful connections that will come in handy along the road.

When it comes to the business side, it’s more of who are the people surrounding you, and how can they help you achieve your business goals. When we talk about education, one needs to go and study, but also build his/her network, and not just get an academic certificate.

In light of your experience at Harvard, what’s your advice to Tanzania’s education system as far as theoretic versus practical teaching is concerned?

In Tanzania and Africa as a whole, we need practical courses. Even though we do have professors at universities who teach the basic background on programming, business and the like, we need to invite people who have succeeded in these sectors.

These people will not play the role of inspirational speakers. To make their input more effective to students they can be given a course to teach in a span of a week. Then after, invite the students to their work stations to show them how it all works.

This can be implemented not only in tech courses, but other fields as well.

These successful people who go to teach the short course can be former students at the university.

For example, at Harvard, there’s what is known as an alumni network, where former [successful] Harvard students go back to the institute and build something as a way of giving back to the university.

If this is done in Tanzania, it could go a long way in helping Tanzanian universities in terms of infrastructural development and resource enhancement.

If you were to list down your key takeaways from Harvard University, what would they be?

Confidence – making people believe that they can do anything if they set their mind to.

Strategy – being strategic is another important facet in order to succeed in your plans. You need to be systematic in planning and putting proper KPIs. This can be done both on an individual and company level.

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