What We Can All Learn From Young African Billionaire Ashish Thakkar

If you have never heard of Ashish J. Thakkar, I think it’s time you learned about him.  My first introduction to Thakkar was on Monday, as I sat in my home in Hong Kong and tuned into the live stream of the TransformAfrica 2013 Summit taking place in Kigali, Rwanda.  He was young and down-to-earth, and particularly optimistic, ambitious and passionate.  He seemed to have tremendous confidence in Africans, great dreams for the African continent,  and every intention of seeing those dreams realised.  At the time, and even later on when I quoted him in my post “Why play catch-up when you can leapfrog?”, I admittedly knew very little about him.  It was only the next day that I noticed an interesting tweet from Ventures Africa (@VenturesAfrica) that led me to do some research.  And as I began my investigation, I became increasingly fascinated and inspired by his story.

Although of Asian descent, Thakkar has close ties to Africa.  Both his mother and father’s great-grandparents had sailed from India to Africa around the turn of the century, and his parents met and married in Uganda.  When Ugandan Asians were expelled in 1972 by then president Idi Amin, they re-settled in the UK, but eventually moved the family back to Africa in 1993, this time to Rwanda.  Less than one year later, genocide broke out.  After nine days of hiding out in a windowless passage at home, Thakkar and his family took refuge at the Hotel des Mille Collines (the inspiration for Hotel Rwanda) before eventually being evacuated by the UN to Burundi and ultimately re-settling in Uganda.  The family had lost everything.  His parents began to re-build, starting a small trading company.  At 14, Thakkar showed an interest in computers and his parents scraped enough together to buy him one.   Not long after, his father’s friend came to visit, noticed the machine, and asked how much it cost.  Thakkar quoted him a price—$100 more than what his father had paid for it—and, pretending he had a machine to spare, sold the computer to his father’s friend.  After this first successful transaction, Thakkar convinced his parents to let him run a shop during the summer holidays.  With a $5,500 loan, he rented some retail space, bought a ticket to Dubai, and spent the rest on hard drives, processors and motherboards, which he would sell back in Uganda.  All summer, he travelled back and forth, gathering and selling inventory.  When the holiday finished, he asked his parents to let him continue his business.  They agreed to give him one year to make it work and that he would otherwise have to return to school the next year.  He charged ahead and, needless to say, he never looked back.

(C) Twitter (@AshishJThakkar)

(C) Twitter (@AshishJThakkar)

Today, at the still tender age of 32, Thakkar is the Founder and Managing Director of Mara Group, a conglomerate of 16 companies based in Dubai with operations in 26 countries and a portfolio said to be worth over a billion dollars.  Often touted as “Africa’s Youngest Billionaire” (though he is apparently not so fond of this title), Thakkar is the first African to make it onto the Fortune‘s 40 Under 40, is listed on multiple African millionaires to watch lists, and only days ago won the Young Entrepreneur for the World Award at the 2013 World Entrepreneurship Forum.  He serves as an advisor to multiple heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa, was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2012, and is a member of both the Commonwealth Business Council and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).  However, what has impressed me most about Thakkar is not so much his personal net worth, but his choice to so personally invest himself, his passion and his [ample] resources in the building up of Africa and its young entrepreneurs, particularly through his Mara Foundation.  Believing mentorship to be a huge enabler, he set up an online platform called Mara Mentor, which now connects over 130,000 aspiring entrepreneurs to industry leaders from around the globe, including himself.  Perhaps one of the coolest parts is that the entire [expensive] program costs its participants and mentors nothing and is completely self-sustaining, since Mara Online, a for-profit branch of his organisation that develops and distributes collaboration apps and digital platforms, pays the bills.  In fact, Thakkar granted complete ownership of Mara Online to the Mara Foundation to ensure that the mentorship program would be self-sustainable “for life” and Mara Online was recently listed as one of 5 Hot African Tech Start-ups To Watch In 2013 by Forbes magazine—a creative and impressive model developed by a man of impressive creativity, vision and determination.   Interviews with the young tycoon suggest he believes that we should never forget where we came from, that each of us has a responsibility to give back to the community and that success is not defined by our accumulation of wealth, but by the number of lives we impact.  I think it’s safe to say that Thakkar clearly demonstrates these values in his life and work.

Honestly, with all of these sky-high titles and achievements, it’s hard to believe that Thakkar could still seem so down-to-earth [and that he could still be personally tweeting for his @AshishJThakkar Twitter account].  “I never believed the sky is the limit,” he has been quoted as saying, which largely explains how he has managed to achieve so much at such a young age, and also explains why he is scheduled to quite literally reach for the stars as the first East African in space through the upcoming Virgin Galactic program.  As someone with lofty dreams and an increasingly unconventional career path, I was encouraged when he reminded the TransformAfrica participants to dream big “even if they call us crazy.”

2013 Umurage Conference(C) Wilson Ho

2013 Umurage Conference
(C) Wilson Ho

With that said, here in Hong Kong, a few of us share in a big dream that some may call crazy.  We dream of seeing youth in rapidly developing countries empowered to keep pace with the fast-moving economies around them.  In an effort to see this realised, this past summer, we put together a tiny one-day conference in East Africa geared toward young people interested in either finding a job or creating their own job. Attended by around 100 of our local friends and their friends [with varying levels of education and work experience], we offered workshops on vision casting, creative problem solving, resume building, business planning, entrepreneurship, graphic design, creative design, communication, collaboration and social media.   We invited local and international business owners to share stories and field questions on how they got their businesses off the ground.  We led networking exercises and intentionally created opportunities for mentorship relationships to form.


2013 Umurage Conferece (C) Wilson Ho

2013 Umurage Conferece
(C) Wilson Ho

We invited aspiring entrepreneurs to submit business plans for comment or maybe even seed money, if their idea was well enough developed to win the confidence of Hong Kong investors. We established partnerships with local schools and businesses and raised funds in Asia to ensure that we could offer the training, meals and transport free of charge to all participants.  And a few months later, we ran a similar conference in North Africa.  Feedback for both events was overwhelmingly positive, with many asking for our 2014 dates and enthusiastically requesting that next year’s conference be extended to allow them to participate in ALL of our workshops.  The best part?  We heard many dear friends expressing renewed inspiration to dream and a renewed hope to achieve their dreams.  And with that, we are hopeful that our big dream is being realised, one impacted life at a time.

So rest assured, Ashish, that I will continue to dream big and let other people think I’m crazy [crazy enough to think that a few paragraphs have earned me the right to suddenly address you by first name].  In fact, I’m just going to go ahead and put the invitation out there: Ashish, if you’re reading this, I’d love to meet you.  We’d love to have you speak at our next conference and it would be a dream come true for both us and our participants.  We love your story, we are inspired by your passion, and we are deeply encouraged by the fruits of your determination [if that wasn’t clear enough by the fact that you have inspired my longest blog post to date].  In all seriousness though, thank you—thank you for dreaming big and giving so many others the guts to dream big too.

What are your big dreams?  How has Ashish’s story inspired you?  Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below!


Amanda Y. Fung


  1. This gentleman has a story, I am very very very happy that he chose to be called crazy yet he is wise. We all need mind of creativity like he did, from his dad’s friend he made a difference, he chose to move forward from there! man that’s a cool story I read right now:). Be blessed Amanda!

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