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Focus on Founders: Charles Sekwalor brings talent – and economic development – to Africa with Movemeback
April 21, 2017
Movemeback aims to drive social and economic development in Africa by connecting leading talent with distinctive career and entrepreneurship opportunities – both on the continent and with each other – for meaningful collaborations. Charles, a self-described “eternal optimist,” recognizes the interconnected, complex challenges facing development in Africa, but sees just as many solutions. And his ambitions for Africa don’t stop with business: a lifelong Formula One fan, he dreams of one day bringing the prestigious auto race to the continent. 

This is the twenty-eighth in our 'Focus on Founders' series of articles about alumni entrepreneurs.

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Charles Sekwalor (LON 10-12) believes in Africa's potential, and that his company – Movemeback – can help realize it. 

Charles, a British-born (and London-based) Ghanaian, is co-founder of Movemeback, a global online network that connects people, organizations, and institutions to opportunities in Africa and each other, creating value that drives economic and social development. 

The network is free to members – an application is required, and a vetting process ensures that those who join have an appropriate level of education, experience, and potential – who then have access to curated opportunities, practical advice and support, information sharing, case studies, services, and most importantly to the rest of the community. All of this is aimed at creating transparency, enabling meaningful collaboration and removing barriers to engaging with or moving to African opportunities. 

With members in 105 countries, it’s the largest global community of top African global talent. Members are not required to be from Africa, although, as the site explains, they should have some background or interest in Africa and its opportunities. 

With a number of success stories – including placements at household-name companies such as Facebook and Uber – and partnerships with some of the world’s most respected institutions (Harvard, Wharton, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, LBS, HEC, and INSEAD, to name a few), Charles is confident in Movemeback’s potential to move the needle in Africa’s economic development by enabling talented individuals both in and outside of the continent to engage with and create the next generation of opportunities there, leading to mass job creation, industry growth, exporting economies and significant intra-continental trade.  

“Whilst our current focus is on engaging the most highly skilled of individuals globally, I believe in future we will become a major force for developing talent and underrepresented skills amongst those already on the continent,” he says. “More broadly, there is a part for Movemeback to play in better equipping both local and returning talent with the knowledge, skills and access required for the next stage of Africa’s development. And whilst our focus at the moment is on the ‘upper echelons’ of talent, there's an aspect of building talent and skills at the lower levels as well,” he adds. 

He is well aware of the challenges that exist, but believes there are solutions. In our wide-ranging conversation, Charles discusses what he sees as Africa’s main challenges, what conventional wisdom gets wrong about the continent, his vision for how Movemeback can influence African economies, and why it’s important to him to bring Formula One to the continent.

Recognizing existing challenges

Charles was already a successful entrepreneur – he had founded COS Ventures in 2013 – when the idea to focus on Africa struck.

“We were transitioning away from a number of our Western-focused ventures to exploring how we could add value in Africa,” he explains. “Ultimately the vision was to use business as a vehicle for driving social and economic development and creating impact. We thought, where else in the world can you do this and still have a commercial story, but in Africa?”

As a member of the extended African diaspora – Charles’ parents emigrated to Britain before he was born, although he does hold Ghanaian citizenship – Charles has a personal understanding of the immigrant experience, and the barriers, both external and self-imposed, facing those who are considering a return to the continent. 

Charles says that one of the main contributing factors to a talent drain from the continent is Africans’ perception that they can receive a superior education in the U.S. or Europe. "Africans as a whole value education massively. It's intrinsic in our culture, and it's something that we see as one of the primary paths to long-term economic success. Traveling to another region for education demonstrates that we do take it very seriously,” he says. 

They also traditionally tend to think that they will have better, longer-term career prospects abroad. Charles explains that while many of his parents’ and more recent generations intended to return to Africa and develop their communities there, in reality, this is often deferred. With today’s cohort, there are multiple reasons for hesitancy. By far the biggest, Charles says, is a lack of access to the right opportunities. “For 70% of our members, finding the right opportunity is a key barrier to them returning to Africa. The next highest factor is only cited 22% of the time,” he says. “There’s a perceived lack of comparatives in career prospects in Africa versus the West, and the longer those who have left the continent stay away, the less likely they may be to return.” Charles continues, ”A repeat cycle often occurs, where someone will go abroad for education, start a career, start a family, and then stay there so their children can also be educated to the same standard.”

There are also more complex aspects to returning: “There’s a fear of people falling behind with local connections or even their peers, who stayed and have gone on to be successful,” says Charles. “Africa can be a region where you get ahead disproportionately based on who you know. And there can be issues around people feeling that they don’t belong back home. They may feel they’ll get comments that they’ve adopted Western ways. But all in all, it seems to comes down to opportunities, and people feeling like they won’t have the same ones in Africa that they do elsewhere, although a notable portion of this perception is driven by a lack of transparency of the opportunities that do exist.”

And that’s where Movemeback comes in. “We have always focused on not making people feel they have an obligation to return – instead uncovering opportunities, creating transparency, providing an enabling environment and allowing Africa to sell itself; we help our members arrive at the nexus of creating or finding and securing valuable opportunities, whilst creating impact for the continent in parallel.” 

Charles gives some examples. “With that approach, we encounter daily case studies of members building business from the ground up in Africa, from world-class manufacturing facilities in Ethiopia and intelligent logistics in West Africa to redefining primary healthcare in Kenya and Nigeria.” He goes on, “Some members are leading multinationals to navigate the continent, establishing operations, driving local job creation, and contributing to an environment that attracts more overseas investment. A third category of member is based outside of Africa, operating ventures such as my own, or investing, advising, providing skills and supporting various initiatives, full-time or part time. Regardless of which category our members fall into, by tracking their progress, sharing their stories and insights and by facilitating their collaboration with other members, organizations and policy makers, Movemeback is giving rise to a growing and self-perpetuating economic and development ripple wave driven by the individual with no geographical barriers.”

Charles Sekwalor
Charles and co-founder Oyin Solebo

Challenges and assets in the African business environment

Charles has an alternative take on the two opposing, oft-cited narratives about Africa – one overly optimistic, one overly pessimistic. "I would describe Africa as a resource-rich continent that wants to get to work – and that will require patience, good decisions, and a global commitment,” he says. “'Africa Rising' is not a destination that has been reached; it's a story around potential."

In addition to the personal challenges people face, Charles says he sees several systemic challenges within Africa: a lack of relevantly skilled talent, vulnerable jobs (while statistics may indicate that unemployment in Africa is considerably lower than one might expect, the majority of people in ‘work’ are in informal roles), and finally a confluence of weak infrastructure, governance, institutions, and investment processes.

The comparative lack of investment funds – particularly angel funds – in Africa is a particular problem, Charles explains. “Generally international markets are very tentative around financing ventures in Africa, not least because of currency FX risk. Local angel investor markets are under-developed . . . there's a lack of widespread understanding of how seed investments work. Generally, local investors are putting money into asset classes which are perceived as safe or unnaturally high-performing – real estate, traditional agriculture – and less around the new generation of businesses which are solving problems through new paradigms.”

However, one of the main assets is the young workforce. “If you just look at the numbers, there's definitely a young workforce emerging, certainly in terms of people who will be eligible or able to work,” Charles says. “In fact, when you look at the stats, they're pretty staggering, and they are exceptional relative to the rest of the world. Almost 20% of the global youth population aged 15 to 24 live in Africa – giving it huge potential for job creation. According to McKinsey, it will have a larger workforce than China or India by 2034 – 1.1 billion workers – heavily skewed toward the young.”

The key will be to equip the young population with essential skills for job creation, so that the large population will actually become essential workers: “Africa has a huge amount of talent. It will be what defines the next generation. But having relevant skills and talent for this phase of Africa’s growth and development is the real challenge.”

Movemeback is working to directly address this. “More and more of our work is moving towards the process side: how can we work alongside organizations and policy-makers to create the right enabling environments? We can do this through pioneering and advocating best-practice graduate and youth employment programs for organizations to buy into and adopt, or by working with policy-makers to create environments that attract or remove barriers deterring some of their most skilled from returning home.”

He goes on, “I am a massive optimist. The $30 trillion collective economy that has been quoted as a possibility for Africa – I do believe it can happen. It’s realizable.”

Lessons from the Firm: The power of storytelling and diversity

While improving the economic and employment outlook for an entire continent might seem daunting, Charles feels his time at the Firm instilled him with both a sense of purpose and the skills needed to deliver. As many alumni do, he cites strong problem-solving skills as a main takeaway. He adds that his McKinsey experience “gave me a strong appreciation for how the world works at so many levels that I was previously not privy to.” 

But beyond that were two other lessons that Charles has taken into his post-Firm life: “Number one is the power of storytelling and developing a narrative in a structured way. That’s something I use on a daily basis. It’s extremely powerful. The second is McKinsey’s ability to bring very smart people from different backgrounds together. That helped me to realize the importance of diverse perspectives in the creation of high-performing teams.”

He also comments on the power of the brand. “I sometimes think of the Firm as a door to a powerful room that’s always open,” he says. “Having McKinsey on your resume buys you that crucial first 60 seconds. After that, you’re on your own, but it does help secure you that meeting and it gets you that little bit of initial attention.”

Not surprisingly, the strong network of alumni has also been helpful to him as he has built Movemeback. “The alumni network is extremely powerful. Whether it’s finding employees, advisors and investors, or even our first client – much of that came through the McKinsey alumni network, either directly or indirectly,” he says.

Charles Sekwalor
Charles (center) with his London media team

Entrepreneurship: “Constantly be learning”

Charles says that the entrepreneurship road can be rocky: “Sometimes you’re on top of the world, and the next day you’re thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” A key, he explains, is to be passionate and determined about your mission. “There needs to be one constant ‘why’ that keeps you going. Entrepreneurship – in addition to being about innovation and all the other things we celebrate – is sometimes just about staying in it.”

He also recommends soliciting advice from people with a high bar: “I advise asking McKinsey colleagues and alumni to challenge what you’re doing and give you feedback – they’re good at that. Get them to push you and your thinking forward.”

Another piece of advice? Stay humble. “There are a number of things you will need to learn in the new, post-McKinsey world – a whole new set of skills, and many of them will feel odd or counterintuitive. So there needs to be a level of humility, to unlearn things and learn new ones.” 

Learning to work with people with different professional (e.g. non-consulting) backgrounds is also important, Charles says. “You’ll need to learn how to motivate diverse people who don’t necessarily think, behave, or communicate like McKinsey people. That diversity is important and it’s something we can almost forget – that there are so many forms of bright talent. To build organizations in the broader context requires tapping into that.”

Bringing Formula One to Africa: a dream for the future

There’s another passion that is important to Charles: Formula One. “It’s something I fell in love with as a young teenager in Britain, and it encapsulates so much of how I think about the world. It’s the nexus of pushing the boundaries of both human and technological excellence,” he explains.

And how serious is he about bringing the prestigious auto race to Africa? “I think the way I can describe my seriousness is to say that I’ll be very disappointed in myself if it doesn’t come together,” Charles says. “When we think of the work we’re doing and Formula One there are parallels between Africa’s future potential and role in the world versus Formula One’s positioning at the intersection of global affluence and influence. That’s a very powerful combination.”

While Charles admits that finding time in his schedule to launch a Formula One team would be a challenge right now, he’s determined to make it happen someday. For the moment, he hopes that Movemeback’s efforts will help set the stage for making it possible; for him, it would represent a shift in the international opinion of Africa: “When we see Formula One in East or West Africa, that will be a representative measure of the continent’s progress, because it requires significant investment and buy-in from various global stakeholders, as well as African governments. The stage is set for Africa to get this right and to put itself on the map in this way. I’m massively committed to that.”

Movemeback in the future, and how alumni can get involved

Given his optimistic view of Africa’s potential, does Charles think there will ever come a time when Movemeback won’t be needed? He laughs. “I’d be doing a very bad job if I said yes, but on an authentic level, I don’t think so,” he says. “But I do think there will be a shift. Hopefully, if the world and Africa progress at the rate we want them to, there will be an equal shift in Movemeback’s role. At the moment, we think of ourselves as enabling growth, but 10, 15, 20 years from now, maybe the need will be to optimize growth and extract the best from the resources we have, whether it’s people or organizations. Regardless of where economies are in their development, there will always be underlying challenges of ensuring human talent can easily access relevant and impactful opportunities.”

Charles also believes that McKinsey alumni can play an important role in the realization of Africa’s potential. “It’s very important for alums to realize that we occupy a very privileged place in society.” He welcomes alums’ thoughts and input on Movemeback. “We’d love to hear from people who have any suggestions, or would like to get involved and help shape our mission. And equally, if we can share anything from our experience or help others to access the continent in any way, our door is always open.”

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