Travelogue: Landing in Brazil in 'Agbada' ~ Hamza Yunusa

The MIT Innovation and Entrepreneurship Bootcamp brings together innovators, entrepreneurs, business executives and students from various parts of the world. Bootcampers sleep only 4 hours a day and work for 20 hours; learning team work, primary market research, innovation, product development, pitching and other things which adds up to be the most rigorous experience of their lives. Each team was tasked with developing an idea into an innovative business within 5 days. My team had a Neuro Scientist, two Data Analytics professionals, an Economist, Microbiologist and a Computer Engineer. If you’re hoping to enroll for the MIT bootcamp, prepare to reach your elastic limit, break, and remake again. The unique experience of the bootcamp can hardly be replicated anywhere else in the world. The academic materials, the quality of mentors and lecturers and the superior arrangement and coordination of the whole exercise is exceptional. It is a sharp deviation from the narrative of business schools, where a tutor teaching you how to manage a business has never before ventured into any kind of business himself. This was different, we had real people who had all started and are running successful ventures. The experience was different and leagues ahead of other similar programs. At the end of it all, we received a New Ventures Leadership Certificate, the weapon with which we would all conquer the world.
The 2018 (Class8) MIT bootcamp in Rio, had such a profound effect on all of us. We came with different expectations, learned similar things, and perhaps understood them in different ways. It was a gathering of 123 people from 40 different countries. I’ve never been in a group so relentlessly diverse and replete with so much genius and curiosity. Instituto Europeo di design, the bootcamp venue, was greeted by many different faces and accents during that period, the atmosphere was saturated by the fragrance of passion and great expectation. I came with nothing but the will to learn, network and learn some more. I noticed on the first day that every word spoken got a reply in a different accent. It was a carnival of diversity. The fantastic views and orientation of my fellow bootcampers bewildered me with excitement and immense fascination.
Following is a summary of the 6 lessons I learned from the bootcamp.

      I was very excited when I got the mail that I’ve won a place at the bootcamp. I was super excited; not only because it was you know, the “MIT BOOTCAMP” but because it was a validation in itself, that your idea, passion and motivation are world class, that answers you provided during the 9 video interviews are actually “MIT standard”. It’s a huge validation, it is for me. But raising the funds for tuition, accommodation, flights and other expenses is no piece of cake. For someone like myself, it was almost impossible. But really, what one needs is an “IDEA”, then motivation and passion to become a change maker. If you have these features, there is no limit to what you can achieve. There are bodies, companies, corporations, governments willing to sponsor you. So long as you have an incredible idea, and you show great passion and deep understanding for what you want to do, many would sponsor you to other planets if necessary, just so you can achieve your dreams. You only need to leave your comfort zone and go searching. In my own case, I got sponsored by the first two places I went to. A company sponsored my tuition and an individual sponsored other expenses. Never give up on your dreams just because of your financial situation, dare to aspire to lofty heights no matter whose son you are. At the bootcamp, I met people who raised their own funds through online crowd funding. Many had inspiring stories to tell about how they raised the funds to attend the bootcamp.

The first class of bootcamp was a particularly spectacular day. It was basically a day of introductions, pleasantries and familiarization. But the most spectacular part of it I guess, was the fact that a young man came to class dressed in his native attire; An Agbada (popularly known as “babbar riga” in Northern Nigeria) and a cap. That young man was me. It felt very nice to do that because it attracted a lot of attention to me. Different nationals flocked to me, asking to take pictures together, they were also curious as to how that elegant kind of outfit was made. One of my team mates Vlad, from Russia even asked permission to try on the cap. It was a marvelous feeling.

My Nigerian attire got me interacting with a lot of people. Many asked about my background, education, interests and so on, which created an opportunity to learn and understand the passion and motivations of many who were at the bootcamp. They shared their experiences in business, in travels across the world. We are all the same as human beings alright, but it pays to portray your identity wherever you go, with confidence and gentle pride. Some of my fellow bootcampers were so thrilled by my unique dressing style that they invited me to their various countries.

“It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others. It is among such individuals that all human failures spring” 

Above is a quote from a book written by a Viennese psychologist, Alfred Adler. I have known this quote for quite a while and it might have been my motivation to vigorously interact and engage fellow bootcampers in conversations, be it during lunch or dinner, or in the hallway, or on the beach behind the lecture venue, anywhere. I found that habit an immensely profitable one. For example, from my Russian friend, Dima Albot, I learnt about aquaponics, an agricultural crop production procedure which doesn’t require soil to grow food, it allows you to grow food on water injected with certain nutrients. That, I immediately conceived to be a solution for the Niger Delta region of Nigeria where it is difficult to grow food because the land has been degraded by oil exploration. Food in the Niger Delta is perhaps the most expensive anywhere in Nigeria. From Krishna, my Indian friend I learnt about design thinking, industrial design and product fabrication. In fact, we eventually struck a partnership deal with Krishna and we are planning an ambitious project very soon. I learnt and gained so much just by being interested in other people and learning from their experiences.

My most profound encounter however was an interaction I had with a young lady from Greece, Katerina Roubi. We were strolling in the forests of the sugar loaf mountain when I threw a casual question to her, I asked if she had ever been to Macedonia. She answered in the negative. Then I started on about Alexander the great and his dominion over a vast segment of the world. I reveled in the glories of conquest, bravery, adventure and what not. “Alexander is an inspiration to every young man in the world today who has lofty dreams” I said.
She looked at me for a few seconds and then remarked “But do you realize Hamza that Alexander had to kill so many people to achieve all the things he achieved that have got you all fascinated about him”?
 I paused, and gazed into vacancy for a little while. I would never forget the chill which settled upon my nerves as she said those words. I did give a reply, after an unusually long period had elapsed. I argued that the way of the world at the time was to show superiority and dominance. It’s pretty much what happens even today, just in a different form. The reply was weak of course, but that’s not what mattered to me the most. Her words had such a profound effect upon my fancy that it positively re-enforced Bill Aulet’s lesson two days before. He stressed the need to alter our points of view if indeed we wished to become successful entrepreneurs, “You need to look at things from a slightly different angle” he said. I realized that being different is the most potent recipe for innovation. Katerina taught me a great lesson that day I’ve never actually viewed the story of Alexander from such an angle. She probably doesn’t realize it, but I would appreciate every day, the privilege of meeting that subtle and sublime young lady from Athens.

The Bootcamp is saturated with a lot of materials on entrepreneurship, decent ones. There are exciting lectures every day, and the lectures continue after every meal, after team discussions and other short breaks. Besides deeply insightful lectures from MIT professors and the bootcamp alumni, we had some powerful guests deliver talks on their various fields of endeavors; we had Dr. Mauricio Antonio Lopes, the President of Embrapa, The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (I was privileged to have a few minutes of interaction with him after his lecture). We also had the pleasure of hearing from Vitor, a partner at Nubank, a FinTech company which has achieved unicorn status. Nubank acts as a digital bank and credit card operator. We were all fascinated to hear about their turbulent start, and how with dedication and stern commitment they were able to safely cruise the company to success. We thought we had seen it all, when one afternoon Stephen Wolfram stepped on to the stage. We were all chaotic with excitement. For the thinkers, dreamers and entrepreneurs that we were, Stephen Wolfram was an auspicious guest, his presence alone was inspiration in itself. He took us through his journey with his inventions; Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha and the Wolfram language, even giving us a short demonstration. It was an unforgettable moment.

Despite all the materials and lectures however, I found something within myself telling me that the MIT Bootcamp transcended the notes and talks and guests, it is a call to action, it has been designed to urge you to think, stand up, get out and make change; create a business through making the world a better place. At the bootcamp you gain practical experience as to how to grow an idea into a business, the materials for me are not the same as reading to pass an exam, they are a guide to help you navigate the process after you’ve received the right doses of inspiration and motivation.

I was all ears listening to Dr. Mauricio Antonio Lopes

On the 3rd day of bootcamp, we were all incredibly sleep deprived, irritable and exhausted. Virtually every team had at the time undergone the “quarrel phase”. Some had already reconciled and some were still at loggerheads with one another. It was a chaotic moment. The beauty of it all however, was the fact that every team which had friction eventually reconciled. All teams turned in amazing products or service on pitch day. The quarrels were expected, It was obvious that some people didn’t come to be team players, they came to lead, others were there just to criticize and exhibit every kind of pessimism conceivable. This is expected when different individual with diverse personalities are brought together to work on a project. Erdin Beshimov, the founder of MIT Bootcamps kept warning us that that would happen, but we thought it was a joke. We eventually went through the painful but necessary experience. We all eventually recalled that and said it,  Erdin always spoke like an oracle, and when he explains a concept, he does it looking towards the skies like he was receiving some divine inspiration, and he follows his words with profound gestures with his hands as if he was painting the words into something you could see and touch. Erdin is a gifted speaker, you cannot not pay attention when he addresses you. I would like to command such attention some day!
It was during that turbulent period, on the 3rd day that I met Erdin after dinner, I proposed to him that I was going to recite a poem to the class, “perhaps it would help lift our spirits a bit” I added. Erdin agreed and promised to call me on stage at the right time. He fulfilled his promise and before long I was on stage. I recited a romantic poem to the class titled “Indescribable”. It is a poem describing the physical features of what I considered the perfect feminine specie. A divine silence and submission descended upon the class while I recited. I took them through the lines of my poem with the most exotic rendition style I could muster. I was greeted with a standing ovation after that. Erdin confessed to me that it was the first poetry recitation in an MIT bootcamp, no one had ever done it. And to see that it created so much excitement and energy, I felt deeply satisfied. That moment redefined my views about life; I realized right there and then that it is possible for me to do just anything, anywhere!

The bootcamp made me realize that teams are much more valuable than one man’s grand idea. Teams give an idea the privilege of a diversity of views and the meticulous finishing of collective thinking. Teams help build a small idea into a great product, but one man, most times, only succeeds in dwarfing a grand idea. At the bootcamp, I learned and understood the value of team work, I learnt how to immerse myself into the vision and goal of the project. I learnt to unlearn and relearn. Functioning teams teaches one to drop his ego and offer nothing but his skill and experience for the betterment of the project. I was able to realize through the program that we were also guilty of the things we criticized in other people; as human beings we perpetually struggle either openly or in secret to shove our views and opinions down people’s throats, not because it is the most relevant, but because we want to be accepted no matter what. Some times, we are critical of the brightest ideas simply because they weren't our own contribution. Those habits are a huge drag on the success of any team that aims to do great things.

On the other hand, when team members drop their egos and insecurities and focus on building the team and achieving set goals, then there’s no limit to what they can achieve, they are on a path to extraordinary success.


Hamza Yunusa, Poet and Tech Startup Co-founder is the CEO of Nazarion Technologies based in Abuja. He tweets @HamxaYunusa