18 Feb 2014

Stick with Plan A

Monique Maddy is focusing her entrepreneurial
energies on connecting the world's poor
to global commerce through their cell phones.
Re: Alfredo Elias (MBA 1975); Come Lague (MBA 1993); Howard Stevenson
by Robert S. Benchley


"When I have my mind set on something, I do not create a Plan B," says Monique Maddy (MBA 1993). "I feel that it lessens my commitment and my focus. If it doesn't work out, I come up with another Plan A, which I will also relentlessly pursue."

Serial entrepreneur Maddy's current Plan A is Ezuza, Inc., a Mexico City-based mobile payments company she launched in 2007 that focuses primarily on the unbanked and under-banked in emerging markets. Zuza means "gain" in Zulu; the e stands for "electronic."

"Ezuza is interested in disruption," says Maddy, who is the company's CEO. "In emerging markets, mobile money is designed to leapfrog plastic by going from cash directly to digital. Because the global economy is increasingly digital, billions of cash-based buyers and sellers are currently excluded from global commerce. These individuals, because of their collective size, will likely redefine the concept of banking and financial access in the future."

Ezuza is preparing to launch its service after six years of business development, putting partnerships together and building the technology platform. "To some people, this seems like a long time," says Maddy. "For those who know Mexico and many other emerging markets, and know the nature of mobile money — a network business in the nexus of two highly regulated industries, banking and telecoms — this is understandable."

With a father who had abandoned corporate accounting to open a restaurant, Maddy seemed genetically destined to be an entrepreneur. Growing up in the Swedish-built mining town of Yekepa in northern Liberia, she started her first business when she was 12 — an after-school activities company; parents paid her to keep their kids busy.

"I didn't know of the concept of entrepreneurship then," she says, "but I enjoyed the process of creating something that people valued and would pay for."

Her birthplace in Africa, combined with her education — boarding school in England, college and graduate school at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins — and extensive business travel, have made her a multilingual citizen of the world. Initially, Maddy pursued an early dream of working for the United Nations Development Program. "Soon, however, I became very disillusioned that economic aid was the path to economic development," she says. "I found that it actually had the very opposite effect and created an unhealthy dependency. In many cases, it crowded out entrepreneurship and private investment.

"After five years working in New York, Indonesia, Angola, and the Central African Republic, I decided I had had enough and would apply to business school."

For Maddy, it was Plan A all the way: "Harvard was the only school of interest to me. Fortunately, I got in."

HBS provided the frame of reference that Maddy was lacking.

"I have applied quite a lot of what I learned to my career," she says. "For me, the discipline that the case-study methodology teaches has been the most important lesson. Studying hundreds of cases over a period of two years builds that discipline, which I believe is critical and can give a company a competitive edge."

But Maddy would be the first to acknowledge that the HBS experience is not just what you learn; it's also whom you meet. A case in point: Professor Emeritus Howard Stevenson, who founded the HBS entrepreneurship program.

"Howard has been a mentor and close friend since I first met him in 1992, when I was taking his class as a second-year elective," says Maddy. "He went on to supervise the field study that led to my first business in Africa [Adesemi, a telecommunications company she launched in 1993 to build wireless infrastructure in emerging market countries], in which he was also an investor, board member, and advisor.

"Howard is perhaps the smartest, most humble, most inspiring, and most ethical person I have met in my entire life," she says. "He has had, and continues to have, a major impact on me."

Stevenson, in fact, also helped Maddy make high-level contacts in Mexico for Ezuza, as has another HBS alumnus and former Stevenson student, Alfredo Elias Ayub (MBA 1975), the former director general of Comisión Federal de Electricidad, Mexico's state-owned electric monopoly.

Two classmates joined Maddy at Adesemi — Côme Laguë (MBA 1993), who served as CFO and today is CEO of Zetta Research, and Waleed Iskandar (MBA 1993), an early investor who was killed on September 11, 2001, as a passenger on the first plane from Boston flown into the World Trade Center.

Maddy ultimately lost Adesemi in 2000, following a sale forced by a major investor. She wrote a book about the experience, Learning to Love Africa: My Journey from Africa to Harvard Business School and Back (HarperBusiness 2004).

Some of the lessons she learned: "Be selective from whom you raise money. Seek investors who bring more than just money and are as complementary as possible. Listen to different points of view. Keep costs low for as long as possible, but not to the extent that you compromise the mission. Find the best people that you can, no matter where they are."

Working in developing countries is both challenging and exciting, says Maddy. Her advice to others who might wish to follow her lead?

"Things generally take a lot longer to implement, and you need to build certain cultural factors into your business plan and understand how best to manage those. Patience and persistence are must-haves. Find good local partners who share your vision and your business philosophy.

"In terms of impact, there is an absence of legacy technology in many cases. An entrepreneur has far greater latitude in leveraging technology that is already proven in other markets, but adapting it for a developing market consumer."

And forget about Plan B.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1993, Section D
follow @moniquemaddy

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