Enjoying Monday Morning As Much As Friday Afternoon
While running a medical charity in South Africa, William Skillman hit on the market potential for a cheap and safe alternative to paraffin cooking oil
William Skillman, 38, who is currently doing an MBA at Warwick Business School and plans on setting up a business selling bio-fuel for cooking in South Africa, knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur since he was a kid in the States.
“My first entrepreneurial activity was selling sweets to my school mates”, he says, “I have since not had a proper job and have started and run multiple businesses in the construction and real estate industries.”
“Growing up in America I was always taught that I could have whatever I wanted. If I worked hard, I could make my own future”
He spent his vacations in places where he “could enjoy the outdoors but also give back by helping the less fortunate”. He led humanitarian trips to Latin America, working on water well projects and microfinance, and Southern Africa, providing medical care to the rural poor.
In the spring of 2009, William set up a non-profit NGO that provides holistic medical care to the underprivileged in Mamelodi, in South Africa. “I worked with a group of doctors to design and build a fully-equipped clinic”, he explains. “Our goal was to provide the poor of South Africa the same level of care that we receive in the developed world.”
The organisation has brought over 3000 volunteers, mostly medical professionals, to South Africa.
“One time, a 15 year-old boy was carried into the clinic because he had been burned in a paraffin fire. You can imagine how frustrated we were to learn that...he may never walk again”, he says.
And yet, in the problem of the unsafe storage of paraffin in shacks, William foresaw an opportunity. “I began to think about how we could prevent some of the injuries and illnesses from happening in the first place. I came to realise that a cleaner, healthier way to cook, and heat these shacks could make a huge social and environmental impact on the world. That is where the idea for a bio-cooking fuel was born”.
“The goal was to develop a fuel that burned cleaner and provided a healthier living environment; essentially, treating many of the common health ailments at the source”, he explains.
Realising the potential of the bio-cooking fuel, William worked with a PhD research chemist to develop the product formula, and decided to take a year to deepen his knowledge of business by doing an MBA at Warwick Business School.
He took various entrepreneurship electives, such as Entrepreneurial Finance, New Venture Creation, and Entrepreneurial Innovation, and thinks the degree will be extremely helpful in gaining perspective on his experience in South Africa, and in helping finding the best business model for his venture.
“Previously I had worked with several not-for-profits and the issue they had was the constant need to raise donations: I call this the 'fund raising treadmill'”, he explains,
“Since I don't consider myself a professional fundraiser I decided that anything that I did needed to be financially sustainable.
“So over the last nine months at WBS I have worked with several students and professors to develop the concept”. This way, he hopes to fund other social initiatives such as women's co-operatives and microfinance.
Despite the many challenges he will have to face in the next months – in particular developing distribution channels, the rate of market penetration, and the regulation policy towards bio-fuels in South Africa – William thinks this new business venture has good chances of being successful.
“I feel very strongly that my past experience, both in not-for-profit and for-profit, and the formal learning of the MBA will provide me with the ingredients for success”.
The MBA seems to integrate perfectly with his project: “the next step in the venture is to run a small scale pilot project”, to be used to raise start-up capital. And this will be the topic of his MBA dissertation.
“Currently, I am working with an outstanding professor, Nigel Sykes, who is also passionate about Social Entrepreneurship. We are working through the details and intend to start the project in mid- June”, he says.
Balancing a full-time MBA, a business projects, and a family can be difficult, he admits, “but we “deliberately set aside family time”. Growing up, “(I was told) I should also make time to ‘smell the roses’. So I enjoyed life”.
To people willing to work in southern Africa, he says: “it requires...perseverance and patience” but “the rewards are immense”.
“The single most important element of working in this space is to be in relationship with the people”, he points out, “This requires taking the time to just sit down over a cup of tea getting to know people and interacting in their lives, which is quite the opposite of most digital interactions in the developed world.”
“I look forward to returning to South Africa and working with the people to provide the social change necessary to help break the backbone of generational poverty”, he continues, “My overall ambition for life is to be a catalyst for social change on a global level.”
“I am very passionate about what I do. I live by one motto: I want to enjoy Monday mornings as much as Friday afternoons. If not I am doing the wrong things in my life”.
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