Emmanuel Quartey was a mastermind at MEST – connecting stakeholders and partners, organizing ecosystem events, contributing original thought pieces and long-form product design articles, projecting just the right amount of MEST energy into everything he was a part of, and managing the 20+ companies at the MEST Incubator.
After three years with us, moving up from Marketing and Communications Fellow to Head of Product and then, General Manager of the Accra Incubator, Emmanuel spent a virtual afternoon with me, looking back on some of his favourite memories and lessons as a die-hard Ghanaian startup enthusiast with a love for Tech / Design / Media.
Read on to get to know EQ and appreciate him as much as we do.
Please introduce yourself and share a little about your background.
My name is Emmanuel Quartey, and I’m the former General Manager of the MEST Incubator in Accra. Before MEST I had various stints at various kinds of companies, including SeeClickFix (New Haven, USA), General Assembly (New York, USA), Lab for the City (Mexico City, Mexico), and the Office of Public Affairs and Communications at Yale University. I have a BA in Architecture from Yale.
Before MEST, what would you say was the most pivotal or important role of your career?
That’s a hard question to answer, because “pivotal” and “important” are not necessarily the same thing. I’d say the most pivotal role would be my very first internship with a small game startup called GoCrossCampus, which ended up rebranding to PickTeams. I helped out with community management, and that was very much my introduction to startups, and the art and science of user retention. That experience was formative in creating an interest in startups and my fascination for online communities.
I’d say my most important role was as a Woodbridge Fellow on the social media team at the Yale Office of Public Affairs & Communications. The social media team was a small, close-knit team inside the larger Comms department, and each of us had a lot of autonomy to define the voice, look, and feel of a venerated brand like Yale online. I got to spearhead a number of initiatives like launching Yale on Tumblr, introduced new media types into our content mix such as comics and infographics, and generally learned a ton about how large organizations were approaching digital media at a really exciting time.
What drew you to a role at MEST?
I was drawn by the ability to continue working in startups, this time back home, and also by the desire to work with and learn from phenomenal Ghanaian entrepreneurs (at the time, MEST was only recruiting entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) from Ghana).
How long were you the MEST Incubator General Manager and how would you describe your experience to someone who’s never been here?
I was the General Manager for the MEST Incubator for about nine months, and I’d describe the experience as a whirlwind of learning. There were a little over 20 companies in our portfolio of African startups, and every single one of them had unique challenges.
In one hour, you might be thinking deeply about user acquisition, and in another, you might be helping a first-time CEO think about hiring and recruiting. And just when you thought you had something figured out, something else would come up that would test your understanding. It was a learning-rich environment.
The biggest thing I had to unlearn was thinking about my work as “teaching entrepreneurs,” and rather “learning with entrepreneurs.” I think even the most well-meaning returnee holds a deep-seated assumption that on some level they know more and better than entrepreneurs who might not have had the privilege of working abroad.
I quickly learned that while international work experience brings something of value, entrepreneurs who have lived and worked in a local context have a wealth of insight that is critical for succeeding in this geographic and cultural context. I’m very comfortable saying that the entrepreneurs I met at MEST are some of the smartest, most accomplished people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, period.
International work experience adds value but the entrepreneurs who have lived and worked in local context have a wealth of insight that is critical for succeeding.
What are your favorite things about living in Ghana?
I think there’s a deep optimism in Ghanaian culture that is infectious. We have a capacity to laugh off challenges and approach an issue with renewed hope. That sense of optimism is something I’ve grown to appreciate a lot.
What’s your biggest lesson learned at MEST that you’ll take with you as you move on to other things?
The single biggest lesson I learned is the power of clarity, repetition, and listening in communication. The MEST training program places a big emphasis on communication, for good reason – the ability to powerfully communicate an idea can make all the difference between an important hire choosing you over a competitor, or raising a lifesaving round of funding. But even clarity might not be enough.
Finally, we overestimate each others’ capacity to remember and understand. Repetition is so critical to ensuring that everyone is on the same page.
Who were some of the most exciting people you met while at MEST/Ghana, and what did you love about them?
I will forever have a soft spot for all the entrepreneurs I met at MEST. Technology entrepreneurship is hard anywhere in the world, but it’s orders of magnitude more daunting in our local context where the odds are so much higher, and the risks of failure are so much more dire. It takes a truly special amount of courage to attempt what MEST entrepreneurs attempt to do. They’re my heroes.
It takes a truly special amount of courage to attempt what MEST entrepreneurs attempt to do. They’re my heroes.
Please give one word of advice to potential MEST Incubator/Teaching fellows or members of the Management Team.
I’d advice any incoming staff member that the key to success is approaching any role at MEST with a service mindset. It’s an honour and a privilege to be able to support and learn with some of the most driven people in Africa, and anyone who works with African entrepreneurs will find the experience richly rewarding if they approach it from a place of mutual respect.