Innovation is the cornerstone of security and technology. At AC Global Risk, we want to highlight and gain insight from leaders who are revolutionizing their fields. Our Industry Innovators series seeks out the best and the brightest to explore how they are paving new ground nationally and globally in enterprise and entrepreneurship.
Jake Harriman graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy and served seven and a half years as an Infantry and Special Operations Platoon Commander in the Marine Corps. He led four operational deployments and was awarded the Bronze Star for actions in combat. Jake’s experiences convinced him that the “War on Terror” wouldn’t be won on the battlefield alone; the contributing causes of terrorism—specifically extreme poverty—must also be eradicated. Jake left the military and enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International. Since 2009, Nuru Kenya and Nuru Ethiopia have enabled over 100,000 people to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Jake is a graduate of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Class of 2015.
We recently caught up with Jake to get his thoughts on entrepreneurship, industry, and what makes a successful leader.
You experienced a formative moment that led to you founding Nuru. Can you tell us briefly about that?
Going back to the Iraq invasion, I was in the Marine Corps in Southern Iraq. That whole area was very poor, with little security. There was no access to healthcare or education. The regular Iraqi army was retreating but the Iraqi Special Forces units were coercing rural Iraqis to fight us. They were promising food or a bag of rice in exchange for them fighting.[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Mistakes help you grow, understand and inspire.”[/perfectpullquote]
We were fighting these guys in the thousands. As we moved south we had the Battle of Nasiriyah. We pushed through the city and set up a defensive perimeter and dug in. Night fell and we held our position until the sun came up. I was walking the line of guys checking they were okay, when a small white car came racing towards us in the distance. Everyone’s immediate thought was that this was a vehicle IED, but then it stopped 50m out and the driver got out and was waving his arms frantically, running towards us. So now we were thinking suicide IED. We were about to shoot when saw a large black military truck roll up and these guys got out and started shooting into the car. The man screamed and turned back to his car. It turns out he was just another poor farmer who didn’t want to fight, and here were Iraqi forces exacting their revenge for his refusal to fight. I yelled to my guys to engage but it was too late. In the aftermath, we found his wife shot dead. His baby girl had been shot in the chest and was dead. He was cradling the body of his other dying daughter. In the space of just a few seconds, his entire family had been ripped from him.
That was a seminal moment. My world stopped and I thought about choices. What were this guy’s choices? It caused a very powerful awakening in me. For all our foreign policy and planning, it was apparent that there was a critical gap in our national security.
I saw an opportunity to build a hybrid non-military/non-NGO that leveraged best practices while setting up programs for the most vulnerable. I then wanted to staff that organization with former operators—people who themselves were flexible, innovative and who were problem solvers.
How did the military prepare you for being a business innovator?
I first got out in 2005-2006 and when I started on Nuru I was very discouraged. I wanted to join another business and innovate from within, but nobody wanted to hire me. The skills of an operator were not marketable and I definitely suffered from the perception of stereotypes. I should add that the world has changed since then, and over the years I have been pleasantly surprised at how the military and Special Operations community prepared me. I started wondering if it was just me. Then I made some phenomenal hires from the military community. People like Alex Martin and Brian Von Krauss, and they knocked it out of the park. Where some of my aid-community hires had struggled, the former military people didn’t.
Mistakes help you grow, understand and inspire. You learn that as an operator with brothers and sisters in arms. Human terrain mapping is a natural transition and was one of the greatest enablers for my success.
Can you share an example of true business innovation that you have personally witnessed?
One of our local leaders in our projects in Kenya is Pauline Wambeti. One of the challenges she faced centered around co-ops lending fertilizers and seed to farmers. Those farmers need to sell their surplus to pay those loans back. The problem was she couldn’t find a good market for farmers’ surplus maize.
Now, we have a for-profit arm called Nuru Social Enterprises, and Frank Kitonga heads that. He has to feed his chickens and cows and his highest operating cost is feed. He decided to vertically integrate and build his own feed mill, but he needed raw materials. He went to Pauline, knowing the quality control was in place, and offered to buy all the maize her farmers could produce; not only that, he offered to buy at slightly above market price so that they could repay their loans, and still this enabled Frank to cut his costs by 30%. Between them, they innovated to solve a very real problem, and Pauline was able to provide a good market for her farmers.
What are the three most important traits that make a successful entrepreneur? [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Have a vision and a fire in your gut that doesn’t go out no matter how hard people try to extinguish it (and this can come from places you least expect). I call this the “get out of bed factor”. Got to have a reason to get out of bed, even when everything feels like it’s too much.”[/perfectpullquote]
Humility: listen to your people; admit when you’re wrong or you’ve failed.
Willingness to lead from the front: taking the bulk of risk on yourself. You must have skin in the game. If the company goes down you’re also going down in flames. Put your reputation on the line. Lead by example.
Vision: have a vision and a fire in your gut that doesn’t go out no matter how hard people try to extinguish it (and this can come from places you least expect). I call this the “get out of bed factor”. Got to have a reason to get out of bed, even when everything feels like it’s too much.
What matters most in innovation?
Admitting failure and moving quickly to resolve it. The inability to do this is one of the greatest obstacles to entrepreneurship and innovation.
What role does technology play in making Nuru successful?
Tech plays a big role—although I don’t want to overstate the power of technology in such a human-centric enterprise. Tech helps build an ecosystem by which we can solve some of our greatest problems. The simplest example is a telephone in the hands of farmers that allows them to transact remotely and avoid taking cash by the road, which carries with it the risk of robbery etc.
Strong and rigorous financial systems allow transparency and help to stop corruption and add accountability.
We can also leverage the latest technology in economic practices, for instance, drought resistant seed. Innovation around crop insurance is so important because farming is incredibly risky. A lost crop with a loan that still needs to be repaid is disastrous.
What are you most proud of?
The work and goals that my people have accomplished, whether in the Marine Corps (getting back home safe, accomplishing the impossible), or at Nuru. It is a credit to the men and women I led. I have so much pride in the people in Kenya and Ethiopia, in the ex-pats, the fundraisers, the people on the finance side. We have all been in this fight together and have accomplished amazing things.
If you had one piece of advice for entrepreneurs…?
I used to say to potential investors “Look, I don’t care if you give me $2 or $2 million, but in two weeks I’ll be in remote Kenya, figuring this out.” The world doesn’t change from its status quo without visionaries, and you can’t do that if you’re listening to everyone.
What is your favorite book, your favorite film, and your favorite cocktail?
The hardest question left to the very end! I would have to choose East of Eden by Steinbeck for my book. It has a very powerful ending. The movie would be Braveheart, and the cocktail has changed over the years but right now a good gin & tonic.
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