Amelia Hopkins Phillips

Founder of Somo

Amelia is the founder and CEO of Somo. She started working with a school and youth group in a Nairobi informal settlement in 2012. She launched Somo and its pilot training cohort while still a student at UC Berkeley. After graduating with a concentration in international studies and global poverty, She moved to Nairobi to grow Somo’s operations in Kenya.
Over the last 5 years, Somo has graduated over 600 entrepreneurs from our training programs and funded 138 businesses, creating jobs for over 2,500 people. Through their hubs across Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, they provide hands-on support to entrepreneurs from marginalized communities. Somo provides long-term support through training, funding, and assistance with market access. Throughout this process, their entrepreneurs have access to digital tools to learn new business skills as well as a Somo-created reporting tool to track their financials and impact.
During Amelia’s time running Somo, she has also established design thinking and entrepreneurship programs in Bujumbura, Mexico City and New Delhi. She now focused on Somo’s expansion across East Africa. Somo recently launched an incubation space for food and hygiene products — a centralised production facility that enables entrepreneurs to increase capacity, reduce costs and become certified for broader market access.

Where did the idea for Somo come from?

I started working in Nairobi in 2012. From my experience working at an educational nonprofit, I witnessed the lack of sustainability that existed in so many NGO models. These models were based on foreign donations with a little by in from the local community. When foreign donations went away so did the projects on the ground. Meanwhile, I worked with a bunch of youth groups that existed in the area. Many of these groups found different ways to generate revenue to cover their own costs. One particular group started a recycling business that recycled trash to make different sellable products. Through the revenue generated from the recycling and from the products they sold they were able to employ the members of the youth group.

Somo was born out of these experiences. We wanted to create a program that invested in sustainable change for low-income communities through investing directly in people from these communities.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical day varies. Some days it is working in front of a computer, others it is immersing myself in the businesses of our entrepreneurs, and others are spent putting out the hundred of fires (mostly metaphorically) that pop up when starting a business.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I write them down on a post-it note and put them up on my wall with all my other ideas. I then look at it for a while (sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks). If I like the idea it will usually gather other sticky notes around it over this period of time. I then sort through my sticky notes to make a plan that will be understandable to others and start involving the needed team members.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Investment in Africa. It’s still only scratching the surface but with some new companies from the continent taking off I hope this leads to broader investment in many types of initiatives.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Allowing myself to get lost and disconnect. Adventures allow me to think and clear my head from day to day tasks and think about bigger picture stuff.

What advice would you give your younger self?

To lean into pain. The experiences in my life that have been the most painful allowed me to grow the most.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

That chaos and organization can exist in the same space. Taming ourselves restricts creativity. And forcing our brains and behaviours to organize in the way we have been taught only allows the status quo to continue.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Listen. We all have something to learn from each other.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Investing in people. Both the investments we make entrepreneurs and the investments we make in our team’s growth have allowed Somo to grow to where it is now.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Hiring someone because of a CV. A prestigious university or a big company does not mean someone is ready to take on the challenges (and learn) from a new role.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A business that amalgamates API’s of banks and financial institutions in Kenya (it’s done in other places but not yet in Kenya) to allow for better integration with reporting tools. Selfishly this would help Somo better be able to validate the financial reports we receive from businesses and help them access additional funding.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I had 14 hours in Panama on my way from Rio to NY and I wanted to explore. I met an 85-year-old man as I wandered around. He took me around taught me about Panama’s history and the US’s neocolonial presence there.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Somo’s DigiKua! DigiKua gives micro and small business owners access to financial services. Businesses track data from any device via either WhatsApp or USSD code. The data is used to automatically generate reports in Google Sheets and creates a digital profile on Somo Invest. We use this to track Somo businesses and connect them with investors to scale. As well, we use this as Somo’s sales team to track sales we do for businesses.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Let My People Go Surfing. It is a story of accidental entrepreneurship and finding your way as a flawed leader who believes businesses can create positive change instead of just being money-making machines for the wealthy and powerful.

What is your favorite quote?

“If you don’t need the journey to be easy, safe or comfortable you can change the world” – Seth Godin

Key Learnings:

  • Invest in people.
  • Dive headfirst into fear and discomfort. These situations can propel growth.
  • Listen. We all have something to learn from each other.
  • Allow yourself to get lost and disconnect