Tariq Fancy – Founder of Rumie

As an entrepreneur you have 100 things you could do and time for only 10; you really have to choose wisely to focus on the 10% of work that drives 90% of outcomes.

Tariq founded Rumie after seeing the success of his work to bring mobile phones to developing markets as a leapfrog innovation at a New York private equity firm. He began his career in technology investment banking with CSFB in Palo Alto. Tariq was born and raised in Toronto to a family that emigrated from Kenya to Canada. He holds an Honors B.A. with distinction from Brown University (US), spent one year studying at Oxford (UK), earned a master’s degree in Economics and Public Policy from Sciences Po Paris (France) and an MBA with distinction from INSEAD (France & Singapore).

Where did the idea for the Rumie Initiative come from?

I’ve always had a passion for education and its transformative power, especially after seeing the example of two uncles of mine who grew up in Kenya (where my parents were born and raised). One, Javade, was brilliant and received a full scholarship to Yale from a high school in Nairobi. Another, his younger brother Anjam, was undoubtedly even more brilliant, but was denied the chance for a formal education because he was physically handicapped – and in the 1960s in Kenya there were few provisions for the disabled. I’ve always struggled with the injustice that so many people are inherently talented and eager to learn but simply lack access.

After studying development economics, my passion, I went into finance after finishing my undergrad. Ten years ago I led investments to bring mobile phones into emerging markets as a “leapfrog” innovation over landlines. Mobile phones have since transformed Africa and much of the developing world.

Rumie came out of an intersection between my passion for education in underserved communities and my business experience working on “leapfrog” innovations for the world’s poorest, which led me to the vision that we’re on the verge of another transformative “leapfrog” – this time in education.

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

I have a great team around me that I work with, and all are passionate overachievers dedicated to our mission. I’m very focused on execution and while I tend to chat all day long and discuss things with the team, I try to avoid lots of formal meetings with lots of people – which I often find slow and wasteful.

How do you bring ideas to life?

My strong focus right now is execution. I think the key to building something great is a balance between talking and doing. Some people just do without really doing research, talking to experts to learn vicariously, and so on – and they repeat simple, avoidable mistakes that others have already made before them. Others, especially in the social entrepreneurship and NGO space, spend all their time talking, researching, theorizing, and don’t realize that past a point you need to actually do something. You need to get out into the field to try ideas, learn, iterate, and improve as fast as possible.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

There are two. First, the explosion of free digital learning content in the last few years. Second, the plummeting cost to deliver it via low-cost tablets and smartphones. In less than a year we’re now operating in six countries and showing that by putting these two trends together in an innovative way, we’re making access to educational materials affordable for underserved communities (by creating a “library for the cost of a book”). One deployment is in Liberia, where schools are closed due to Ebola so kids are using devices at home with fantastic results. These fast-moving trends will only continue to improve the value proposition and see it spread to impact more people.

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

Intuitively, I apply a ROI (return on investment) principle on everything I do. What input am I putting in (in time, money, effort) and what am I getting out of it? As an entrepreneur you have 100 things you could do and time for only 10; you really have to choose wisely to focus on the 10% of work that drives 90% of outcomes.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My first job was at a McDonald’s when I was 15. I actually liked it in the sense that it was cool getting paid in a real job for the first time and I loved the camaraderie (my coworkers were young and easy to get along with). But I hated the lack of room to innovate. My job was to follow a carefully tailored process, almost like a robot, and that was it. There was no room to say “How can I achieve goal X in a better way?” and experiment on it. That taught me that I need to be in a job where I’m not only challenged but more importantly I have room to keep tweaking the process of whatever I’m doing and trying to make it better, since that’s in my DNA.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would spend less time on certain meetings and talking to large government bodies and NGOs. No matter how much they like something, they move like the Titanic and take 6 months to make a one degree turn. Better to get straight to the ‘doing’ part and prove the value proposition with nimbler partners and faster-moving organizations first.

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

Get into the habit of applying the intuitive ROI concept to everything you do. You don’t have enough time to do everything, so cut out of the wasteful activities that produce nothing. That includes meetings with lots of people who will approach you and think there’s some overlap with what you do and they do. Oftentimes there is not, so politely decline – and save both your and their time.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Hiring smart people. It hasn’t been easy to assemble a strong core team of full-time people, but now that we have one in place I’m always impressed by what they do. They’re not just smart and talented, but they truly believe in our mission.

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

Early on, I cared what others thought too much. You’ll never convince everyone, and virtually every fascinating innovation had its nay-sayers early on. For those that don’t get it, don’t bother trying to convince them that it’ll work. Just show them by doing it.

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

After all of the attempts to move contacts online and move from paper to digital, I still have a mountain of business cards sitting in front of me at my desk. Business card scanners are a suboptimal and uncommon solution. There has to be a better way of exchanging contact information with someone you meet, or at the very least a way to take that card and seamlessly turn it into a contact on Linkedin, complete with a quick chance to type in a quick note of how you met them. I hope someone figures it out.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I don’t mind Justin Bieber. Some of his songs are pretty good. There, I said it.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Similar to many others in the start-up community I imagine, we make good use of Google Apps, use Trello to keep organized and focused on tasks, and have added Streak and Rapportive for Gmail to track leads, get read receipts, see details on who I’m chatting with, etc. All keep us productive and organized from anywhere. I’m also a fan of Instapaper since I regularly come across things I want to read but don’t have time to, so I gather them together for binge-reading sessions later.

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

I’d recommend in general that the books you read in your spare time are unrelated to your work – so you’re not too one dimensional and can stay creative and open-minded. But if it has to be related to business, entrepreneurship and so on, I quite enjoyed Cal Newport’s book: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” Oftentimes when people are looking at what to do in life, they focus only on what they’re passionate about or truly love. If I applied only that test, I’d be trying out for Manchester United right now (and failing). Instead, I think I’ve found something that’s an intersection both of my passion AND, more importantly, my skills and experience to date.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Because our focus is largely on emerging markets, I’ve tended to follow and talk a lot to people who are at the nexus of things in this area and see and hear lots. I’m a fan of the blog of Michael Trucano at the World Bank, who focuses on using tech in education in developing countries, and am friends with and follow Shiza Shahid, co-founder with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai of the Malala Fund. I also find Edsurge to be a great resource, as its regular emails are a useful for keeping up with the latest in educational technology.


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