Friday’s Leadership in High Growth Startups event hosted by ATDC and High Tech Ministries was perhaps the best, most meaningful startup leadership talk I’ve seen all year. The speaker was Elijah Sebuchu, a Pastor from Uganda. He shared his story and the leadership lessons he learned building his own high growth startup – Hands of Love. If you missed it – you can listen to his talk HERE.
Elijah was born in a swamp in Uganda as one of 38 children in a polygamous family. He was born into poverty most of us can’t imagine. He didn’t have a blanket until he was 13. He didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was 15. His name, Sebuchu, was chosen in a ritual where hens are given names and tossed in the air. The first to touch down became his name. Sebuchu means “great leader” – and from a very young age Elijah’s Mom told him he would become a great leader.
He was one of the few fortunate that was afforded an education. He went on to get a degree from a local seminary and launched his ministry. As he grew his ministry in a country ravaged by war and HIV, Elijah and his wife Ruth were drawn to the plight of the countless orphans wandering the streets and countryside that had lost their parents. With only $10 to his name, they walked miles to a plot of 5 acres in a remote part of Uganda where they used a machete they were given and their bare hands to build mud huts. With 70% of the country under the age of 24, his vision was to help feed, clothe, shelter, love, and educate these children who had no one to care for them. Two weeks later, 180 kids showed up and his orphanage was born!
Lesson 1: Relationships are better than meat
Elijah and Ruth found themselves with 180 kids, a few mud huts, and no resources. Elijah remembered his mother often told him “relationships are better than meat.” So he began to reach out to people for help on the internet and was connected to a caring German man that put him in contact with a wealthy individual from the UK. This person offered to buy him a home and a car. He told them he didn’t need either – what he needed was introductions to the man’s network. Those relationships led to the founding of Hands of Love, the foundation that supports their work.
Use relationships and your network to tap into resources to grow your company. Relationships will provide the ideas, knowledge, and resources to take your startup to greater heights.
Lesson 2: Have a compelling vision
When one of the children in the orphanage reached high school age, she asked Elijah and Ruth for a job at the orphanage. He told her they had nothing to pay her with. This remarkable young woman decided to stay and work for free. She became employee #3. They later used some of the money they raised to send her to college. As she was the first female to graduate in her region, thousands of people showed up for her graduation. She received multiple job offers and people even sent her money. She turned them all down, telling them she was born to work at the orphanage.
Your vision is what motivates people. In a country with 70% unemployment, Elijah’s vision inspired that young woman and many others, including some with advanced degrees, to work for 10% of what they might earn elsewhere.
Lesson 3: Love your people
Another child of the orphanage went on to graduate college and earn an advanced degree. She had job offers for six figure salaries, but instead chose to return to the orphanage to work for only $350 per month – telling Elijah and Ruth that she would leave “only in death”. This woman went on to help build the foundation that funds their activities.
“Love your people. If you do, they will do their best.” People can only be incented so much with money – what they really want is love and belonging. If you love and develop them, they will love and develop others. This love fueled 300% growth in his organization in just 3 years. Quoting Jack Welch, Elijah reminded us “Before you become a leader, success is all about yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others.”
Lesson 4: Keep learning
He shared a story of travelling to the United States for the first time to speak in Los Angeles. When he was alone in his hotel, he found himself virtually paralyzed by what he was seeing. “What is this?” Coming from abject poverty and a country ravaged by war and AIDS, at first he couldn’t bring himself to eat or even sleep in the bed. He was introduced to Pastor Rick Warren, who asked how he could help. Elijah’s request was tell him one thing he could do to grow his orphanage. Pastor Warren told him “keep learning”.
Since then, his journey has been one of continuous learning and he strives “to be wiser tomorrow than he was today”. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Elijah told us “A single conversation with a wise man is better than 10 years of learning.”
Elijah’s vision and love has “captivated Uganda and taken Africa by storm.” When Elijah prays, he said he prays for relationships. His prayers are being answered. Through the help of others his organization has grown to over 300 employees that support 1426 children in their orphanage and schools. He has become a well-known leader and speaker across Africa. And today, he does have a home and a car. As his mom predicted, Pastor Elijah has certainly become a great leader!
Hands of Love’s US foundation is located right here in Atlanta. I encourage you to visit http://www.handsofloveusa.org/ to learn more and see how you can help.