My father never went to school. Starting a business in Africa is not easy, and starting a business in a country like Zimbabwe, it's even harder. Imagine during those days when peopleare studying businesses, these ecosystems or incubators never existed, like for SMEs. If they existed, possibly they were only meant for the rich or the people who are political or economically connected in Zimbabwe. So he had to grind it out from scratch, starting with one car and one casket to sell. The determination and the whole idea of taking risks, it's something that he instilled in us. And at the end of the day, it's all about hard work. -Alfa Bumihira
Prior to forming ProSpark, Alfa has worked for technology companies in the United States in Silicon Valley such as Apple Inc. and Rockwell Automation. He also has extensive commercial and engineering experiences across multiple industries in the CPG, Manufacturing, Energy, Consulting, Health Care and E-commerce sectors with multinational companies such as Proctor & Gamble & Johnson & Johnson. Additionally, Alfa founded two other ventures in e-commerce and health & fitness space. During his spare time he enjoys youth mentorship helping to cultivate the next generation of entreprenuers. Also plays basketball and travelling. Huge fan of Liverpool Football Club (Y.N.W.A).
Alfa holds an MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Prior to Chicago Booth, Alfa holds Masters and Bachelor degrees in Electrical Engineering from Southern Polytechnic State University and an Associate degree in Computer Science. All from the United States of America.
Jeremy Au (00:00):
Hey Alfa, welcome to the show.
Alfa Bumhira (00:02):
Hey brother, Jeremy, man. Happy to be here with you. It's quite exciting to finally put your face to the voice and to all the social media frenzy. It is a great honor and excited to be with you, brother. Thank you for the opportunity.
Jeremy Au (00:19):
Yeah, that's awesome and I'm excited to share your story because I think you are someone who's tackling one of the most important problems of Southeast Asia, which is talent, and a shortage of it and how everyone's scrambling to either get that up and running. So looking forward to discuss the problem, but also your approach to it. And, of course, it's interesting that you've had such a global journey and now you're in Southeast Asia. And I'd love to chat about that, too.
Alfa Bumhira (00:43):
Absolutely. No, I think it's exciting for us. You already articulated that workforce up-scaling, re-skilling is a challenge. This is across both the formal sector and informal sector, and we are working on something people think it's nearly impossible to solve, but this has been existing for quite some time, generation to generation in the United States, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. Everybody's always thinking, how best can we improve the skills of their workforce, of their manpower, to make sure that they stay competitive. So it's a challenge, but we are doing the best we can to the lost careers as much as we could. But yeah, this is an exciting area which we're working on here at ProSpark.
Jeremy Au (01:30):Amazing. So, Alfa, for those who don't know you yet, could you introduce yourself and your professional journey?
Alfa Bumhira (01:36):
Good. Okay. So, myself, Alfa, I was originally born in Zimbabwe. I spent my young life almost 16 years in Zimbabwe. At about 17 years, I then moved to the United States. So for the past 21 years, I've been living in the US. In the US, of course, I went to school there. My last school, I graduated from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business where I got my MBA. Spent two years at Booth, did a lot of work within the tech space. Worked for Apple, I worked for Rockwell Automation. I also did some stuff in Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, in quite different companies in the US. So yeah, my professional adult life has been within the engineering tech space. I've always had a passion for technology, passion for building systems, for building things. So with my education I was pretty much an automation engineer.
So I used to design robotics applications, control system applications, to help different processes and different industries across Mexico, United States and other markets all over the world. I've also started two ventures in the US. This is not my first venture. Yes, my first venture in Southeast Asia. But I started an e-commerce company when I was in college, and I also started a health and fitness company back in the United States. But my journey of being entrepreneur didn't start in the US, I started in Zimbabwe. My dad has always been an entrepreneur for a very long time, I think as long as I've been alive. I came from a funeral business. So my dad used to run a funeral business, which is pretty much an amazing cash flow business because things are always happening. So I learned about my basic entrepreneur skills and passion from my father, because I had to work in the business.
So imagine, as a young man, you have to understand the whole funeral processes, how to build a casket, how to do everything you have to do. But in Africa, you have to do what you have to do to survive, so I went to school because of that. And my fundamental values of work and hustling, they all came from my father and my mother because it was just pretty much an entrepreneurial family. But yeah, the question is how did I came to Southeast Asia? I think the first trip I took from the US to Asia was when I was working for Apple. This is when we're launching the iPhone 6s and the Apple Watch. So I was at the ground when Apple launched that. So I was part of the worldwide operations team. So I took a flight to Shanghai, my first time in China it was amazing. I stayed at the Westin Hotel, by the Bund.
But when I was in China, of course, I started to learn a lot of how... I remember I went to, where we visited one of the Apple facilities, but then I realized that there's a lot of suppliers who were working with some of these companies, from Southeast Asia. And at that point I was like, "Man, Southeast Asia, what is Southeast Asia? Okay, interesting. There's Indonesia there, there's Vietnam there. Oh, that could be interesting to go one day." Then I went back to the US, went back to Booth, graduated, and then I moved back to New York City. I was working. I used to live in Brooklyn, New York. But at that point I was like, "I think there's something going on in Asia. I think Asia is on the cusp of something special. But if you look into the economic and political trends globally right now, China is dominating globally. Most of the investment, FDI coming into Africa is coming from China.
If you talk about the treasury bills in the United States, it's actually is just being hold by the Chinese. You look at how much investment China is doing in Asia, they're really driving pretty much all the FDI coming in the region. So that tells you something going on there, and that's why I was really passionate about coming to learn a little bit about Asia. Because typically in Africa, you see China coming to Africa and Asia to Africa, but you don't see Africans coming to Asia to actually build a business. So I think specifically for us to build ProSpark... I was in New York, working for Colgate- Palmolive after MBA, and I knew at some point I'm going to get out because I'm an entrepreneur, I want to learn a bit about marketing. But I was sick and tired of being on the subway every day from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and I was like, "Let me come see my brother in Singapore."
So I didn't move to Southeast Asia to start a business, that was not the case. I was going to stay eight days in Southeast Asia, and then I'll go back to New York. I had a good life, great work, making good money, living in Brooklyn the best borough in New York City. And then when I got here, I started to travel across Southeast Asia. I got to Singapore. I was like, "Man, Singapore's expensive, man." I told my brother, I was like, "Hey bro, I don't want this, man. I really want to see Southeast Asia. I'm coming from New York. I know Texas to Brooklyn is like $60, and you want to take me back to Singapore? No. I'm good bro." So I started to travel. I came to Bali, and I was like, "Oh man." I fell in love with Bali. And then I went to Bangkok, and I went to Chiang Mai. And from those travels, Manila. I was like, "This is amazing."
I saw a lot of young people. I saw a lot of these little bikes. I was like, "What is this little bike all over this place called Ojek?" And it was just the energy and just the environment and the vibe and I was like, "This is amazing. This is something special." And if you look at the resemblance of Southeast Asia like Indonesia or Philippines, there's a lot of similarities between Southeast Asia and Africa, in terms of the political, economic and social fabric of society. There's a lot of cultural norms that both region share, and there was a lot of things I started to see that really reminded me about my upbringing, and like, "Why can I not be part of this something special?" These regions are growing, there's a lot of investment coming in. There's a lot of young people. There's a lot of little GoJek bikes all over the place. This is digital revolution going on in the region.
So, I just realized this is something interesting there. And then I just reconnected with my co- founder, we've known each other for 18 years from the United States. He's a Manchester United football club fan, I'm a Liverpool Football Club fan. We've always been enemies, and then we realized that I think we wanted to do something within the up-skilling and re-skilling space. Because we are both educated in the United States, we are both from the emerging markets, and we have always had a passion to go back to the countries or the regions we're from to invest what we've learned from the US, and put it back in those regions. So instead of staying eight days in Southeast Asia, damn, man, it's almost three years now. So I was like, here I am, I just recently got engaged now. So I think the journey has been amazing. And that's how ProSpark began. That's how I started ProSpark with my co-founder's [advice 00:08:37], in Southeast Asia. I didn't come here to start a company, but sometimes life takes you in many different directions.
Jeremy Au (08:45):
Wow. Amazing story and I really enjoy you sharing about your pathway and your family, but also your journey to Southeast Asia and how you built the business. Now, before we talk about all the boring stuff about skilling and the problem that we see in emerging markets, I'm just curious, what did you learn from your dad about being a entrepreneur?
Alfa Bumhira (09:09):
Hustling, brother. A hustling man. My father never went to school, or my mom went to school, had the education I've managed to get in my life. Starting a business in Africa is not easy, and starting a business in a country like Zimbabwe is not even easier, it's even harder. Imagine during those days when people are studying businesses, these ecosystems or incubators never existed, like for SMEs. If they existed, possibly they were only meant for the rich or the people who are political or economically connected in Zimbabwe, but he never had those opportunities that way. So he had to grind it out from scratch, starting with one car and one casket to sell, and he had to build it on his own. And then one day he became one of the biggest business person in the whole country.
So I think for me, it was just about him learning how to build something he has never done before. Taking a risk with all these little savings he's had, because my father used to work in a paper mill before he decided to do this. He was one of the gentlemen in the paper mill. He was a miner in South Africa, in one of those diamond mines back in the day. So this was his first foray into entrepreneurship. So imagine coming from working in a paper mill, and now you're running a funeral business, it's a difficult thing. So I think for me, determination and the whole idea of taking risks, I think that's what my dad really actually resembles, and something that he really instilled in us. And at the end of the day, bro, hard work. It's all about hard work.
Where we from we work hard, that's pretty much our DNA. We don't complain, we don't do all of this, we work hard. That is the Zimbabwe spirit, that is the African mojo we have. And my dad worked hard, man. Sometime we're sitting in that house, 11:00 PM you're getting a call like, "Hey Mr. Bumhira, we have somebody who has died two blocks away from our house, and we need your help." So he had to wake up at 2:00 in the morning, and he has to take his car to help the family take the body to wherever it needs to go to, because that was our business. Then he comes back home at 4:00 in the morning, another call comes at 4:30, and then he wakes up again and he goes out. So I think those small life experiences really shaped my thinking. It shaped the way I look at life, most importantly.
As building a company, Jeremy, is hard. Building a startup is not easy, but I tell people, this is nothing for me, man, because where I'm from and where we started, that's even harder. You come from Zimbabwe, you can make it anywhere in the world. You live in New York, you can even make anywhere
else better in the world. So ProSpark to us is a project, and I know it's difficult to start a venture. And for me, of course this was a leap of faith. I'm not from Asia, I'm not from Southeast Asia. My family's not from here, I don't speak the language, and the only person I have is my brother who lives in Singapore, working for Johnson & Johnson. And I'm the one who was more like the crazy adventurer in the family. But I think through the journeys of life, not only for ProSpark, going to the US at 17 years old by myself, those experiences were already being shaped by the way I was brought up in Zimbabwe.
And the successes, the failures, which I've experienced in my journey, what keeps me going is the ideals and values my mom and dad taught me of hard work, determination, hustling. At the end of the day it's about hustling, brother, it's all about hustling, feel the pain, and just keep moving. That's the Zimbabwean spirit, which I bring in Asia. It's Special, cannot get it anywhere in Asia, you can only get it in Zimbabwe.
Jeremy Au (13:04):
Or they can get it from you, Alfa. Obviously you came to Asia with the energy, you had the same frontier energy that you had, in moving to the States and pushing yourself professionally to the next stage. And so here you are in Southeast Asia, and you've really made a decision to be like, "Okay, I'm going to be close to a brother, a family. This is somewhere I want to sink my roots in." How did you come about thinking and discovering the problem about talent and re-skilling?
Alfa Bumhira (13:38):
Very good. I think if you look into this way, haven been born in Zimbabwe and moving to the United States... There's a reason we all moved to UK, United States, some of these countries, because part of that we want to go to the best engineering schools, we want a better education system. We want to learn in different companies, which you might not have that experience to work in your own home country. One of the things you see at the end of the day, in emerging markets, especially in Africa for example, or even in Southeast Asia, the education system sometime is educating you to pass a test, educating you to go to the next level, but not really thinking about application. Not really think about, how can you use these skills to start a business, to build the next microchip?
Application wise, those things are areas which needs to improve in most of the emerging market. And then when you move to the US, I'm sure, as you have also lived in other countries, Jeremy, you start to say man, the first thing you get there in the college door is a mentorship. Three months later you have to intern for a company, which means you need to understand, what is a cash flow model, what is a Laplace function to build a controls? I'm like, "I don't even know none of this stuff." Because I thought I'm going to come here, I'm going to take as many As as possible. Get a nice certificate, nice degree, and then I'm going to get a job after I graduate. So what you see that in some of these developed countries, there's a huge emphasis of teaching application skills, teaching creative thinking, analytical thinking, entrepreneurial thinking.
And then you'll see some of the opportunities in emerging markets, some of those things really lack. People go to school because they just have to go to school, because everybody's doing it. Or, I go to school because I get to pass a test. And then I get a job, but on day one on the job, they are not ready for it. And that's what creates the imbalance in terms of the productivity, in terms of economic development, in terms of workforce mobility or workforce upbringing between the developed nations and the developing nations. And then when I went to work for Apple, I was blown away. My experience at Apple was unbelievable. The first day I walked into that building, I thought I was going to get cookies, donuts, and everything. They said, "Oh welcome." Spent the whole weekend just looking at the campus and enjoying sushi in Sunnyvale or San Jose.
It was not the case, bro. The first day they told me listen, "This is the problem we are facing." Of course, I'm going to discuss more on this platform. "What should we do?" This is the first day dude and they gave me a marker and say, "Give us a solution. What do you do in that situation?" So, rarely we find those opportunities in emerging markets, not to say it doesn't exist, but it's not that culture that teaches you to think that way. And then when I came down here, what I realized... even my co founder also was working a lot on this when he was back in Asia, because he moved from Chicago back to Singapore. Where he was living was in Hong Kong, when he was coming down to Southeast Asia, he goes to many different meetings.
And he was like, "Alfa, there's something about the workforces here. When you go to meeting, people come through at eight o'clock, at 10 o'clock everybody go to get coffee, at one o'clock everybody go to lunch, five o'clock people pack and they leave." In the meeting people are not really speaking their mind. There is this something that's lacking in terms of the whole analytical thinking, creative thinking. And then when I started just to talk to people myself and seeing, visit different companies and meeting a lot of Chicago Booth alumni in all these countries, I started to see the similar trend. And then I say, "Okay, how are people trained in this part of the world? How do you do your trainings? How do you empower these millennials or this current people in the workforce?"
And then you start to understand like, wow, the training infrastructure is still very traditional. In a classroom training, one size fits for all, and it's not really personalized to the micro level, at an individual level. So then how do you change a society if you're using one size fits for all model? And you look at a country like Indonesia, you have more than 20 something thousand islands, you cannot fly people to more than 100 islands to train each and every different banking location, it's impossible infrastructure wise. In Singapore, yes, but not in Indonesia, at scale. Same thing as in the Philippines, same thing as in Vietnam, same thing as in Thailand.
So we realized that that's where the issue, or part of the problem could be. Not only that's the issue, but also of course in our education system, like I think I kind of already talked about. Maybe there's an improvement that needs to be done there. But when people come already to the workforce, they're already in the workforce. So what can we do with the people in the workforce, at least maybe to give them a little bit of a nudge, of a competitive edge. To make them believe themselves that I can gain another skill, I can learn something different, that I can be able to work with people in different functions. And we talk to people in so many different industry sectors, both the formal sector and the informal sector and we realized, this is something that had to be addressed.
You look at the United States, UK, Australia, this is something that has been addressed for more than two, three decades, and Africa and Southeast Asia, are now coming up there. China and India are a little bit ahead of us, maybe four, five, six years ahead of us. I'll say Indonesia is where India was in 2016, where China was possibly in 2010. So now it's a matter of, how can we take these economies to drive them towards where they need to get to? But at the same time the key driver is manpower. Is the manpower ready for what needs to come, and are they able to really become the foundation of the change and the development the countries need? That's the problem we identified, and that's what ProSpark is working on and that's what keeps me up at night, all day.
Jeremy Au (19:54):
Amazing. And that's a great discovery of a problem and you said something special. Which was that, "This is not an uncommon problem. This is a common problem across multiple regions, across the region." And then earlier you also said, "Across all emerging markets." So it seems like it's a common problem, because every year, every business owner is saying, "Okay, we don't have enough people, we can't find the right folks." And executives are saying the same thing, "We can't hire the right folks, we can't find them." And then there is lots of people who are junior folks, who are like, "I can't get a job." And so, it always feels a bit mind boggling.
Because everyone's complaining about a problem but then you're like, "At some level, it doesn't make sense." And of course, what you're talking about is really about this re-skilling the adult education piece that makes it all possible. And obviously I think it's a little bit more obvious in a developed market like the US or in Singapore where... The truth is, everybody now knows that there's lots of jobs in technology, for example. So lots of people... I recently just talked to someone and he was like, "Yeah, he just re-skilled and went for an adult education course," where he was more of a white collar office worker and then he just re-skilled in becoming a data scientist. And he just graduated from a small boot camp in his goal to join the technology sector, and he was in the US of course. So we're still celebrating over WhatsApp and so, so forth. But it feels like a lot of that infrastructure just doesn't exist in emerging markets. So can you just walk us through why it's such a common problem in emerging markets globally?
Alfa Bumhira (21:34):
Very good. I think you've really highlighted something interesting Jeremy. It's very important to highlight that the issue of workforce re-skilling, up-skilling exist both in the developed markets and developing markets, okay, in the developed and developing markets. It's more prevalent in the developing nations, the emerging markets, for obvious reasons. I was reading an article yesterday in the New York Times of what's happening in the United States as of now. When you look at this problem, there's a pre- pandemic structural issues within the labor force, the in-pandemic structural issues in the labor force, and also the future post-pandemic structural concerns or issues in the labor force. Right now in the United States, there's a lot of grocery chains that are having a challenge to find people to come back to work.
There's a lot of hotels now, they're actually giving free hotel rooms, just to get employees to come back to work. And they're actually giving a guaranteed entrance, I think it's Omni Hotel, entrance into management trainee program and to get a free hotel room for those three months, just to induce people to come to work, because people have left. So it's very... of course I went to Chicago Booth economics, it's very interesting for us. The whole labor supply, labor demand curve is being shifted left to right. It's amazing how this pandemic has really changed the game. And then you also start to think in terms of numbers. It cost a company in the north of maybe 12 to $15,000 just to replace an hourly wage employee in the United States. I'll show maybe the numbers in Southeast Asia could be maybe three, 4,000, a quarter of that, which is very big. Because of the GDP and also for the income levels, and things you think about that.
Imagine the problems which are faced, for example in the US. The article is all over the place, you guys can go, it was in The Washington Journal, it's in the New York Times. And think about what could be happening in Indonesia, for example, during the pandemic. People have been working remotely, restaurants, literally, some have to shut down. Companies had to really revamp their approach to work from home policies and office occupancy rate, and all these different things. So in this problem there is a challenge there. Think about how significant this problem could be even more challenging for countries in Southeast Asia or in Africa. The reason this problem exists is this, part of that is, it's not just a one man's issue right. Think about the combination between the formal sector, informal sector, private sector and public sector. The solution to fix this issue cannot be done just only by private sector.
The solution to... It has to be the governments of the region, in Indonesia or Philippines or Vietnam, they have to create, or they have to continue to develop policies, that fosters innovation, that fosters people to learn different skill sets within their own countries. Do you have the right tax policies to incentivize companies that are investing in the future of work in your countries? Do you have the right management training programs, or technical training programs, or vocational training programs? Because not everybody wants to go to university. How much of those skill sets, or environments programs exist outside the formal workforce for people to work and learn different skills, which they can transfer to the formal sector in the future if they decide to do so?
So the question is, how effective... not only do they exist those programs, are they even effective? Or, they're pretty much... As you know people always say, "Man, sometimes working for the government is inefficient." For me, I don't really believe in big government, I believe in small and efficient government. Don't call me Republican, but this is what I believe in. So I believe in a government that works effectively. When you think about Singapore, whatever you guys have there it's unbelievable. Same thing as what Rwanda in Africa is doing. They're pretty much working with the Singaporeans in replicating the Singaporean model, and it's working for the country in Rwanda. So when you look in terms of the government programs, government incentives, government investments and building that culture of learning, that's very important.
And if that doesn't exist in countries where the government's pretty much are the big dogs, everything evolves around the government... In America, it's a different animal over there so, some people don't believe the government should even exist, some people do. So in this countries in Southeast Asia where governments play a significant role in the advancement of the nation, in the advancement of the people's lives, I think there's an area there where we can do a better job, or really innovate, find better ways of addressing this issue. And then on the other hand, on the private sector. When you think in terms of companies, I also think that the whole top down approach, like everything comes from the CEO, everybody has to follow... and I understand in Asia it's a culture, I respect it, I understand that. That doesn't really help you in the long term.
You know why I say that? I think people, employees should be the stakeholders in self developing themselves. If you force somebody to do something because it's compliant, or because they just have to do it, they just check a box. So, individual responsibility sometimes or individual motivation, it might not exist at that point. So I think the issue of the private sector is, what are we doing in the private sector to create that environment that allows people want to learn something different? That allows people to say, "I'm going for training to Bali." And they don't think that's just a holiday. People go to training sometimes in these markets because it's a vacation from work. Now who doesn't want to go to Bali? I'm sure you want to go to Bali Jeremy for a week.
I go eight hours in a room, maybe 30 minutes I'm paying attention, the rest of the time I'm on Twitter, I'm on Facebook, I'm on Instagram, I'm not really paying attention. Remember, these markets are driven by millennials, the workforce maybe possibly 60%, 65% is driven by millennials. They learn differently, they want something different. So as you see, I look at the spectrum from the public sector, government policy. Is the government creating the right incentives or the environment that fosters learning within the workforce? At the same time, on the private sector, the responsibility is on the employee, the workforce itself, and the employer. Are we creating the right environment within your company that allows people to foster, to see a career progression in the right way, and they really want to become part of it?
If they don't want to become part of something special, they don't even know one day maybe they could be like a Jeremy, running a podcast or other ventures. Or they can be the CEO, or they can be the managing director, and they just wake up every morning and just go to work, it just becomes a paycheck transaction between a company and an employee, there's no incentive to do even something better. So, a solution will be definitely a close collaboration between the private sector and the public
sector, to really, really address this issue. And what I'm happy to see now is the startup community. Startup community is not becoming thebetween the private sector and the public sector to address it. So I think the disruption is now being brought in by the likes of ProSparks, the and all those other players to really find a way to address this ongoing issue.
Jeremy Au (29:49):
I really like what you said about how these talents is really solved by really a public and private partnership, working together to get all of that squared away. And I think it was an interesting insight as well, that in the emerging markets, the majority of the workforce is not boomers, like those in the developed markets, but actually millennials, and I think there's a really interesting insight. Then of course, last thing that's interesting is that in education, intrinsic motivation is very, very important. And I'll say, even more so because we're talking about adult learners. I think as a kid, if you're asked to study math or chemistry, you just do it because everyone else is doing it, you just follow along. But as for an adult, you have your own boundaries, you know what you're interested in, you can say no.
And like you said, you can vote no, by paying attention or not paying attention. So the question I have is, what makes adult education re-skilling different from other forms of education, or Ed-Tech? Because... and we've talked a little bit about it, it's just adults can see no, young students can't really say no, because the parents or teachers are there. Adults can choose not to pay attention because they can be on the phone and check the box, and students have no choice but to get graded. And then, adults get paid at a job, and students don't get paid anything. So what makes adult education different as a form of education from other forms of education?
Alfa Bumhira (31:27):I think you already answered the question Jeremy. There it is, you already got the answers already.
Jeremy Au (31:33):Well, I was just paraphrasing what you just told me so. You should tell me more of that good stuff.
Alfa Bumhira (31:38):
Bro, you just literally took the words out of my mouth. I think sometimes we need to do a better job of taking a step back, and ask ourself, why do adults want to learn something new? For me, I think I have like four degrees already. Do I want to go back to school? No. Do I want to do something different? No, I don't want to go back to school, I don't want to take any exams, I'm not motivated to do it. So, just by itself, I'm a good example of somebody who's just like, "I've had enough education. I think I don't want to go back to school." But why? It's because there has to be any incentive of why I have to learn something different. There has to be a motivation of why I should go back and leave ProSpark or go to Harvard, go back to Chicago Booth for a PhD in business or whatever. There has to be incentive, there has to be motivation. So you're right, incentive plus motivation. That's what makes it very hard.
Adult learning is very, very hard. And don't forget, maybe people are married, people have kids, people have life responsibilities, people have family commitments. The game at that point becomes a little bit different. So then with motivation, plus incentive, plus life commitments or life responsibilities, with that comes in what we call flexibility. They need flexibility. The key is flexibility here. So now we have all these different things, all coupled down with the biggest... if you ask anybody, I want to be flexible. I don't want to go sit in a classroom from eight to five, I want to do it in traffic, maybe from five to... an hour a day. You don't meet an adult who wants to... maybe 10% of them. 90%, they still want to keep their lifestyle and maybe learn something a little on the side. They want flexibility, at the end of day.
And they need a clear direction of, if they learned the data science class you already talked about, how is it going to help me in my current role? How is it going to help me to move in my company laterally or vertically, how is it going to help me? If that's not clear, they're not going to do it. But the difference between the United States, or some of these developed nations and emerging markets is because, in America you have no option but to get your shit right. You have to get your life right, you know what I'm talking about Jeremy, you have to learn. If you want to compete in Silicon Valley, it's not enough just to go to Stanford. You have to continuously learn to keep up with competition because the environment and the ecosystem is built around that kind of a culture of thinking.
And then now, when we bring the same kind of thinking to these markets, if you say, "Oh, everybody needs to learn data science." It's going to take some time for people to be convinced, to understand itself why I should learn it, and how is it going to help me in my current role? So you work in marketing, you work in supply chain, you work in finance, you work in IT, you're work in data analytics, possibly the person doing data analytics, IT will be like, "I think I understand the clear card." But the person doing marketing might also get a lot of learnings from data science, because now... In Chicago Booth we did a lot of what we call, data driven marketing. Booth is known for data. Marketing is now pretty much driven by data. It has been driven, but I think data is taken over. Anything else, intuition, all of that stuff, I think it's now lacking. Marketing data is now driving marketing across the board.
So I think that's what makes it different from the traditional learning that is only being like, you have to go to school to get a degree, that's the only way you can get a job. "Oh, I have to apply, I have to go to school." So I think when it comes to formal sector adult learning, it's one of the most challenging area to work in or deploy in, because you have to change your mindset. Imagine talking to somebody who's 45 years old, who has never used e-learning platform before, and say, "Hey, we now have access to thousands of content on their platform, you can access it, you can learn something different." They will be like, "You're crazy. I'm not doing it. Or maybe I'll log in once every three months, because I want to make sure I continuously go to offline training areas and do those things." So these are some of the challenges you'll face within the adult learning space.
Jeremy Au (36:22):
Wow, that's a lot of truth there. You've been very successful in terms of your professional journey, in terms of geography, as a professional leader, and now founder. There must have been tough times and challenges that you've had to overcome. Could you share with us a time when you faced a challenge and that you overcame it, and had to choose to be brave?
Alfa Bumhira (36:47):
I think there's always been in a journey as this. First, I would say, I am privileged to be on this path. I am honored to be doing what I love. Not everybody has a chance to do what they love. Building ProSpark has been perhaps one of the pinnacle of my life journey. I'm not the first to do this and definitely I won't be the last. But I am happy that I'm working on something that I'm passionate about, I'm working on something that I can see a significant change in the society. But with that also has come some challenges doing this. Growing up in Zimbabwe and having to move to the US by yourself with not a lot of resources was difficult, bro. I didn't leave America with my father's money.
Some other people have a challenge, they go to UK and the transfer arrives, they have a nice bank account. They're living in central park overlooking Manhattan. I didn't have that opportunity, bro.
When I left Zimbabwe the inflation... I'm sure you heard about the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, I'm sure you saw stories across the board, you can Google. We had $1 trillion currency, $100 billion currencies, one bill. I don't know, what would you buy with that? When I left Zimbabwe, with the time I arrived in the United States, inflation, it grew by more than 250%. And the government actually put financial controls on foreign currency exchange. So I got to the US with not a lot of resources, bro. All I had was just hope.
Imagine you're only 17, 18 years old at that point. So the father is like, "Hey bro, I have the money in Zimbabwe dollars, but I cannot transfer because I cannot get the foreign currency." So I'm not somebody who went to the United States with, I'll call it with a spoon in my mouth, unlimited resources, everything's already given for me. Everything I've managed to build on my own was just grinding it out. If I'm to say, that was also one of the landmark challenge I had to overcome, because here I am, you're on a visa as you know, and you have to go to school. So then you're being told there's no money. And if you don't go to school, your visa is canceled. You have to go back to Zimbabwe and face what's happening out there.
And you're only a kid. 17 years old, you're not an adult bro, you're not adult enough. And you're new. I'm still new to the United States. All I have is my God sister and my uncle, and there's nothing much you can do at that point. I think part of that, for me was, number one, the people who has been surrounding, me my father, he has a lot of friends in the religion space. My father is a Christian, knows a lot of pastors who actually opened the door for me. And then some other two guys, Norman and Nick. I met one of the guys... Remember I'm going to school, I'm like missing, I haven't paid my tuition bro, in Atlanta. My first school was Atlanta Metropolitan, I haven't paid my tuition. I don't have the money bro.
I negotiated with the office of financial aid and say, "We don't sponsor international students." I went to the bursar office and say, "Listen, things are tough. Let me just pay $500 right now, give me another two weeks." You know there's nothing that's going to come in two weeks, you're just playing for time. And I met the other guy on the phone booth and he was speaking my language. So I'm walking out of this office of bursar where you pay your school payments, and then I'm walking, the phone book and this guy is talking in my language, in Shona and I was like, "Damn, this is a guy from my country. Let me wait til he finishes his phone and say hello to him."
And I said, "Hey man, [Norman 00:40:54]." He died actually already in 2007. "Norman, how are you doing?" We spoke. He was like, "Oh, you're from Zimbabwe?" I was like, "Yeah, I'm from Zimbabwe bro." And that conversation changed everything, to the point that at some point three months later, the guys, they open the doors from their house and I actually moved to live with them. They gave me a place to stay. They helped me to pay my tuition. They gave me food, they gave me clothing. And if I'm to look back, my father's friends, Pastor, Pastor, and this guy's actually opened the door for me. How do you overcome that? You know why? Because I knew where I was coming from. It's all hustle and grind.
And if I have to do something special, I have to go through those shadows of death. Imagine somebody telling you like, "Alfa, most likely we have to buy you a ticket to go back to Zimbabwe." After I'd been trying to come to the US, four or five times being refused the visa, and somebody says, go back? No, bro, that's not going happen, we're going figure it out. So then when you think about building ProSpark, fast forward 20 something years later, the challenge of building this is very hard. I'm not from Asia, I don't look like you, Jeremy. I'm not from here, I don't speak the language. And there's not a lot of people who look like me in Southeast Asia who was doing this.
I don't see a lot of black founders in Southeast Asian in tech. I'm sure there are some, I'm still looking for more. So it's not a lot of examples of people who look like me who have done this before. So when things go bad, for example, ProSpark is about to run out of money, you cannot raise capital, you cannot get a customer, what do you do? So I think for me, it all comes back to the things which I have seen, which I've experienced myself. If I was able to do what I've managed to do in the US, going to US with only $250 and being able to graduate from the University of Chicago, and having a Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and another degree in computer science. Worked for Apple, Procter & Gamble, J & J, and now I'm running a company in ProSpark in Southeast Asia, in multiple countries, bro, life is crazy. That's all I can say. Life is fucking crazy, man, seriously.
To me, it's not about me, it's the hustle my mom and dad taught me running a funeral business. It all comes back to that. My own grandmother telling me, "In Africa we work." It's not about how smart I am, but it's just the values of hard work, endurance, determination. I might not be the smartest person in the room, but I'll bet you, I'll be competitive when it comes to determination, I'll win that battle. Come rain or come thunder, I'll give you a run for your money when it comes to the whole determination. You might be the smartest, I won't be the smartest, but in terms of determination, you got to be ready. Don't make me tear it up bro, don't make me shed tears and shit man, I don't want to do it. But I'm speaking from my heart right now. And to me, that's what we're doing at ProSpark.
And to sit here today and what we have managed to accomplish with ProSpark three years later. And I woke up today, I saw that ProSpark has been featured in the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, [Maley 00:44:24], we're all over the world. We've been invited to the GSV, Global Silicon Valley Summit for Ed Tech in San Jose, ProSpark is representing Southeast Asia with three other companies in Ed Tech. I'm sorry, bro. I'm just a kid from Zimbabwe, man. That's all I am, bro.
Jeremy Au (44:42):
Wow. Thanks for sharing. It was quite a ride. Thank you so much. And I think I would love to summarize the three big themes that I got away from this so far. I think the first is, thank you so much for sharing about your childhood and what it was like to grow up in your family. Obviously, I've never been there and I have no idea what it's like to grow up alongside you. And it was just nice to just hear about what you learned from your father, but also from your community and from country, in terms of education but also in terms of grit and determination as well. And of course the second thing I'm really thankful for is you sharing your perspective on the talent space. Obviously just being more thoughtful about, on one level, what's the difference between developed markets, versus developing markets. And there's a lot of difference between how education is handled.
But also secondly, also the difference between classic education and tech education technology, versus adult education, technology. And we talked about incentive, motivation, and life commitments, being things that translate into a requirement and desire for flexibility and clarity about what and why we're learning. And lastly, of course, thank you so much for sharing about the fact that life is crazy and that you have the Zimbabwe spirit of really pushing hard. And I think not just at a theoretical level about how every founder needs to be brave, but also I think the bravery that you exhibited moving countries and working hard, and asking for help and getting help from the people around you to get to the next stage. And I never got to meet Norm, and I'm sorry to hear about his passing, but I'm sure that he must be so proud of where you have grown over the past 20 years. So it's just amazing.
Alfa Bumhira (46:40):
Yeah, man. Jeremy, it's a wonderful pleasure to have this opportunity to speak with you. Of course, I thank you for restating Norman and Nick, those are my two brothers who adopted me in the US. And I'm sure Norman wherever he is, he's looking down and say, "Okay, I think Alfa, the crazy guy I kidnapped from the phone booth is doing something interesting." So I'm honored to be speaking with you and I'm honored to be on this ProSpark journey. And Southeast Asia is amazing, it's a great place with wonderful people. Indonesia is unbelievable. Philippines is amazing. Vietnam is beautiful. The people of this region has been amazing to us, has been amazing to me.
I've been welcomed here with open arms to the point that I decided to have a fiance in Indonesia. So this has never been part of the plan. Growing up, I thought I was going to be married in the United States, live in the US, life is good. But here I am, bro. You just never know where life takes you. For me, when my time is up one day, when they say, "Oh man, the guy died a month ago or two months ago." I just want to be somebody who's remembered like, "This guy was crazy. He did crazy things and he walked a crazy path. I hope he doesn't wake up again."
Jeremy Au (48:17):Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show Alfa.
Alfa Bumhira (48:20):Thank you, Jeremy. Love your brother. Thank you for the time, bro.