From Vision to Venture: The Story of Shimeles Gebremedhin Kassa and eTECH

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It’s not wrong to assume that Ethiopia’s tech scene is still in its infancy. Yet, this emerging landscape is far from stagnant. Spearheading this rise are visionary entrepreneurs who leave the safety of convention in favor of blazing new trails.

For the 30th edition of our magazine, we had the pleasure to sit with Shimeles Gebremedhin Kassa, founder of eTECH and MASSK Group. A captivating speaker, Shimeles delves into his formative years, ambitious ventures, and the invaluable lessons learned throughout his journey.

Early Life

Developing a strong passion and aptitude for the sciences in high school, Shimeles took the Ethiopian University Entrance Exam hoping to join Engineering or Computer Science. Despite his aspirations, Shimeles found himself placed in the arts instead of STEM fields. Undeterred, Shimeles traveled to Addis Ababa to change his field of study, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Ultimately, he settled for accounting, seeing it as a domain closely tied to his interests. "It consisted of numbers. It was the closest I could get to pursuing what I wanted," he reflects on his decision.

Changing gears: Steering towards passion

Determined to align his career with his passion, Shimeles realized that accounting wasn't fulfilling his purpose. This led him to once again pursue computer science. Facing obstacles in securing formal education opportunities, he opted to kickstart his journey with certifications. That journey led him to ISACA, a renowned American IT association, where he enrolled in courses like "Certified Information System Auditor". Through perseverance, he conquered each module, dispelling his fear of failure along the way.

His joy knew no bounds when he gained admission to Hilcoe School of Computer Science and Technology, for the "Postgraduate Diploma in Computer Science.". He later obtained a Master’s degree in computer science from the same institution. Excelling in the program, Shimeles demonstrated both his unwavering dedication and proficiency in the field.

Training Journey: A Stumble into Mentorship

Leveraging his expertise in both accounting and computer science, he embarked on a mission to equip auditors and finance professionals with the digital skills needed to navigate the dynamic business landscape. His training programs were meticulously crafted to aid individuals in their transition into new roles and challenges within their respective industries.

His training endeavors gained traction when a former trainee recommended him to a German organization for a 10-day training session. Initially hesitant, Shimeles decided to seize the opportunity, and, to his surprise, passed the interviews and screening processes. Despite the mounting pressure he faced, he remained resolute in his goal to deliver a training experience unlike any other. His efforts paid off handsomely as the training session seamlessly blended informative content with engaging activities, capturing the attention of a growing number of participants. This pivotal moment bolstered his confidence and further solidified his reputation in the training arena. 

The Birth of MASSK Group

Receiving his first payment from training came as a pleasant surprise to Shimeles. "Twenty-five thousand birr was a lot for me," he reflected. However, the revelation that individuals faced a hefty 30% tax rate gave him pause. A friend suggested establishing his own company, which would slash the tax rate to 2%. Motivated to formalize his venture, Shimeles embarked on obtaining his license. Since he operated solo rather than through a company, the only viable option was a "consultancy license" categorized under management consultancy. However, acquiring this license necessitated meeting stringent prerequisites, including written publications and research—a challenge Shimeles was prepared to tackle head-on.

Drawing on his profound tech skills, Shimeles identified critical gaps, particularly in cybersecurity, a concern he chose to explore in his final thesis for his master’s degree, "Cybersecurity Audit in Finance." He aimed to confront security challenges within the banking sector. Guided by Dr. Ahmed Hussein, founder of Hilcoe, and Dr. Tibebe on research methodologies and cybersecurity nuances, Shimeles developed an ontological framework seamlessly blending both disciplines. Dr. Santos, a distinguished professor from the University of Portugal, played a pivotal advisory role, contributing significantly to the project's success.

This success inspired Shimeles to take the advice given by his advisors and translate his project's outcomes into a commercial endeavor, birthing MASSK Group. "I gave up a PhD opportunity in Portugal to pursue business," he revealed, underscoring his prioritization of entrepreneurship over further academic pursuits.

Unconventional Training Practices

During his tenure at MASSK, Shimeles discerned a noticeable gap in leadership skills among senior officials. In response, he embarked on crafting a training initiative diverging from conventional, theory-laden programs. Dubbed ATLOW, shorthand for “Accelerated Transformational Leadership Outcome Workshop”, this curriculum comprised three integral components: NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), Kinesiology, and Hypnosis. While the science behind it is vast, Shimeles simplifies it as a mechanism for regulating body, mind, and emotion. "A leader who manages these three well is the best leader,” he asserts.

Shimeles' training sessions are predominantly activity-centric and don’t follow the typical lecture-based formats. To enrich the learning experience, he enlists experts from beyond Ethiopia to collaborate. Among the most captivating segments is what he calls "Breakthrough." Here, participants are encouraged to surmount mental barriers entrenched by their environment. With a strategic approach, a conducive setting, and a willingness to challenge preconceptions, Shimeles contends that anyone can achieve a "breakthrough."

eTech: End-to-End Solutions for Ethiopian Problems

Having entrusted the leadership of MASSK Group to his wife, Shimeles embarked on a new venture focused on cybersecurity. In a landscape where IT and cybersecurity were new concepts, securing licensing posed a challenge. Seeking guidance from the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Shimeles eventually secured a consultancy license despite regulatory challenges. However, the constraints of the license prevented him from providing services related to the direct implementation of cybersecurity infrastructure. Undeterred, Shimeles pivoted towards an awareness-centric approach, prioritizing cybersecurity education and training for the populace.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, Shimeles turned his attention to Ethiopia's rural communities, already grappling with poverty and infrastructural deficiencies exacerbated by the crisis. He rallied support from his professional network to pioneer a crowdfunding software initiative. Collaborating with like-minded professionals, Shimeles conceptualized a USSD-based solution tailored to rural needs.

In late 2020, the seeds of eTECH were sown—a collaborative endeavor uniting tech experts from Ethiopia and the diaspora. Driven by a collective vision, eTECH swiftly materialized, propelled by the collective effort of its 24 founding shareholders. With a commitment to tech-led governance and substantial initial capital, Shimeles launched an extensive pitching campaign spanning Ethiopia, the USA, and the UK, culminating in a formidable starting capital of ETB 200 million.

Over the past four years, eTECH kept rising, leading a multitude of large-scale projects and boasting a shareholder base of 600, predominantly comprising tech experts. While its initial venture into fintech was prevented by regulatory hurdles, eTECH transitioned into a software development powerhouse, cultivating a robust portfolio of solutions catering to Ethiopian needs.

eTECH harnessed its technical prowess and endeavored to address endemic challenges plaguing Ethiopian financial institutions, which were reliant on costly foreign infrastructure. Collaborating with over 20 SACCOs, eTECH championed the adoption of locally engineered solutions, earning accolades from the World Food Program and cementing its reputation as a propellor of indigenous innovation.

Cybersecurity in Ethiopia

Shimeles advocates for cybersecurity to be given national-level attention, emphasizing its critical role in safeguarding businesses and individuals. He stresses that even with cybersecurity-focused businesses in place, their effectiveness hinges on widespread awareness and education. "There are three pivotal elements in cybersecurity: People, Process, and Technology," he explains. Shimeles underscores the significance of people as both crucial to cybersecurity and the most susceptible element, emphasizing the importance of educating individuals about cybersecurity risks and best practices. To this end, he devised targeted training programs aimed at higher officials, believing that knowledge at the top would trickle down hierarchically. What set his training apart was its practical approach, relying more on hands-on demonstrations. Shimeles vividly recalls incorporating simulations of phishing and other cybersecurity attacks into his sessions, compelling higher officials to grasp the urgency of cybersecurity awareness.

What is Leadership?

"Leadership is all about serving others," asserts Shimeles, speaking on his leadership philosophy. For him, a true leader serves both their followers and their institution. To leave a lasting legacy, Shimeles contends, a leader must focus on two pivotal elements: Inspiration and Culture. “Leading by inspiration and motivation rather than desperation is paramount”, he emphasizes. Additionally, cultivating a distinctive company culture sets a standard that defines the organization's values.

Coffee Time With the CEO

One of eTECH's unique cultures is the tradition of "Coffee Time with the CEO." Drawing inspiration from Ethiopia's communal coffee ceremony, each Friday, eTECH staff convene with Shimeles for coffee and conversation. Shimeles sees these gatherings as invaluable opportunities to develop connections with his team and cultivate a positive workplace atmosphere. Moreover, he views these sessions as suitable for smoothing over conflicts and resolving issues that may arise. This culture has since evolved to include monthly "Lunch with the CEO" sessions and an annual "Dinner with the CEO" event.

15- Day Challenges

Another hallmark of eTECH's culture is its "15-day challenges." When faced with the need to meet revenue targets within a tight timeframe, Shimeles devised a bold solution. Implementing a rigorous 15-day challenge, employees were called upon to give their utmost effort. Working from 8:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. daily, staff rallied to meet their goals. Shimeles instituted daily celebrations to recognize and reward those who achieved their targets, bolstering morale amidst the intensity of the challenge. In a climactic finale, the target revenue was met in the final 15 minutes—an exhilarating and unforgettable moment that Shimeles cherishes.

Last Words

"Ethiopia needs more entrepreneurs," Shimeles says as our conversation draws to a close. He contends that while good governance is undoubtedly vital for a nation's development, true transformation hinges upon our collective attitude towards business and economic outlook. As such, entrepreneurs and business leaders need greater recognition and support. Shimeles advocates for a concerted effort to spotlight Ethiopian entrepreneurs, stressing that while reverence for history is paramount, it must be complemented by a drive to forge a contemporary legacy through entrepreneurship. In his view, a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem is important both for Ethiopia’s economic growth and the shaping of its legacy.  

Interview with Shimeles Gebremedhin - From Vision to Venture
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