Betelhem Dessie: An Exclusive Interview with Loline Mag

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Betelhem Dessie is the founder and CEO of iCog Anyone Can Code (ACC). Loline Mag had an exclusive interview with Betelhem to deep dive into her remarkable journey.

Born and raised in Harrar, Bethlehem attended SOS school in her early years, where she excelled academically. She recalls spending most of her after-school hours in her father’s electronic shop. Her family encouraged her to do different activities, such as Taekwondo, music, and art classes. “Because my father was uneducated, he didn’t know much. But he decided to expose me to various activities to find out which suited me best.” Betelhem was introduced to a computer when she was in 6th grade. That summer, she moved to Addis Ababa. It was her first time moving to a new city apart from her trips to Dire-Dawa. She recalls feeling overwhelmed by everything she saw. After moving to Addis, Betelhem got hired at INSA (Information Network Security Agency). She was ten years old at the time, and the journey that got her there begins in Harrar.


After teaching herself how to code, Betelhem decided to teach others. She went to the education bureau of Harrar to obtain a teaching license. She subsequently began teaching well-performing students selected from government schools throughout the city. That experience made her well known by the education bureau and the regional president of Harrar. She claims that it was those exposures that helped her get into INSA. The agency, at the time, was recruiting young and talented individuals from all over the country. Describing her first day in INSA, she says, “It was a dark room. And there was a single computer with a blue screen. It felt like a movie scene. I realized that that was my desk, so I went there.”


Despite the opportunity, Betelhem didn’t want to continue working as a government employee. Her starting salary was 1,800 ETB, which is almost the same as what she earned in a day of work at her father’s shop. Even though her salary was later improved, she stood by her decision and left INSA to work as a freelance web developer. 


After a brief involvement with TECNO mobile, Bahirdar was the next stop for Betelhem. She moved there a few months after starting her high school education in Addis Ababa. The previous summer, Betelhem pitched a digital library project. But for the project to go forward, she was required to move to Bahir Dar. Despite her hesitation, she decided to move, saying, “If I don’t take risks now, I never will.”


Speaking of her family’s support, Betelhem told us that she had an immeasurable amount. “My father was with me wherever I went. He trusted me totally,” she says. Betelhem believes parents should support their children by exposing them to different activities and introducing them to role models at a young age. She also believes that children should be allowed to explore various career alternatives and experiment on them. She also told us that she received support from the government, which helped her a lot. But that’s not the case for the rest of the country. Betelhem believes the scale of government support for young people is low. “That’s one of the problems I’m working to solve,” she remarks. “Children spend a lot of their time in schools. I think it’ll be good if the government shaped their policies and strategies in such a way to provide support to those children like the way I’ve received support from them.”


Betelhem has earned several copyrights for the software projects she developed during her time as a freelancer. The first project was digitizing high school math and science textbooks; this made the books more appealing and inviting to learn from. Her second project is a school ERP system called “ASQUALA,” which she developed by collaborating with her friends. Other projects include an irrigation system mapping project and document management and inventory systems.


In a segment of a children’s TV program, Betelhem, at the age of just 12, is seen designing her school project using Adobe Software. Speaking of it now, she says, “When I was in Harrar, there was a shop that was 5 minutes away from ours. They designed banners and IDs. Since I frequented the place, I picked up those designing skills. I designed the cover page of my assignments to show off and get good marks. Apart from that, I wasn’t talented or interested enough to continue with the art.”


In that same video, Betelhem talked about an idea for a bus project. While surfing the internet, she saw an ATM installed inside a bus, which sparked the idea. “In Ethiopia,” she says, “there is a lack of working places in which friends can meet up and be creative.” Betelhem values the importance of such environments because it was with her friends that she managed to create her first startup. But the investment it requires to create such places is massive. As a solution, Betelhem proposed making mobile classrooms using buses. “It took a lot of years,” she says, “but in a few months, we’ll have the product.” 


Betelhem’s journey then led her to a project called Girls Can Code. She was presenting a project when a woman approached her from the United States Embassy. The woman told her about a project that the embassy was working on. Betelhem was interested and became a member of the Girls Can Code Project. “Being a member of Girls Can Code set my life on the right path,” she says. She started out by training 40 girls to code. The project lasted for a year. Betelhem says that she rediscovered her passion for teaching through this project.


iCog Labs came into Betelhem’s life not long after. She heard about a company in Ethiopia that worked on AI; she was interested, so she reached out to them. Betelhem was seeking collaboration on her projects when she first met with iCog Labs. While talking with the founder, Getenet Assefa, she learned about his vision to educate children. Together they devised a plan to create a teaching platform for young children. That’s how iCog-ACC was established as a startup. Now, after five years, it has managed to become its own company.


“Technology should be from the people, by the people, and for the people"

Betelhem usually talks about democratizing technology. She believes democratic principles should be applied to technology. “Technology,” she says, “should be from the people, by the people, and for the people. It should be beneficial to all parties, regardless of financial capabilities. The public should also take charge of the creative domain.” By spreading both access to technology and technological education, Betelhem believes technology can be democratized, improving the lives of the people and the overall economy of the country. 


Bethlehem’s passion for democratizing technology is perhaps reflected in Solve IT. Solve IT was launched as an extension of ACC that aimed to address the youth older than the age range of ACC; 8 to 18 years old. The project’s primary objective was to extend the reach of technology training and mentorship in different parts of Ethiopia. Furthermore, Betelhem believes that education about startups is lacking. “The concept of a startup is not introduced in our Universities,” Betelhem says, “Students might create a product that could lead to a business, but, without knowledge of startups, it will be tough for them to get into the market.” When it started out, Solve IT was held in 9 different cities. Now it has grown to 15. So far, Betelhem says that she has seen many fascinating projects. “We have seen very out-of-the-box thinking. For example, when I was in Gambella, one of our trainees went to town to drink macchiato, but he couldn’t find any. After learning that he can find milk at his neighbors home, he designed a project that collects and delivers milk to town. That was in 2018. When we went back in 2019, he had his own computer and even bought a Bajaj, a 3-wheeled taxi. It might seem like a small project, but the problems we try to solve don’t always have to be grand. While solving our own problems, we might help solve greater problems.”


As the CEO and founder of iCog-ACC, Betelhem describes her daily activities as “full of meetings.” Starting out, she says that forming a company was strenuous. “But now,” she says, “as much as I don’t like meetings to take most of my time, we try to make our meetings short and to the point for getting back to implementing our projects. Apart from the strategizing and brainstorming sessions, you have to check the project’s progress. You also have to make sure that the team is always inspired. ACC is still standing because of my team’s dedication, so I believe it’s crucial to do that. The other thing is you have to do research. You have to learn new things and raise the bar higher.”


Communication is vital to Betelhem. She believes that communication is necessary for day-to-day life. Clarifying one’s expectations will lead to better relationships. Honesty has key importance in communication. According to Betelhem, a leader must be honest and accountable. That’s the only way a leader can inspire their team. Kindness is also crucial, Betelhem believes. “When I usually hire my team members, apart from their qualifications and expertise, I also want to know if they are good people.”


2020 was not a good year for the private sector. COVID-19 has impeded various activities. Betelhem says that it has been almost 2 years since she and her team started working remotely. Their revenue stream and overall impact have been affected since ACC and Solve IT moved online. But she says that they have managed to maintain themselves and move forward.


Dropping out of university seems to be a common trend among tech entrepreneurs. And Betelhem is no exception. She dropped out of Addis Ababa University after a year of education in 2018. She says that she had difficulty being attentive in the classroom as she constantly thought about her projects. “Beyond that, the state of mind I was in was quite different from that of my classmates, which was very draining for me,” she adds. The travel opportunity she got while studying at university motivated her to go forward with the decision. “I don’t want to discourage anybody, but this is what worked for me. I already had the businesses I built and other opportunities. It was about weighing the pros and cons for me. I think it’s a good decision, and I still don’t regret it. I plan to get back to academics in the future, but for now, I’m on the right path” she comments.


Betelhem reiterated the importance of social enterprises. Social enterprises are profitable companies that work to achieve an impact on society. “Impact plus profit gives you social enterprises,” she says. Many policies regarding social enterprises have not changed, making it difficult for social enterprises to strive. “But I know that there is an Ethiopian Social Enterprise Association and that they are pushing for efforts to change those policies.”


After dropping out of university, Betelhem has traveled to many parts of the world: Spain, the Netherlands, and Sweden, among others. Bethlehem describes her travel experience as “There is nothing like traveling. Leaving your comfort zone teaches you a lot of things. I believe the greatest lessons I learned in my life are from the conversations I had during my travels. I have found various deals and partners from them as well. But one thing I noticed in other countries is that they have really good systems and structures. There is also a great amount of skilled workforce. I have learned how to adopt these assets and localize them. But I believe they have much to learn from us as we do from them. I think we have smart people in our country who just lack support. It’s not that we lack intelligence; rather, it’s the lack of opportunity and proper system.”


Betelhem has once said that innovation in Ethiopia was based on necessity while in the developed countries, it was more of a “cool” thing to do. This is mainly because, in the developed world, the basic infrastructure or the “core” that supports innovation is already in place. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, those infrastructures are either non-existent or at a miniature stage. “If you address necessity first, you can then worry about convenience.”


Betelhem gives significant value to mentorship. “Mentorship is integral to understanding which paths one wants to take,” she says. Getenet Assefa has been her mentor for a long time, but she also has met many others who have been her mentors for a short time. “You can learn from their leadership styles and things they do. But as I said, I learn a lot from the conversations I have with people. So my mentors have changed throughout my years.”


Overcoming challenges is a common characteristic of all successful people. Although she claims they are small and chooses to remember the good things, Betelhem has had her fair share of challenges. She recounts the times of her struggles to pay her employees. But perhaps the biggest challenge she went through was when a large contract she signed worth some 16 million ETB ended up a failure. She says that the project’s quality got compromised, and she couldn’t find resources to fund her project. Betelhem says that she has learned a great lesson from it: always keep your alternatives open and have a plan B. “At the end of the day, you’ll have pain, and you’ll have gain. It’s kind of a loop. So, I always say, ‘what’s my next failure?’ and ‘how can I move on from it quickly?’ It’s always about managing your failures.”


Other people’s energy is a source of inspiration for Betelhem. “When I see kids learning…it always reminds me of the opportunity I was given as a child. Seeing my former students in university, starting to do their own thing, fills me with joy. Because I believe that’s my legacy. So, whenever I’m told I have inspired someone, it inspires me to do more.” She uses that inspiration she gets to fulfill her vision: educate as many people as she can. She wants to expand her projects beyond Ethiopia because she believes digital literacy is an issue of global importance. “One of the main problems of our world is exploitation. Human beings have been exploited through slavery and minimum wages. But now that machines are being a part of our world, the relevance of human beings is questioned. For humans to be relevant, we should be smarter than the machines we use; so that, even if we choose a different career path, the learning curve won’t be steep.”


Betelhem is one of those people who believe technology improves people’s lives. But people that develop technologies such as AI and robots might impose their own biases on the products they make. The solution for that, according to Betelhem, is diversifying the industry.


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Betelhem’s advice to entrepreneurs and young people is to believe in compound interest. “You won’t get everything you need in one day. It’s daily efforts that get you there. So, whatever you do, try to be consistent. You should always be willing to learn. It’s always good to see beyond our point of view. You should also read and ask questions whenever you have the chance. Also, you should be kind to yourself. Sometimes people strive to achieve their goals at the expense of their personal life. But your personal life is as important as the work you're doing. Of course, you might have some late nights, but you should learn to keep the balance, and people miss that point. Your business will flourish as long as you do.”

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