Leadership with Jake Harriman of Nuru International

Nuru International

Nuru International

The NFJS tour series has supported Nuru International for many years. This week I sit down with founder Jake Harriman and talk about his journey to start Nuru, what they’re doing and discuss leadership lessons that can be learned.

Full Transcript

[background music]

Michael Carducci:

You’re listening to the No Fluff Just Stuff podcast, a JVM conference series with dozens of dates around the country. There’ll be one near you. Check out our tour dates at nofluffjuststuff.com.

[music ends]

Michael:

We’re here at the No Fluff Art Conf in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I have the privilege of being joined by Jake Harriman of Nuru. Jake, tell us a little about yourself.

Jake Harriman:

It’s great to be here. Thanks a lot for the invitation. Always a pleasure to meet up with Jay and the guys. I grew up in West Virginia, a little farm in West Virginia. We had a great upbringing as a child. We were pretty poor by American standards, but I never really knew it. Parents were awesome. Great upbringing.

Kind of classic American upbringing, played football in high school. Went to West Virginia University for a two years, was studying mechanical engineering.

Then I decided I wanted to travel, see the world, wanted some adventure, and enrolled in the US Naval Academy. Studied systems engineering there, played rugby. I ended up being commissioned as a Marine Corps officer.

At that point I went through Marine Corps training, got picked for infantry, and was stationed out at camp Pendleton, Southern California. I did a couple tours of combat as an infantry officer, then got moved over to the special operations side and did a couple tours of combat on the spec. ops side as well.

It was during my in combat where I really made the connection between people in desperate situations that extreme poverty creates, and how that was really helping to proliferate or expand the terrorist and insurgent and violent extremist movements we were fighting, and so after…

Michael:

It really is an act of desperation, at some point.

Jake:

Yeah. That desperation fuels the growth of these movements because these folks just don’t have any alternatives. A lot of the extremist groups actually do basic development work, do food aid, they build schools, they build clinics.

They’re horribly oppressive, too, but that’s really the only alternatives that these farmers have, so a lot of the times the villages are used as recruiting pools. They’re used as logistics bases, they’re used as places to hide when there are strikes on the terrorist camps.

These pockets of rural poverty are used as essentially a haven for, and an outpost for a lot of these violent extremist groups. If you can give them alternatives, give these farmers alternatives — viable, lasting alternatives to make different choices, then it helps to disrupt what a lot of these violent extremist groups are able to do as they grow.

Michael:

You took on this task, now. You created Nuru?

Jake:

Yeah. When I was in combat we saw what we thought was a market gap. Guys like me, in special operations backgrounds, who were trying to work in these villages. But we were trained to take out targets, we weren’t trained to teach farmers how to increase crop yields or help fight poverty. We had aid workers there who were well-intentioned, but their programs were really short-lived.

They were more humanitarian assistance, disaster relief. They weren’t long-term solutions, and a lot of them were getting kidnapped and killed. We saw a need for a third way of development, a kind of hybrid way, that would be a long-term solution that would be staffed by former operators like me, who could kind of handle ourselves in those environments.

Michael:

That’s kind of a… I don’t want to say burden, but it’s certainly a monumental task. How has it been?

Jake:

It’s been fantastic. When I first made the decision to get out and try to pursue this path, I quickly realized I’m definitely not qualified for this work. I’d studied international development. I didn’t know about the science of poverty, so I had to spend about a year and a half researching the problem to begin to understand how to make an impact.

I tried to join some other organizations, but nobody would really hire me because of my background. I thought I would build something myself. I went to business school to be able to build a company that could really scale to have a global impact in the fight against extreme poverty, to give people lasting choices.

While I was at business school, about 30 of my classmates helped me build the model, six faculty members came on board with seed funding, and mentorship, and advice. Together we were able to build this new, innovative approach to eradicating extreme poverty in these really volatile, unstable areas.

Michael:

Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than a dollar and a quarter. Is that the number? Is that the current number?

Jake:

Technically, yeah. That’s the economic solution that the World Bank uses, but we use actually use a more expansive definition of extreme poverty. We believe extreme poverty is a lot more than just economics.

It’s a lot more than just not having money. It’s about a lack of real meaningful choices for basic human rights, and to improve the life of your family and give them hope for the future.

It’s about restoring dignity and agency to a population that have been stripped by that because they’re in a really desperate situation. We believe to solve extreme poverty it’s a complex problem, that requires a holistic, integrated solution. You can’t just focus on dropping cash…

Michael:

Or dropping bags of food, or dropping…

Jake:

Right.

Michael:

…bottled water.

Jake:

It’s also important. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that the greatest solution to fighting extreme poverty lies within those trapped in extreme poverty themselves. You can’t, as an outsider, come in and think that you’ve got the best idea, or even understand the real need there.

You really have to incorporate the locals who are struggling against extreme poverty to become part of the solution otherwise the solution that you create is not going to be sustainable.

Michael:

One of the things that really resonated with us at No Fluff is that you’re creating this model, and you’re making it open source. You’re kind of mirroring some of these practices that we’re using in software engineering, that we’re using trying to make a better world with software, and for what we’re doing. It’s really interesting to see those parallels.

Jake:

Yeah. We’re really passionate about this. We want to see the end of extreme poverty globally. We know we can’t do that by ourselves. You can always think about Nuru as an R&D organization that’s trying to tackle the toughest problems in solving extreme poverty.

We produce a product. Once that product is reached through proof of concept, we have a “go to market” strategy, which, in many ways, is our open source strategy.

We call it our “plus Nuru” strategy that we’re rolling out right now, which is packaging our product, teaching other organizations at scale and governments on how to adopt our methodologies, to really be able to wrap up quickly and really have a large impact much more quickly.

Michael:

You celebrated a huge milestone this year with Kenya.

Jake:

Absolutely.

Michael:

It’s interesting. You started in the beginning just being out there and seeing this problem. How long ago was that?

Jake:

Seven years ago.

Michael:

Seven years ago. This year you successfully executed in Kenya, and you’re coming out, or you’re out?

Jake:

Yeah, we’re out. A big thing for us is exit. We go in with an exit strategy, we communicate with the local teams that we’re working with that we’re going to be there for five to seven years. We’re very happy to say that we’ve just pulled our last ex-pat team from Kenya in June.

Michael:

Now the locals are running it themselves?

Jake:

Yeah. Strong, brave woman named Pauline Wambeti. She’s the country director. She leads a team of 240 Kenyan staff that are now scaling the project to totally new areas. They’re going to take on another 1,200 families this year in a brand new area without our help.

They’re scaling on their own now. I would also say I think they’re doing it better, probably, than we’d be doing it at this point.

Michael:

That’s amazing. How do you go, in seven years, from idea to this big milestone? How do you approach this? It seems like an overwhelming task to say, “I really want to do something about this, but I don’t understand anything about the problem. or anything about how to deal with that.”

Most people would just kind of throw their hands up. But you went to business school and you put these teams together. It has to have been setback after setback to put this together. How do you have a vision like that and execute it over seven years?

Jake:

I’d say, two things… Well, three. If I can do this, really [laughs] anybody can. I mean, I’m a knucklehead. The second thing is that it requires momentum. A lot of people throw their hands up in the air and say, “This problem is just too big. It’s too…”

Michael:

We’ve been doing that for decades.

Jake:

For decades. Everyone’s tried it, nothing’s working. If you don’t take a step forward, obviously the problem’s never going to get solved. I talk all the time about extreme poverty. The world’s put a glass ceiling on the problem of extreme poverty. It’s said, “It’s impossible to solve, so of course we’re not going to solve it.”

We are trying to be disruptive and show the world, “Hey, look. We’ve got all the resources and knowledge in the world to be able to solve this problem, but we need more people that can actually believe that it can be solved.” To do that, you need to take a step forward.

The final thing, I would say, is how did we keep going? Why did we keep going? I talk about something I call the “get out of bed factor.” A lot of times, this work, you’ll have these setbacks you talked about. A lot of times the setbacks are pretty gruesome. Our friends die, or you have people get…just horrible things happen in the project and to our team.

You have to have that reason, that burning in you for why you first got into this fight, why you took that first step forward. That will make you keep getting out of bed, because many days you’re not going to want to get out of bed, you’re not going to want to continue, you’re going to want to give up.

As an entrepreneur trying to take on an audacious challenge, you have to have that fire in your gut, that core reason that inspired your vision in the first place. You always have to keep that in front of you, no matter what happens.

Michael:

It’s not always easy. Some of the things you’ve mentioned… I know we don’t have time to get into everything… That just sounds awful. How do you keep these things in your mind at the lowest points?

I know, having started a few ventures, nothing on the scale of ending extreme poverty, there are dizzying heights and there are deep, deep lows. How do you keep that fire burning? How do you go back, “This is my raison…

Jake:

Yeah.

Michael:

…d’etre?”

Jake:

[laughs]

Michael:

I’ve heard it both ways.

Jake:

I know what you’re saying, yeah. I’d say a couple of things. One is, you’ve got to have a really good team in the fight with you. You don’t want to…nobody can take this path…if you’re trying to accomplish the impossible, you can’t go it alone. The road’s too lonely. You can’t be arrogant enough to think you can do this by yourself.

Michael:

I want to interject with a quote that really stuck with me that said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a team.”

Jake:

Sure. You have to build a really good team around yourself. That team will help you through really, really, really challenging times, and will help you get back up on your feet. One of the keys to success as a leader is hiring people who are smarter and better than you are. I know that’s exactly what I’ve done, and that’s been one of the keys to our successes early on.

Another thing of perseverance is, if you’re going to hit hard times, one of the things helps to me is my faith. It is the most important thing for me, and it helps me continue. It’s one of the bit reasons why I’m doing this.

Finally, again, back to the get out of bed factor. I had a pretty traumatic experience happen to me in combat that led me into this path. I see that in my mind, over and over again. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go away, but fortunately for the organization it also helps.

Michael:

Shape.

Jake:

Add that fire, shape to our future, helps keep going.

Michael:

Well, I know Billy really well, Billy Williams, your director of grassroots movement. We see him a lot at some of the bigger events over the years with No Fluff. It’s been a real pleasure knowing him, having him, and I can see he’s…

Jake:

He’s smarter and better than I am.

Michael:

[laughs]

Jake:

That’s a good example.

Billy Williams:

[laughs] Not even close.

Michael:

Before we wrap up, Billy, do you want to say a few words?

Billy:

I really don’t know what to say, here. It’s really been a privilege to be partnered with No Fluff for… This is our fourth year attending some of the bigger conferences.

Michael:

That was your first year, the year that we met?

Billy:

The year that we met here at Ridgeway, yeah. It’s been kind of mind blowing to just see Jay and the speakers, people like yourself. We’ve become great friends. Just seeing people join in the fight, see people proudly espousing Nuru, telling folks who are new to the conferences, “Don’t miss the keynote on Nuru. You’ve got to check out this organization.”

Michael:

I’m really looking forward to seeing your keynote tonight, Jake. I really want to thank you for taking a moment and sharing your story. It’s truly inspiring. It’s a real privilege to be standing here talking to you, and that you’re here and going to be able to share the story with everybody tonight at the keynote here at our conf.

Jake:

Thank you so much for the opportunity. It’s a real pleasure to work with you guys. You guys are amazing.

Michael:

Be sure to check them out. It’s nuruinternational.org Look them up on the web. What they’re doing is amazing. If you do nothing else, there’s a little video there that just summarizes what they do in five minutes. Watch that video, and it will surprise you.

[background music]

Michael:

Thank you again, Jake. Take care.

Jake:

Right, thanks.

Michael:

At No Fluff Just Stuff, we bring the best technologists to you on a roadshow format. Early bird discounts are available for the season. Check out the entire show line-up and tour dates at nofluffjuststuff.com. I’m your host, Michael Carducci. Thanks for listening, and stay subscribed.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*