Tariq Fancy, Rumie Initiative, GITR North American Finalist


I just got back from the Get in the Ring North America finals. It was my first trip to Kansas City and thanks to the hospitality of the folks from the Kauffman Foundation, I had a great time and a good taste of the welcoming Midwestern charm I’ve heard so much about. But after reading the title of this post, I’m sure you’re wondering, besides us competing inside an actual boxing ring, what do entrepreneurship and boxing actually have in common?

First, entrepreneurship. I progressed to the final eight contestants for the final clash on the night of November 7th. My start-up, the Rumie Initiative, is at the vanguard of revolutionizing access to education for one billion children who are underserved around the world, by delivering the best free and open source learning content (encyclopedias, textbooks, math and science videos, educational games and apps) to underprivileged kids via the $50 Rumie tablet, a library with over $5,000 worth of materials for the cost of less than a textbook.

On the night of the battle, the judges didn’t get it. One made a comment afterward that made it clear she didn’t really understand what we do and how. I was left to wonder afterward, did I not explain it properly? Or maybe I did explain it as well as I could have… but she just didn’t get it?

So here’s the open secret that every entrepreneur absolutely needs to remember, you’ll never sell everyone on your idea. Never. Here at Rumie, we’re growing at breakneck speed – six countries in less than a year, twenty planned for next year. We’re even doing a deployment right in Liberia, where kids are using our devices from home to get around the fact that all the schools are closed due to Ebola. (We’re even launching an “Education over Ebola” crowdfunding campaign to scale it up.)

We certainly have convinced some great people so far, our financial backers include the CEO of a $100 billion market cap public company, an amazing entrepreneur who founded a $21 billion company, and a leading New York hedge fund. All are backing us personally and will get no investment return (we’re a non-profit) but see what we see, an amazing opportunity to make the world a better place. Having such distinguished business leaders instantly “get it” has been amazing.

But still the truth is, not everyone gets it. Some even give me a weird look when I talk about it. It’s outside of what they can imagine for the future. They can’t think outside the box. But here’s the point, it doesn’t matter. It’s impossible that everyone will get it. If everyone gets your idea, chances are it’s been done already (or is impossible to do). And remember, few who have done anything truly exciting were viewed as obvious before they actually did it. If Mark Zuckerberg had told everyone ten years ago how social media would come to dominate our interpersonal relationships, or Jimmy Wales had explained the vision of using millions of dispersed volunteers to build a free online encyclopedia that would replace the nearly 250-year old Britannica, most would have given them the polite pause and then the “well, that sounds great, good luck!” before fleeing.

Ten years ago, I worked on investments to bring mobile phones into emerging markets as a “leapfrog” innovation over landlines. No one got it when I first explained it. Some said, “Why would a rural farmer in Ghana need a cellphone? We just got them ourselves.” It sounded ridiculous to them and their reaction was similar to the judge on Friday. But I stuck to my guns, leading to a home run investment and a revolution for the world’s poorest. (There are now more cellphones than people in the world, and in Africa most people have cellphones and use them for banking, health and lots of ancillary uses.)

So what does any of this have to do with boxing? While I’m far from being an expert, I do know a tiny bit about boxing. Years ago I learned to box with the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club and later founded the student boxing club at Brown University. Once, during a particularly arduous training session at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, I was closing out on the punching bag and struggling to keep my guard up as I threw limp, half strength punches at the bag.

At that point, I was suddenly approached by a massive, muscular heavyweight division boxer who, unbeknownst to me, had been watching me and decided to impart some training wisdom. “Always keep your guard up when you hit the bag! I know you’re tired, I know you’re near the end of your reserves, but you have to have heart. And let me tell you something, I KNOW you do, I can see it in your eyes.”

It was as if someone had inserted a new battery into me, for the rest of that workout my body assumed the perfect stance, my guard went up into the right position, and I hit the bag harder and more accurately than I ever have. His compliment meant more than any A+ grade, teacher recommendation, or glowing reference letter I’ve ever received. For a boxer, having heart is the single most important thing in the world.

As an entrepreneur, the same goes for how you interact with investors, partners, even friends and family. Some won’t get your idea. Of those, some may have useful feedback and suggestions. Heed their advice. But some (in fact many) won’t get it at all, simply because they just can’t wrap their minds around something innovative and different that has never been done before.

For the latter type, don’t let it get to you. There’s only one solution, keep your guard up and your eyes focused on the punching bag. There are sure to be many rounds left in your journey, have heart and show them why you’re right.

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