Tough Times Make Tough Minds – Living Emmanuel Manirakiza’s Lessons as an Entrepreneur

In July 2012, one of my greatest teachers, Emmanuel Manirakiza ’10, passed away shortly before he was due to depart to the University of Rochester. Emmanuel had lived an extraordinary life. Orphaned by the Rwandan genocide, he had survived on the streets until the age of nine. As he wrote in an essay about his life:

I lived under a bridge or in a tent or in an animal’s den.  I could kill a snake, find water in the roots of a plant, and survive machine-gun fire, but I had never entered a house with a cement floor. Emmanuel survived on the streets, on the goodness of strangers.

At nine, Emmanuel was brought to an orphanage. It was his first time entering a classroom. By grade six, he was among the top 10 performers on Rwanda’s national exams. A few years later, he was publishing stories in the national newspaper. And soon thereafter, he was nominated to join ALA as a member of our class of 2010.

After his admission to ALA, Emmanuel struggled to obtain a passport: he had no documents or proof of his existence. His country almost rejected him. And so he journaled, writing:

Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today. But not what life had done to you in the past.

Emmanuel was the model of what our friend Christopher Gergen calls a “Life Entrepreneur”: one who applies “their vision, talents, creativity, and energy not only to their work but to their entire lives, changing the world for themselves and those around them.” 

Throughout his time at ALA, Emmanuel shared important lessons for Life Entrepreneurs everywhere:

1. “I asked”

The first time I met Emmanuel in person was in the dining hall. We had dinner on his second or third day on campus.

Mr Bradford, you are an entrepreneur. Have you read Jim Collins?

He then proceeded to tell me all about Collins’ book “Good to Great” – a classic of management literature. Emmanuel, I asked, “how did you come to read this book?”

“I asked,” he said. After work as a petrol station attendant in the summers, Emmanuel would sit by the arrivals hall at the Kigali airport, and he would welcome international visitors for the country. He politely asked them whether they had books worth reading. It was how he learned. And so he was gifted – and devoured – the work of Jim Collins.

Good things come to those who are willing to ask.

2. “Good Ideas give birth to Greater Ideas”

Emmanuel brought a great many business ideas to the ALA community. Some ideas were excellent. Others were not-so-excellent, like the idea of selling two rand coins to classmates for three rands. The issue was the on-campus laundry: the machines required a two-rand coin to operate – and two rand coins, apparently, were in short supply.

When Emmanuel offered his two rand coins for sale (for three rands), the idea was immediately quashed by his classmate Souhail Wardi, who offered to go and get two rand coins from the bank at the mall.

Emmanuel responded to Souhail, copying our whole community, immediately: “All hail Souhail!” “Good ideas give birth to greater ideas,” he wrote.  By voicing the problem and proposing an (admittedly imperfect) solution, Emmanuel had begun a conversation that resolved the problem for all.

3. “You can’t reap from worrying”

In a presentation he gave to campus, Emmanuel said:

You have heard people say to live every day as if it was your last day . . . and throughout his childhood, it was the only thing to do! He took care of that present day and left the next day to take care of itself. And when the next day came, he did the same!

As a student, Emmanuel rarely worried. Instead, he planned carefully, focusing on the work that needed to be done today and recognizing that tomorrow would then take care of itself.

As he said in a presentation at assembly, “you can’t reap from worrying.”Worrying expends energy. It causes one to spin out of control. It paralyses.

4. “We learn most through practice”

Emmanuel loved his Entrepreneurial Leadership class at ALA. The student enterprise he built, Aroma Emporium, is now permanently embedded in the residence.

It was financially one of the most successful student enterprises in our history. But it did not start that way! The first term was a struggle, with the team toiling for months to make only 92 Rand of profit. But the team learned from its mistakes, introduced ledger books to track customers, and created a suggestion box. By the end of the year, Aroma Emporium was the most valuable enterprise on campus, providing monthly remuneration to its employees and earning a handsome year-end profit that Emmanuel could take home to Rwanda.

As he told us in the leadership symposium on his graduation day: “we learn most through practice”

5. “I Wrote In My Journal”

But how does one learn from practice? If you went into Emmanuel’s room, you found piles of journals. He began journaling in primary school, and he journaled every day. His journals were filled with scripture, reflections, and perspectives. He hoped to one day publish these journals into a book.

As Aroma Emporium struggled, Emmanuel journaled.
When he had conflict with classmates, Emmanuel journaled.
When he did not do well on an exam, Emmanuel journaled.

He used his reflections to plan a path forward. To get better. To visualize the future.

I once asked Emmanuel where he came up with the little phrases that that make up the lessons I am sharing here.

“I wrote in my journal,” he said.

6. “Money is a Tool”

Emmanuel believed, passionately, in the best forms of capitalism: the kind of capitalism that powers creation and lifts others out of poverty. He used capitalism to align interests, and to create jobs. Emmanuel loved what money – the reward for his ingenuity and effort – could do for others.

He brought the money earned at ALA home to Rwanda when he graduated, building a bigger home for his sister, and buying goats and chickens for the farm she ran on a little parcel of land he had purchased. His sister was able to employ others and earn an income.

He saved the rest for Umuzi, his new venture, for which he sought the advice of me and others. Umuzi would help other young people harness their energy and imagine money not as an end in itself – but as a tool for creation and impact as entrepreneurs.

7. “Tough Times Make Tough Minds”

A few weeks before he graduated, Emmanuel shared a “My Story” in assembly. He closed this presentation with the language below:

As I conclude I would like to leave you with one thought. If you don’t hear anything else today, hear this one thing. When you face perplexing challenges, and you are being blown by wind or tossed by waves in this rough ocean, just remember this one motto I have come up with for my life: Tough times make tough minds!

I recall this powerful motto often. All of us face tough times, regardless of the circumstances from which we come. It is not only the penniless who fall into traps of despair or believe that there is no hope. These are human experiences.

When Emmanuel recognized that he was going through a difficult time, he embraced it. His motto recalls the words of Neitzsche: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”

What Emmanuel left for all of us in his writings solidified much of my own understanding of what makes a good life entrepreneur – or any entrepreneur.  His lessons have rung true throughout the development of ALA.

  • Ask. We started ALA without money or a benefactor. ALA is here because we were willing to ask. We were willing to share with those who came through our lives our aspirations for this place.
  • Good Ideas Give Birth to Great Ideas.We often make the mistake of only wanting to share an idea when it is perfectly formed. But sharing an idea generates new ones from others, who build on your own. At ALA, we’ve had many initial ideas that were simply not very good. By sharing those with students, staffulty, supporters, and friends, they became great ideas.
  • You Can’t Reap from Worrying.  I have wasted much nervous energy worrying about things that were outside my control during this entrepreneurial journey – especially in the early years. I have learned to channel my energy into planning and doing, rather than worrying.
  • We learn best through practice. Deliberate practice is the only path to true expertise. As with Aroma Emporium, such practice definitionally includes the pain of failure. Through practice, I have become a better CEO and a better leader.
  • The power of reflection. It is through reflection on process and outcome that we identify new solutions – and capture the rewards to practice.
  • Money is a tool. Money is not an end for individuals or organisations: it is a tool for impact on people and societies. It is a tool that is earned through building great things that others want to buy. It is a tool that is sharpened through its deployment in ways that create meaning.
  • Tough Times Make Tough Minds. We have been through many challenging times, including the past year of COVID-19. We are at our best when we recognize these tough times in the moment and embrace the ways in which they will make us better.

It is only fitting to close with words that are Emmanuel’s own:

Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.

To order a book of Emmanuel’s writings, including his wonderful essay ‘My First Pair of Shoes’, click here.

To watch Chris’ remarks about Emmanuel to the community, click here.