From an alcoholic to a billionaire at 25

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Heshan de Silva

NAIROBI, KENYA: About nine years ago, when he was 16, enrolled at an American university. He had left Kenya and his sheltered upbringing behind to study in a country synonymous with a host of freedoms.

Heshan de Silva
Heshan de Silva

The culture shock was intense, and desperate to catch up with his schoolmates — such as an 18-year-old who drove a pricey Ferrari — he started hanging out with the wrong crowd. He also lost interest in attending classes.

“I wanted to stand out and be relevant to those who drove the Ferraris and draw their attention — it was a terrible dream to have,” he told Business Beat.

Silva needed money to bankroll the lifestyle he craved. He quickly realised he could trade his time and natural intelligence for money by writing essays for students who would rather party than study.

“They did not want to get sterling results, just an average C grade. I saw the opportunity and wanted to exploit it,” he says.

Within no time, he was making more than Sh50,000 for one night’s work. And with his newfound wealth, he got into drinking, drugs and playing truant.

But in his moments of sobriety, he was disturbed as he knew he was going against his parents’ desire that he study.

“I saw myself as the most useless person, having disappointed my parents. At some point, I wanted to take my life,” he recalls.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

However, his parents came to the rescue and brought him back to Kenya where he was checked into a rehabilitation centre. He later attended another one in South Africa.

After recovering, he started going round rehab centres, sharing his experiences and encouraging those going through what he had.

It is while volunteering at one of these centres that Silva met three young people who had the idea to sell travel insurance to long-distance bus passengers. He got on board.

The insurance, which was bundled into the bus tickets, cost from as little as Sh5 and could be bought via mobile phone.

The four young men registered a company and Silva, with a Sh7,500 investment, held a 20 per cent stake in it.

“We created value for bus companies as the passengers and proprietors had peace of mind,” he says.

By the end of the year, they had made more than Sh90 million.

SCALING UP

He realised that providing capital for promising businesses in return for shareholding could open numerous opportunities for him. This led to the creation of the De Silva Group, the holding company for DSGVenCap, which invests in Kenyan entrepreneurs.

So far, DSGVenCap has invested in 22,000 ideas and helped create over 17,000 businesses.

“In every business I invest in, my stake is never more than 40 per cent,” he says.

With a 70 per cent success rate, he is estimated to be worth more than Sh1 billion. However, he does not want to be deluded by this figure. “If you start thinking so much about money, you will get consumed by figures and it will be hard to grow.”

So what keeps him focused?

“I have the desire to outshine others, and that keeps me going. Every day, I need to be the best and I’m competing with those at global blue chip companies like JP Morgan.”

He adds that he has learnt to keep his eyes open for the business opportunities that are everywhere.

“Hard work separates those who succeed from those who don’t.” Silva works an average 18 hours a day, six days a week: “How many young people are able to work that long?”

And he has yet to go back to school as he says a university degree is just a piece of paper. “Perhaps it gives you a leg up, especially when you are looking for employment. But to think that it’s a guarantee of success today is ridiculous.”

Silva, who now considers alcohol and drugs a waste of money, preaches that one’s background does not determine their destiny. “The world does not owe you a cent, but you are worth what you make out of it. Start with what you have and work hard and chances are that it will work out.”

His mantra appears to be working. He made it to Forbes’ 2014 list of Most Promising Young African Entrepreneurs, and was last year named among the top 10 African influencers.

bizbeat@standardmedia.co.ke
– Standard Digital Media