We speak to 23-year-old social entrepreneur Lavine Hemlani, whose educational startup is dedicated to giving a platform for the ambitious and talented from all walks of life.
There’s a common story about how it’s usually supposed to work in economies like Hong Kong. You work hard in school, get good grades, find a way to afford university, attend it and then try to land a good job. From there, you make your own future, and if you want it badly enough, you will succeed. But outside that reductive storyline, there are more people marginalised from the narrative of the formal economy than there are included in it. Factors outside our control such as political turmoil, disability, gender and financial trouble all mould our destinies a lot more than we often like to believe. And for those who find themselves in difficult starting positions, it’s hard to get going, let alone get ahead. We speak to Lavine Hemlani, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, who’s dedicated to disrupting the borders of our exclusive economy and provide a platform for those in difficulty to succeed.
Hemlani, whose start-up, Accelerate, is hosting a ‘Growth Hacking’ seminar at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan on June 21, has lived the conventional Hong Kong school-to-job story. Born in Hong Kong, he went on to study at the University of Chicago and graduated in 2015 with a degree in Economics. He then landed a typical Wall Street job as an investment banker, where he worked until he had an important epiphany. “I realised I was inspired by entrepreneurs pursuing their social callings, rather than traversing a defined path,” he tells us.
So, much like how anybody else wouldn’t, he quit his stable job and travelled to 27 countries in five months, determined to see the world and ride out an existential crisis. It was during these months, seeing everything from Bolivia to South Africa, that he realised that there were ‘plenty of brilliant people in all these countries, but what’s hindering their entrance into the formal economy is education.’ He tells us that it all clicked for him when he had a chance to help build a school in Africa. He realised that he’d come across something powerful: the transformative potential of effective education.
“If you’re an incredibly bright person, especially if you’re low-income or a minority, this can be really powerful”
Profoundly influenced by his travels, Hemlani returned home to Hong Kong in hopes of starting a career in education, and stumbled upon another provoking thought. He ‘kept noticing the same thing,’ he tells us, ‘there are co-working spaces, there’s VC funding, and there are products, but many start-ups struggle to find really good talent that could move their business forward.’ Marrying two thoughts together, he founded Accelerate, an educational start-up that provides immersive training in coding and data science to talented people in difficult starting-positions in exchange for ‘zero tuition until you’re hired’. This means that aside from a small deposit, students don’t pay for the 1000 hours of training until they land a job, after which they reimburse Accelerate with 15% of their first year’s salary, paid in instalments.
Hemlani explains that ‘if you’re an incredibly bright person, especially if you’re low-income or a minority, this can be really powerful.’ And even though Accelerate has only been operational for 6-months, positive results have already come in with the first batch of graduates. One of his favourite success stories is a woman who left Moldova. “She was at immigration stamping passports, but she was so, so bright. Why does the potential of someone like that need to be curtailed in any way?” he asks incredulously. But after quitting her job and graduating from Accelerate’s immersive coding programme, Hemlani proudly reports that she’s recently landed a final round interview with PwC. Results come through in a couple of days, fingers crossed. Another student, a former bank clerk, signed his employment offer within 72 hours of graduation, immediately giving him two causes to celebrate.
“Find a mission that invigorates you, something beyond profit and loss.”
Heartened by these stories, Hemlani has high hopes for Accelerate. “The goal is to have 100,000 graduates in ten years and a strong presence in thirty cities.” That’s a tall order for any start-up, but even at the young age of 23 he’s not at all fazed. He tells us: “there are two guiding things I live by: find a mission that invigorates you, something beyond profit and loss. And it’s going to be hard, so I asked myself: what am I willing to suffer for? Was I willing to suffer for a bank job?” The answer, of course, was a big fat resounding ‘no’.
At Accelerate, Hemlani emphasises the importance of imparting non-technical skills alongside technical ones, citing ‘self-reliance, self-learning and resilience’ as qualities vital to thriving in a competitive workforce. By emphasising communication and interactive skills, he hopes to accelerate talent by ‘setting someone’s potential in motion so they can stay in motion’. “You’re here to make these new skills a lifestyle and to create a new mindset where you have to constantly learn on the job,” he tells us. By learning these skills in the programme, students are better prepared, both professionally and mentally, to succeed despite their difficult starting positions. It’s this type of professional development that Hemlani and his team are helming through Accelerate; he tells us: ‘we’re trying to build something socially aligned and build a movement around what we do.’
So far, the interest has been high and admission into the programme is competitive. For the first class of students, 300 people expressed interest and only 16 were admitted, making it an approximately 5% admission rate. And in the future? Aside from expanding into thirty cities, Hemlani hopes to create a talent powerhouse with a nexus of innovative spheres that will change the fabric of the workforce completely. “People should take a risk,” he tells us. As such, through Accelerate, he encourages the talented and ambitious to be confident in truly taking life by the reins and defining their own future, regardless of limitations and where they may come from. Meet Hemlani on the 21st of June to find out how to kick-start your own acceleration.
Sign up to Accelerate HK’s ‘Growth Hacking: Buzzword or Reality’ seminar via Eventbrite.
By Grace FungLavine Hemlani, in brief:
Name: Lavine Hemlani
Business: Accelerate HK
Position: Founder & CEO
From: Hong Kong