The possibilities open to Moses Icyishaka ’13 haven’t always been so plentiful.
Icyishaka doesn’t talk much about his early childhood and requested no details be shared here, but as the son of East African immigrants who settled in Louisville, Ky., in the early 2000s, Icyishaka often jokes that he knew growing up he could be anything he wanted — as long as it was a doctor or a lawyer.
That was the future presented to Icyishaka. But he was always an incorrigibly curious child. It was all his mother could do to keep up with the young Icyishaka’s incessant questions, he said.
“I was very annoying,” Icyishaka recalled.
That innate curiosity eventually paid off when Icyishaka landed a spot at Princeton. It would be his first stop on the path to becoming a doctor, he thought.
As he prepared to head northeast for his freshman year, however, a Louisville doctor whom Icyishaka shadowed during high school gave him some advice. Why not feed his curiosity by branching out beyond medicine? Major in something else. Maybe Icyishaka would find his calling in another field altogether.
Icyishaka took the words to heart. On top of his pre-med courses, Icyishaka majored in politics and dabbled in African studies, economics, and anthropology. And it was this last field that took Icyishaka on a research trip the summer after his sophomore year to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Princeton anthropology professor João Biehl was studying the social conditions there that influenced who was most likely to contract HIV.
By day, Icyishaka interviewed HIV-positive residents about their lives. After hours, and still in interviewer mode, Icyishaka quizzed grocery store attendants and motorcycle taxi drivers about what led them to pursue the careers they did.
Economic circumstances were the basis for much of the strife he witnessed. He remembered wondering why in the world his driver, who had a doctoral degree, was zipping other people around on a motorcycle. Icyishaka’s conclusion was that, in general, East Africa had access to the human capital, but not the financial capital it needed for a thriving economy. A microloan was all his motorcycle driver could secure.
Surely, Icyishaka thought, what he was learning in economics courses at Princeton could be applied to East Africa’s financial markets. Maybe his own talents would be better spent improving access to capital. Wouldn’t stimulating that area’s economy at large do the most good in the end?
Upon graduation, Icyishaka did something unexpected. He dropped his plans to become a doctor. Instead he returned to Louisville.
Entrepreneurs there were faced with a problem analogous to the one he witnessed in his native East Africa. Just as investors tended to dismiss East Africa, venture capitalists in the U.S. focused on America’s coasts to the exclusion of startups based in places like Kentucky.
Being outside of the Silicon Valley echo chamber was both a curse and a blessing, he learned. Forming relationships with top entrepreneurs was more challenging, but investors, separated from the herd, were also freer to pursue contrarian ideas
In Louisville, Icyishaka also discovered a new type of investing that a local group called Access Ventures was helping pioneer. “Impact investors” like Access Ventures choose companies that aligned with their stated social goals. In the case of Access Ventures that meant finding entrepreneurs interested in creating a more inclusive economy.
That’s why it made sense for Access Ventures to invest in, for example, Hot Chicken Takeover, a chain of restaurants that goes out of its way to hire ex-convicts. Not only are employees with criminal histories better workers, the restaurant argues, but hiring them at Hot Chicken Takeover allows them to more easily reintegrate into the economy.
Today, Icyishaka is a principal at Access Ventures, where he scours the country for mission-aligned investments. In April, Access Ventures was part of a $14.1 million investment in electronic payments startup Flexa, which is designing a way for merchants to accept cryptocurrencies more easily. Icyishaka said blockchain technology, which is the foundation for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, is poised to democratize access to capital by eliminating the need for a gatekeeper like a bank.
For now, Icyishaka is soaking in all he can, but one day he plans to apply these lessons in East Africa.
“I’m an African by identity,” he said. “I find pride in pushing forward economic opportunities in those countries.”