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How ALA got award-winning airships startup founder going in business

Written by: Daniel Mpala

For Spencer Horne — who today runs an award-winning logistics startup that uses autonomous airships to transport goods — African Leadership Academy (ALA) proved “immensely influential” in helping him start out in business.

Horne (pictured above), who was part of ALA’s inaugural class in 2008, started his first two businesses, a student laundry and a pizza parlour, at ALA’s Johannesburg campus.

Today he runs logistics startup Cloudline. In 2017, his startup, then called Cargonaught, won the Airbus BizLab AEROmobility pitching competition (see this Ventureburn article). The startup has also worked with the World Food Programme’s Munich-based innovation accelerator as part of Singularity U’s Global Impact Challenge.

“There is a very real difference between learning about entrepreneurship from the pages of a textbook and exercising it to learn the lessons from the real world — within the protection of a setting where failure is embraced and failure has a limited downside,” says Horne.

In 2017 Cloudline founder and ALA alumnus Spencer Horne won the South African edition of the Airbus BizLab AEROmobility pitching competition

ALA’s programme helped him, when he was just 18 and 19 years old, to understand the importance of working on problems that matter and affect people’s lives.

“That drive for impact and understanding of my personal motivations has been what has allowed me to put in the time and bear the opportunity cost of a foregone career path,” he explains.

He says being an entrepreneur at ALA has “indelibly marked” his philosophy as a business owner.

“The most important thing was that it inspired me enough to take the leap when the time arose many years down the line,” he says.

Addressing infrastructural gaps

Horne’s Cape Town based startup, which he founded in 2017 through his own savings and then later by access donor funding, uses autonomous airships as a new mode of unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAVs).

The startup has yet to commence commercial operation and is currently in the tech development phase, with the aim of getting commercial licensing and running a pilot project with its first customer this year.

Horne, who holds a Harvard University degree in mechanical engineering, says he’s always had an “entrepreneurial itch to scratch” in the form of solving real-world problems.

He says it’s while working in East Africa in 2015 that he first became “truly aware” of the scale and impact of inadequate transport infrastructure on the economic growth and wellbeing of communities outside the major cities. His other trigger, he points out, was his passion for aerospace technologies.

Education in executing business

Horne sums up the learnings on entrepreneurship he got from two years at ALA as an “education in executing business”. He explains that he never had the sense of analysis paralysis or forced frameworks in the programme.

“The things that matter in most businesses (that add value) can ultimately be explained without the jargon and academic overlay. In that sense I have brought the thirst for execution with me from the programme,” he adds.

He says some of the highlights and take-aways from ALA’s Student Enterprise Programme include the thrill of pitching businesses for the first time and receiving feedback from entrepreneurs and experts in their field. 
As part of the programme, students have to pitch to an expert panel to be granted funding to start their businesses.

He also remembers the anxiety of reporting back to an advisory board, which he says was the “real thing” as local professionals who would come in from Johannesburg to mentor the students.

“We were advised by lawyers, accountants and business owners on how to operate and optimise our businesses. It properly capped the experience of learning by doing that was central to the programme,” says Horne.

The Student Enterprise Programme, he points out, is not “your typical theoretical exercise” or desk based entrepreneurial learning. He says while it covered basic elements of business readiness such as rudimentary accounting — the focus was on learning to plan and execute on identified business opportunities.

For Horne, the practical experience he got from the programme is “incomparable” to any theoretical entrepreneurial education he says he’s encountered before or since.

Read more: Startup Cargonaught off to France after winning Airbus BizLab AEROmobility pitch

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