Movers & Shakers: Sam Baddoo on Ghanaian culture, leaving New York for Columbus and making a difference through social entrepreneurship
Every entrepreneur takes a journey, but not every one of those journeys involves multiple continents. Sam Baddoo’s entrepreneurial story began in Ghana, his country of birth, and took him to Morocco, New York City and finally Columbus along the way. Now, he’s at the helm of Fleri, a startup working to bring insurance to African populations. We sat down with Baddoo to talk about his winding road, the way he sees entrepreneurship and the impact he believes Fleri can have.
How would you describe Fleri to someone who has never heard of it?
Fleri is a platform that helps African immigrants living across the world provide healthcare access to their families back home. That’s a lot of words, but what it really means is that we help people use their money to help their families back home to get healthcare. We partner with insurance companies and health tech companies based in Africa to create health plans which are then purchased by families here on behalf of their relatives back home in Africa.
You were born in Ghana – what set you on the road from there to Columbus?
It’s been an interesting journey. I moved here to Columbus about six years ago. I had moved to New York and lived there about a year when I met someone on the subway who said, “How’s life going here?” I said, “Not easy,” and they said, “Hey, why don’t you move to the Midwest? I hear Columbus is getting bigger.” I didn’t know anything about Columbus, but I had an uncle who lived here, so I asked if I could come live with him for a while until I figured things out. That’s how I found my feet.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
I’ve always leaned towards entrepreneurship. My parents were both entrepreneurs. My dad started one of the earliest travel and tour companies in Ghana and my mom has a catering business that she started from scratch, so I’ve always seen that lifestyle for myself. In college, I discovered that I wanted to concentrate on social entrepreneurship, which is where I have really been focusing my career. That’s how things evolved, from seeing it with my parents to wanting to do things differently through entrepreneurship.
What was life like growing up in Ghana?
Growing up at that time was tough. It’s definitely survival of the fittest. Nobody’s out there making things any easier for you. I went to boarding school, and boarding school was about being tough. I went to an all-boys school with 1,500 students and you kind of had to figure out how to either fight or hold yourself up. It builds a level of resilience and courage that I definitely think has contributed to the way I’ve gone about life. I’m very much a risk taker. Growing up in Ghana, I saw all these other people trying to make a life. Everybody is doing more than one thing and there’s an insane number of small businesses, usually mom-and-pop. So it’s not surprising that I ended up working for myself, because everyone there is figuring something out.
When did you first leave Ghana?
I went to Morocco when I was 17 or 18 and lived there for five years. I think that was where most of the person that I am today was shaped. I was living in a country where I didn’t have any relatives or friends, I didn’t know anybody. Moving to more developed northern Africa with functioning cisterns, beautiful cities, vegetation and greenery was very different from life in Ghana.
Meeting people from different countries really got me out of my own shell and helped me see a bigger world, a world that can do better with more people working towards the same common goal. I got involved in tech pretty early on with a company called AdWords around 2009.I was part of a team that got the second ever license to host a TEDx event in Morocco, which was all about advancing community ideas and progress. It got me really interested in building community and doing more, which is when social entrepreneurship got on my radar.
But you went back?
I decided to put into practice the things that I was writing and reading about. I wrote a paper on social entrepreneurship as a model for economic growth and got approached by a bunch of young guys my age who also lived abroad and wanted to go start a company. I moved back to Ghana to join them and we started a company called Heal the World, a luxury leather goods company that was preaching the gospel of empowerment.
I did that for a while and then left to start my first own business, Kitchen Express, a grocery delivery company. That failed miserably, and taught me the lesson that good ideas don’t always succeed just because they’re good ideas. Finally, I moved on from Kitchen Express to start a consultancy that was focused on working with small business owners and startups, primarily around scaling those businesses.
What made you go to New York?
I wanted to do something else with my life. I love startups, and I’d started a couple of companies, but I wanted to do something bigger and be part of something more meaningful. I moved to New York in October of 2014 and I was like, “OK, this is it. We’re either going to make or break.” I had to leave my kids at that time, so it was a huge decision, probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. My daughter, Laura, was 2 years old when I moved here. That’s the biggest sacrifice for me. But when I got to New York I set a few goals. In five years, I wanted to turn my life around or I was just going to go back. And that’s how the journey here started.
What was it like to start over in Columbus?
The first few months were about hustling. It was about finding a job and going around and asking everybody that I knew if I could get a job. I used to walk miles to ask the shops to find work. It didn’t matter that you had a degree from somewhere, you’re literally starting from scratch. I worked at Limited Brands, OfficeMax and a bunch of different places before I got into logistics with Kraft-Heinz and later on with the Mars company. The whole time, I really wanted to get into tech and startups.
I started taking a bootcamp class with Tech Talent South, which was fascinating, but what I learned was that I didn’t really want to become a software developer. I hated it. What I did want to really do was to help build software that matters. I joined EmpowerBus as their very first employee and met a lot of people that led to more relationships and got involved in some other companies. All of that came together to lead me to what we’re doing at Fleri today.
You joined the military along the way. How did that fit into your plans?
I applied to join the U.S. army in 2017, moved to South Carolina for about six months or so for bootcamp and then got assigned to the 374th in Pennsylvania. It’s been interesting. I’ve done three years already and still have five years in the military left. I’m currently a reservist; it’s very much a part of my life, which is very different from what I do on a day-to-day basis.
Joining was about personal goals for me. I wanted to be at my fittest by age 30 and I was an Air Force cadet when I was in high school in Ghana. I love the discipline. I love the rigor and structure of it. It’s tough. It’s how I am as a person. And as someone who did not grow up here, the military is one of the few places where you really get to build camaraderie with a group of people who identify with a shared background and experience. It was important for me to find my group of people, and the military has been that. I love the people that I serve with.
What has made you stay in Columbus?
People. Columbus feels like home. And Columbus is a sister city to Accra, where I was born, so when I’m here, I feel like the people that I meet are truly neighbors. Columbus is also one of the places with the easiest accessibility to remarkable people. When I moved here, I was a beta tester for Root’s early app. I met Dan Manges, their co-founder and CTO. Dan has been a very big part of the groovy Columbus community. He shows up at the meetups and talks to everyone like a normal guy. There’s no aura; you’re not cut off from these people.
Anybody that you want to meet is an introduction and a coffee meeting away, and that’s a really, really unique part about being in Columbus and building in Columbus. There are great companies here and great people with incredible intellect and amazing experience, who are always willing to help. Columbus is also increasingly diverse, which means that it’s just going to continue to grow. I love it.
How are you a different entrepreneur today?
I think I’m definitely more courageous, more bold. I’m more settled in myself. You get to know yourself with time, as you get tested through different things. I feel more confident in my ideas and knowing they’re not crazy. Before, I thought about what I can do. Now it’s a lot more, “Who’s out there doing something that I can be a part of, and what kind of people can I attract towards solving a problem?” More and more of my life has become about finding the right people and finding the right ways to motivate them and to help them do better.
Is Fleri the project you always dreamed of?
In the startup world, we talk about founder fit. I would definitely say that my fit with the problem we’re solving is probably the closest I’ve ever felt. I wake up and feel settled, and even the process of discovery is enjoyable. I wouldn’t say it’s “the one” because life is continuous and is going to progress, but I’ve been told before that this problem chose me. My individual set of circumstances has led me to uniquely understand the space that we’re in and what we’re doing, and that definitely comes across when I speak to people and the way I identify with our customers.
How have your goals changed?
It’s become more about leaving a mark. I want Ghanaian people to have leaders who can articulate a vision, rally people behind the vision, stay focused on the course of that vision, execute and leave a legacy. For me, that is what the bar looks like. Right now, I worry a lot about changing the narrative when it comes to healthcare and access, and this is what I wake up thinking about every day. It’s not so much about a company as it is how we move the needle significantly on the loss of life that we have.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think it would be to trust myself more, to be honest. Very early on, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out if we have a voice, if the things that we think and don’t say out loud are valid, if there is a space for the way we see things. I think having that confidence early on allows you to take the risk of believing in yourself and chasing your dreams. I think when we take chances on ourselves, that entrepreneurial journey is really validating and that’s something I would have told myself.
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