I was a reluctant entrepreneur – Cherae Robinson

You probably remember her for winning a $10,000 grant in the SheLeadsAfrica pitch competition in September this year. Cherae Robinson now plans to release her travel app by January 2015 as she continues growing Rare Customs, a company she founded in 2013.

Enjoy our interview with Cherae, who has been named one of 10 emerging women entrepreneurs to watch by Forbes.com and one of 10 Women to Watch by the United Nations Foundation.


Let’s meet you.

I’m the oldest of 5 children, one of 2 girls and am originally from Long Island, NY. Although people immediately notice and compliment my interpersonal skills and “magnetism” as my dad calls it, I am actually a scientist by training earning my B.S. in Biology from Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. I even worked for a World Health Organization program to train foodborne disease investigators just after college. I relish in the fact that I have both an analytical and creative mind and believe that this is what serves me so well in my business.CheraeRobinson_Photo-2

Tell us about (your product/career) and what your business does.

With a focus on the entire tourism value chain we lend our expertise to consumer focused experiences, tourism and hospitality investment, property development, SME engagement, and sustainability. We’ve just launched the first phase of Tastemakers Africa, a mobile app and website where hip travelers find and buy curated, upscale experiences in Africa a la carte. From restaurants to nightclubs to unlisted adventures (think surf school in Senegal) it is the world’s only Africa-focused, digital travel destination for the modern jetsetter.

How did you come up with the idea?

Working in development, I traveled extensively in Africa, visiting 10 countries in less than three years. From Nairobi to Johannesburg to Freetown to Lagos I kept having these fly, cosmopolitan experiences that blew my mind (and that of my friends back home). One minute I’d be on a rooftop, the next in a secret VIP lounge, and the next having dinner at a restaurant with filmmakers and television producers. I wanted to find a way to make this experience accessible and scale it all around the world, I initially thought I would consult for tourism boards but eventually realized that technology, particularly mobile, is the most efficient way to affect mass behavior change and scale.

What or who inspired you to start your business?

I was definitely a reluctant entrepreneur, I was committed to ending up at the US Department of State or the UN and working in nonprofits until I got there but three distinct experiences caused me to pursue this dream through entrepreneurship. The first was in Nairobi where I met Jeffrey Kimathi, Wanuri Kahiu, and Cathy Phiri some of the most dynamic, driven, and LOVEing people I’ve ever met. They literally looked out for me every day, taking me to the best restaurants, the nicest clubs, and pretty much let me know what to hit and what to miss. The same thing happened in Johannesburg when I met my co-founder Stephanie O’Connor, one minute we were hanging out at advertising parties in Johannesburg, the next we were road tripping to Lesotho in a pimped out DJ Van. The final push came in 2013, my second year at Social Media Week Lagos when I decided to tease my idea in front of a room full of entrepreneurs. Their response and the sheer energy of people creating life by their own rules was enough to get me to jump all in.

Who is your target market?

We target the millennial and generation Y traveler who we term the “urban sophisticate”. They are looking for experiences that reflect their lifestyle, offer a bit of luxe, and pack a lot of culture.

Why should people/your target audience use this kind of product/service?

Right now, no one in the travel space is offering this sort of lens on Africa. If it’s not a Safari it isn’t selling in the minds of many people in the tourism industry. We understand our audience and have spent the time proving our concept and we’re prepared to deliver.

How have you financed your business?

A combination of bootstrapping from personal saving, a small loan, and winning the She Leads Africa competition.

What five key things have you learned since starting your business idea?

  1. Spend time understanding and refining the business model and it’s ability to scale.
  2. Remain flexible and always think through what you can do without funding.
  3. Media isn’t milestones! Even when your startup becomes “hot” in one way or another, remain focused on the product.
  4. Everyone who starts might not finish.
  5. As a founder and CEO you have to know all parts of the business, and read Venture Deals as soon as you think about a business.

Tell us about some of the challenges you face.

Perception is still an issue with regards to Africa, it’s an uphill battle but our target demographic is more open-minded than others. Finance is a huge challenge, once you have refined your pitch and have nailed down how you are going to make money for investors, you still have to find people to talk to and get them to invest. None of us come from “money” so we don’t have those networks readily in hand, that has been a lot of work to build, manage and we’re still working at it.

How many jobs have you created so far?

1 and I’m extremely proud of that. Pressing send on payroll (all the way to Mombasa) felt amazing!

How is your business sector performing, and what is the long-term (5-year) plan for your business?

Tourism, broadly is thriving. Social media is doing wonderful things for the industry with Instagram being a huge driver. Since the crash of 2008, society is changing, people want to live life by their own rules, not depend on the “system”, and travel is a big part of the story. You ask any 30-something what their dream is and many will say “make enough money to travel the world”. Brands that are not typically in the sector are seeing it’s value – Sam’s club, the Walmart owned bulk retailer just launched a travel app for its members and Amazon is ramping up its hotel supply chain and will be competing in the bookings space. Our plan is to target Africa, and bring millenials, the fastest growing segment of international travel, into the market and change perceptions about tourism there forever. Our goal is in the next five years is to grow to 1 Million Users on the platform with 60% of them making purchases in the app, as we approach the 5 year mark, we will also be looking to expand beyond Africa and move first to South America where we believe tourism is undervalued and under-explored. Eventually we’d like to exit, selling the business to a larger brand that can scale it even further.

What five things do start-up entrepreneurs need to know?

  1. Choose your co-founders wisely.
  2. Constantly be learning.
  3. Find that strange balance between humility and confidence and manage it well.
  4. This will not happen overnight, high-highs and low-lows.

Don’t be so married to your business, and your initial concept that you get caught slippin’ (by investors, competition, etc.)