Luke Willms: Today’s Notable Young Entrepreneur

Today’s Notable Young Entrepreneur is Luke Willms, whose work as Associate Director of the Salama SHIELD Foundation makes positive educational, financial, and health contributions to the lives of youth in East Africa. We caught up with him to learn about the inspiration behind his career and where he sees himself in five years… 

Elevator Pitch: Describe your job in a nutshell.
I’m the Associate Director of the Salama SHIELD Foundation, an organization that focuses on youth education, health and finance initiatives in Uganda and Malawi. One of our organizational philosophies, ‘MBUNTU’ (“I am because we are”) eventually became the catalyst for a various-venture lifestyle brand that I started with my brother Mark called MBUNTU. MBUNTU is an exclusive travel boutique, coffee and art importer, and apparel brand.

Why did you start working at your company? What was the inspiration for this career route?
Growing up, my family spent many years visiting Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya while my dad, one of the first clinical researchers to identify HIV/AIDS in those regions, studied the virus.  At that time, all the available funding went towards finding treatments, rather than focusing on the behavioural determinants of the virus. My dad founded Salama SHIELD Foundation in 1992 in an attempt to advance preventative methods for HIV/AIDS. After a five-year stint in Vancouver, it was time to broaden the scope of the foundation and tell the story to a wider audience. I moved back to Toronto and I joined his team three years ago.

What is the best part of what you do on a day-to-day basis? The most challenging part?
I’ll start with the challenging part: fundraising! Telling the story and communicating our program to potential donors who had never heard of us before, let alone been to Africa or contributed to any African-based charities, is difficult to say the least. Competing with some of the big-wig charities and NGOs in Canada is not easy when there are so many worthwhile causes right here at home. The best part is when we hit the whiteboards and strategize new fun and creative ways to increase our exposure and raise funds. I’m lucky to have some energetic interns who help with this, and my colleague Lisa lives and breathes her job like I’ve never seen before – so being around people of this nature is definitely a bonus.

What is one sign that you’ve seen over the years to suggest that your work/life balance is off?
It’s the worry and stress of keeping our 20+ staff happy for the long-term in Uganda and Malawi. It’s a big responsibility, shouldering the stresses of an entire organization that relies on funding to keep our programs alive.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
After a few more years of experience, I would love to become a professor at the college or university level – in the social business realm or lifespan development strategies, non-profit/private sector partnerships and/or organization innovation. By then I would hope that we are well on our way to building a bigger team with the foundation, and collaborating more with businesses and adding value to their client interests – moving beyond the “donation” thinking that halts any processes in the charitable realm. The only thing stopping us currently is our lack of manpower.  I see my brother Mark and I hiring individuals for each of the MBUNTU sectors (travel, apparel, coffee, art). I have this vision of a shared office between the foundation and our social businesses – an art gallery, store, coffee shop and charitable offices.

What is one major challenge that you’ve had to overcome in your career? How did you overcome it?
I would say I’m still overcoming this one—making my stamp on the organization. Also, the charitable realm is heading in a direction that requires charities, NGO’s/organizations to become more innovative. We are working on some very innovative partnerships that haven’t been tried before in the charitable sector. Although this strategy comes with some risk, we want to be known as a trailblazing entity that is constantly looking ahead and evolving.

What does success look like to you? Does Money = Happiness?
Enough money to help turn your ideas into creations, and a little change to help you see a bit of the world. It is one of the most human things we can do – that is, to communicate (or try to) with people from other parts of the world.

What is the most memorable milestone in your career?
Coming off Salama’s inaugural event last June, “Sustaining Stories and Developing Dreams” was a highlight for us as the event really helped showcase our programs, our philosophy, and why we are different as an organization. Our Ugandan Country Director flew in from Uganda and her presence really hit home. We showcased 20+ years of work we did in rural Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi using video, photo and art exhibits. Guests left with a deeper understanding of our organization and the value we offer to residents in those regions. It was a great party, too!

Do you have any advice for other young professionals?
Find a niche in your company or industry, foster the skills needed to execute the task, and form it into YOUR staple. And do this by bringing your unique personality to the office. Realize from the get-go that you are contributing to something bigger. That said, your career or current job doesn’t define who you are – finding a balance between these two is important. I’m not just an associate director because that’s what I do most days; I’m also a businessman and former musician who is trying to understand this whole meditation thing… ya know?!

Where is your favourite place to wine/dine in your city and why?
I’m still trying to figure this one out. When I lived in Vancouver I definitely had a few places I would frequent. Toronto is a different story – something I love about this city is how often I see a new restaurant I didn’t even know existed just by walking down the street.

When you’re not working how do you love to spend your “Me” time?
I love working out and I’ve recently added yoga to this equation, as well as meditation. In the summer I play tennis and sail. Last summer my crew and I did a lot of sailing on our #tugendesail boat, which we will spend lots of time on again this summer!

Where is your favourite place to travel? Why?
Considering I’m in Africa a lot, this answer could get biased. So I’d have to say a relaxing trip to Florida or California (where I’ve recently started a satellite office). I’ve been very lucky with all the continents I’ve been able to visit. Usually, I just want something low-key.

If you had to choose a theme song, what would it be?
‘Distant Relatives’ by Nas & Damian Marley – the entire album.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
I’d be teaching at the college/university level. I come from an extended family where everyone is a teacher (both my parents are former teachers). I would definitely be striving to run a various-venture company in some capacity – paralleling what we are already doing with MBUNTU.

Do you support any charities? If so, which one(s) and why is that important to you?
You mean other than my own!? … of course. I’ve recently started working with A Ticket Forward, a community of travellers dedicated to paying it forward founded by my friend, Jordan Axani. Jordan was instrumental in helping me develop a presence for Salama SHEILD Foundation in Los Angeles, and eventually throughout the U.S. Together we are collaborating through our enterprises to raise social capital as well.

What to you is notable?
Evolving for relevancy.

Blackberry, iPhone, Android, or Other?
iPhone, even though I know Samsung stuff is perceived to be better. Apple products are more fun, and my friends joke about everything needing to be fun in order for me to be interested. My best friend and former roommate once made a video (to drive the point home) in regards to how and why I needed to clean up my peanut butter spoons after use. This explains everything, really.