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Robert Kabera Earns 2022 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award

Combining entrepreneurship with a passion for helping people.

 

Robert Kabera addressing invited guests after receiving the 2022 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award (photo credit: Saul Bromberger)

On October 21, Robert Kabera, ’11, Energy Resources Engineering, was honored with the school’s 2022 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award. The award recognizes alumni who have made highly significant and long-lasting contributions in the civil, government, business, or academic communities within 20 years of receiving their Stanford degrees.

Arun Majumdar, the Chester Naramore Dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, presented the award to Kabera saying, “Rob is an entrepreneur and inventor, a world citizen and refugee. His background and experiences have fostered a passion for helping people that has powered transformative breakthroughs.”

Before Stanford

Robert Kabera’s father is a towering influence in his life. A successful Rwandan metallurgical engineer, a man of deep faith whose tremendous acts of selflessness saved his family in the face of the horrors of war, his example is Kabera’s compass.

It was his father who hid the family in an underground tunnel for 22 days during the Rwandan civil war and genocide – and invited 11 neighbors whose lives were at risk due to their religion to share the safety the small space provided. Kabera was 5 years old. “We lost everything but our lives,” Kabera says, “but my father has never complained. He has a deep sense of contentment, a deep sense of peace, a smile never missing from his face, every day. Just looking at him and his life, if I want to be happy and know that sense of contentment, I have to share myself, my services, my work with the world. This is a huge theme in my career: How do I help as many people as quickly as possible?”

After the war, Kabera and his family spent the next six years moving through a series of refugee camps in Africa before migrating to the U.S. and settling in Memphis, Tennessee. “It was a huge culture shock,” Kabera remembers. “But when you move around a lot, you learn to adapt and survive.”

“For example,” he continues, “I was in the South, where sports is everything, and I did well in cross country as well as track and field. I didn’t really enjoy it much but I realized when you did well in sports, no one bullied you. I also discovered that the only place for me to justify my humanity was in a classroom. If I did better than my classmates, I commanded their respect. So studying was a matter of dignity.”

Discovering a Path in Energy

Kabera’s lived experience drove his academic interest in energy security.

“When you have the greatest frustration and you take time to reflect, that typically shows you a path to success,” he says. “At 10 years old living in a refugee camp in the middle of the Kalahari Desert in 1998, I remember sitting outside at night with a kerosene lamp, trying to read a science book for an exam the next day. The lamp keeps going out; I look up in the sky out of frustration and see a plane full of lights flying across the sky. I asked myself two questions: How can we get those lights down here, and how do we keep them from going out when the wind blows? That frustration ended up driving everything I have achieved from that moment up to now.”

“He wanted to turn his life experience into engineering solutions that could make the lives of thousands of humans better. That tells you who he is,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, Kabera’s first-year advisor. A former associate vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of freshmen at Stanford, Lythcott-Haims introduced Kabera to the alumni, faculty, students, and staff assembled at the school’s annual alumni reception and awards ceremony.

Kabera with Julie Lythcott-Haims, his frosh advisor
Kabera with Julie Lythcott-Haims, his frosh advisor and Stanford’s former associate vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of freshmen (photo credit: Saul Bromberger)

“Robert is brilliant and he’s fierce,” says Lythcott-Haims. “He is at the very top of the list of people I feel privileged to have had the chance to know and work with.”

As a Memphis high school student attending a pre-college program on the Stanford campus, Kabera made his way to the Energy Resources Engineering department, where he met, among others, Professor Tony Kovscek. The welcoming nature of department, as well as its entire focus on energy, convinced Kabera that Stanford was where he wanted to be.

Finding a Home on the Farm

Kovscek, who is the school’s Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor, would become Kabera’s departmental advisor. Remembering the first day they met, Kovscek says, “I don’t know if I really knew his story or appreciated it then, but I realized that the motivation in him was a little bit stronger and a little bit different than that of your typical student. His was a thoughtful, purposeful approach to education.” Connor Mooney, Kabera’s roommate sophomore year, immediately saw in Kabera a very enterprising person. “He had a vision for himself,” Mooney says. “He wanted to make the world a better place.”

Taking advantage of experiences in and out of the classroom, Kabera worked hard and did well at Stanford. As a junior, he wanted to study abroad. “Not in a traditional program,” Kovscek says, “but somewhere a little further afield; a place more on the edge. I helped him go to Turkey.” Kabera loved the experience and traveled widely during his time there – not to the beach to relax, but to places like biomass energy facilities and, memorably, a 100% renewable energy village in Germany. “They had wind turbines and solar panels. I said, ‘I know this is what I want to do,’” Kabera recalls.

The 2011 BASES Product Showcase, Stanford’s “science fair on steroids,” was a seminal event for Kabera. He and a colleague invented and entered a portable solar oven that folded up like an envelope and fit in a pocket. In a world where similarly functioning products weighed 7 pounds and cost $30, their oven weighed a few ounces and cost 25 cents. They won second place. “Coming from Rwanda, from refugee camps, from a low-income high school in Memphis, Stanford was never in my universe,” he says. “Competing like this and winning, it was a huge mindset shift. I felt like I belonged, like I could compete, and like I could make a dent in the universe.”

Into the World

Graduating from Stanford, Kabera wrestled with his entrepreneurial ambitions. He remembers thinking, “Is this madness or can I really go out there and do something on my own?” After a year working in the corporate sector he realized he could do a lot more, a lot quicker, and on a larger scale if he pursued his ambition. Kovscek agrees. “Rob is a doer,” he says. “That’s what his impact is. He’s out there, fighting it out in the real world.” Kabera started by trying to commercialize the solar oven. Using the money they won at the product showcase, he and his co-inventor did a pilot project in Botswana. Although the venture did not work out, “if you make enough mistakes and learn what not to do, you will learn how to succeed,” Kabera says with a smile.

Returning to campus as a research assistant at Stanford Seed, an initiative led by the Graduate School of Business that aims to end global poverty by equipping entrepreneurs to build businesses in emerging markets, Kabera gained the business background he needed. What he learned in his two years there, in the classroom and about himself, convinced him that his path as an entrepreneur was the right one.

Africa

Kabera learned that Power Africa, President Obama’s initiative to electrify Africa, was looking for someone who understood Africa, energy systems, and business fundamentals. “I grew up in Africa, spoke five African languages, majored in energy resources engineering, and had enough business knowledge to be dangerous,” he laughs. “So I got to return to the continent as a consultant and worked with 50 companies in 9 countries to secure financing for energy projects.”

“That experience made me realize two things,” he relates. “First, a lot of the issues the entrepreneur is faced with aren’t about technology, they’re about access to financing. And the barrier is perception; it is risk. Second, if I actually took the time to build a business from scratch on the continent, I could create more value, help more people.”

Credimarks

The result of those realizations was Credimarks, an alternative credit rating platform he founded in Ghana in 2017. Kabera’s objective with Credimarks is to extend credit into traditionally underserved markets. The company has over 30,000 customers in Africa in sectors such as banking, leasing, agribusiness, and energy. His overarching goal is to lift 500 million farmers from poverty within a generation. “At the heart of Credimarks,” he says, “is the need for fairness.” Today, the Credimarks alternative credit scoring algorithm is also being used by the first licensed alternative credit bureau in South Africa for the informal sector. It is also being leveraged by a large South African financial institution to offer affordable mortgages to people living in the Soweto township. 

Asked about the origins of his next venture, Kabera says, “I think the word in English is ‘serendipitous.’” A former lab partner, with whom he had worked on projects about the ability to predict electrical blackouts, reached out to him with the idea of commercializing the predictive technology. “Remember that project we worked on seven years ago?” Kabera recalls him asking. “Why don’t we team up and get it done?” Climate change had exacerbated the weather conditions responsible for an increasing number of power failures and the timing was right to try to make a difference.

In 2020, the two founded Sync Energy AI, a no-code energy AI platform that predicts weather-related impacts on the electric grid with a high degree of accuracy, months in advance. “Credimarks is about risk modeling to give people access to financial services and products,” Kabera explains. “Sync Energy is the same application, but for keeping people safe in extreme weather events.” Sync Energy is currently focused on the U.S. but, says Kabera, “the ability to use this technology to save lives in Samoa or help farmers in Ghana affected by climate extremes offers the same opportunity that we had with Credimarks: using tech to impact an entire region, an entire hemisphere, instantly. You don’t have to wait ten years.”

Looking Ahead

Rob in front of waterfall
Kabera at the Hakone Japanese Gardens, Saratoga, California, 2022 (photo courtesy of Jessica James)

When considering the future and how complex problems will be solved, Kabera returns to the example of his father’s selfless leadership. “For me, the answer lies in the tunnel experience,” he explains. “We were able to survive because we came together as a group. Whatever we are faced with – today, tomorrow, or in a thousand years – we are going to succeed and surprise ourselves the most if we come together.

“I think my skill as a leader is providing an environment where people can excel by my being humble enough to realize that I’m not good in their area, and stepping aside to let them succeed. That’s my version of ‘let’s come together’: Let’s put our skills together and solve this thing.”
 

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