Avery Bang is the entrepreneur behind Bridges to Prosperity, an organisation which has provided infrastructure to connect over 1.2 million rural people with vital education, healthcare and job opportunities. By facilitating the creation of trailbridges, B2P partners with both national and regional governments to enhance and provide access to isolated communities. As an individual, Avery has received recognition from numerous sources, including being one of CauseArtist’s Top 15 Women CEOs Who Impacted the World, and being honoured by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
For me, it was never the case of actively deciding to be an entrepreneur. I saw the problem first and then the steps leading me down this route came about as solutions along the way. It was while I was living in Fiji that I first became aware of the lack of rural infrastructure that was isolating thousands of communities and significantly limiting development. I was volunteering with the Breast Cancer Foundation, and our remit was to go to these rural communities and have conversations with locals about the importance of early breast cancer detection. During these trips, where the aim was to go and perform preventative health care measures, we were continually faced with the basic problem that we just could not get there due to physical barriers such as flooded rivers. So this idea of expanding the amount of ruralised infrastructure came from lived experience.
I was trained as an engineer, and a significant part of my graduate studies were spent looking at how you could standardise infrastructure, both testing and design. My experiences abroad had led me to question why there was such a significant lack of rural infrastructure when there was so obvious a need. I then created a business plan to scale and expand the creation of trailbridges. This is when Bridges to Prosperity really took off.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurs are people that not only see the problems of the world but are able to go one step further and imagine a new future. They need the grit and determination to be able to believe that they can be the solution. I think there is a degree of bold ambition absolutely necessary for this.
I would also add that you need to be agile enough as an entrepreneur to realise that you have to constantly re-address the problem statement and look at the target market from different angles. When I began looking at the idea behind Bridges to Prosperity, the problem felt very technical. It was only later, when I reassessed and had gained vital experience, that I discovered that the challenge was a financial one. The question was really how to mobilise capital for rural districts in emerging frontier markets. There is a constant obligation as an entrepreneur to think about the problem and continually redefine this.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I wouldn’t say there was a specific Eureka moment. In my early twenties, I really did not understand how complicated it would be to build my own business. For me, it was a series of small steps. I continued to ask myself, “what is the next best thing I should do to solve this problem?” And the business expanded from there.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My sense is that now is really the time to be an entrepreneur. We are in the age of entrepreneurship. The brightest and most capable talents see that they can do big things in the world and that they can be the solutions to problems. So many talented individuals are looking around and saying, “I can see this problem and know that I can help fill this gap.” I love being part of this network of peers and friends that are wild dreamers and strive to make these dreams reality.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
I have been watching Elon Musk for the last 6/7 years and have been very interested in him. Specifically, there is something about the way he frames the problem as so much bigger than competitors seem to do that is very eye-opening. Whereas others in the industry tend to view the sector as a finite market, his visions seem, in a way, limitless. This results in him being steps ahead of anyone else. If you are trying to solve problems on the scale that Elon is aiming for, there is a certain amount of crazy in this. People think he’s nuts. Yet, he achieves these visions and this ability to turn ideas into solutions is something I take a lot of inspiration from.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would be most curious about how he has identified the team around him. The scope of what he manages is unfathomable to me, and so he must have exceptional teams in each of his companies.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think an entrepreneur has to reframe failure into learning. If we take this view of failure, then they become an integral part of our business. There are daily failures and daily learnings, and the key thing is to look beyond these. I’ve learned that so much is just about people. We are working with governments and across cultures and needing to put together teams to complement this. Something that took me a while to realise is the importance of finding colleagues that complement you. These may not be necessarily those you get along with easiest in an interview situation, but rather, may be those who, in the long run, will be able to excel at the things you are not as good at. The best teams require a wide diversity of skills and expertise, and this means a wide diversity of people.
How have you funded your ideas?
Jeff Bezos has always said that is important to have free cash flow in order to be able to build big new ideas, that he always wants to have a business that’s cash flowing, so he can always have an R&D department that continues to grow and expand the business. It is the idea of exploit versus explore. How much of my business is exploiting what I already know to be profitable, and how much am I exploring new ideas? This brings balance to the organisation. When people know what you do and know that you have the agility to continue to effectively explore the market, this ensures incoming revenue.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
There have been a lot, especially in social enterprise. Most recently, in capital globalisation, we have been given a fellowship at the Malago Foundation. And when I gave a TED talk, it was a growth edge the company, a signaller. In 2016, we won the Ashden Sustainability Award and this year, also for climate action, we won the Keeling Curve Prize. These have a lot of weight in the climate resilience space and so have aided us in acquiring grants and other funding.
If a new entrepreneur or start-up came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would tell them to subscribe to Harvard Business Review. The Economist is also very important for any business that has a global footprint, which in this day and age almost every business has. Understanding the macro implications of their market is vital. Any more specific advice would largely depend on their market. I also recommend finding communities of like-minded individuals as these opportunities to connect with good thinking and strategy really get you through the tough times.
Are there any benefits to being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?
There is a huge and burgeoning entrepreneurial support system in Oxford, definitely take advantage of this. What is coming out of Oxford is truly amazing, and more and more like-minded individuals are being attracted here.
Have you faced any challenges as a female entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I came from an engineering and construction business and, in the United States, just 11% of those graduating in this sector are women, And in leadership positions, there are less than 5% of us. So for me, in comparison, it seems as if entrepreneurs are far more gender-balanced. However, there are nonetheless differences. I think there are definitely unique opportunities and challenges in being a female leader, and as I have matured, I definitely have sought out more female mentors to help me navigate this. They have made me realise that some of the barriers and challenges we face are not always apparent and have advised me as to the different ways to overcome these.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Do it. You will not regret it.
Any last words of Advice?
If you have curiosity about a business plan or an idea, many times, the resources are closer than you think. But you must ask. If you are on campus at Oxford, you are in the vicinity of some of the world’s smartest and most well-connected people. You have the ability to go and ask for people’s time, and this is invaluable.