Heshan de Silva has walked a rocky personal path to become Kenya’s youngest CEO of a venture capital firm. By Aamera jiwaji
To look at him today, no one would guess the demons that Kenya’s youngest venture capitalist Heshan de Silva has battled with. He is the picture of health as he sits on the patio of his home in Lavington, a green, high-income residential suburb of Nairobi, relaxed and self-assured in a pair of drainpipe jeans and a red and white patterned shirt. His smile is quick and easy. And his right eyebrow (which seems to have a life of its own) vacillates between a sharp peak and a smooth curve as we talk.
Nothing alludes to the dark days he has seen. And despite the personal wealth he has accumulated, Heshan prefers the simple life of an average middle-class Kenyan. He wakes up early; eats one main meal a day; exercises at the Bikram Yoga studio and spends his weekends in church or watching British TV series Downton Abbey with his girlfriend.
But Heshan is unlike any other 25-year-old. He is Kenya’s youngest dollar multimillionaire and founder of DSGVenCap, a venture capital firm that he started four years ago and which today has a net worth of almost $1bn. His partners are New York-based hedge funds, MAS Partners LLC and Moore Capital, whose representatives he met in 2012 during a fireside chat at a lodge in the Maasai Mara game park.
In the two years since, Heshan has cultivated a work ethic that draws on the advice of his mentor, visionary Kenyan capitalist Chris Kirubi, and an email chain with some of Africa’s top business minds such as Ashish Thakkar, Aliko Dangote and Strive Masiyiwa.
His intimate exposure to some of Africa’s billion-dollar deals is complemented by interactions with his New York partners, who are close to Berkshire Hathaway.
“When you get to learn from people who negotiate $20bn plus deals, you learn money has no emotion. And when you can learn from people who have negotiated that, a $10,000 deal is easy to master,” he said. “It’s a rounding error for these guys.”
Heshan’s interactions with some of the bigger names in global financial circles have taught him more than business acumen, however. He has also perfected the art of profiling from his New York partners, who trained in the art of body language, and finds the skill uniquely instructive during a business meeting.
“Eighty per cent of what you say isn’t coming out of your mouth, and you can’t control it. And when you can read that, sitting in a meeting is easy because you know how it’s going to go,” he said.
But while Heshan’s confidence belies his age, it traces back to some harrowing personal trials at a Miami university when he was experimenting with alcohol and heroin – which nearly took his life – and is a story he is refreshingly open about.
“The thing with alcohol and drug abuse is you’re always recovering. It is a struggle. You come across pressures at work, pressures in life and for most normal people it’s ‘Let’s go out and get a beer’. But for me one beer could lead to a whole week of stuff,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I get addicted to things quite easily. In university it was the need to fit in. Superficial things. Then it became drugs and alcohol. And now it’s working.”