Chinedu Echeruo is a successful serial entrepreneur committed to transforming economic disparity in the United States. Born in Nigeria but now calling New York his home, Chinedu has founded a plethora of companies over the past two decades. He co-founded HopStop, a popular app that provided users with travel directions for public transport in over 600 cities, before he sold it to Apple in 2013. With the startups he has founded since then, Chinedu has focused on teaching entrepreneurship and creating new models for economic development. His most recent venture, Beloved Ecosystem, is an ambitious, science-based attempt at creating an ecosystem of startups that will help historically disadvantaged communities in the U.S. lift themselves out of poverty.
Since the late 1990s, Chinedu has (co-)founded a string of companies and initiatives, both in the United States and across the African continent. Whether successful or not, almost all of these endeavors were intended to fundamentally change the way a particular industry or system operates.
In 2005, Chinedu founded HopStop.com, a website and mobile application that provided users with travel directions for public transportation. The company was born out of Chinedu’s own frustrations with getting lost in New York City’s complicated subway system. Wondering why it was possible to get online directions when driving a car, but not when using public transport, he decided to build such a service himself, and HopStop was born. The app provided door-to-door directions using a combination of public transit, walking, biking, and other means of transportation.
As the company expanded and grew out of its startup phase, Chinedu stepped down as the CEO in 2009 but remained Chairman of the Board. Moving well beyond its initial focus on New York City, HopStop eventually added support for some 600 cities around the world. The idea of providing online city transit directions became so mainstream that Apple could no longer ignore the fact that it was missing from its own Maps application. The company acquired HopStop in 2013 and integrated much of its functionality into Apple Maps.
Beyond HopStop, Chinedu founded multiple other tech startups, including Tripology, a referral service for travel agents that was acquired by Rand McNally and eventually USA Today, and, more recently, Gigameet, a social networking platform focused on charity and entrepreneurship.
In addition to these US-based startups, Chinedu launched several business ideas during his time in Africa. Even before founding HopStop, he made an attempt at revolutionizing the way assets are traded on the African continent. In 2012, when he had once again temporarily returned to Africa, Chinedu tried to resolve the lack of resources and information facing most small businesses in Africa, when compared to entrepreneurs in the West. He developed the concept of the Business-in-a-Box: a crowdsourcing platform aimed at providing entrepreneurs throughout Africa with much of the knowledge and information they would need to make their business successful.
Although both efforts didn’t ultimately succeed, they provided Chinedu with many important lessons. Central among them was the insight that a business should always first and foremost be focused on solving its customers’ problems, rather than on realizing the entrepreneur’s abstract vision of what they want to create.
In recent years, Chinedu’s entrepreneurial efforts have shifted more towards collaboration, co-creation, and empowering others to improve their livelihoods through entrepreneurship. With the Startup School of Alchemy, he ran an online program that teaches aspiring entrepreneurs all the components of what it takes to build a successful business. Through the Love & Magic Company, he aimed at resolving social issues by pioneering the co-creation of new and fluid forms of organization, together with a range of partners.
Building on the lessons and material from these initiatives – but with a much larger objective – Chinedu recently founded the Beloved Ecosystem. With the Beloved Ecosystem, he aims to create an ecosystem of startups with the goal of economically empowering and growing wealth in distressed neighborhoods across the United States (starting with New York City). The Beloved Ecosystem will be a “startup factory” modeled after Techstars and Y Combinator, which will co-create startups with teams of “entrepreneurs in residence.” The initial focus will be on creating technology startups that provide services to governments, a multi-billion-dollar market. Chinedu aims to raise $80 million by December 2023 for the Beloved Ecosystem through three investment rounds, with the objective of getting strategic partners invested in its success both literally and figuratively.
In all his endeavors, Chinedu has taken a scientific yet human-centered approach to creating impact. In fact, his decision to use the name “Beloved Ecosystem” stems from his habit of talking about “beloved customers.” He believes this helps with generating empathy for the customer, which ultimately enables companies to create solutions that are more aligned with what their customers need. In line with this, most if not all of Chinedu’s businesses have been aimed at solving the human suffering that inspired the business idea in the first place – like the discomfort he experienced himself, constantly finding himself getting lost in New York’s subway.
Chinedu strongly believes in the power of individuals to solve virtually any problem – including poverty – with the right mix of information, imagination, and creativity. The issue is that many people are unable to express their creative potential in useful ways, due to our current systems and organizational structures. Corporations, as the most prevalent form of organization in our society, are possibly the best illustration. In Chinedu’s view, corporations are extremely effective and good at what they do, but the problem is that “their purpose is unhinged:” there is a mismatch between what is good for the corporation and what is good for us as individuals.
Because systems like the corporation are so effective at what they do, it is very hard to replace them. As a result, we are stuck with systems that don’t ultimately serve most of the people in them, and that instead continue to exacerbate the underlying disparities in our society. In Chinedu’s view, the only way to change this and end poverty is by designing new systems that are equally or even more effective at achieving results, while simultaneously serving the good of all.
Chinedu’s main question at the heart of designing such a system is this: how do we organize ourselves effectively in a way that will help us achieve the outcomes we want? The answer, according to him, can be found in an unusual place: the field of physics, which he has studied extensively in recent years.
Physics is about the movement of things, which includes human beings. It can therefore help us understand why human beings move (i.e., behave) in the way they do. And not just that – taking a physics perspective can show us, with a certain mathematical precision, how to build systems of organization that guide people’s behavior in ways that help us achieve the outcomes we are looking for.
Two key lessons are relevant to Chinedu’s vision. First, physics tells us that a system can only achieve its overall objectives by aligning them with the individual objectives of the people in it. Second, the main objective or desire of individual people is to “make their stories come true.”
These insights form the main driver for how Chinedu will be designing the Beloved Ecosystem. The ecosystem’s overall objective is to reduce poverty and create wealth in economically distressed communities. Chinedu knows that, in order to achieve that, he will need to align the ecosystem with the stories and desires of the people in those communities, and then offer them ways to make those come true. For example, the types of startup opportunities or learning opportunities he aims to offer, as well as the ways he plans to engage people in them, need to be aligned with those people’s stories and desires. If he manages to do so, the lessons from physics indicate that people will naturally become part of his efforts, and the ecosystem will succeed in achieving both their objectives as well as its own.
The key ingredient in this effort is empathy, which is critical for two reasons. First, the only way to help people make their stories come true is by first understanding what they are. Second, to the extent that people are unable to realize those stories, it is crucial to understand the (external and internal) barriers that are preventing them from doing so: “complexity,” as Chinedu calls it. Once we understand these things, we can create an organizational design that reduces that complexity and empowers people to take positive action towards their goals. Chinedu believes that when we can do so, we will unlock a tremendous amount of latent human energy and achieve highly effective systems that will outcompete the existing ones.
Although this vision for creating better systems sounds highly centralized and top-down, another key ingredient for its success is the opposite: decentralization. Chinedu views it as crucial to delegate most decision-making to the edges of the ecosystem, where the information needed to make those decisions truly lives. In his view, doing so successfully will require something akin to Ashoka’s vision on teams of teams: a fluid, highly adaptive set of interdependent sub-systems that work together to optimally process information and come to the right course of action.
The Beloved Ecosystem aims to do all of this in the context of reducing poverty in distressed communities. Chinedu recognizes that most people in these communities experience complexity around taking positive action and therefore perceive a lack of agency and ability to take action. For example, attempting to create wealth for your family by starting your own business is an incredibly complex matter for someone who is already working two jobs to make ends meet – in fact, it can be hard to believe it’s even possible. In this situation, the Beloved Ecosystem’s goals are to: help these people perceive their own agency and make them believe it is indeed possible (“pepper their mind with possibilities”); offer them easier, less complex, and more financially secure ways to start that business; and provide them with the skills and tools needed to make it successful.
Chinedu Echeruo grew up in Eastern Nigeria, before his parents moved to the New York City when he was 16. He obtained a Bachelor of Science from Syracuse University, and later an MBA from Harvard Business School.
His parents’ move to the U.S., intended to give Chinedu and his siblings an American education, was a logical one, in a family of people who have sought knowledge and then shared it with their communities. In the early days of colonialism in Nigeria, Chinedu’s grandfather was selected by his fellow villagers to receive an education in England. When he returned, he was instrumental in starting the village’s first school. In similar vein, Chinedu’s father came back to Eastern Nigeria after receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell University, and founded the first university in the state. His mother worked as a medical doctor, both in Nigeria and in the United States.
Chinedu views his quest to understanding and teaching entrepreneurship as a natural continuation of that story. Following the sale of HopStop, he spent many years studying the nature of entrepreneurship and the role it can play in achieving the greater good for humanity. He now looks at entrepreneurship as a form of art, where the entrepreneur imagines creative solutions to people’s problems and then builds those solutions and transforms the problem, in much the same way a painter imagines their creation on a white canvas and then transforms the canvas into a piece of art.
His journey of understanding entrepreneurship has also given Chinedu a different perspective on wealth. Rather than looking at it as a finite resource, Chinedu views wealth as something that can be created, at any time and by anyone, by providing effective solutions to people’s most fundamental problems. He often quotes the philosopher Alan Watts, who stated that “there is no technical reason for poverty.”
All these insights put Chinedu on a path radically different from that in the early years of his career, when he worked as an analyst at J.P. Morgan and on credit default swaps at a hedge fund. His years on Wall Street gave him an intimate understanding of the mismatch between what serves corporations and what serves humanity, feeding into his desire to create better forms of organization.
At the heart of this desire is Chinedu’s perspective on love and oneness. He often talks about humanity’s growing collective consciousness and our progression towards unity. From his perspective, businesses and entrepreneurs should propel that progression forward, by organizing individuals in a way that unleashes each of their unique creative capacities. As he said in a recent talk, “if we can all bring together our superpowers where they are needed, in a collective way, that’s where the future of work is going.”
It is this vision of the future that compels Chinedu to dedicate himself to building the ecosystems that nurture and encourage this creation, inspiring and educating individuals on how to use their own creative capacity for the greater good, and empowering people to make their own stories come true.
Chinedu Echeruo has been a member of Ashoka's Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network since 2022.