Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa has navigated his way through various life challenges, all of which have shaped him into the unstoppable entrepreneur and businessman that he is today. Tribert had a difficult childhood, growing up as a refugee during the 1960s, losing his mother at a young age, and being expelled from school at age 13. Despite having the odds stacked against him, he went on to obtain a certificate as a desk clerk and typist and study French, the official language of the country. Starting work at a petroleum storage company, Tribert was given an opportunity to flex his managerial skills, allowing him to make executive decisions for the first time. Emboldened by this strength, he went into the bakery business, but then set his sights on the importation of cigarettes. Today, his businesses employ over 26,000 individuals, and have strengthened communities, changed lives across the countries he has operated in, and allowed him to accrue a personal net worth of over $200 million in his lifetime. In hopes of giving back, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa started the TRA Foundation to benefit African youth through scholarships and internships.
What keeps you motivated?
Every day is a blessing. It is important for me to wake up every morning with gratitude in my heart, as I never want to take anything, I have for granted. As I had a difficult and challenging upbringing, I recognize that I live a blessed life. I want to be able to create the same opportunities for others that I have been able to benefit from. This is one of the primary motivating factors for starting the Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa Foundation—it is my lifelong goal to be able to provide opportunities for African youth. Having been denied a formal education myself after the 8th grade, this is one of my driving motivations in everything that I do.
How do you motivate others?
As a leader, I believe you need to build people up. When I am working with young entrepreneurs or employees, it is my responsibility to instill confidence in them. It is often thought that employees need to show their employers respect in order to be respected, but I believe the opposite to be true. By fostering the growth of my employees, showing them what hard work and dedication looks like, they naturally want to do and be better for themselves as well as the company. Employment is a two-way road, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
I don’t believe that such a thing exists. Sometimes, work takes priority, and other times, my personal life takes priority. As in life and in business, things happen that are out of your control. From a stalled shipment to a loss in the family, I give my time to what is needed most. I believe that if you allow yourself to tune into your intuition, you will always do what is right in that moment. This has been a great strength for me in balancing my love of work and my curious nature about life. My work motivates me to be ambitious, but my personal life reminds me to slow down—both are needed for a successful life.
What traits do you possess that makes a successful leader?
As a leader, I have an ability to problem solve that allows me to maximize growth. Being able to identify problems and how to increase efficiency is a skill that has lent itself to my business, but also to my employees. As a leader, I have to have the interests of my employees at heart, and a part of that is ensuring stable and sustainable employment not only for term, but their loved ones and family members as well.
What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and ask questions. Not every employer is going to allow you to do this but try and find one that does. When you are learning how to grow and sustain a business, you will need to make mistakes, and should never be afraid to ask questions when you do not know something. A lot of what drives people away from putting new ideas into practice is fear, and this is something that can be overcome. If you have had people shame you for your mistakes in the past, this can be difficult to get over, but it is possible. Be bold and unafraid.
What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?
The one piece of advice that changed my life was that not everyone is going to understand your dream, and that doesn’t make it any less valid or possible. There have been multiple occasions throughout my life where people have not believed in me or what I wanted to do with MTC and Global Tobacco Supply Ltd., and if I had listened to them, they would have been right.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to others?
I would suggest that everyone finds a way to give back to their local community. If you feel unfulfilled, do something for someone else. Whether it is through donating your time, money, or resources, giving back is extremely important in the world we live in. There is a lot of equality in our society, and some of the most gifted, talented, and unique individuals are denied opportunities just because of their circumstances—part of the reason I started the TRA Foundation. If you are someone who has been able to escape your circumstance, I believe you have a duty to give back what you can. I suggest that people always think about those who have less than them.
Outside of work, what defines you as a person?
I try my best to spread joy and happiness to everyone I meet. As someone who has over 26,000 employees worldwide, I believe in the power of relationships and potential of people. If I am able to make someone laugh, put a smile on their face, or impact their life in any positive way, I will do it. I do not think that any one activity defines who I am as a person. I am ambitious by nature, but kind at heart.