On a warm evening in 2008, Oklahoma City native Tyler Schooley landed in the East African country of Uganda. Only 23 years old, he had already visited more than two dozen countries, backpacking solo through some of them. But this was no mere visit. Though he had never been to Uganda before and knew only one person in the country, Schooley had decided to make this his new home.
“The reality of my decision to move to Uganda first hit on the one-hour drive from the airport to central Kampala,” he said via email, “as I associated my new home with the seemingly chaotic sites of crowded and dirty streets, traffic violations in plenty, and the odd goat or cow walking in the middle of the city’s road.”
Americans move to places like Uganda for various reasons — to fill positions as missionaries or aid workers or diplomats. Not Schooley. He showed up, sight unseen, to become an entrepreneur. And now, six years later, it’s paying off.
After finishing high school in Enid, Schooley attended Oklahoma State University as a finance major. During college he traveled widely, backpacking through Europe, studying Spanish in Latin America, and spending a Semester at Sea that took him around the globe. He traveled with his grandfather to the Democratic Republic of Congo, his first visit to the continent he would call home years later.
In places like India, where he stopped during the Semester at Sea, he encountered extreme poverty. The disparity between impoverished parts of India and the wealth he was exposed to in America was one of the forces that shaped his vision.
“This polarizing dichotomy between the haves and have-nots was eye-opening to me, and led me to explore how I could create opportunities for people to financially advance where such opportunities were otherwise rare,” Schooley said.
An influential decision
After graduating magna cum laude, finishing internships in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and backpacking through Peru and Bolivia, Schooley saw a choice for himself. As he put it, “either step into the real world with a corporate job, or make a radical move to the developing world.”
Schooley’s mother, Oklahoma City native Donna Lawrence, says she was not surprised when Schooley made the decision.
“From the time he began talking, Tyler was inquisitive, determined, and fearless,” she said.
Still, she was shocked that her son chose to move to an African country that neither of them knew very much about. And she feared for his safety.
Whereas many Americans in places like Uganda aim to directly serve the poorest, Schooley sees motivated, well-educated Ugandans as the change agents of their society, and he aims to build businesses where they can flourish.
During his six years in Uganda, he has worked with a Dubai-based investment firm on real estate development, helped launch the successful social enterprise Sseko Designs, and founded a marketing firm, an agriculture business, and an online guide for foreigners living in Uganda’s capital.
Liz Bohannon, co-founder of Sseko Designs, remembers working with Schooley to lay the company’s foundations.
“I learned through this process that Tyler is one of the most committed, ambitious and relentless guys I know. He can seriously hustle,” Bohannon said.
But she says Schooley is just as concerned with personal growth as business growth, and that he “believes in the importance of people and relationships above profit and the bottom line.”
This is the unique balance that seems to define Schooley’s trajectory, a real hunger for the competition of business coupled with a commitment to the people he comes in contact with.
Schooley is focusing his energies on Inflate Africa, the company he founded that supplies marketing products to some of Uganda’s biggest companies. The region’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, he said, and opportunities abound. But those opportunities “come with a set of frustrating complexities that make navigating the market nearly impossible for any newcomer,” Schooley said.
Eye on greater good
Through it all Schooley maintains his focus on the greater good. “With Inflate Africa we can build an organization that empowers and develops African leaders, and they will go on to achieve amazingly beneficial things for the betterment of their society.”
Even his mother has come around. Though she still wishes he lived closer, Lawrence has visited a few times and doesn’t worry as much about his safety.
“I’m so proud of him in so many respects,” she said. “To move to a developing country like Uganda and build businesses like he has takes a great deal of courage.”