Alina Truhina — From refugee to global citizen fostering African startup ambitions
January 16, 2024
Adam Wakefield

Today, Alina Truhina is Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Founders Factory Africa (FFA), a hands-on investor with a portfolio of over 50 startups, with Truhina directly responsible for bringing in more than US$140 million of corporate funding. As an integral part of the FFA senior leadership team, she has travelled the globe, helping corporates understand the potential of Africa’s startup sector and how they can aid in unlocking that potential.

Truhina’s present is a long way from a childhood defined by sweeping change. After being initially raised in Riga, Latvia, Alina and her family were forced to flee the country of their birth upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, landing in Australia as refugees. In a recent podcast series titled “Build To Thrive: The Alina Truhina Story” and hosted by 702’s Refiloe Mpakanyane, Truhina details how that childhood helped inform a career path that took her from corporate media to the World Bank before she decided to take a plunge into the world of startups, culminating in the co-founding of FFA.

Alina Truhina and Refiloe Mpakanyane at Founders Factory Africa’s headquarters. Photo credit: Mercy Daniels

Resilience in the face of adversity

One of the most pertinent characteristics that Truhina picked up from her childhood and the example set by her parents is resilience. Truhina was just 10 when her family fled Latvia. She didn’t know if she’d ever see her grandparents again. And, as is the case with so many refugees, the journey had only just begun once they arrived in Australia. Despite being qualified doctors, Truhina’s parents had to work as unskilled labourers to earn an income during their first few years in Australia. Their work ethic and values were a model that Truhina embedded deep in her sense of self.

“There’s immense hunger, persistence, and resilience to do something no matter what. This is something that I carry with me to this day,” she said. “You have to put your pride aside to go from being a doctor to working in a factory. You have to believe that you can still provide for your children and family and that maybe, someday, you can go back to being who you were.”

In time, Truhina’s parents would officially become permanent residents in Australia and once again qualify as doctors. Today, they have their own practices, which they’ve run for the past decade. Desperate to follow in her parent’s footsteps, Truhina applied for medical school but was rejected twice. Truhina did not know it at the time, but the immense disappointment she felt would lead her to make choices that would set Truhina on a path that would take her around the world and, ultimately, into Africa’s rapidly growing startup sector.

From corporate media to entrepreneur

While still studying at the University of Melbourne, Truhina accepted an offer to join a globally-recognised media buying agency. Although she looks back on the experiences fondly, she nonetheless felt drawn to do something more purposeful.

“I felt a curiosity, but also an incredible nostalgia and pull towards understanding what doing something at scale and what doing something purposeful and impactful would look like,” Truhina says.

That led to her studying for a Masters in International Affairs and, later, a job at the World Bank. The seven years Truhina spent at the international financial institution heavily influenced the future shape of her career. The position allowed Truhina to interact with global corporations, international organisations, and development agencies. Those experiences and relationships served Truhina well when she took what she calls the “calculated risk” of joining the SPRING Accelerator, where she spearheaded corporate partnerships. The accelerator has scaled more than 75 startups in nine countries across Africa and Southeast Asia. Truhina acknowledges that the jump required learning new skills and putting them into practice all at once.

“I don’t think there’s a way to prepare yourself,” she said. “You have to learn from other people who are in that ecosystem. The journey I had to embark on involved forgetting some of the skills I learned and relearning and adapting to new skills. Relearning is critical to succeeding but also crucial for making the right decisions.”

Becoming a founder

Having seen the potential for commercially-focused startups to positively and profoundly impact their users, Truhina co-founded Founders Factory Africa in 2018 with serial entrepreneur Roo Rogers, the man behind the SPRING Accelerator, and Sam Sturm.

“The first time I met Alina was on top of a mountain in Nepal. We were launching a program called SPRING, which was a dynamic and exciting program to help entrepreneurs address the needs of adolescent women across nine countries.

“And she [Truhina] came into the room, and she said at the top of her voice, ‘Hi. I’m Alina.’ It was so clear that this person knew who she was and what she was there for. It was inspiring. I had to know her and meet her,” says Rogers of Truhina.

According to Truhina, the investor’s early days had a definite startup feel to them. “For the first investment decks that we did — and by the way, there were tens, if not hundreds, of them — we had to print out every single slide,” she said. “I remember posting every single sheet of paper across the room, so the room was filled up slide-by-slide because we were trying to articulate a model that is unique and new. And it’s not one that potential investors or entrepreneurs and partners knew about, and so we really needed to get the framing of it right.”

It’s an experience that she feels has enabled her to better advise and aid the startups which FFA invests in and helps to build. “It’s that iterative nature of going back to the drawing board and back to the post-it notes that you’ve made and thinking through how to make it better based on the feedback you get,” she said. That constant iteration has paid off, with FFA building successful corporate partnerships and a growing portfolio of more than 50 startups.

Inspiring brave choices

If there’s something that budding entrepreneurs should take from Truhina’s life story aside from resilience and a willingness to keep iterating, it’s to not be afraid to make brave choices.

That bravery is now on show in 2023, with Truhina transitioning into a new role at FFA so that she can run a new multi-million dollar early-stage investment fund in Southeast Asia. Called The Radical Fund, it is focused on climate change and being resilient to climate change. For Truhina, these questions require as much investment as possible.

“What are those broader complex solutions required to help societies adapt to the realities of climate change?” she asks. “For us, it’s not just about taking carbon out of the air. We’re fascinated and thinking about the different business models that change behaviours that can lead to mass adoption of solutions that have an outcome on climate change.”

Truhina’s new role is that of executive advisor, which will allow Truhina to still contribute to the broader FFA project while prioritising her work at The Radical Fund. Given Truhina’s deep commitment to catalysing innovation that solves local problems, her continuing involvement at FFA is something that is a firm net positive in the broader story of the African startup ecosystem.