Michel “Danladi” Verheijen ’97 is a busy man. As a venture capitalist he has his mind and heart in a wide variety of projects. But there is generally one common denominator for these initiatives: improved lives and prospects for Nigerians.
“Some of the work that I do would be no big deal in the U.S.,” said the softspoken Calvin engineering major, “but in Nigeria, these projects are transformative. In the U.S., people do what I do to increase the profit for a company by a half of a percent, that’s the goal. My goal is to change lives.”
Verheijen is the principal for Verod Capital Management, which specializes in funding projects in emerging markets, with a special focus on Nigeria. At times, Verod purchases and runs companies; in other instances it starts a venture from scratch. And in other situations, Verod advises and manages efforts for other companies.
Currently, a celebrated effort of Verheijen’s is the funding and construction of Nigeria’s first commuter railway system in Lagos, his home city.
“We intend to build the first railroad across Lagos, and we’ll be the first private train company in Nigeria, part of the largest public-private partnership in the country’s history,” he said.
Verheijen explains that commuting across the second-largest city in Africa is notoriously unpredictable, in that traveling from place to place can take anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours, depending on the state of the roads and traffic congestion. It is very difficult to conduct personal or corporate business in such an environment.
“The impact of a well-functioning train system will enhance efficiency and productivity exponentially,” he said.
Part of the project involves another innovation: purchasing an entire fleet of trains from another city halfway around the world.
“Rail systems are incredibly expensive, so we traveled the world to find out if we might purchase a large number of used, but still excellent trains,” he said. “We have a deal with the city of Toronto to buy up to 250 trains as that city transitions to newer models. We think it is a creative solution and will be a third of the cost of building new trains. Our goal is to have a functioning rail system in Lagos by 2015.”
The range of diverse projects involving Verheijen and Verod Capital is impressive. For example, Verod purchased a Finnish mobile application company, set up a San Francisco office and plans to roll out Spinlet, the African music version of iTunes via mobile phones, allowing “any African artist or label to download songs and have them heard throughout the country."
Another project is the startup of Nigeria’s first aluminum can production facility.
“We started operation in June of 2010,” Verheijen said. “The new president of Nigeria came to take part in the opening, and the company is having a huge effect on the economy. We are providing jobs, improving manufacturing, keeping resources from leaving the country and doing something environmentally friendly.”
Verheijen heard about Calvin at his school, Hillcrest Christian, in Jos, Nigeria. He majored in electrical engineering but was drawn to business, leading him to graduate school at Stanford to study operations research, a program that blends technology and business. After experiences in the consulting world in the States and an investment firm in Nigeria, Verheijen returned to school, adding a Harvard MBA degree to his résumé.
“The impact I can have on Nigeria through these projects is extensive. Thousands get employed, which has an impact on tens of thousands, which has the cumulative benefit on hundreds of thousands,” he said.
How does he stay grounded as a Christian in this fast-paced, global enterprise?
“You have to remember what you are in this for,” he said. “You use your talents for the benefit of God’s kingdom. My wife and I try to keep God in the center and to spend our days being productive and positive, with a sense of humor about it all. We’re in this for the long haul.”