Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Burst your bubble and go for it.

The last two weeks I spent putting on two sizable Google tech events in Uganda and Kenya. I met and reconnected with hundreds of techies from computer science students to millionaire entrepreneurs. The present and future success of tech in East Africa filled each room. Every day ended with a panel of both young and seasoned start ups serving as the vision, experience and advisors to an audience aspiring to follow their footsteps. 

These panel discussions got me thinking. What is the difference between those who actually take the leap verse those who only aspire or perhaps don't even dare to aspire. Although not a comprehensive list, I have a few ideas.
Panel for developers and entrepreneurs

First, we can't choose the family we are born into. At birth, there is no difference between those on the stage and those in the seats. 

Family also largely determines the second - capacity for  risk. Not everyone has even has the chance to consider risk. In Africa for example, making it to university requires typically requires enormous sacrifice from families. Not just the cost of the tuition of uni but also the previous years as secondary school costs parents out of pocket as well. If you are luckily enough to make it through college, your family expects you to start repaying and supporting them and your other siblings. Get a job at a bank or with the government  and never turn back. Put your head down, work hard and ignore any inclination of stepping out of the norm. Don't think about the other possibilities. You literally can't afford it. 

Risks is innately tied with fear. Fear of failure, fear of letting others down, and fear there is nothing to catch you if you fall. There is a very limited safety net, if one at all for the typical African. Families are strong, committed to one another but have very limited resources. You, as an educated student are their safety net, their insurance. 

This brings me back to those panelists and my own story. Most of the panelists came from at least middle income families. They had a bit of a cushion and an appetite for risk they chose to feed. Likely contrary to the advice of their families and friends, they went for it. They were well educated, well spoken and perhaps most importantly, well traveled. 

Making goodies with friends in Kenya
Why do I say traveled? Well, a friend of mine and I observed that whether you live in Africa, the US, Asia or the UK, we all grow up in a bubble. That bubble is meant to be secure and reassuring that if you follow the foot steps of those around you, you will have at least as good a life as them. Its not innately a bad thing. But the downside of this bubble is that is also limits the scope of your horizons. What you believe is possible for yourself is significantly determined the radius of that sphere and what is encompasses. In Africa, that results in lots of farmers, bankers, security workers, and government employees - this is actually the same in the US.

For myself, growing up in a small towns in a high school where my career counselor got her degree online, most of my male friends went to drink themselves ill in the military, and about 5 percent of my graduating class went to university, the stats would say, I would end up the same. What changed for me? First, I was blessed, born into the right family. Unlike many in my town and in Africa, my parents and sister pushed me think bigger, to see and change the world. How did they know about the possibilities out there? Travel. How did I learn? Travel. Interacting with people who had done it, seeing a path outside my bubble. 

Young, naive traveler. I am still her :)

When I was 19, I met the first person I ever knew to go to Harvard, Doug.  I was amazed to know and be friends with a real life Harvard grad. For him, it seemed the option to do anything was right at his finger tips. He told me of his adventures in Russia, Asia, Latin America. I wanted to know how he got the there. He just did it. For the last five years, he has pushed me and had no doubt I can do the same despite my own disbelief. Likewise, my sister pushed herself and in turn me, to fear but do it anyways. I now think that almost anything is possible. Not just for me but for anyone. I have now come to realize, that this mind set is a bit of a self fulfilling prophesy. For those who think, nothing is possible, it isn't. Its a mental block and perhaps a form of myopathy. Sadly, in Africa, this mental block is heavy and bubble narrow. 

So, why do some people end up on the high road to Harvard, or in investment banking or doctors? For most, unlike here, that option lived inside their bubble. Why do many people spend their life in a job they hate? That option was also readily available, a default in their surroundings.  Why do entrepreneurs rise from what appears to be poverty? Why I live in Africa? We were challenged and inspired to venture outside, and take a risk. My fist move to out of country to Nicaragua, I was scared and cried almost the whole way on the plane. Its not a lack of fear, its just getting on the plane anyways. 

My first home in Nicaragua. Good reason to cry. 
I am the first to admit that the option to take that first step, its not all or even mostly self determination. I have a great family, strong faith, and have had ample blessings along the way. But when given the option to jump, I fortunately was pushed to swallowed my fear and take a running start. Today, I am now blessed to be living a life beyond my wildest expectations. 

If you choose to take the leap, its not assured you won't fail, but is assured that if you make it out of your bubble, the potential on the other side will open a whole world of possibilities. Go for it! 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Its rough but memorable road.

While admittedly, my life is charmed - I get paid to fly around and make things happen - but in Africa, the travel itself is far from glamorous. Once I reach my destination, I love it. But until then, it is a test of will, attitude and patience. First of all Africa is enormous. Secondly, flights happen infrequently when they do take off and I am often forced onto less than reputable establishments like Arik, Eagle AIr Nigeria, and Air Uganda. 

Liberian Flag. Familiar? 
Two weeks ago, I traveled from Cape Town to Liberia via Nairobi, about 3000 miles out of the way. In the middle of this four leg journey, one plane was missing. My connection was not there to Accra, Ghana. Luckily, in a few hours it made an appearance and in a stroke of luck, my final flight from Accra to Monrovia was delayed by five hours, thus I would make the last connection.  
The mayor of Monrovia (lady right) and our team! 

My thoughts, perfect! I can run home in Accra, a place I have not been in 2 months, shower from 24 hours of traveling, re-pack clean clothes and be back on a plane. This plan was going amazingly until I got back to the Accra airport to check in. When I got there,  no Ethiopian Airlines flight to Liberia could be found.  I ran around, called my travel agent, called Ethiopian, and asked the 'not-so-helfpul desk. Finally, I was told the flight was still there, but even if the flight time is delayed, they still only open the check in counter when the flight WOULD have check in. Meaning, I was missing the flight even though it was still there on the tarmac un-boarded.  

Streets of Monrovia, Liberia 
One good thing about Africa is that even if everyone says it's not possible, it is. While rushing around the airport, I randomly ran into a friend I met in Senegal, named Cheick,  who now runs United Airlines security at the airport. He gave me some guys number to call and called some friends himself. Eventually, I was on the phone with a guy on the tarmac demanding to be let on the flight. After some sharp words and a hefty phone bill later, I was issued a fake ticket by another airline to get through immigration. When I reached the boarding gate, the passengers for my flight were still waiting and ten flight attendances who were sitting around asked  'Where were you, we have been looking for you."  Obvisouly they weren't looking hard. But regardless, you can bet that tarmac guy's number is stored in my phone.

Chris and our Google security
Finally,  Liberia. What a fascinating place. Poorest I have seen in Africa, war torn and oddly American, but I loved it.  I was in Liberia to organize and speak at tech training in a country with no electric power supply aside from generators, only satellite internet and not one university computer science department. This was a Google.org project and needless to say, I was a bit of a skeptic.  

While all the lack of infrastructure can't be ignored and undoubtably a huge barrier to such an impoverished country, if it is the people who determine the potential of a country, Liberia will be alright. Liberians are still quite guarded and don't smile first but they have an unmatched hunger to learn and an entrepreneurial spirit. I met a about 10 guys who were completely self taught programmers, one of who  at age 22, is starting an educational TV show to teach computer literacy. This same kid also works late at night when the internet connection is not so crowded to download university course lectures from Stanford and MIT, burns them on DVD and hands them out.  It is people like him who remind me of the potential of one person to have an impact, to make change. Lucky for Liberia, they have more than one. 

A few other things of note, met the mayer of Monrovia who reminded me of a fired up talk show host, listened to some great live reggae and enjoyed a series of Liberian down pours. My one day out of work, was  spent with a colleague Chris roaming around the streets and markets of Monrovia in the pouring rain. The colors and atmosphere were amazing. We watched as people came to gather their water from the central well, sold used and likely donated clothes, cars and bikes tried to navigate the flooded hazardous roads, young kids showered naked in the rain, and generally Liberians going about their business in a partially destroyed city. 

dancing for the butter. 

At one point, I was pulled from the crowd to danced in the with a musical group promoting Vita Butter.  Pretty hilarious (Chris, keep you videos to yourself :). Then Chris signed us up to eat some incredibly suspicious food that made haste in our systems.  All together, we did our best to absorb a place that to the Western eye, seems chaotic and run down, but for someone who lives there, it is mundane daily life.  For me, nothing about Liberia was mundane. I quite liked it.     More pics