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! 


  1. I gave you the sunshine award for your blog. Check it out some time.

  2. Interesting you! Highly inspiring though. It amazes me how well you know Africa and how it works here. Welcome. TIA

  3. very insightful, and so true! Fear seems to rule me and how i live my life. very inspiring sister-in-law!

  4. So true Bridgette. Traveling really changed my way of life. I always wish most people will get the opportunity to at least travel outside their comfort zone for once. Not only does it change your mindset but it put you on the edge to know and do more. Quite an inspiring piece. Thanks for sharing.