It’s been 14 years since I left Africa, way back in February of 1994 when Forrest Gump won the Oscar for Best Picture . As a newly minted business undergraduate from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, I had just finished up an extended volunteer term with CAUSE Canada, a small Canadian relief and development organization, in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Looking back, I am amazed that I not only survived but thrived in my two years, especially since I almost did not go. Wracked with doubt, it was an agonizing decision making process
But intuitively I knew that I had to go. My friends and family used to ask me “Why Africa?” and it’s not something I could ever easily explain, even to myself. I think that there are just things in life that you don’t need to explain, you just do. So with the odd mixture of fear and bravery (because you don’t know any better when you are a twenty-something), I arrived in Sierra Leone, West Africa on October 7, 1991. Over the next two+ years, I would be involved in projects and activities such as food distributions, assessments of war torn villages, developing a business plan for a palm kernal oil mill, managing the offices, and computer training. During this time I also experienced a military coup, malaria (eight times by my count), TB, and a few travel horror stories.
So, 14 years later, I’m a content strategist for the Business Objects Community on the SAP Community Network. I’m also half-way through my (part-time) MBA from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. Back in December of 2007, I was perusing our school web site and I came across a volunteer posting for Social Entrepreneurship 101: Africa. After going through the application process, I was selected to be part of volunteer team (15 undergrad students and 2 faculty) to go to Nairobi, Kenya to help deliver entrepreneurhsip training to a group of Kenyan youth, with the goal of helping them to start sustainable businesses. It’s been a long haul since the original selection process and for various reasons, the team has been whittled down to just two people – Professor Nancy Langton and me. What happened? Let’s just say that it’s important to recognize and understand the effects of and motivations behind one’s actions. One day someone should write a case study on what our group went through.
But the past is the past, as they say, and so I’m going back to Africa. I am leaving for Nairobi, Kenya late July from Vancouver, Canada. I’m taking a 3 1/2 hour bus ride (not looking forward to this part) to Seattle, Washington, then an overnight flight to Europe, and then on to Nairobi, returning late August. Curiously, I’m a bit non-chalant about the trip, likely because it has not hit me yet and the fact that I have a lot to do to prepare, in addition to a full work schedule (and the summer tennis tournament circuit). I am in the process of overhauling the 250 page curriculum that will be delivered by a team of Kenyan University students (we’ll be facilitating and supporting the workshops), so I need to get this out to them by the weekend (pressure is on). Thankfully, a lot of work has been done by our impressive contact in Kenya, Jose. He’s been a well-oiled machine in terms of organizing facilities, students, guest speakers from the business community, among other things. I really look forward to meeting and working with him. With all the hard work being done in preparation there, I am hopeful that we will deliver real value to the students so that they can start up successful micro-businesses that not only will benefit them, but also their families and communities. I know that we’re going to be met with a highly enthusiastic group, and so my hope is that we will be able to live up to their expectations. I try not to focus on what’s ultimately at stake here but it’s hard not to dwell on the fact that we need to get this right – deliver the right curriculum in the right way at the right time – so that real improvements can be made in their lives. Based on my prior experience in Sierra Leone, West Africa, I became jaded about how much real progress can be made by non-governmental and governmental agencies but not so in the present case. Instead of giving a hand out, we’re giving a hand up in terms of knowledge and I hope that my MBA program and my other life experiences have prepared me well for this task.
While I am in Kenya, I’ll also be working on my MBA industry project, which will be on how to measure the success of online communities (specifically the Business Objects Community). I attended a Community 2.0 conference in the Spring and it struck me how little developed this area is (and for good reason, it’s difficult!). Hopefully I can pull together the research along with some solid analysis to present something new and useful. While the final deadline for the 25+ page paper is January 31, 2009, I need to get it done much sooner so if anyone has an information that they would like to share about measuring success, please contact me. All in all, I’ll try to find some downtime while in Kenya, even though I’ll be teaching/facilitating all day and then working on my industry project at night, because when I return to Canada, I go right into classes again, followed by SAP TechEd in Las Vegas (hope to see some of you there!).
I’ll be blogging during my time in Kenya to let you know how things are going. Stay tuned.