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Back in Africa, Part 12 – “Everyone Has a Story”

A Lightbulb Moment

Having recovered from the soccer game, we started the day by completing the previous day’s workshop on applying for loans. Ann, one of my star facilitator/Strathmore students, led the group through the best practices for loan interviews. Inadvertently, she touched on a key missing piece of our program when she said that if you are refused for a loan, you have to persevere, learn, and keep trying. She brought up the example of Edison who failed countless times before inventing the light bulb but view each setback as a stepping stone to his success. During the break, I happened to have a discussion with my student, John, whose palpable passion and yes, perseverance for community development is inspiring. He commented on Ann’s presentation, mentioning that as a community builder, he, too, feels deeply committed to empowering the youth with a sense of self-confidence and esteem (I hope to tell Ann and John’s stories soon but for now I’ll tell you what happened on this magical day). But he’s not just talk – he does the walk. His work in the community has involved counselling and mentorship to youth who are often lost to HIV/AIDS, drugs, and crime. As he was speaking about his work, I realized that our program, while it does an excellent job of teaching the technical aspects of starting up your business, does not include a key piece to address the barriers to success: belief in oneself. I asked John if he thought it would be a good idea if we spent part of the day sharing our stories of perseverance, to which he emphatically replied “yes”

Changing Course

I was still a bit apprehensive about opening up a dialog about this because it would have been simpler for me just to focus on the preplanned curriculum but I felt that it would be worth exploring. That said, I was not delusional to think that we could instill belief in oneself in 60 minutes, hours, or days. I also wanted to avoid it being a session of banal self-help expressions like “think positively” and “be confident in yourself”. More powerfully, I wanted it to be about sharing our stories where we had to struggle to overcome obstacles. As the Amanda Marshall song goes, “everyone has a story” and I wanted to provide a safe forum in which my students could voluntarily share theirs. I was careful not to put any pressure on anyone to speak, although I did encourage them to do so if they wanted.

Walking the Talk

To set the example, I started with my own story about how I fumbled about in my 20’s without any plan, dabbling in banking for 19 hellish weeks, each day of which I absolutely dreaded going to work. I was not getting along with my manager, disliked the negative culture, and was simply not well-suited to the role. Even though I left the role, I was proud that I tried as hard as I could to make it work. I need to be able to look back and say that I didn’t give up. Ironically, I think I could be a pretty good banker now, if I chose to be one. I then found myself in the role of a fundraiser for a capital campaign. I was jettisoned into a small city to raise several hundred thousand dollars in a hospital campaign but I had little clue how to go about it; but, with a lot of hard work and determination, I succeeded in the end. I spoke about how I stared down my fear of failure, and in doing so, felt unusually liberated.

Next after a two year diploma course in computing, I worked in the telecommunications industry which was subsequently decimated by the dot com meltdown. I was unemployed for 6 long months and to make matters worse, I had just purchased my home and was thus faced with mortgage payments and other on-going expenses. I shared that when you perceive little opportunity, you can become pessimistic about life, which is how I think many in my class feel about their lives. That said, I told them that I rediscovered my resolve to improve my situation. I had to patiently find my way back up to where I was before the dot com meltdown over a number of years: two steps forward, one step back and sometimes one step forward, two steps back. In the process, I told them that I learned about the importance of patience, perseverance, and self belief even when things look bleak because that’s when you need them the most. I also told them that unlike me, you should have a plan A, B, and C, rather than allow your life to be dictated by chance. It’s OK to change your plan as circumstances change, but it’s always good to have several plans. All these points are certainly well-suited to a budding entrepreneur. When I finished, the class applauded me for sharing part of my story.

Meaningful Sharing

What ensued over the next hour was a meaningful sharing of experiences, each one followed by applause. One student who I did not realize was highly regarded for his appearance of success, spoke about how he coped with his employees stealing his entire inventory, leaving him in debt. Another one spoke about how he had to pay his own school fees when he was still in elementary school. He briefly shared how, as soon as school let out, he would swing a business deal within a month to pay the fees. His life has been one of early self-reliance – most everything he has achieved, he has achieved on his own. What is remarkable is that even though his family life was “bad”, he is one of the most positive, optimistic, happy people I have ever met. Yet another student spoke about how her current successful business is being sabotaged by those who do not want her to succeed and how this has been stressing her. Still, she is adamant that she will succeed. You would not have known that she was struggling with these issues from speaking with her. I encouraged the other women to speak up if they wanted to, and another one other almost did, but she was afraid of becoming too emotional because her “story is very sad”. I was careful not to pursue it any further but reassured her that this is a safe environment to share if she felt comfortable in doing so. The hour went by quickly, and at the end, the group said that they wanted another opportunity to share their stories and fears as they prepare to launch their businesses. The mood was noisily jubilant at the end of class and I would like to take all this as indication that this foray was a success. I appreciate that it’s a sensitive area to venture into and I am very aware of protecting people’s privacy; by sharing our stories, my goal was simply to remind everyone that we are the same, regardless of appearances of success or lack thereof.

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