How Do You Hire on The Ground? My Journey Toward Business Partnerships in Africa
October 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
I often find it necessary to remind myself that the majority of us begin working in Africa because of the ignorant idealism that flows from the infatuation behind a dream.
Maya Angelou writes, “now that I know better, I do better,” and I don’t struggle with ignorant idealism, as such. It’s just that kind of ignorant idealism that drove me to begin a social enterprise, never knowing the money, sweat and tears I was going to lose in the process. By the time it all hit me, I was too in love with my work to turn back.
I struggle with the individuals I meet that have spent years in the field and continue to hang onto old ideals – this kind of christianeze colonialism, that you shouldn’t share your email with the wait staff, or talk in a normal American accent to their children. The first time I spent a summer in Haiti I flew in with a medical team, and the woman in charge yelled at anyone who wandered out to discover nearby Port au Prince on their own. I still remember her wide open mouth yelling at a group of grown medical professionals – “DO I NEED TO SEND YOU HOME?”
And I can safely say that no one learned much of anything about Haitian culture on that trip.
I’ve been criticizing Americans in the international community for hanging on to their cultural paradigms within foreign settings for a while, now. But what I think that many of us from my vantage point have failed to do is say that we are such strong advocates for new ways of being because breaking through a closed paradigm into international partnerships is perhaps the most rewarding change we have ever made.
Change is a two step mental process. First – give up an old paradigm. Two – adopt a new one. In the field of social enterprise, I believe we often struggle with the former because we have no idea where to begin on the latter. You can let go of an old way of being, but no one likes to live in free fall.
After I switched over from a “White Savior” way of thinking, I was, most certainly, in free fall. I didn’t have the first clue about how to find talented locals, who to hire or how to join the community of professionals in a country where I was familiar with only the impoverished and uneducated.
A community of brilliant diaspora, two Ugandan managers and a few key Nigerian fashion partnerships later, I know an entirely different reality. And, I have found my network to be invaluable.
Contrary to popular opinion, you do not have to be on the ground for things to be, “done right.” Nor do you have to carry all the work on your own shoulders, or send an intern into a new culture and expect them to run quality control for you.
Below is a general road map to begin you on the journey of connecting your enterprise or nonprofit to professionals in the African community. I hope that it will transform your business practices the way it has mine.
- Join the online community
There is a large conversation on twitter led by diaspora and professional leaders in the African community, particularly on twitter. They’re more than willing to provide you with resources, explain growing trends and movements and introduce you to African professionals experienced in the areas you need help with. Engage with their conversations, follow their hashtags. Read their work.
Introduce yourself! (and tell them my blog sent you – @shanleyknox).
- Decipher the discussion
Figure out what it is your seeing – who is displaying photographic talent? Who is an authority on business, politics, women’s issues? Who are these people connected to? Who is providing the content that drives the discussion? Who shows the skills of a community manager, blogger, innovator?
I found our most recent Ugandan photographer, Edward, through watching whose photos Ugandans were tweeting during crisis stories or cultural events.
- Ask for meetings
Virtual networking is just like networking in person (except with less alcohol). I started asking for Skype meetings with just about everyone, and found our most recent manager in Kampala through openly asking for his opinion on my business model. We met several times over Skype for him to explain cultural trends and methods of business within Uganda. After about four sessions, we began to discuss the possibility of us taking him on as an intern, and eventually hiring him as our manager.
- Engage with the criticism
Opening yourself up to the diaspora and African community means being held accountable – that when you revert back into branding that puts yourself as a “white savior” or misrepresenting the culture you’re working within, you will be criticized for it. I had this happen with Teddy, a Ugandan friend of mine, after I tweeted that I was looking for clothing donations for the artisans I work with. He criticized me quickly, but after I responded with questions, he came to my rescue just as quickly, providing educational materials and alternative ways of thinking.
Don’t fight it. Ask more questions. Get email addresses. Engage in the discussion. Once you swallow your pride and engage with criticism, you might find your loudest critic to be an invaluable resource, not to mention your biggest advocate.
- Ask to be involved
When I was first planning to move to New York City, I asked to be part of Africa Fashion Week New York. Founder Adiat Disu is a Nigerian socially conscious & culturally-driven PR entrepreneur for Fashion, Home Decor & Art. She not only welcomed me into the week, but introduced me to other valuable connections. Other examples include my requests to be featured in African publications and to join meet ups. The more I ask to be involved, the more the community welcomes me, and explains the ropes.
I suggest you do the same. Not only will you discover a professional network, but, quite possibly, a new group of dear friends.
Two years in to running my enterprise, I source quality control, product photos, promotional material, business development ideas and product development all from partnerships and collaborations with Ugandan professionals.
Follow my business: @nakateproject
What are some of your cross cultural networking and hiring stories?
I’d love for you to share them in the comments!