April 7, 2013 § 1 Comment
I loved Tory Johnson‘s recent tweet on picking her career as a female entrepreneur. It was both gut level honest and powerful – a combo I’ve come to expect from successful female entrepreneurs.
She said that she couldn’t have felt confident in her career if she didn’t work as her own boss.
“The only way I’d ever feel confident and comfortable in my career is to be my own boss.”
I was sending out late night invites for an event, killing a bottle of pinot, making dinner after 10 PM and feeling particularly excited about a new designer I have lined up for 2014.
Johnson made me pause. She was blowing something wide open that I hadn’t really admitted to myself yet.
I picked me for me.
I’ve been hung up on it ever since: trying, for a few days now, to figure out why I did that, at 21 – hungover on tequila shots outside of Long Beach with a new business license, more than my fair share of ignorance and a cancelled ticket to Washington DC.
After careful consideration, I’m convinced that I picked me, partly, because I had no idea what the fuck was up. I was idealistic, a little cocky and definitely felt that a few trips through Dubai made me the shit. I probably also picked me because I had no damn clue that I was picking up arms for John Mayer might aptly describe as the, “war of my life” – a battle to explain me for me to everyone I knew, including myself. I had no idea how lonely that would feel, or how insecure I could get without a boss.
I had to shake my head at myself a little, the more I thought about it. If Shanley 1.5 had been any less cocky, idealistically emotional and/or blissfully ignorant she may not have picked me.
But I’m sure as hell glad she did.
A little over two years later, I’ve learned that you don’t pick yourself once. I had to pick me all over again at 22, when I almost walked out on me for a journalism job. Me and me went at it again at 23, when I almost quit on me to go back to business school. At 24, my secret fantasy is joining a hidden hippie commune somewhere in Nevada City, CA where nobody can give me any responsibility (or force me to wear pants) again in my life.
Yes, that’s still a thing.
I’ve learned, in these times, that I picked me for me at 21 because I knew I wouldn’t let me quit.
I knew I’d push until I cried, and hurt, felt totally out on a limb insecure and wanted to walk away because I was in over my head. Then, I’d push me just a little further. I picked me because I knew I’d demand that I would fix my mistakes, answer my phone on weekends, get up early and stay up late, do the work and show up, over and over and over again before I’d ever get paid. I picked me because I knew I would push myself to learn and do things that no one else would hire me for just yet.
At 22, I picked me again because I knew I was too deep in to quit – that I was learning things I couldn’t learn as quickly any other way. And, I had some crazy sense that I was born to be in charge. I would learn leadership because I was choosing to lead. I’d get the business education I was lacking because I was jumping into business. I would meet and network with incredible people that would help me because, well, I’ve worked with me before. And I know that networking is one of my strengths.
23 was the year I picked me because I needed a win, and I knew I was the only person that could get one for me. I picked me that year because I knew that if I didn’t, nobody else would. I called on my own raised hand, packed my own bags, got myself out of my own rut and pushed past my own self doubt.
At 24, I picked me for me because I loved my work too much not to.
At the end of a long day, when the new line comes together, the event space is full, the quality control problems are fixed or the impossible hurdle is finally knocked down, I’m aware that what I knew, when I picked me for me, was that I needed to know that I was good enough for myself.
Like Johnson, I knew, at 21, that that was the only way I’d be confident – was the only way I’d be comfortable. And, when I say comfortable, I mean in a deep (sometimes dark and barely reachable) place in my soul and my psyche. Because my job is the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done.
I picked me because I had no idea how excruciatingly difficult it would be to pick me. I didn’t know I’d pay in 60 hour weeks and part time jobs, weeks with beans and rice and tight, tight budgets and mornings wrestling with self doubt.
But, I’d pick me again, without blinking. I know, now, that all that difficulty is part of building a story.
Any entrepreneur worth her shit will tell you that, after she’s picked her for her for a while.
Now, let’s be honest, I have to admit, at long last, that I picked me because I was all I had.
I picked me because I thought I could.
But I pick me again when I wake up each day because I’ve proved I can.
March 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been approached several times over the course of early 2013 in regards to setting up local management on the ground for nonprofits and social enterprises in Sub Saharan Africa.
The questions have often been the same:
- how does one make connections?
- what does relationship with local professionals look like?
- and, my favorite question by far (because it means people are being challenged to think more broadly about Africa): why does it bother me so much when folks send American interns or volunteers to run their operations on the ground, rather than hiring locally?
I’ve been pondering for several weeks on how to best present the answers to these questions here on my blog, and I keep coming back to the work of my friend Teddy Ruge, who co-founded Project Diaspora, an online platform for mobilizing, engaging and motivating members of Africa Diaspora to engage in matters important to the continent’s development.
Ruge writes and speaks extensively on Africa’s current renaissance driven by technology, youth and the Diaspora. He is a frequent contributor to several online publications including CNN, New York Times, PopTech, The Globe and Mail, and The Guardian. In January 2012, he was awarded a ‘Champion of Change’ award by the White House for his community development work in East Africa.
Teddy’s was the voice that first challenged my perspective on building a business in Africa. Much of my model at Nakate has been created around his advice and the advice of his colleagues, both on the ground in Uganda and in diaspora communities in Washington DC and New York City. I thought it most appropriate to directly share his perspective on management in Social Enterprises working in Sub Saharan Africa, in particular. Below is an email conversation we had last week. I hope his perspective challenges you, and proves as helpful for your endeavors as it has for mine.
SK: What is your stance on companies sending their US based interns or volunteers over to run quality control in SSA?
TR: For starters, here’s my view on volun-tourism.
We still have this perception of sending interns to “oversee things.” This is an issue we had to deal with with Women of Kireka before realizing that it was creating an unhealthy dependent work environment. With today’s technology, there’s almost no need for a volunteer class of workers.
….Who by the way, despite paying their way to go to Africa to intern…could have done a better job, employing 5-10 people to better manage the project. But I digress.
I think of it this way: if Apple doesn’t send volunteers to China to oversee their quality control over their #1 rated products, what makes you think you need to send interns to do the same thing in Africa? Sending interns is an injurious short cut to your mission of economic development. Most people don’t want to be patient or do the hard work of demanding quality.
But then again, when your go-to-market strategy is sympathy marketing, why worry about quality when your ultimate aim is to get donations?
SK: How do you feel about the argument that people “can’t get things run well on the ground without going over themselves.”
TR: Lazy imperialistic mentality. Buckle up, do that hard work of creating a quality vertical supply chain. Apple did it. Every American electronics giant did the work of maintaining quality and training the trainers.
For every new product line or industry introduced into a new locale, sure. You will have to go over and set things up. But then, that doesn’t mean you have to stay to do it for them. Train your work force correctly, set standards. If you fail, then you didn’t do your job right. Try again. Or find something else to do. It’s ok to fail.
SK: I feel that there needs to be a shift from keeping overhead low to changing where the money goes. If were going to boost an economy then its not about people not taking salaries – its about who gets hired to fill positions and where outsourcing of photos, development and other talent goes…right? Thoughts on this?
TR: We need to ask ourselves what we are doing starting a business in Africa. Social entrepreneurship only survive if they are making a profit. Profit is a product of having a good product that people desire, and low operating margins.
That formula is not always easy to achieve. You can’t do the social responsibility part of that business model if you don’t make profits. Concentrate on your product first. It’ll make your social projects much more sustainable.
SK: What do you see as some necessary shifts that need to be made in how organizations selling product out of Africa are typically run and what’s your advice on how companies can shift to getting better connected to outsource and hire on the ground?
TR: Check out http://oliberte.com out of Ethiopia. Great products, great marketing. Great social programs.
March 8, 2013 § 21 Comments
HTC had been after me for two weeks when I dropped my iPhone in December.
Hot off the dance floor – 2:08 AM, in fur and flats and running to catch a cab.
Slip. Slam. I heard a crack.
I stopped. I covered my eyes. I waited for D to pick it up.
“Just tell me what it looks like,” I said. “I can’t. I can’t even look.”
“Awwww, girl,” I heard him say. “Just hang on. Hang tight.”
I felt him beside me, bending over.
“Well. It’s working…
Only kind of shattered.”
He was trying to sound cheerful.
Monday night’s happy hour consensus said I should go to one of “those little shops” on 6th.
“They fix that for $29.99, you know. Gotta know where to go.”
“Just gotta know. Gotta get the right vibe. Know it’s a good place.”
I insisted I was fine. Then I dropped it again. This time, on it’s face.
I gave in the next morning, after I pulled the tiniest glass shard out of my cheek after a 5 AM Skype with Uganda – a baby of a glass shard I pulled out in the mirror, and stared, while I watch a trickle of blood collect.
It was time.
HTC sent me a phone to try on January 14th, the day before my 24th birthday. I shut down my iPhone, opened my HTC EVO 4G LTE. And, I cried.
To be clear, that was the pathetic I’m-a-control-freak-and-can’t-handle-a-new-phone-I-don’t-understand-yet kind of crying. As in, harder than my last breakup.
See, if you give girls like me the right phone, we can work anywhere, any time. That’s how we live – putting in ten minutes here, five minutes there. We’re running multiple social media accounts and turning in pieces on deadline, we’re going, going, going at our part time jobs managing interns while we bootstrap. We’re starting companies in our twenties, and, under the intense pressure of budgets and deadlines and meetings and contracts, we want a phone that can. Fill in the blank. Whatever it is, I want it on my phone.
I thought that’s what my iPhone was – a can do phone.
And then I switched to HTC.
It started a week after the crying fest.
“My phone doesn’t do that,” a founder friend said over my shoulder.
“Open up spreadsheets like that.”
I shrugged. “I thought I just didn’t know how to do it on my iPhone.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think it does that. It definitely doesn’t do that.”
A week later, a recruiter I was gchatting with told me to, “keep going” while he ran into a meeting.
“I’ll go mobile,” he said.
Already mobile, I sent him a three paragraph schpeel from my EVO (yes, a schpeel is a thing) that he never got.
My phone buzzed a half an hour later.
“Testing. I don’t think it’s working. I’ll get it back at my laptop.”
The next time I saw him, he slipped my phone in his pocked, and smiled.
“Yeah, that fits,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow.
“We’ve all been brainwashed by Apple,” he said. “Right? You like this, don’t you?”
He handed it back.
“I’ve been watching you work with it. I like it. I want one.”
I smiled – half for myself, and half for a community manager that knew just, exactly, what she was doing, sending a phone to a girl like me.
“Women are natural innovators,” Anne had said to me.
According to Ann, it was all about getting the right mobile phones in the hands of the right girls – improving access to markets and information, providing them with the ability to work from wherever they are, with up to date information and technology.
The more I discovered I could do on my EVO, the more I felt like she had to be right.
At Nakate, my LA based stylist and I partner with female artisans on the ground in East Africa to bring their work to high fashion and lifestyle markets across the world. We have stockists in Australia and in Canada, Ireland and the UK, not to mention contacts in South Africa, West Africa, and a manger on the ground eight hours ahead of EST that I need to be in almost constant communication with. Someone that we’re working with is always awake – and we’re still a very small operation.
- Switching to HTC has improved my access to google applications, and spreadsheets, which I can share, edit and interface with on the go.
- It’s increased my communication with my manager on the ground in Uganda, and contacts across Africa through easy access to gchat and google talk and hangouts.
- I didn’t have to pay $2.99 for tweetbot like I did on my iPhone, because the twitter app that comes with my HTC phone already blind tweets, and switches between accounts seamlessly.
- My phone immediately integrated to dropbox, where I share not only photos with dozens of shop owners, but editors, and go over shoots with stylist in LA in seconds.
- I’ve also found that applications like Paypal, Freshbooks and Square are easier to interface with – saving me time when I’m doing sales on the go.
- Thanks to HTC, I’ve close accounts while I’m walking up 6th, grabbing the J train and billed in a manner of quick minutes from my part time job. We’ve enjoyed better quality mobile cameras and the ability to edit and upload straight from our phones.
This International Women’s Day, HTC has partnered with my social enterprise Nakate Project to celebrate the mobile evolution of female entrepreneurs across the world through giving away one of the following phones:
· EVO 4G LTE (Sprint)
· HTC One S (T-Mobile)
· DROID DNA (Verizon)
I’m the founder, see. I’m the CEO. That means I approve and reject, approve and reject, approve and reject – photos, deals, samples, accounts. If I can log on and approve and reject in thirty seconds while I pee during a restaurant meeting in midtown, projects move forward. If I don’t, they don’t.
That’s my bottom line.
1. Comment on this post to let us know how mobile has changed the way you work.
3. Tell us how you’re working on the go with the hashtag #MobileEmpowered. To qualify, format your tweet in the following manner:
I’m #MobileEmpowered because _________.
Tell us how you how you have been #MobileEmpowered in your work, mentioning BOTH @nakateproject and @HTC, and include a link to this post. Only 3 entries per day. No purchase necessary to enter. Contest ends and winner will be chosen at random on Friday, March 15th at 12 PM.
(Some examples: I’m #MobileEmpowered because _________ http://bit.ly/15BGTOu (@nakateproject @HTC), or I’m #MobileEmpowered with @nakateproject and @HTC because ________ http://bit.ly/15BGTOu).
January 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been keeping a notebook of my life as an entrepreneur, beginning with the new year. Its red leather, with big white pages.
It’s my adaptation of a Robin Sharma assignment. The goal is to more productive by through consciousness – the choice to actively pinpoint the thinking and the actions that take you off course from the kind of life you’re looking to have.
I had just finished writing in it as I stepped off the train at 2:43 on Thursday afternoon.
That was when the scene started.
I heard her before I saw her. She was mad.
“Evitar que se! evitar que se!’
When I got off the escalator I saw her swinging blows. She was all caught up beating the shit out of someone nobody else could see.
She cried out again. This time, in pain.
People watching in Manhattan works well one of two ways.
You can do it while you’re on the hustle, taking in your surroundings while you get to where you’re going.
You catch a lot that way in New York.
Or, you can do it when the folks you’re watching are doing something god awful, and you can’t bear to look away.
That kind works well because they’re too caught up in god awful doing to notice you.
I did both, that day – hustling and rubber necking together at Lex and 53rd.
I felt a lump in my throat.
There are lots of invisible someones crowding up train stations in New York. But, damn. This one was causing an unusual stir. Punching, twirling, grabbing, grappling, groping – this woman had her hands around an invisible neck! Then it was around hers! Back again!
I’ve read that schizophrenia rests in confusion about consciousness. John Campbell calls it a brain signal read as a someone you never consciously ceded power to, but took over anyway.
The real trick is that you thought you made a choice to go along.
I’ve been noticing trends as I write in my notebook. There’s people, and there’s shenpa – the Tibetan word for “getting hooked.” That’s when the going along happens. It starts in with something that didn’t matter much at all – a conflict, exchange, a tension. When I let it grow, it gets bigger. It gets too big.
That’s the deal with shenpa. You’re stuck on a thing, like a woman throwing punches on Lex and 53rd, and never boarding a train.
I get all clogged up that way, and the hours go places I don’t want them to. They go to things like confrontation and defense, explanation and argument, frustration and gossip. They go to intense emotion.
That’s the thing about social entrepreneurship – you don’t get to just go along. You have to be mindful of your work, and you have to be mindful of your life. After all, social entrepreneurship is just that – mindfulness, put together with a life committed to work that creates social good.
And, I’ve learned you can’t create any kind of good without beginning with yourself.
I’ve learned that getting wrapped up in personal conflict, petty conflict – gossip, and other things like it, isn’t innovative. It’s not smart. And, I’ve learned you can’t be innovative or smart if you’re doing those things. If you’re living small, you’re working small. That’s what I’ve seen.
I’ve also seen that learning to let of things – situations that catch you, in particular, is both. It’s innovative. It’s smart. And, it changes both the way you life, and the way you work.
In meditation we call this “dropping a story line.”
Dropping a story line begins with catching yourself – recognizing that we, as people, create stories all day long: about people, about ourselves – about interactions and future plans. Dropping the story means to stop mulling, stop trying to figure it out. It’s the art of bringing oneself back to the present moment, and the task at hand.
I believe its the secret to productivity, innovation and expansion of the heart and mind.
I believe it’s the key to the beauty that consciousness affords us. We can teach ourselves to let things go once we know the difference between what is in front of us, and what we’re imagining might be there.
We can stop getting caught.
On Friday, I sat by a woman with a gold and leather shoulder bag on the train. We exchanged compliments before a student – a girl with a certain oddness about her – sat down.
“I heard this story today,” she opened. “You wouldn’t believe how great it was.”
There was no stopping the outpouring of Snow White, and my train friend didn’t try. She smiled at the girl instead, and moved closer to listen.
Watching them, I felt the colliding of two worlds – stories, and conscious reality.
It lasted for a single stop, when the woman with the bag smiled, and shifted her weight to stand.
“What a wonderful story!” she exclaimed. “But I have to get off here.”
She winked at me, and stepped off the train.
November 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
If you have read anything about our story at Nakate, you know that I began my own journey mapping out stories and spots on the globe at the age of 18. This came after a childhood full of stories my father fascinated me with about his travels since he had been little like me.
Now, as an adult running my an accessories line that allows me to share those stories, my office and room are full of gifts from my father – things he picked up in the Philippines and Okinawa, Hawaii and Brazil. Together with the carvings and pieces I’ve bought in Uganda, they tell me the stories of our lives and travels as I go about my day.
I am reminded, as I do this, that it is the stories in our lives that change us and create our paths. The stories we’re told, the stories we tell to others – the stories we read and write and stumble across as we go about our daily lives - all come together as a life tapestry, creating the one, giant story that is our life’s journey.
In effort to better tell the story of Nakate, and our journey as a social enterprise, we have teamed up with Your Coffee Break - a women’s lifestyle magazine bringing you the latest on Fashion, Career Management, Celebrity News, Dating and Relationships, Beauty and Travel from across the world. From New York to London and from Barcelona to LA, I am joining other fabulous contributing writers come from all around the globe to give you insight into what it is to live out the journey that is Nakate.
You can follow my weekly column here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
(Photo: AFWNY Adiree showroom with Nakate Project – Soho, NYC)
November 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There are moments of deep empathy in New York. Perhaps you don’t catch them if you’re not living here. Perhaps that’s where New Yorkers get their reputation from – 50 million tourists running around trying to learn the subway system, which direction to walk on the sidewalk, how to order coffee and a bagel and what direction, exactly, the Central Park reservoir is? 50 million people, on top of 8 million people, all trying to go about their daily lives.
At first you think its just you. An old woman off 14th street hit me in the knees with her cane during my third month here, and I wondered what I’d ever done to her until I saw her swinging at some other dirty rotten bastard fool yesterday. “You’re the fucking problem with this city!” she yelled as she chased him. And, in that moment, I knew it wasn’t me, it was her.
Then there’s the overweight homeless man who rides the F. He’s mute, or at least pretends to be. He’ll point at whatever you’re eating, then back at his mouth, over and over and over again until someone else caves and passes him some food, or he’s ignored by everyone all together. Either way, you’ll have him and his monstrous ass crack for about four stops, if you keep riding. A note to the new? He’s not a strawberry yoplait fan.
Neither is the girl who stepped in the yogurt he threw on the subway floor two weeks ago.
There’s all this pressure in New York just getting somewhere, you know? You’re here seeing the city and la-tee-da! You’d like to get to a tour on time, or to see a building before 5 pm. But that man running past you just might know he only has 30 seconds left to catch a train to an important meeting and way you’re walking could have made him 15 minutes late if he’s catching the C from Port Authority midday. In New York, 15 minutes late can mean that he missed the whole god damn thing.
But, if you live here, you know that comradery passes through when you least expect it – that second in passing when you finally make eye contact with the gentlemen you ride the 6 uptown with every morning, or the violinist who stands in the afternoons through the Children’s Gate on West 79th under a red painted arch on your way to Belvedere Castle. It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’ve been having, the violinist’s melody always calls to me to stop, and to take a moment to give my full attention to the sound of his rising, trembling note.
A few weeks ago, I watched my homeless mute man hassle another subway rider who shook his head at him repeatedly just as I had done a few weeks before.
“Jesus Christ,” I finally said. “He just doesn’t let up does he?” Suddenly we were exploding in laughter – the quiet, tense subway filled with the cackling of a tense moment gone goofy.
You’ve got to know that the development world is the same way. There’s people up to their necks in legal jargon and ICC technicalities, UN regulations and academic research on how best to solve problems of inequality, hunger and violence. And, then there’s a hell of a lot of volunteers, missionaries and do-gooders all flooding the same world. It’s emotional. It’s political. It’s charged. And, it can get real ugly real fast.
That’s what happened back in the spring, when KONY2012 was first released, and a million people were suddenly in a charged social media battle over the plight of Central Africa.
There was a large group of diaspora, international experts, aid workers and development specialists alike who said that the campaign carried 1. a white savior complex, 2. focused on one issue while ignoring relevant issues and 3. could have dangerous results. They were the minority – so to speak – an 8 million among 50 million, trying to make the day in and day out work of development work in the midst of a sudden influx of emotionally charged opinions.
They were criticized for being narrow minded, mean – unfeeling. Lines were drawn. Insults were thrown around.
The debates that took place that month were high octane, and they kept going for weeks on end. Until, that is, most of the sticker placers got tired of it, and wondered why anyone was still talking about Invisible Children or Uganda anymore. “Aren’t you all sick of it yet?” and so the circle emptied out – and it felt a little more like New York city on a Sunday afternoon in July when everyone’s left for their weekend homes, and you’ve got some room to breathe.
In that space – those that were committed to this for the long haul kept right on working.
I was lucky enough to hear several of them in person a few weeks ago at a panel on the Upper West Side moderated by Elliot Ross of Africa is a Country. The panel included Milton Allimadi, editor-in-chief of Black Star News, Amanda Taub, professor at Fordham University and blogger at Wronging Rights, Kate Cronin-Furman, lawyer, PhD candidate, and blogger at Wronging Rights, Laura Seay, professor at Morehouse College and blogger at Texas in Africa, Richard Mark Ochaka, mentor at Invisible Children, Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve and Bukeni Waruzi, program manager for the Middle East and Africa, WITNESS.
The discussion was candid, and the mood was kind. That’s the best word to describe it: kind. After all that angry debating back in the day when activists and sudden Africa lovers criticized development professionals and specialists for being “mean” or “narrow,” the mood was one of commonality – everyone was there for the Congo, that day. And, what they wanted most was not to be right, but to find solutions.
I don’t remember which Wrongs Righter it was, but either Kate or Amanda said something I’ve often returned to since that night. She said that she had been criticized for being too critical, that she had been accused of being narrow, or unfeeling. And, she said it had been hard. But she followed that up with her commitment to seeing international justice – not just for the Congo, but for those partnering with Joseph Kony in other areas, and for people all over the continent that are being persecuted due to their color, sex or age. She brought up the importance of calling the ICC to the right course of action, or handling military intervention carefully – and of reviewing the history behind a conflict with careful, careful attention.
It was clear that, to her, the criticism was just part of the job. Her job. And, she wasn’t about to back down.
She reminded all of us sitting there why we’d debated this topic for so many months – it wasn’t that we were mean, or bitter or jaded. It was that it matters. Significantly. It’s not simply a “cause” or a “campaign” – it’s a journey, year after year, toward finding better solutions to global problems that are intensely complicated on a good day.
You can (and should) read a transcript of the debate on my friend Scott’s blog.
Scott also has also written a great piece on Invisible Children’s call for ICC involvement, and why that is such a highly charged issue.
I would get into the technicalities of the panel, except that I think that Scott said it better than I could. And, after debating it in my head for a few weeks on end – I’m not sure that’s what I need to share, here.
The moment I keep going back to from that night actually happened after the panel – out on the street.
After the panel I walked out into the cold and was waiting for a cab when Poffenberger passed me on his way to catch a flight out of the city. He was in a hurry, but I needed to talk to him – so I grabbed his arm real fast, and introduced myself.
I told Michael that he had been an example, that crazy month, of someone with grace and dignity – a person who was willing to hear the opposing side, and to pay attention to where he might have gone wrong – and how to do it better in the future. We had gone head to head a few times on twitter, and I had taken criticism for that from a lot of folks. But Poffenberger never criticized me for it. Instead, he explained. He responded. He sought to find better answers.
In the dim glow of the New York street lights, Poffenberger stopped rushing to his flight, and he looked me in the eye and thanked me. I could tell he was exhausted – that it had been one hell of a year. But, deeper than that – I could tell he was committed: not just to Invisible Children, or his creation of the crisis tracker – but to solutions. And, that he appreciated my commitment as well.
It hit me that Poffenberger wasn’t looking for comfortable situations, or a “great campaign.” His was and is a journey, year after year, toward finding better solutions to global problems that are intensely complicated on a good day.
It was in that quick shared moment with him that I realized my worlds were colliding. I was experiencing a New York moment – the kind of empathy you only get when you’ve slowed down and stopped for a moment to pay attention to the person in front of you. And, I was experiencing the comradery involved in staying passionate about and committed to something you believe in, regardless of the consequences or criticism involved in doing so.
There it was again: that reminder that, no matter how quick the world is spinning or how difficult it feels – a moment of empathy changes everything.
(Photo: Sandi Elle).
November 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
I love Hillary Clinton. It’s not just about her foreign policy – it’s that I can get down with her love for the radical, the uncomfortable and the culturally risque. From the famed Saul Alinsky thesis to the gay parade marches, and – more lightly – the South African groove (grind?) she recently pulled off, Clinton’s nothing if not ballsy – evidence most recently by her taking the fall for the Libya Attack, and historically by her insistence on transforming herself post troubled marriage, failed presidential candidacy and her smooth slide into a career as the most traveled top diplomat in American history. Au contrare to The Corner, I find her 60s radical roots a bit, er, refreshing? And, I believe that her rejection of faith in revolutionary violence is, in fact, quite a, “meaningful distinction between 60s radicals and Hillary.”
As Susan Glasser so eloquently puts it, Clinton has managed to work out a, “perennially tough set of choices she faces between the human rights advocacy that means so much to her and the pragmatic politics that is often required of a hard-headed American secretary of state.”
I love her comments on Suu Kyi – the pressure of, “putting into practice everything she’s been thinking about and working on her entire adult life” – her assurance that Kyi, “cannot be immune from the criticism that will come because she is playing a political role.”
And – lest we forget – the famed, “Thanks for the many LOLZ. Hillary ‘Hillz.’” In her late 60′s, she’s insisted on re-connecting with an online generation she has never before entered into. And, she’s done it with flair.
Reuters calls her an, “adept behind-the-scenes operator, a tough negotiator not afraid to play the bad cop—or to make fun of the macho posturing of her many tough-guy interlocutors.” And, despite America’s insistence on putting Hillary in a women’s rights/development box, she has maneuvered sensitive issues such as rescuing Chen without blowing up the American relationship with China, and been lauded for taking her “people to people” diplomacy international.
But perhaps what I love most about Clinton is how she’s remade herself using the ubuntu philosophy she wrote of so long ago in her book, “It Takes a Village,” both by taking her role under her political rival with grave and humility, and through her commitment people to people diplomacy in the midst of her shift from advocacy to her new role as Secretary of State. Her lack of knowledge – not to mention a second language – has made being a team player has been a necessity for Clinton, and she’s made it work for her in unbelievable ways.
I’ve been watching Clinton as I’ve made my own small climb as the head of a social enterprise. I went through high school wearing my grandfather’s Vietnam army fatigues and high top red converse five days a week, and focused so heavily on internships and grades in college that I never read a single issue of the 5 style and fashion magazines my then boyfriend bought for me junior year. I left university as an idealistic, advocacy driven journ school graduate, back in 2010, with absolutely no idea what a business plan was, not to mention a pipeline, angel investor or a line sheet. And, I certainly didn’t know what colors were in for fall, not to mention that stylists, as such, rule the fashion world and are key to getting any product into the hands of and onto the right people.
And yet, here I was – looking to start a business entering into the fashion market and trying to make a splash.
Truthfully, I had no idea what the hell to do next.
You’ll read a lot on investors, but what you find less commonly is information about what comes before that point. And, frankly, need more of it. Its where the majority of us are – and where the majority of us need to make things work.
I’ve come to know bootstrapping as an all inclusive term, describing not only my financial situation but everything surrounding my company, and the large needs we have had to meet on a limited budget. And, while I hope that you land that impressive seed grant or large pipeline investor within your first year, reality is its far more likely you’re going to struggle for a few (very long feeling) years in social enterprise, before things begin to pick up – and you begin to get noticed by the right wallets and publications – not to mention your target market.
So, what do you do in the meantime?
Ha, just kidding (mostly).
Here’s a few tips on how I’ve been able to hold things together (albeit sometimes loosely) while we’ve sought to grow as a company without seed funding, fashion expertise or an experienced leader (hey, at least I’m fearless – right?).
1. Find your “village”
Antonio Esteban is a celebrity stylist who has not only climbed quickly in his career as a stylist, but happened to know a friend of mine who reached out to him for me, and shared what I was trying to do. Esteban came on about a month after I started Nakate, and hasn’t left me since. Thanks to him, both my business (and my closet) is keeping up to date in the fashion world.
I would have never found Esteban if I hadn’t called a well connected friend and shared my need for someone. Our graphic designer, Shannon Labare, is a similar story – I met Shannon through a twitter SOS I put out for a designer. Shannon jumped in, decided work for us would be her commitment to change in Africa, and has been improving our design ever since.
What I’ve learned along the way as they keep answering their phones and responding to my cries for assistance is that these folks are not just my friends, they are believers in the vision of what I’m doing. Not to mention, the only person that expected us to make a large sum of money off the bat was…well..me. And, they understand the process of building something.
2. Admit to what you don’t know
When I first admitted that I didn’t have a business plan, or even know what a strategic plan, budget or predicted revenue agenda should look like, there were many, many people who jumped in to help me out. Contrary to my nightmares of ending up standing on a stage in bright orange underwear with everyone laughing at my messy word documents on a great big projector behind me, no one has ever laughed at me. To the contrary, everyone from a business advisor to import fashion lawyers, African fashion firms and, most recently, an import broker, have kindly walked me through even the most basic questions.
3. Trade your skills
Trading works like this: you meet someone you have common interests with, except they’re skilled in areas you’re not and vice versa. You engage in lively conversation. You laugh. You have a drink or two. You ask their advice, you learn through their expertise in conversation and – next thing you know, you’re grabbing coffee and catching up over an issue you needed assistance with. Two months later, you’re doing the same thing for them. This is, actually, one of my very favorite parts of networking – I love learning from people I not only respect but like talking to – people who break things down, help me along and don’t make me silly for asking my honest questions. Conversely, I love doing the same for others.
4. Air out your depression
There is an intense, hopeful idealism will carry you through your first six months. After that, you’re going to realize that you will have to make intense sacrifices for a result that no one can guarantee. You will lose faith. You will get tired of bouncing checks and living on a budget and telling your friends you can’t go out for drinks. You will also hit a point where you don’t know how to make things work – your talents and drive has limits. And, you will want to give up.
It’s time to call someone – not to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing (though that would would also be a good idea) – but to help you get through your next set of hurdles.
I almost quit last year – at which point I called in a friend to work as a temporary VP while I re-gained my strength. He helped me move things past a point of shifting that I couldn’t do myself. By the time he took on a full time job and didn’t have the time to help me anymore, we had – together – moved past my point of crisis, and I was ready to go again.
5. Hire a coach
I have found that our generation is doing something unique in the world of socent, and is in need of unique skills and assistance. I needed an entrepreneur coach, more than anything, to help me believe in my business again, develop a strategic plan for how I was going to spend my time and to get me on track for branding that not only me, but would help us build business. At the end of the day, this is not about passion, for me – it’s about passion that will pay my bills. My coach, in particular, focuses on young female entrepreneurs, and helped me develop a working system that would stop me from feeling guilty for not working 16 hour days, and bring back some enjoyment into my budding career as I worked towards more revenue.
6. Do some hard streamlining
Don’t have the capitol to buy a large inventory, or invest thousands of dollars in your own business? I didn’t either – and now I’m paying the consequences of deciding to do so anyways. I’ve learned, along the way, that streamlining your processes works much, much better than preparing for a big boom that never comes. How can you create product development process that allows for growth without sitting on inventory or investing large amounts of money? It took me several months to figure this one out and, it took several volunteers on the ground in Uganda that were invested in my mission and could help me do so. Get creative. Find another solution. It will come quicker than you think.
7. Share your vision
On that note, I’ve learned that the best way to bring committed folks into your business is to share your vision. Sit down over skype or coffee and share – from your heart – about what you’re trying to build. You’ll be surprised how quickly people will say “ours” instead of “yours” – and how hard and far they’re willing to work to make a vision that they’ve now begun to share begin to take flight.
8. Offer up your failed ideas to the gods of great discussion
Umair Haque writes that, “My friend Steve…spent his twenties and much of his thirties in one failed venture after another — today, finally, he’s at the helm of a start-up that leaves him not just comfortable, or even ‘happy’ — but abidingly, almost overwhelmingly, fulfilled. ” I’ve already “failed” several times with ideas I thought world work. As I’ve worked through them afterward with others I respect, I’ve begun to see the holes in them – or the reasons they may have worked for someone else, but not for me. Airing all my dirty laundry has enabled better minds than mine to pick it apart and help me know how to put my ideas back together in a way that brings in revenue.
9. You just might need a part time job
A year into my enterprise, I was hoping I could start just living off my enterprise. While I expected to be on a budget, I didn’t expect that this would quickly drain the life out of my enterprise and that my little baby business was actually still at a point where I needed to be putting money in, instead of taking it out. So I landed myself a nanny job, and it was that job – and a strict budget – that got us through a restructuring period in year two.
10. Get some (like minded) friends
There’s nothing I love more than a productive, 16 hour work day. I could go days talking to absolutely no one, drinking huge amounts of strong coffee and sleeping only when its entirely necessary. However, every time I do this for weeks on end, this inevitably leads to burn out. And, I have to admit that I really and truly need friends – and friends that get it. Go join a meetup, get involved in a network or simply find a group of like minded entrepreneurs to drink with every Tuesday night. But, at the very least, find someone – preferably a few someones – who are living and working like you. What you’re doing is unique, and if you don’t have a community you’re going to burn out quicker than you think.
Lastly, it might help to let a little more humanist philosophy seep into your daily thinking. After all, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity” (Tutu, 2008).
Check out Nakate here.
October 31, 2012 § 3 Comments
When I was a little girl, my mother taught me that every story is a three car train. Engine. Middle car. Caboose.
That stands for intro, conflict and resolution.
I know enough, now, to realize that every life event is a series of three car trains. Intro. Conflict. Resolution. You can live a thousand of them in a day, an election, or – more sensitively for some of us – a hurricane.
Millions of us, all together, braced ourselves for the storm this weekend, joking about hurricane parties and “pooh-pooing” the predictions. Reddit told us to stock up on condoms and alcohol. We checked in to “Frakenstorm” on twitter.
We didn’t know it would be worse than they predicted.
We didn’t know – or perhaps I didn’t know – how lost it would make us feel.
I know this city by numbers and letters on a grid. I was just getting to feel familiar with the transit system. And – just like that – I no longer find my bearings by the C and the 6 and the J to Jamaica Center. Now, I have to board buses, find shuttles and maneuver my way through a city I only ever knew to be invincible, not to mention predictable enough to get home even when I’m drunk and tired.
I’m luckier than thousands of other people who lost homes and store fronts, not to mention the unthinkable – family members and friends. All I lost was my bearings and some business. And, I only have to be brave enough to venture out in order to slowly get them back.
A friend of mine flew in for a visit a few months ago and commented that, “New York claims its own.” He said that those of us who have migrated here were, “unable to resist the pull” – meant to be New Yorkers, though we started out somewhere else. I laughed. I admitted it was true. This city, man, it gets in your blood. Kind of like Africa. Kind of like running a social enterprise. Kind of like everything that’s shaped my life into the story it is now.
There was a time of fear before the hurricane hit, and a time of fear after it was gone. I felt them both hard, and they both centered around uncertainty – “What will it really be like?” and, then, “What do we do now that it’s gone?” Sometimes it felt like the water would never stop rising, with friends sending panicked texts from Jersey and tweets going out from folks stuck in buildings. We – once again – utilized twitter like we never had before, and those of us that didn’t “get” the buzz about this social platform before certainly did during the storm, when NYPD and NYFD, rescue team, dispatchers all poured out information from one platform. Those of us with power stayed online through the night, with news reporters and hospitals, dispatchers and government officials keeping us connected to our friends and fellow New Yorkers in the midst of the storm. Once again, it was different in New York than I think it would have been anywhere else. The community feeling, the relationship to a common cause – it brought us together in a way that made this city feel so unbelievably special and – for a moment – so small, against the wind.
The thing about your first New York disaster is that you hit a point where you start wondering why the hell you’re here. Anywhere in the world you could have picked to be and you just had to pick New York. Kind of like earlier this year, when I hit my first real wall as a social entrepreneur. Not only was I new in New York, sales were down. Criticism was up. I felt like calling it quits and going back to what felt safe – a regular job, colleagues from my own culture – work in my own country. Giant, uninformed idealism carries you through until the middle train hits. And, that’s the threshing floor. The tides are high. The wind is strong. And all you know is that you’ve got to pull out of it sometime…but you can’t know when. And, damn it you just want it to quit.
God, I felt like that during all first six months I spent in New York. We had such amazing customers in year one, out in California – like every woman I’d ever met anywhere was coming out to support us, and I developed this routine of running to the post office three times a week and uploading products in between. We kept our inventory in Sacramento and LA. I went to Africa twice that year and brought back new stock. And, I thought knew just exactly what we were doing. I had my bearings.
Until New York, that is. Once we re-located here, our story had to shift. Our messaging needed to be refocused. I went from paying most my bills out of my social enterprise to paying into my social enterprise from an almost full time job, and re-organizing our company internally until we could produce differently than we had before. I couldn’t afford to go to Africa, and had to find a way to streamline our process so we made better product than ever before, without me getting on a plane.
I wondered if I hadn’t gone bonkers, lost touch completely – was this really going to work?
It’s after the disaster – that crazy, wild storm this weekend – that I have first begun to see why it is that New Yorkers love their city so damn much. It’s only after the storm that it becomes your city. Your people are in those buildings – the boys you’ve dated and the girls you’ve met for beers, the friends you’ve laughed with, networked with or perhaps just met for a coffee are suddenly your real friends. They care. They’re checking in. They miss you – “are you alright?” They all want to know if you’re holding up ok. “Let’s get a drink after the storm, ok?” New York pulls in tight, during a storm. There are people who only started following me three days ago on twitter, but were there cheering me on when I thought I’d try and take a bus in to work, and again when I realized transit was still closed from Brooklyn. They’ve sent photos and asked about my neighborhood. They’ve made jokes about our plight. They’ve asked me for outside updates when they lost power. We’ve kept in touch – every day since that awful night.
This morning, the sun came out for the first time since Saturday. I laid in bed and watched it, burning red light spreading across the train platform above my window. And, I knew, for the first time, that the worst was really over.
We’ll all be working to get around this week – to find our lives again. And, we’re all at different stages. Some of us lost homes. Some of us lost electricity, or paychecks, business or inventory. Some of us just lost our bearings. But, together, like New Yorkers always do, those of us that have come to know this as our city will begin to rebuild and find our way together.
That’s what uncertainty and change do, you know. That’s what happens in the storm.
You lose a lot.
You wonder if you’ll ever gain much of anything after it passes through. Clouds still rumbling. Rain mist in the air.
And – then – the sun comes out, burning red outside your window. Hope swells in your chest. The rebuilding begins. And, you remember why you came here in the first place.
You came here because you knew, somewhere deep inside you, that New York was calling.
Sometimes it takes a storm to remind you that you were right.
Photograph by @andjelicaaa via Instagram.
October 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It’s getting chilly in New York, this month. I’ve been enjoying dark Oktoberfest brews, cooking warm soups, cobblers and buying fall flowers at the local market. This weekend, I even took to it and painted the Nakate office space a deep, warm shade of gold. Here’s to the changing seasons! I’ve been taking extra time to walk through colorful Central Park instead of taking the bus.
As the seasons change, I’m aware that New York is teaching me new lessons about entrepreneurship, about myself – about collaboration: both cross culturally and within my own, chilly city.
A Be Social Change friend commented this weekend that, “if we are not constantly meeting new people and living outside our comfort zone, in New York, we might as well have never come here.” Her comment was timely for me – it wrapped up a week full of inspiring conversations with people I hadn’t known before.
First, it was a conversation with a Chinese woman, working as a nanny on the upper west side. She began telling me her life story in a waiting room – about her past as a business woman, her solo journey to New York city, and her discouragement when she discovered that Mandarin was not the language they spoke in China town. She said she struggled with her identity when she came to the United States – giving up her dream to further her career, her financial situation and her thoughts on how she expected things to go for herself. Nine years later, she has put her daughter through school, and raised a nine year old girl she says she has come to love as her own.
“I returned to China and my father told me I had been to the mountain,” she told me. “He said, ‘before, when your life was easy, you were living in a valley – a village. Now, you have been to the mountain top. You have struggled.’”
He told her she had discovered what it is to be human – to struggle, and keep walking forward.
He told her that struggle reminds us of our true selves.
“Money comes and goes – from one pocket to another,” she said. “Your hopes, your beliefs, your love – if you lose those things, you have lost it all.”
I left my new friend for a meeting at the Issyra African Art Gallery in Hoboken, where my Senegalese friend Issa and I are planning an event this holiday season. Issa showed me a new painting he’s been working on – two faces are looking outward. In front of them, painted gold coins are dotted through out the air. Behind them, a group of tall villagers are dancing together.
“It’s history,” Issa told me. “You must remember where you come from. It is easy to get caught up in things, and lose your legacy.”
In case I wasn’t getting the message, I ended up meeting a gentleman at a party in Astoria this weekend who shared with me about his current job, and said he’s been working to find ways to say no.
“It’s so easy to become a yes person, when you get comfortable in what you’re doing,” he said. “I don’t want to be that person in my life – always nodding, always agreeing – losing myself. I want to remember to create discomfort, to challenge the status quo, and push things to the next level, even when I’m scared.”
I smiled when he said that – thankful for a brand and a company that always pushes me to the edge of my comfort zone, asks me to give more and find new solutions…thankful to be working with a group of people that are always creating discomfort, and challenging the status quo.
I am grateful to work with women that regularly take me to the mountain top – reminding me that love for others, finding joy in each day and living in the moment and its challenges are more important than things – that what’s in my heart matters infinitely more than the items in my home.
There is nothing as satisfying, for me, as collaborating across an ocean, making early morning Skype phone calls, emailing furiously back and forth and – finally – coming to find a beautiful solution between two cultures, for a group of talented women whose work we all are committed to celebrating.
What mountain tops are you visiting, this fall?
(This blog originally posted on the Nakate Project website).
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!