We must listen carefully, be open minded, and learn from one another to forge sustainable, impactful relationships across cultures.
I started my career as a high school teacher in Dakar, Senegal in 2009. The bilingual school, owned by a Swiss couple, hired at least four American teachers every year fresh out of college to teach alongside a majority Senegalese faculty, staff and student body. I experienced the need for educators to understand the cultural contexts of one’s colleagues, students, bosses and parents in order to succeed. I learned the importance of delivering your messages based on the receiver, not on the preconceived notions of the sender.
This job encouraged me to do my masters in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 2012-2013, putting my micro level classroom experience into a macro framework that intersects education, communications and social entrepreneurship. One of my biggest takeaways in the program was those who make policy drive society, and if they do not understand and respect cultural nuances, programs and policies will fail. Policymakers must be inclusive to local stakeholders, from the national to grassroots levels.
During my time at Harvard, I was the Chair for the Harvard African Development Conference, and brought President of Senegal Macky Sall to speak at the JFK Forum at the Institute of Politics. While the foot of snow was not the ideal welcome, it did permit me to give a personal tour of Harvard Yard and the Harvard Business School to the Ministers of Education, Higher Education, and Good Governance. I was lucky to hear directly from those who make Senegalese education policy. They corroborated that my capstone project, Cybraries, would support their government’s objectives, and so I decided to pursue it.
Cybraries sought to build technology centers to leverage IT training to develop 21st century skills for youth in Dakar Senegal to improve academic and professional achievement. I launched a crowdfunding campaign which raised enough money to buy my ticket, three month visa and accommodations in Dakar. I moved back to Senegal to knock on Ministers’ doors and see what we could start. I was able to make some progress, including being hired to work on the launch of Senegal’s first online public university, and developing a workshop for Google’s Gdays to teach university students how to use Google for academic research.
Despite the progress, I knew I had a lot to learn about running an organization, so I accepted an opportunity to work at Tostan, an NGO headquartered in Dakar. The organization had offices in 7 countries with over 800 staff and was renowned for their work in rural communities delivering nonformal human rights education programs across West Africa. After three years working in an international team, I saw how critical intercultural team building and professional development is. This can be particularly challenging when staff is differentiated by their local and expat status, unless they are given proper training and facilitation meant to understand and address one another’s realities.
In 2016, even though I loved my life in Senegal, I decided it was time to face reality at home. Back in the United States, people not only had gross misconceptions about the continent of Africa, but about ourselves as well. And especially in the current political climate dominated by a nationalist narrative, we must push to develop the next generation of global citizens. In the US, there are significant gaps when it comes to access to true diversity, and fake news allows the stereotypes that Africa needs our saving to be perpetuated.
On the other side, the mentality on the ground in many African contexts which has been perpetuated by the NGO/charity system is that foreigners bring money to fix problem. It is my belief that Americans should be investing in business on the continent, which will not only create jobs and boost the economy, but also promote social impact. And Africa is ripe for investment, with a large, entrepreneurial youth population, with 22% of the youth workforce starting businesses, and 20% of African entrepreneurs offering new products or services. The time is now to invest, and to make good deals, you must consider local cultural norms.
In September 2016 I decided to dive in full time at Baobab Consulting, the company I co-founded with a mission to promote mutual understanding and equitable collaboration, and amplify the voices of those doing impactful work on the continent. We have nine team members spanning North America, Europe and Africa. Our goal to change the narratives and practices which hinder successes on both sides. We offer world class branding and PR services, build communications strategies, facilitate and advise on building inclusive projects, and deliver customized cultural exchange programs across Africa.
I believe that through Baobab Consulting, I can contribute my skills and experiences to build positive relationships to change the way Americans and Africans work together. We recently led an exchange program in Senegal called “Developing Entrepreneurship for Intercultural Collaboration,” where 13 high school students from Rochester, New York worked with their Senegalese peers to build social business ideas. We provide the tools for our clients, who are students, teachers, business owners, international organizations and world leaders, to increase their cultural knowledge of their counterparts across the world so they can build a positive image, build effective teams and achieve their financial and social goals.
I have been privileged to learn from the world’s best. During my time at Harvard, I walked the same paths as Presidents, CEOs, Nobel Prize winners. I have been welcomed into the homes and workplaces of community leaders, entrepreneurs and public figures across Africa. I have worked for Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda, the Former President of Malawi, and have heard her plead her case for education and smart international partnerships, and even brought her to speak at Harvard this past September. This privilege comes with the responsibility to share this knowledge to create global citizens and further opportunities for young people to collaborate, in the US, Africa and across the world.