Time has been pumped out of my life in the last few days. There is very little time for me to post as much as I would but while I’m here, thought I should share these lessons.
10 Things I’ve learned so far at the Africa Business Conference at the Harvard Business School
1. Travel is one of the most important things you can do for the expansion of your mind. I feel so far away from my normal existence. I have been given a new set of eyes with which to look at life. I paid for this trip by the way, through saving. Harvard didn’t even pay for airport transfers. If I had applied in time I might have been able to get sponsored by gavament but alas.
2. South Africans, we need to do better. There were only 6 South Aficans (3 student organizers, 1 guy from FNB, a woman from the South African consulate and me. I scoped for Lindiwe Mazibuko but couldn’t find her) out of about 1500 delegates. Where are South Africans that own their own businesses that are doing well at a sitting of African entrepreneurs? We were swallowed by the likes of Nigerians, Kenyans and Senegalese. They are hungrier, more aggressive about growth, more educated, charming with firm handshakes and NO shellington vibes, taller, well travelled and sorry to say this but, richer. We need to exude these qualities. We are smart in our own ways but these guys beat us hands down in this game shem. We are not competing equally as young Africans.
3. South African women are doing better. I felt tall and visible standing next to other African women. There’s something we are doing that our men aren’t doing. Also there were a lot of weaves here and I saw a lot of opportunities to spread a different message among African sisters. The hair revolution has not been televised on these screens. Instead of discouragement, I see opportunity.
4. As South Africans, we need to package ourselves better. We have good ideas in SA but lack the skill in selling them, we don’t speak the kind of language that makes investors salivate. We don’t sell a sexy package. We are not slick enough. I literally met people who speak like they are in a Shonda Rhimes production in real life
5. We think in small angel investment terms, oh please give me a 100k for this when we should be saying if you give me 10 mil, this is what you get back. When I come back, you can bet your life that I’m going to be saying things like “I appreciate your interest in my idea but you’re not the only one at the table” and then proceed to negotiate and stop thinking in thousand terms
6. Scalability is a term I heard a lot, think big, think global and not just for your survival, but for real economic impact.
7. More of us need to apply to these types of institutions. While they seem intimidating and way out of reach, I could hold my own here. You might not know some things but don’t underestimate what you do know.
8. Foreign investors, and I include companies owned by Africans and African Americans are extremely exblockquoted in doing business in Africa but they don’t know of understand our markets. This is where our competitive advantage comes in. We don’t have to sell out but we can play ball and start businesses that fill gaps preventing our economies from growth. We may not play the game like they do but we know the rules in our yard and they don’t! That’s how we need to think. We need to seize the myriad opportunities at stake here.
9. Never underestimate the power of style. A white American woman came up to me yesterday and said “you definitely win coolest person at the conference award” and I was like, that’s right lol, just kidding I was floored! and then we exchanged business cards.
10. ALWAYS BE YOURSELF. When I was in doubt, this is what I held on to. As much as I sometimes felt “wtf am I actually doing here amongst these decorated scholars” I remembered to be myself and it has been so rewarding. Be a woman. Be Xhosa. Be African. Wear your hair in ways that are true to who you are because people will remember and come talk to you about it. This is gonna sound wrong but an old Dutch man touched my hair out of exblockquotement and a sincere admiration in his eyes. It was slight and happened too quickly for me to respond with DYD (don’t you dare) and I wasn’t mad. I didn’t feel disrespected. I felt human and could feel his humanity too . He mustn’t get used to doing that but honestly, I didn’t mind in that single moment. Tell the truth. Be vulnerable. Smile. It takes a while to get to the real self, it’s not important how far you are in the process of self unfoldment and pursuit, what is important is to begin.
11. Despite the many reasons to side eye it, America is very charming. The people are friendly and always willing to help and it’s weird to see some things in real life, like a yellow school bus and a fire hydrant and police cars, weird and nice.
Next up, New York.