Out of Africa With Success
- by Arlin Tao
Today I leave Nairobi, the place I have called home for the last 18 months, to move to China to continue pursuing (in a different capacity) the same mission with d.light: to provide equal quality of life for people below the poverty line. I am excited for the new opportunity as it enables me to drive the company’s direction on a more strategic level. For the first time in my career, I not only feel passionate about what I do, I actually have a vision of where I would like to take this organization. It’s an exciting new leadership opportunity, although it is also very intimidating.
As I reflect upon what I have learned during my stint here in Africa, I find two major themes:
1. It’s good to be results-oriented, but sometimes we need to define “result” in a way that’s not so one-dimensional. My business background conditioned me to define result in a business context (i.e., profitability, top line growth, market share). In the developing markets (particularly in the social sector), there are so many factors at play that any one person cannot really ensure or control business results.
Yet I am encouraged to consider the positive change I was able to make on the people I worked with in Africa; in other words, instead of measuring my results solely using “business metrics,” I measured them also in “human metrics.”
2. Difficult environments bring out the best and the worst in a person, but they are the best way one can truly learn and improve. Not surprisingly, my parents and some friends are relieved that I’m getting out of Africa and moving to a “safer” environment in China. I will not deny that living in Africa can be tough from a physical comfort stand point, and even more so, it puts a lot of mental stress because nothing works in Africa. A lot of things may seem to have simple solutions, but navigating through the people to execute these simple solutions is impossible at times. I have screamed and yelled at people more times than was acceptable in a professional setting. I have faced corruption and been proposed gray business deals that challenged my business ethics and values. Working in Africa has brought out an ugly side of me that I did not know existed.
On the other hand, Africa also brought out the best side of me, and I was surprised looking back to see how much I’ve grown. I discovered that I am quickly comfortable in a new environment and make fast friends with locals. I found patience and grace that I never knew was in me, and I experienced how unique and powerful my cross-cultural background and personality can be when it comes to bridging differences and moving teams forward. I will now leverage these strengths in everything I do moving forward.
While I’m no adrenaline junkie when it comes to lifestyle and hobbies, I could see how one can get addicted to pushing oneself to the limit. In a way, what I am doing in a professional setting is not fundamentally different from adrenaline junkies. It’s really less about stretching one’s ability but more about self-discovery and understanding who we are as individuals.