A New Year's Pause

I can't even count how many journals I have owned in my life. When you wear red-rimmed, perfectly round,  gold-framed glasses at the age of seven because  you read under the covers with a flash light after bedtime and offer poems as Christmas presents to family members, you inevitably receive a lot of journals. In spite of my wealth of  notebooks and diaries and long history of journal writing, it's been a love/hate relationship over the years. Words written to oneself in a diary can be uncovered, read and exposed in the most horrific and traumatic of scenarios (second grade love notes exposed by Dad at the dinner table. True story.). And of course we have the power to contort the truth and deceive future readers (namely ourselves) in hyperbole,  denial, or just pure fantasy.  But the beauty of this intimate space makes up for all of its dangers. 

The holiday and new year season is my favorite time of year for self-reflection and journal writing. I love looking over past journal writings; it's like reaching a high place in a journey and being able to finally see the winding trail you've climbed. There is always going to be more hiking ahead, but I appreciate and praise the pause. Inevitably, the resolutions I set for the past year are a mixed bag of successes and utter failures. Some will be grandfathered into my resolutions for the new year. Some, the repeat failures, may be dropped altogether. But no matter my state of stagnation or progress, I do still write down new year's resolutions in my journal. As with life, some things are written just to get you to the next page. Here, a gift from last year's journal pages.

Resolution for Year 2012

They say the world may end this year
according to Mayan prophecy.
I only hope to live each day
realizing the fine line between
adapting to one's environment
and letting it control you.
This year I will not be controlled.
I will be awake, vibrant, free.
And if the Mayans were right, so let it be.

- by Courtney Keene ©

One trick I've learned about new year's resolutions (or 'intentions' as I prefer to call them), is that much like any policy or self-regulation, increasing transparency increases accountability. In this vein, here are some of my initial intentions for 2013:
  • Be well! Attend dance classes, run often and eat well.
  • Spend and save consciously! Keep future needs and projects in mind.
  • Write! Write anything, but remember what you know to be true is always the most powerful. Flex writing muscles and exercise imagination regularly.
  • Disconnect! Enjoy a 'blackout' at least once a month reading, writing, eating, talking, playing by candlelight without the use of lights/power or electronics. 
The last resolution/intention occurred to me after one of several conversations with the hubby, who is from Senegal, about how dependent Americans are on electricity for everything. To those of you readers who were born and raised in the U.S., this may seem like a 'duh' statement, but it is not the norm in many parts of the world. In Senegal frequent black outs are the norm and you quickly adapt to darkness, candle light, and that medieval form of entertainment, conversation. Of course these moments are not to be romanticized; for the most part they are disruptive and harmful to the economic well being of people, businesses and countries. But there is something to be said about the social benefits of disconnecting from our various devices and reconnecting to each other, by candlelight. 


moments like this are rare
it caught me by surprise
to even be thinking these thoughts
like recognizing a dream within a dream
a moment of clarity
of seeing things from a great distance 
a high place
a lens suddenly twisted
into focus precisely capturing
the vague movements of life
in one clear frame
it feels like my soul 
has come up for air
breaking some unseen surface
between clamor and silence
obligation and freedom
stress and peace
I savor it
finding words to wrap around it
like banana leaves
to marinate and simmer
soaking ink in paper
to archive its passing.

- by Courtney Keene © 

So this being one of the last moments of 2012, some reflection may be in order. What has this year meant to me and what significance do I want to create for the following one? This year has been one full of drastic transitions: settling into married life, finishing grad school, moving, and starting a new job. But the moments I will treasure most are those calm, introspective pauses, scattered like jewels throughout the year. I hope to create more of these moments for myself and inspire them for others more frequently in 2013. 

What are your intentions for the new year? Whatever they may be, I wish you peace, love, and many moments of pause in your undoubtedly busy lives. Happy New Year from WYHWTM!


Pure Inspiration: Echoing Green at 25

On Friday I had the privilege of attending Echoing Green’s 25th Anniversary All Fellows Conference. For those who aren't familiar with Echoing Green (EG), it is a NYC-based non-profit with a huge global impact. It provides a two year Echoing Green fellowship for early stage social entrepreneurs, which consists of financial support, services and access to a rich community of fellow entrepreneurs and supporters. In the last selection cycle EG received over 3,500 applications from 128 countries for the usual 30 spots within the fellowship cohort, making it more than selective with an acceptance rate of less than 1%. Last year was the launch of EG’s Black Male Achievement Fellowship in collaboration with the Open Society Foundation. Echoing Green is also, like its peer Ashoka, a pioneer of the growing field of social entrepreneurship and a thought leader in this movement.

The conference was integrated with the annual All Fellows Conference, but was also open to alumni of the fellowship dating back to the early 1990's and former Echoing Green staff members (yay!) in honor of the 25th anniversary celebration. While it may seem odd to jump at the opportunity to use a day of vacation to attend an all-day conference hosted by an organization you worked for, for only a year, five years ago, I made sure that I was there. Simply put, this event was some much needed food for my soul.

There was no red carpet, no staged photo area, no press, but the event, which also honored Ed Cohen, respected venture capitalist and the founder of Echoing Green, did attract stars, just of a very unique breed. Former EG Fellows present included Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, Michael Brown & Allen Khazei, co-founders of City Year, Vanessa Kirsch, co-founder of Public Allies and founder of NewProfit, and Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green For All.  These giants of social entrepreneurship not only founded some of the largest public service organizations in the nation, but they also contributed to introducing groundbreaking legislation like the National and Community Service Trust Act (AmeriCorps, 1993) and the Energy Independence and Security Act (Green Jobs Act, 2007).

But it was not the mere presence of these famous social entrepreneurs that made the morning plenary sessions so moving. It was the familial intimacy displayed in a room of almost 300 participants. Cheryl Dorsey, EG president and another giant within the movement, spoke briefly on EG’s history and current trajectory. What struck me is how she punctuated her very informal, mic-less speech by pointing to folks within the audience, entrepreneurs from every stage of EG history, and integrated their personal and professional stories into that of the organization like an all-encompassing hug. Yes, the successes of Echoing Green Fellows and their respective ventures are amazing, but what was truly inspiring was the litany of personal thanks directed at Ed Cohen for his life-changing, compassionate confidence and investment in people. Not people in the abstract, ‘all of humanity’ sense, but in real individuals drowning in debt with only their ideas and passion to hold on to. “Ed Cohen has the highest degree of empathy for other people,” one alumnus stated. There were several direct ‘I love you’s,’ numerous forms of ‘you have changed my life’ and countless accounts of how Mr. Cohen and EG had stepped in as a lifeline in various personal and organizational crises.

Then Ed Cohen spoke. Surprisingly zen, he noted that the phrase “perseverance further” was one of the most recurring in the I-Ching Chinese philosophy. He thanked others for the success of EG and went about sharing his meditations, illustrating his talk with stories, his own paintings and selected poetry. One of his major themes: collaboration. “The greatest power among social change people is in working together,” he insisted, after explaining how several EG Fellows collaborated with each other and other partners to be the first to invest equity capital in Native American reservations. The poetry, as he explained, was inevitable. Echoing Green itself was given the name of a William Blake poem. Ever the lover of this written form, Mr. Cohen pulled out a couple of well-used hardcovers and read the room of 300 change makers two poems: Try to Praise The Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski and Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy.

Saturated, we broke for lunch, which was filled with exclamations and hugs as people reconnected. The afternoon was divided into ‘Braintrust sessions’ in which guests, staff, and alumni provided ideas and recommendations to newer Fellows facing challenges. I realized more than ever how buzzed I get connecting people and helping them pursue their ideas and passions. I found myself adding to my own list of things to accomplish in life: I aspire not only to make the impact of a social entrepreneur someday, but to also have made the impact of being an ‘Ed Cohen’ to a network of change makers. An ambitious challenge indeed, but one I take on joyfully.  


What does Shange think?

by Sydnie L. Mosley

On Wednesday, November 7th I had the pleasure of attending “Ntozake Shange on Stage & Screen” sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard. The event began with a screening of Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, followed by a panel discussion and audience Q & A with Ms. Shange, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and Monica Miller, Associate Professor of English at Barnard. With so much negative criticism surrounding Perry’s 13 million dollar film adaptation, the question burning on every one’s mind was, what does Shange think?

Ntozake Shange speaks into a microphone next to Soyica Diggs Colbert

I was relieved to learn that her thoughts aligned with the criticisms I’d been outlining in my head since I first saw the film over a year ago. Shange was frank: "Tyler Perry's greatest challenge with for colored girls was what he was about to tackle." In other words, Perry could not grasp the radical nature of the work, and it was clear, at least from an artistic standpoint, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

Read more at BCRW BLOG.

Sydnie L. Mosley is a dancer, choreographer and teaching artist who loves to write. Read more of her musings on race, gender, dance and life on Love Stutter.


To my 15-year-old self...

Last Thursday, October 11th, the UN and the global community celebrated, for the first time, the International Day of the Girl. This was a much needed acknowledgment of the all too common suffering, inequality and abuse imposed on girls worldwide and a tribute to their collective strength and determination. Sadly, this first celebration was marked by the shooting two days prior of Malala Yousufzai, a courageous 14 year-old girl and activist for girl's education and women's rights under the Taliban regime. She remains in intensive care and in our collective thoughts and prayers.

To support this brave girl and others like her, several of inspiring women were asked by CNN to share their response to this question: "Looking back, what one piece of advice would you give to your 15-year-old-self?" Though I was a little disappointed not to have a response from Michelle Obama or Alice Walker, I found that the most insightful advice came from the lesser-known figures. Forget my 15-year-old self, these words have their place in my life today:
"Believe in your dreams and ideals and pursue them with determination and motivation. Always find the time to do something for other people. Indeed, there is nothing more rewarding than making someone else happy." - Fabiola Gionotti, Physicist
"I have bad news for you: You're not clairvoyant. Not even a little. You have no idea how the future will unfold. But it will unfold, slowly and quickly and slowly again, in ways that you cannot now begin to imagine. So stop trying to guess what's coming next. All the effort you put into figuring out what will happen, all the scenarios you play out in your mind - they're useless. And that's a good thing. Relax and let the future arrive on its own time and in its own way. Allow yourself to be astonished." - Robin Bernstein, Historian.
If asked the same question, my advice would be simple: love yourself beyond limits, unconditionally. Looking back, I think that might have solved a few problems, eased a few passages, and assuaged many anxieties. I'm still working on it. Of course my girlhood and those of the CNN interviewees are certainly much different from that of Malala Yousafzai. However don't we all, as girls, women, human beings, need the same fundamental advice, care, support, and encouragement? What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

Just a little brain and heart food to munch on in honor of the first International Day of the Girl....


Is America Dumb?

The first presidential debate was indeed disappointing. I think we have all been so blown away by President Obama's masterful orations in the past and we've shaken our heads smugly during so many Romney foot-in-mouth moments that we were expecting a complete massacre (a lion in the ring with a kitten) but what we got was a much more even-tempered debate.

We were bored. And that is what is so disheartening.

Because we are a nation of immediate gratification, constant entertainment, and sensationalized everything it seems that we have lost the ability to look beyond the showmanship and actually process real content. So according to the media and word on Main street, Romney won the debate. But clearly, if you take the time to read the fact-checks it is evident that in his quest to impress, entertain, wow and otherwise captivate America with his confidence and banter, Romney was very liberal in his representation of the truth.

Today, back in VA for another round of canvassing, one of the other volunteers piped up during training to ask how we should respond to conversation about the debate. The trainer immediately launched into his rehearsed defense, "It was disappointing  the President was clearly tired, but he stuck to the facts and Romney changed the platform he had been running on for the previous five months..." Another volunteer, an older gentleman seated in a corner, interrupted briskly: "Don't defend him! We don't need to defend the President. Romney is nothing but a salesman, a clever, sleazy salesman who would sell his own mother to win votes." We agreed that this would be the message in our post-debate talking points.

In another conversation about the debate later this evening I expressed my frustration with the fact that Romney, based purely on style and bravado, has been said to have 'won' the debate. A friend of a friend at the restaurant table leaned in and stated frankly, "that's because 40% of America is retarded." Excuse the derogatory and politically incorrect use of this term - I cite verbatim  But is it true? Are we, as a nation, dumb? Do we need to have political discourse processed and then regurgitated to us in bite-sized palettes by the media like vulnerable little wolf cubs to be digestible?

It's a sad thought indeed and one that I hate to even entertain, being an optimist who likes giving people the benefit of the doubt. Also, I think making this claim is not much better than Romney's notorious comments on the 47% of us who don't count to him and feel entitled to life. But, what then is at the root of this senseless mob-like mentality of 'whoever talks over the moderator most and takes the most cheap shots wins.'

What do you think? Is this primeval blood lust reminiscent of the age of gladiators? Is it subliminal media manipulation? Or is America just plain dumb? Do you think that Romney really won the debate? And what should and does 'winning' entail?


A Year in Full

So I failed to post on Sunday night (again), but this time I had a good reason. Sunday, September 30th marked my one year wedding anniversary to my wonderful friend, husband, lover, and partner. We pretty much spent the whole day at home lounging after a ridiculously heavy home-cooked breakfast (thank you SmittenKitchen!), the power of which we vastly underestimated. This anniversary, the first of many, proved a good time to pause and reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of the past year as well as the lessons learned. I am no expert on relationships and being married hasn't changed that. But here are a few insights I think are worth sharing:

There will be things that drive you crazy - I know this is not news but I can honestly bear witness to the fact that there will inevitably be things that your partner does that will annoy you and you him or her. If your 'list' of ideal qualities and deal-breakers includes things like 'organized and neat' or 'has the same idea of romance/communication/social activity as me' you might want to rethink how important these are. Admittedly my husband and I were really lucky to have recognized our love and compatibility rather quickly, so we skipped over a lot of the 'learning about the quirks' process until after we were engaged and then married. We've since discovered that we both have unique ways to annoy one another - he embraces disorderliness and seems to think I can predict the weather and I frustrate him by making plans and revealing them to him as an after-thought. Being married takes getting used to. But we love each other and we acknowledge this in words and actions every day. So be sure to discern the subtle distinction between simply having high standards and being picky and uncompromising. No one is perfect and you will be surprised how flexible love can make you!

It's all part of the game - Remember that awesome Micheal Douglass movie, The Game, where he plays a wealthy but bored-to-death bachelor who signs up for a mysterious game with a company that then begins to terrorize him? The entire movie you ask yourself whether or not the whole thing is a giant con or really a game. Well I can't tell you how many times this year we have referred to that movie in order to put tense situations into a larger, life-size perspective. Believe me, dealing with U.S. immigration and living on literally $20 for a couple of weeks until the next student loan disbursement comes through is no fun. But having a perspective-shifting mechanism as an individual or a couple works wonders.

Empathy and Evolution are key - One of the most important lessons my husband has taught me is the importance of empathy in any relationship. He constantly challenges me to think and feel and consider beyond boundaries I have set between myself and others, including him. I am learning how to be more considerate, selfless, and thoughtful. Mind you, I wasn't a horrible person to begin with, but I feel like I've evolved in this past year. My younger sister has already attested to this - to my chagrin. Even admitting this takes a level of humility and the realization that we all have room for growth along various dimensions. Allowing people to impact you positively in these areas is part of what relationships are about. It is a constant give and take.

Ladybugs, lots of Ladybugs - If you know me, you know that one of my all-time favorite movies is Under the Tuscan Sun. Though it fits squarely under the dreaded 'chick flick' category it is actually full of profound insights about life and love and happiness...no gagging please. One of the stories told to the main character played by Diane Lane by a friend is that when said friend was young she used to search in the grass for ladybugs for hours in vain. Finally, frustrated and tired, she would just give up and nap. When she would wake up she would have ladybugs crawling on her. The message is simple: sometimes the best way to find what you are looking for is to just relax and be and let it come to you. Whether what you want is your partner, your next professional opportunity, or some standard of 'happiness.' While I know this to be true, I am still coaching my over-stimulated brain to sometimes slow its pace. I am still learning to appreciate the pauses, the in between times, the lazy moments without plans, and empty spaces. I find this an even greater and perhaps more important effort in a couple. Not only am I constantly thinking and wanting and planning for myself, but my stress level, anxieties and lengthy to-do lists are obviously impacted by the thoughts, actions, wants and needs of my husband. Relationships of any kind, especially a marriage, do hold the possibility of double the stress. Celebrating the present moment, however unfinished or incomplete, rather than the constant search for future fulfillment is so necessary.

All in all, we've had an awesome first year. It went by in the blink of an eye, as if I had walked down the aisle a month ago. We are blessed and never fail to acknowledge this to ourselves and each other and try to live in a way as individuals and a couple that is deserving of this blessing. It helps that we have a loving community of family and friends to keep us in check. May the adventure continue!


Africa's Place in the World: Ruminations on a historic dialogue

My husband just returned home from an evening out with a group of West African friends and to my surprise, he was livid after a heated debate about Africa, its history, its people and its place in the world. Apparently the conversation, which had been cool, calm and collected, had taken a turn for the worse after his friend had, with complete confidence, stated that at a conference when asked what Africa had contributed to the world (a question I already find offensive, because it is never asked of other continents), this friend of my husband's had, with the same confidence, stood up as an African and proclaimed to his fellow conference attendees that the continent had not contributed a thing. 

The conversation that followed was full of dismissive remarks about the continent and its peoples' histories, including slavery and systemic oppression under colonial rule. That was all in the past and it is over now. It's time to move on and stop complaining and making excuses. Why can't black people ever stop complaining, this group asked. My husband said he had yelled to the point of losing his voice; for those who do not know him, he is a relatively quiet and calm guy. My husband's friend, to be fair, is a really nice, well-educated person who is a natural-born entrepreneur and has lived in the US for over a decade, without ever once returning home. 

My husband made two major points in this heated argument, yelling over the many voices of the group who debated just as passionately against him:

1. Making the statement that Africa has not contributed and, even worse, has nothing to contribute is the surest evidence you have of Africa's systemic oppression. You who believe this are the system's worst victims and your rejection of history is a rejection of your own heritage. You have to understand, acknowledge this oppression in its varied forms to be able to move forward in any sustainable, healthy way. 

2. The world as we know it has only been made possible due to Africa's many contributions, the majority of which were taken unwillingly and some of which have been freely shared. Europe's industrialization and America's economic force were built on exploited African ingenuity, labor and natural resources. But that is not all Africa has to offer - it offers a diverse set of cultures, with different values and definitions and priorities. It offers us alternative modes of living, relating to each other and relating to our built and natural environments. To deny this is to blindly accept one occidental way of life that has been spoon fed to you and deny yourself and everyone else the possibilities of countless alternatives. 

While upon his return home, my husband was still unsure of whether his points had been enough or  even heard, we continued to discuss the conversation, one I have personally heard before and know is but a continuation of a historic dialogue. There has always been some level of conflict and resentment between African Americans and other black immigrants to the US, who, upon arrival have often openly questioned why blacks in America haven't seized the opportunities of the American Dream and done more with themselves. Tinges of this historic resentment surfaced in the conversation described to me. Why can't they be more entrepreneurial? 

In our post-debate conversation, my husband and I took his argument a step further. Last week I wrote about the universal and fundamental importance of empathy. Well, it is my contention that to truly aspire to be filthy rich in this society, to make this your singular ambition and your source of happiness as so many people have,  you have to be willing to give up a certain level of empathy for others. Climbing to the top, after all, means possible slowing down, putting down, if not crushing, those beneath you. So once this trade-off has been accepted, people anticipating the imagined rewards of the capitalist system, start shedding their empathy right away. With that empathy goes indignation at mass injustice, along with acknowledged historical oppression and recognized continued systemic inequities. To become a winner, one must accept that capitalism creates winners and losers and, against all odds, maintain the winner's mentality, free from all of the baggage and inconvenience of reality. 

Sadly, I fear this is what many entrepreneurial African immigrants, like my husband's friend, do. What is most disturbing though, is that they are right to do so in order to accomplish their stated goal, because our society rewards this behavior. This reminds me of a favorite quote from the interesting historical figure of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said that "it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." I couldn't have stated it better myself.

One thing that my very wise husband says often in these types of conversations is that we, as humans, like latching onto one part of something that we deem to be true and then accept the whole thing, though perhaps not wholly examined, as truth. This is true with science, technology, capitalism and so forth. Something about it works, so, regardless of its faults and its known inequities and known unknowns, we launch ourselves into it and forget that this seemingly inevitable and hegemonic system hinged, at one point, on a single choice. 

Another telling quote from Krishnamurti, "You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life." Amen.


On Being Happy...

Still on my post-DNC high (thank you Michelle Obama) I spent Saturday morning canvassing in Virginia for the Obama Campaign. The campaign's 'Weekend of Action' was perfectly orchestrated to preserve the energy and emotions roused by the convention. I was grouped with a driver, a lady about my grandmother's age, and two other team members and sent off on our mission with printed driving instructions for where we would meet a Virginia community team leader for training and further instruction. We covered an entire neighborhood in three hours. Most people were extremely friendly, some even offered a glass of water. Conversations, if anyone answered the door, tended to last about two minutes. But the longest and most interesting conversation by far was with a federal employee, who rambled during a break from his lawn mowing, about how his vote would be based on who would cause the least damaging changes to him directly. His view of direct impact was narrowly focused on his job, which he assessed was secure regardless of who ran the country. Following the guidelines we had been given for such conversations, I tried to relate to his points by acknowledging that most votes are ultimately based on self-interest. But he insisted that his logic was different, admitting, 'It might sound bad, but I don't care about what's good for the country, I just care about what's good for me." We continued chatting politely, but his point had been heard.

Later that day my husband and I watched a documentary, aptly titled Happy, exploring the meaning and substance of happiness. When asked what one wants out of life, almost everyone claims 'to be happy' is the goal. But obviously we have very different visions of what this means and plans for how to achieve it. There were a few incredible stories of people and communities who survived extreme trauma or were materially poor and yet were undeniably happy.  The two key ingredients across the array of diverse examples was a realization that life is a gift and that the most precious part of that gift is our connection to other people. Whether they be lovers, friends, family or strangers, our relationship with others is a huge, if not the most significant, element in our own happiness or unhappiness. 

Photo by Pete Souza - White House
This made me think a little bit more than I had before about the link between empathy and happiness. If human connection is at the core of happiness, then empathy, which is simply a distillation of that connection, is its essence. I had mentioned empathy in my earlier conversation with the federal employee in an attempt to broaden his voting decision criteria; he had all but smirked at the word.

The documentary also provided some examples of communities and countries that proactively seek to create an environment that enables happiness. Sadly the U.S. was not on the list. Scandinavian countries like Denmark provide free quality education through college, universal healthcare, and co-housing opportunities to support inter-generational communal living. Bhutan, a small kingdom in South Eastern Asia, remains the only nation in the world to measure Gross National Happiness and value it more than Gross National Product. While Bhutan has not been as serene as it may seem (the government expelled ethnic Nepali Hindus in the 1990s), they do seem to be onto something. 

As Americans, we pride ourselves in the fact that we have an inalienable right to the 'pursuit of happiness' and yet we have far to go to actually exercise this right as a nation. Young people spend more time in front of screens than interacting with others in person (check out the iphone spoof poking fun of this state of 'connectivity'). We grow out of our passion, idealism, and creativity to work most of our lives in isolation from the people and pursuits we love. We grow old and are managed as burdens rather than treasured for the richness of our experiences and knowledge. Surely sprinkling material wealth on a faulty paradigm does not add up to happiness. 

How refreshing would it be to hear someone speak about our happiness index during a campaign? One of the qualities that makes President Obama so appealing is his empathetic ability. He seems to understand how we are all connected and appreciate the significance of that connection. But he can only change so much by himself. The federal employee I spoke with is the product of something much larger: a value system, a lifestyle, an upbringing that lacks empathy at its root. We need a sociocultural shift, one that prioritizes empathy in addition to hard work, ambition, integrity and all those other basic American middle class values. The American Dream should be more than owning a home and being financially comfortable; it should include having a wealth of empathy to support high quality relationships with friends and family, with enough left over to actually care about the well-being of everyone else.

Photo by Pete Souza - White House


Social Venture in Dakar anyone?

Summer is over and we are back to blogging here at WYHWTM! Being an Africa-oriented business and economic development nerd, I recently checked out The McKinsey Quarterly’s new report, “Africa at Work: Job Creation and Inclusive Growth,” which highlights the immense economic potential in the continent’s resources, especially its human capital.  While McKinsey’s announcement that “African economies are on the move” (pg1) may be old news to many, the report provides a glimpse into the endless entrepreneurial opportunities in Africa. 


Between 2010 and 2020 McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that Africa will add 122 million people to its labor force, making it the largest labor force in the world by 2035. Currently many African workers are what McKinsey has delicately termed ‘vulnerably employed’ a concept that includes subsistence living and self-employment in the informal economy without social safety nets. The prescribed solution to this prevalent status is an increase in available ‘stable wage-paying jobs,’ namely from manufacturing, agriculture, and retail & hospitality. MGI’s recommendations to put Africa’s economic growth on a similar trajectory to that of South Korea and other emerging markets include: expansion of large-scale commercial farming on uncultivated land, increase in manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP via either low-cost manufacturing hubs or higher-value-added manufacturing, and modernization and formalization of the retail and hospitality sector (replace informal markets with shopping malls and remove barriers to travel and tourism). While the recommendations provided in the report make perfect sense for a continent on the traditional and seemingly never-ending ‘development path’, they beg the question – what can African countries learn from the shortcomings of the traditional development path and avert in their own evolutions? I personally believe that the possibilities of alternatives paths to alternative states of ‘development’ or well-being are endless. But that is for another day…

Lest we forget, “Africa’s growth needs to be inclusive if it is to improve human welfare and ensure increasing social and political stability.” (pg1) Yes, thank you McKinsey. In order to make this explosive growth inclusive, policymakers, business and entrepreneurs must address the very salient need for work experience opportunities and more hands-on vocational training programs for high-demand skills. ‘Where are the entrepreneurs in this picture?’ one might ask. Interestingly, MGI draws a distinction between ‘opportunity entrepreneurs,’ those who seek to leverage market opportunity and ‘necessity entrepreneurs,’ those, including street hawkers, who are just trying to survive within current market conditions (pg52). ‘Necessity entrepreneurs,’ of which Africa’s share is high compared to other emerging markets, fall under the ‘vulnerable employment’ category. Again, skills-building initiatives are needed to promote ‘necessity entrepreneurs’ to the ‘opportunity entrepreneur’ level.

This is where my restless, creative and entrepreneurial side kicks in and I start thinking of a million potential ventures that could possibly meet these growing needs, particularly in the metropolitan areas of ‘transition economies’ like Ghana, Tanzania and Senegal that have relatively stable sociopolitical contexts and hoards of unemployed energetic and smart young people. There is clearly a need for more homegrown solutions and job creation. Strategic support of local entrepreneurship (the opportunity kind), social innovation and the creative economy are proven methods being used to stimulate transitioning cities within the U.S. (Pittsburgh anyone?), but are rarely at the forefront of US driven economic development efforts elsewhere. (One theory is that this does not support the true agenda of extracting the most value for the U.S. out of the economic development of emerging markets – cheap labor, cheap goods, natural resources, favorable trade terms, low-barrier investments…but I digress). 

So there are at least two needs clearly identified: closing the gap between smart, energetic youth and jobs, and creating new stable jobs in a less foreign-investment-centric way through local entrepreneurship….hmmm. Since this forum is meant to also serve as a platform for sharing unperfected ideas, let’s have a go:

What: A social enterprise based in Dakar, Senegal addressing the two needs stated above

Mission: To engage local young people in local economic development efforts

Two Strategies:
  • Support youth job readiness, training and placement
  • Promote local entrepreneurship in social and creative sectors
 Services for youth clients would include:
  •  Post-graduate internships and job training
  • Career development
  • Vocational and other workshops
  • Entrepreneurship incubator
  • Social innovation support programs
 Services for local and foreign institutional clients would include:
  • Job posting and internship/full-time recruiting
  • Job training/orientation facilitation
  • Venture investment opportunities
  • Consulting (marketing, strategic management, economic development…etc)
 Sustainable Business Model: Simply put, income from the institutional clients (companies and government agencies) and higher-income youth clients would subsidize services to lower-income youth clients and more socially-oriented activities without a direct source of revenue. This model may also require supplementary income generation, which could be accomplished in the form of another social enterprise branch also used for vocational training purposes (boutique, restaurant, temp agency….etc).

What do you all think? Granted, this is a very simplistic description, I would love to hear your initial reactions, questions, thoughts, related interests and suggestions! A hearty and challenging dialogue is key to any ideation process. Thanks in advance for participating!


Do we 'have it all' wrong?

Photo by Phillip Toledano. The Atlantic Magazine, July/August 2012
Whether or not you've tuned into the recent debate prompted by The Atlantic's cover story, "Why Women Still Can't have it All," by Anne-Marie Slaughter, you are likely already familiar with this old debate: Have we reached a point as a society where women can be as successful as we want to be both in our personal and professional lives? As women, can we truly "have it all"? What surprised, disappointed, saddened and even angered many readers was the fact that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former and first woman director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton and tenured professor at Princeton, responded with a firm "nope."

According to Slaughter, even with the full support of a committed partner, "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible." Once her two year term in DC was over, she rushed back home to Princeton where her family and tenured academic position were waiting. According to Slaughter, the reactions of her friends and colleagues ranged from sympathetic (oh, how unfortunate!) to condescending (maybe it's just you?). 
The typical young Generation X or Y young woman has been raised to think of her ideal future 'self' as an educated, successful career woman, with a life partner, children and a busy productive life well into retirement years. We are academics, entrepreneurs, artists, business women and we are daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties, godmothers, girlfriends, wives. We are raised to believe that these two categories need not overlap and limit each other. I'm sure many of us can at least imagine the feelings of guilt and even shame at not accomplishing what has now become a 'feminist' expectation of doing everything at once, 'having it all.' But is it so wrong to want to make compromises for a more balanced life? Does that make one old-fashioned, lazy, or unaccomplished? 

Part of what is to blame, Slaughter points out, is the so-called feminist mantra of trying to be everything and do everything, without compromise. She admits, "I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."   

Perhaps everything all the time, is not what it's cracked up to be? One of the most practical and sage pieces of advice I’ve received from one of the many professional women in my family is to plan to be ‘off balance on purpose’ in different areas and times of life. This means rather than striving to do it all, all of the time, be realistic and know what to prioritize when.

Don't get me wrong - I am not in complete agreement with Slaughter. For many women it is possible to juggle both career and family obligations. My own mother is a great example. As a high-level official within the U.S. Agency for International Development, she has managed to excel in her career and be there for me and my sister. But she was able to do so with the support of my wonderful father who, after his own career in finance and at USAID, took on the role of a stay-at-home-dad as he developed into a professional artist. While things are not always perfect in our household, my parents are my example of what a good partnership can accomplish. 

Obviously this is not the typical set-up among most couples. In her 2011 Barnard Commencement address, Sheryl Sandberg, former COO and first female member of the Board of Directors for Facebook (as of last week), noted that generally "men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment." She sited data stating that among heterosexual couples women do, on average, twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare than their male partners. Ironically, Sandberg advised the audience of young women that "the most important career decision you're going to make is whether you have a life partner and who that partner is."

But what if we are asking ourselves the wrong question to begin with? What if instead of debating over the possibility of 'having it all' we should be discussing what 'having it all' really means? 

Oddly enough, some profound insights about life shared by Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business  scholar and an MBA favorite, may bring some clarity to this often obscure dialogue. Christensen, who has advises the leaders of many of the world's most successful companies, asks his students on the last day of class to answer a few thought-provoking questions, including: "First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?" These questions are, to me, much more salient than the vague notion of 'having it all,' and perhaps a better compass for success and happiness over the long-term.

In his article, "How Will You Measure Your Life?" Christensen employs six business insights and frameworks as guiding principles. He points out how people, like many companies, say they want to accomplish X and yet allocate all of their resources, including time and energy, to Y. He explains,"if you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most."

Clay Christensen. The guy with the answers?
In 2010 Christensen was diagnosed with cancer. He ends his article with simple words of advice: "I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success."

While Christensen finds his own grounding in his Christian faith, I find his advice relevant in my own life, which is decidedly nonreligious. Plan your life as you would your baby start-up venture. Have a strategy and allocate your resources accordingly. Think long-term. Cultivate and maintain the relationships you need. Choose the right metrics for measuring your success and take time to evaluate yourself along those lines.

I think as women, we often get so caught up in trying to push boundaries, make statements, and live up to societal ideals and expectations, that we set aside these universal truths and quickly find ourselves lost, burnt-out, and falling far short of our potential happiness. Is 'having it all' really the 'end all be all' or do we have it all wrong?


Ambassadors for Africa: Bridging the Gap

by Ebele Ifedigbo

 A version of this post originally appeared on Africa.com under its "My Journey, My Africa" section.

My Journey with Africa started as one of deep confusion and chronic discord. Like most African children born and raised in the United States, I struggled with my Nigerian status. Growing up, I was particularly perplexed as to why my parents chose to curse my life with such a weird name as ‘Ebele’- didn’t they know that people would continually butcher the pronunciation or, worse, give in to the temptation of calling me incredibly stupid nicknames like ‘Belly’?

Being the hybrid product of a Nigerian father and a black American mother only compounded my African identity struggle. It seemed like I never really fit in on either side: Africans saw me as essentially black and they tended to see blacks as lazy and uncultured; blacks saw me as essentially African and they tended to see Africa as a place full of naked tree-swinging tribes and starving babies.

Of course I had my family there to keep me grounded in Nigerian culture and values but, given the fact that I was actually raised in a black American community, I felt a lot further removed from my African identity than from my black American identity. As I got older and the desire to truly know myself set in, I became increasingly curious to learn more about Africa: I got my Nigerian cousins to teach me Igbo, I started listening to music artists like Flavour and 9ice to complement the Bob Marley and 2pac collections that had long flooded my iPod, and I took so many Africa-focused electives in college that I ended up qualifying for a minor in African Studies. But just knowing about Nigeria and Africa wasn’t enough for me. Deep down, I really wanted to understand more about the intersection of the African and black American experiences: How might we learn to find strength in our similarities while still proudly celebrating our differences? And, most importantly, how could I use my inter-sectional positioning to help bridge the deep cultural divide I’ve unfortunately had to navigate my entire life?

My passionate drive to unite my bifurcated communities has led me to create a new organization called Ambassadors for Africa (AFA). Founded in February 2012 by me and my partner Shirley Torho, AFA brings together black American youth ages 7-24 from all walks of life for a program designed to develop their global leadership capacity while preparing them for a life as advocates for meaningful and sustainable African development. At the core of AFA’s program model is our abiding belief that the black American community has been a sorely overlooked ally in the ongoing struggle for lasting African prosperity. Furthermore, we believe that exposure to the African cultural and socioeconomic milieu will empower black youth with a more complete perception of their personal identity and equip them with a more dynamic understanding of the pressing issues facing Africa-descendant communities, both in America and abroad.

After completing a curriculum rooted in responsible volunteerism & cultural exchange, social entrepreneurship, and Black & African Studies, youth participate in service trips to Africa, where they form sustainable relationships with African youth & community partners in key sectors. Upon their return to the United States, participants complete collaborative social action projects to effect change in the areas of African development most meaningful to them. Long term, AFA will serve as a critical facilitating link between AFA alumni and continental African communities and organizations, fueling and facilitating their contributions to the continent over time.

While my personal Journey with Africa has been a decidedly rocky one involving years of inner-conflict, discovery, growth, and self-acceptance, I am forever grateful because the challenging journey has led me to a place of unwavering appreciation and genuine empowerment through my African identity. Best of all, my Journey has led me to what I believe is my true life purpose. Through Ambassadors for Africa, I have the invaluable opportunity to use my bi-cultural life experience as a platform for creating a powerful and mutually-beneficial cross-continental exchange of ideas, resources, and support. The prospect of strengthening and unifying both sides of my Africa-descendant community brings me immense joy and satisfaction and I am quite excited to see where this Journey will take me next.

To learn more about Ambassadors for Africa and to join our nascent movement, please visit and 'like' our Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/Ambassadors4Africa or email us at: ambassadors4africa@gmail.com.

If you would like to help us with funding (and you definitely should!), you can contribute to our Indiegogo campaign at: www.indiegogo.com/AmbassadorsForAfrica.

Ebele is a budding social entrepreneur whose foremost passion in life is the pursuit of lasting social and economic empowerment for the black community worldwide.