I’ve discovered that one of the perks of being a boomer-age businessman working in Africa today is that the next generation attributes to me a lot more wisdom and respect than I probably deserve. My young American friend, Jon, is an extraordinarily talented, faith-motivated MBA student at a prestigious international university. He recently presented me with the following question:
I’m keenly interested in doing impact investing, entrepreneurial consulting, economic development, etc. in the developing world. For a long time, I’ve wondered about what is the best approach to “getting into the industry”. I see two options: 1) jump in early and learn on the run; offering more enthusiasm and less experience/expertise; even if that means living by faith that God will provide for me and my family, or 2) get a “real job” early in my career, learn lots of transferable skills, earn a healthy salary and one day have a better package of resources and experience to offer… the second half approach. What I want to ask is this: If you could go back, would you have done it differently?
At the beginning of a career, there are too many considerations, unknowns and moving pieces to know the best path. But I can suggest a compass and a tether that should guide your decisions along the way – follow your passion and assume responsibility for your family.
First, I am definitely in the camp that if you feel called to work in developing countries you should go for it – follow your passion and pursue the opportunities that fulfill your dreams and develop your God-given talents. Become great at what you were made to do.
My life has been a series of “episodes” when my talents and dreams merged with an opportunity that ignited my passion (corporate tax advisor, investment banker, entrepreneurial CEO, microfinance advocate, Africa business developer, think tank founder). With my wife’s encouragement, I have never been afraid to pursue an opportunity about which I was really passionate. And more important, I have never been afraid to walk away and find something new when my passion subsided. However, one must be prepared for the unexpected. Following your passion is not predictable and with each episode, you could find yourself in corporate America or starting a small business in Africa or anything in-between.
Second, you are a business guy. So regardless of where you are led (developed or developing), assume that your most important job is to create wealth (profits). Wealth to support you and your family (love yourself) and wealth to transform the lives of others (love your neighbor). Developing countries need wealth creators even more than developed countries. Don’t assume that if you’re led to work in the developing world that you won’t make any money or that your life will be less secure. That attitude doesn’t help anyone. Today, you can be as broke and financially insecure in America as anywhere.
Long business careers are invariably full of many failures and some successes. Neither of which qualifies someone to be dishing out career advice. However, I can say with some experience that even when things didn’t work out as expected, I’ve had few regrets whenever I was pursuing my passion.
Dale Dawson is an investment banker and entrepreneur. He serves on Rwanda President Paul Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council and is the founder of Bridge2Rwanda and Isoko Institute for Entrepreneurship and Strong Societies in Africa. Dale also serves on the boards of Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda and OneHundredX. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and lives in Little Rock.