Going West: US & Holland

Stepping out allows one to gain perspective; that is why it is good to travel. I spent 6 weeks of this year traveling across the United States and The Netherlands. Experiencing the different sights, smells, textures of cultures and approach of doing business.

By the time I departed from the USA I felt like my brain had been unzipped and tickled. The magnitude of the place is unimaginable. No television set can give you the range of diversity and enormity until stepping onto the land.  In all my travels in the wealthiest and most poverty-stricken places in the world have I ever experienced culture shock like I did in San Francisco. One of the reasons that I have come up with is the likeness to my lifelong exposure to American television shows. My understanding of reality and fiction was blurred.

The level of visible homelessness and people with disabilities on the streets seems so out of place in California and as an African, this seems unreal for a “rich” nation. The accepted logic is that the weather allows it to be a good place to be homeless. The cherry on the top of my shakiness was stumbling into a protest in Oaklands against the police for raiding the University of Oaklands for illegal use of maruana. This erupted in a community uprising because the drug is listed as medicinal. There were shouts that the SFPD should be spending their time on real crime. It’s interesting to have a comparative to our local dancing protests in South Africa but also a distinct reflection of local priorities.

My experience of New York, New York is that it is a city in the battle of beauty and survival. Beauty of architecture, randomness and possibility. Survival of speed, wealth retention, wealth creation and mission. Every single cliché of this city holds true for me with the accompanying background tracks of Keys and Sinatra. No time for politeness but she is an alluring drug.

Washing DC, the place where some of the world’s greatest impacting decisions get made. I found it to be the most outward looking American city I visited. Far from the rude and impatient New Yorker mode, I discovered enriching conversations, politeness and a sense that being a change agent over there could actually have global influence.

What stands out most from my visit to the US is the psyche of “go big or don’t bother”. This is expressed through the size of meals, streets, proper skyscrapers and general outlook of the world – even if your world extends to the borders of America only.  This has positive consequences for the approach of being an entrepreneur. American entrepreneurs seem to build scale into the design of their ventures. There is a boldness to their approach that is impressive and I can’t but wonder if our upbringing of humility in African cultures holds us back from taking those vital growth steps to go beyond small is beautiful.

After a week long stop back in South Africa I was off to the Netherlands. It was my third trip to the small country and I guess my overexposure to Dutch culture right at home provided no major surprises. I was invited to speak at the Social Venture Network conference titled Get on the Dance Floor. I spent a few days with multi-million dollar founders and CEOs who started their businesses 20-30 years ago before sustainability became trendy. I guess an offshoot of them being the original hippies? I immersed myself in the opportunity of learning from these elders in the field on a lifelong quest to practice their values and with profit. The term World Improving Entrepreneur (WIE) was introduced to me at this event. While I question the need to create new language since we’re still trying to get to grips with Social Entrepreneur and Impact Entrepreneur, WIE may be more direct. As a young African female I feel like it represents me and can clearly be distinguished from being a NPO/NGO/PBO; which I do not find appealing. To put it in context; my generation of black do-gooders typically did not grow up with immense wealth; poverty and being without is familiar to us. We are the cause. It is hard to justify why we would want to establish not-for-profits when wealth creation can get ourselves and our families out of poverty and create choice for our offspring. As the flight safety guideline famously cautions “put on your own mask first before helping others”. Being a World Improving Entrepreneur therefore captures my obsession with proving that one can do good for greater society and do well. (Yes NPOs have their place in disaster relief and where there’s ineffective states, but that’s a different conversation).

I digress. Coming back to the Dutch: while some sense-making still needs to be made of our controversial linked heritage, what I can appreciate about this cheese obsessed and biking fanatic culture is their ability not to take themselves too seriously. This just may be their key ingredient to innovation.

Now back to the land that I love, my home, I hold the possibility of meshing up the spirit of Ubuntu with being bolder by designing for scale and all the time not taking myself too seriously 🙂

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