Working with Nigeria’s Change Makers: (2) Valuable Lessons in New York
In September 2013 Suzuka Kobayakawa began her 12-month fellowship under the Tokyo Foundation–Acumen Global Fellows Program. In her second report, she describes some of the personal lessons she learned during the intensive leadership training program in New York before embarking on an assignment at Pagatech, an innovative startup delivering universal access to financial services in Nigeria.
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I was attending a two-night, three-day workshop on the qualities essential for a fair and just society when Acumen founder Jacqueline Novogratz turned to me and asked about my deepest motives for when I decide to do something.
Love or Fear: From the “Good Society” Workshop
“Is it love or fear that strongly moves you?” When I heard this question, what instantly came to my mind was, ”Fear is what moves me.” This, though, was something that I never wanted to say in front of Jacqueline and the global fellows. As I recalled my experiences, I muttered to myself, “Suzuka, find examples to prove it wasn’t fear.” What were my driving motives? And what brought me here to the Acumen global fellowship program? I lapsed into silence while keeping up with the thoughts swirling in my mind.
A variety of reasons for my past actions—such as my work in Nepal before I joined Acumen—crossed my mind. What prompted me to go to Nepal? Surely, I wanted to offer hope to Nepalese women who were discouraged by the caste system or had resigned themselves to fate, believing that nothing would ever change. I was driven by the desire to show them that this need not necessary be so, that every human life was precious. I wanted to provide experiences that would help them recognize their own importance and to see the joy in their eyes when they discovered hope and their own potential—these motivations, I thought, could be categorized as ”love.”
But I also had to admit that these were not my only motives. In fact, the thing that pushed me more than anything else was fear. As I wrote in my first report, fear had been the major force behind many of my decisions. It pushed me to make myself strong. Without fear, I realized, I wouldn’t be sitting there with Jacqueline.
While I was thinking, everybody kindly and patiently waited for my answer. Awkwardly, I sputtered out a reply. “I wish I could say it was love, but that wouldn’t be true. I don’t want to admit it, but the thing that drives me most is fear.”
This was a moment when I came face-to-face with my weakness, forcing me to reexamine my underlying assumptions and motives. Although I hated to own up to it, the answer I discovered deep within me—and which I shared with others—was that I was here because I was afraid. That didn’t sound like the kind of leader I wished to be.
In the workshop, we discussed such concepts as rights and responsibilities, freedom and the social order, the pursuit of equality and social justice, productivity and prosperity, and the community and personal identity. We examined the principles underlying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and analyzed the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. We compared the political approaches of Lee Kwan Yew and Aung San Suu Kyi and discussed the struggle between liberty and authority in Leviathan .
It was following these discussions that Jacqueline asked me the ”love or fear” question. The discussion suddenly turned from detached analysis of the political use of emotions—fear, affection, anger, and sympathy—to something much more personal. I was being pressed to consider these issues from a different perspective, as something intimate and personal. I began to realize that I’d have to go back and redefine the way I thought about many things.
Many of the books we read in the workshop were familiar to me from high school and university. But they struck me quite differently now, after my experiences in the corporate world and my work in Nepal. I perceived a kind of universality in the way people grappled with major issues, and the workshop convinced me of the value of taking a step back. As I listened to the experiences of other fellows, I realized how valuable it can be to return to the classics and learn from the great thinkers of the past.
The reading list for the workshop included important works of political philosophy, and we discussed them in the light of our own experiences. On the list for the 2013 workshop were:
• Human Rights , Aung San Suu Kyi
• “A Conversation with Lee Kwan Yew,” Fareed Zakaria
• Leviathan , Thomas Hobbes
• The Social Contract , Jean-Jacques Rousseau
• “Categorical Imperative,” Immanuel Kant
• Utilitarianism , John Stuart Mill
• The Republic , Plato
• Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle
• The Muqaddimah , Ibn Khaldun
• Development as Freedom , Amartya Sen
• Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff , Arthur Okun
• In the Name of Identity , Amin Maalouf
The week following our “Good Society” workshop, we were introduced to a stripped down, minimalistic approach to setting up a new business called Lean Launchpad, which is the brainchild of Steve Blank of Stanford University. One reason many new businesses fail is that they invest too much money, time, and labor on things customers do not need. Lean Launchpad seeks to eliminate this kind of waste and obtain the biggest effect in the shortest time.
For many startups, allocating resources is a difficult task, particularly in the early stages. The Lean Launchpad approach offers a way of creating competitive products that customers truly demand without requiring an abundance of resources. It does so by actively incorporating feedback from users to eliminate superfluous features. Details are available through video lectures on Steve Blank’s website . (Once you register, you will have free access to many of the high-quality lectures he gives to his students at Stanford.)
We divided into groups of three and were given a week to come up with a business model for a Lean Launchpad startup that would address a social problem and also generate enough profit to be sustainable as a business. It was the beginning of a dizzying week: coming up with a hypothesis, specifying our product and service, developing strategies for pricing, sales channels, and marketing approach, then implementing improvements based on feedback from customers. We also gave daily presentations to “sharks” looking for the best businesses in which to invest at shark tank sessions. We went through this process every day.
The two other fellows in my group were both highly talented: one from Ireland and the other from the United States. They had MBAs and were already quite familiar with Lean Launchpad. Since we all shared an interest in education, we chose to focus on improving the quality of school education in low-income communities. We came up with the idea of marketing an education program with technologies that could be customized to the learning requirements of individual students.
My colleagues worked quickly and efficiently. It took them no time to come up with market research data available on the web and from acquaintances they could call up. I used to pride myself on being able to create PowerPoint slides quickly, but these guys were even better. They came up with impressive-looking and crisply written presentation materials in a snap: the documents made perfect sense and were backed up by solid data. But as we discussed the project I started to feel that something wasn’t quite right. All the decisions we were making were based on our own assumptions, and little effort was made to actually speak with the target users of our services.
In Japan, I worked in a culture that encouraged meeting with the customers directly whenever we ran into a problem; we believed that the customers had the solution. So I instinctively felt that our project would be incomplete if we didn’t go see where and how our target audience lived. I wanted to meet these people, see their faces and facial expressions, learn how they spoke and what they wore, and gain insights into the values that drove their education decisions. Our model, in terms of logic, seemed flawless. But I had little direct knowledge of American children attending public schools in low-income areas or their parents, so I had no gut feelings that it would work well.
So I went to the Bronx. I approached kids and their parents in front of schools and in the public library and asked them to talk to me about the educational issues they felt needed addressing. I wanted to talk to people face-to-face, to hear their nonverbal message. I also met several people who had experience teaching. The week flashed by. I was frantically busy interviewing people, writing up my notes, preparing our daily presentations, and planning and taking part in the discussions. A week wasn’t nearly enough time to obtain a quantitatively adequate sample. All I could get were several pertinent opinions. While I went about pursuing my “inefficient” research, my teammates were busily gathering solid statistical data.
Our different data sets led my colleagues and me to think about the education issue quite differently. Our opinions were at odds on everything from the target age group to the content of our value proposition. Whenever we had a difference of opinion, I always lost the debate. Not only was I outnumbered, I simply wasn’t persuasive enough. My instincts and my sales experience told me that these young MBAs—despite their impressive academic backgrounds and native English skills—could be underestimating the importance of on-the-ground evidence. But of course, no amount of sweat on my brow was going to change their cool, analytical minds.
I became frustrated that I couldn’t express myself better in English and was stymied by how little I knew about the American education system and its problems. I felt guilty, too: Because I wasn’t persuasive enough, our value proposition was not going to reflect the needs of the people who had taken the time to speak to me.
My colleagues listened patiently to what I had to say. They were nice to me. But I started to feel that I was just extra baggage dragging the team down. It was then that I had a sudden revelation: How would I have reacted if I were in their shoes? Pushed for time and lumbered with someone who didn’t seem to get the picture, who worked inefficiently (I didn’t think that traveling to the schools was an inefficient use of time, but my teammates might have thought so), and who couldn’t instantly find the right words, would I have been able to maintain my respect for that person and pay attention to them? Or would I just think of them as a burden? Suddenly, I saw myself as I was in Japan: a fluent and persuasive speaker with knowledge and confidence who never questioned her own beliefs. I had become so obsessed with making myself strong that I never really considered how it was like to be in a position of weakness. Looking back on my own past, I was shocked and horrified by the arrogance I found within me.
Learning to Accept Myself
As the Lean Launchpad week came to a close, a cold spell suddenly swept through New York. Life was as hectic as ever. As the date of our departure for the field drew near, we busily prepared for our trips, sorting visas and other paperwork. We also helped organize the annual Investor Gathering, which Acumen partners attend for a report on the performance of their social business investments over the past year.
All this time, though, I was frustrated and disappointed by the cowardice and arrogance I found in myself and by my failure to live up to the person I wanted to become. I also made the unpleasant discovery that I had a tendency to despise the weakness, arrogance, and cowardice in other people that were similar to my own.
My Real World House roommates noticed that something was on my mind. Eventually, I couldn’t hide my weaknesses anymore, and I decided to speak up honestly about what was bothering me.
I still vividly remember a comment made by one of my roommates: “We all carry things we’d rather not show. No one is perfect. You have so many wonderful qualities, Suzuka. I’m not saying this because you are an Acumen fellow. I am telling this as a friend. Don’t be harsh on yourself. If you can’t accept yourself, how you can accept others? Love yourself. You are loved by us as you are.” She then gave me a hug. The most precious things I gained from my time in New York were the people I met there and the opportunity they gave me to see myself in a new light.