Last summer I volunteered as a team leader in a Challenges Worldwide programme in Kampala (Uganda).  I had the opportunity to work with local entrepreneurs and help them to scale their businesses and generate sustainable impact in their community. As a former entrepreneur, existing interest in social entrepreneurship and a degree in International Relations in my pocket,  I was excited to spend 3 months working in Uganda. Looking back it’s safe to say I had one of the most challenging times of my life during this programme, and I would love to share the key lessons I learnt.

1 – Sometimes taking the path less travelled can be as good – if not better – than your original plan of action

Many of you will be scared about entering the real world after finishing some level of education. Whilst your original plan of action might be an internship or graduate scheme at bluechip consulting or a familiar accounting firm, there is another, less familiar option.

At Challenges Worldwide volunteers receive consulting training covering the entire business lifecycle. You will work in partnership with local entrepreneurs, as well as being in a developing country and belonging to a large group of fellows (volunteers). You will gain many life skills that you never thought you’d gain in such a short time frame, you will be ripped out of your comfort zone in many occasions and forced to become a flexible, resilient, culturally aware person. You will always remember your time with your host families, and  you will often find yourself reaching for knowledge gained with social enterprises in developing countries.

2 – Having strong past experience and knowledge does not automatically equate to success.

Enterprises range from clothing, photography, milk, food, pool tables and shops. You will be running through tools of analysis on the topics you will  have learnt about in your first week, including the tangibles such as interpreting entrepreneurs’ businesses through business models, to preparing an individual’s pitch document comprising of accounting, financial projections and so on, as well as the intangible things such as building a relationship with the local entrepreneur and living harmoniously in a new town with a strong culture. It’s a steep learning curve but an invaluable lesson on how to improve performance as a team player and as a leader.

Even if you consider yourself over-confident, you have a strong work ethic and plenty of experience of which you might think would result in the ability to successfully help the entrepreneurs’ maximise their business potential. You are likely to be wrong. In the end, you will obviously help the entrepreneurs with their businesses models, but only as a result of learning to adapt to your environment.

You will find out that your rapid delivery, formal approach and obsession with detail are not going to be effective out there in Uganda. For example, entrepreneurs might struggle to follow you at times, and it can be easy to become annoyed, dismiss the situation or people, and become disengaged. However, this is obviously not effective in terms of self-development and project outcomes.

Whereas challenging, it will be crucial to change your usual approach if you were ever to work well with the local entrepreneurs. Identify your goals and then set a plan to achieve them. It is okay to seek advice and help from fellow team members (which does not make you lose face, but rather helps to enhance your team relationship) and make a conscious effort to spend less time obsessing over detail and formality, and more time focusing on relationship building and delivering the core messages. Being humble and accepting valid criticisms can help maximise your development even though it may be unsettling in the short run. 

Soon you will be shown around their houses, introduced to their families, which in turn creates the perfect working environment for both parties to thrive and reach potentials. You will become great friends and strong working partners – a testament to the effectiveness of adaptability.

3 –  Possessing only intellect or a strong work ethic is not going to get you a proper multi-cultural experience.

Human relations are a central part of working in a multi-cultural environment. You will work with people from across the globe, with a varied mix of personalities. Some will be so focused on the business side of the programme, that they neglect the social and extra circular opportunities available, which are as important. Others become so involved in committees they forget about the deliverables. It is a challenge, but to get the most out of the programme it is important to balance your work with extra circular work to get a good mixture of experiences while abroad.

Possessing a strong work ethic will not give you lifelong friends, and fantastic memories. Whereas business results are important, don’t beat yourself up for doing too much extracurricular and not being focused enough academically. As time goes on you will be able to appreciate more and more the merit of being connected with the locals, learning other life skills such as networking, speaking in public, showing initiative, taking leadership positions – all of which helps maintain and build new relationships after the programme. You will feel fuelled to join new networks and associations back home.

While in Africa you will find that having high emotional intelligence, like being able to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically, will reward you with not only lifelong friends, but it will take you to places. You will visit and learn about native tribes, boat in a Lake, watch live rugby with the locals, trek, etc.

Challenges Worldwide has not only provided me with skills in emotional intelligence but also with a great authentic cultural experience – the best of both worlds in my view. It was strange having to say goodbye to the friends and families I had worked with and lived with for three months. It was quite a shock to the system when getting back to ordinary life back home.  However, one comes back with a new sense of confidence and optimism. You will find that as long as you have ambition, a strong work ethic and compassion, you can improve yourself and the world.

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