Combat, COVID, Courts + Diversity

Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas, Intel. Policy & Strategy Officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and fellow combat veteran, startup enthusiast, and VP at State Street, Jason Cipriano share tips on managing stress (and more) in the VUCA era.

#ZigZagOfProgress, explained in the conclusion of this post.

Highlights and tips listed further below are intentionally pithy and succinct.

A link to the recording of our entire webinar last night is available here.

Background on this post (and webinar last night):

“A lot of us want tips on managing (ourselves and others) better in stressful times. We assume combat veterans have learned how to work better under stress.”

That observation by Gustavo Trindade, Director of Babson’s Miami Hub, prompted us to invite Jason Cipriano, former navy officer. legal adviser, combat veteran, startup survivor, and VP at a Fortune 500 company (State Street), to speak in our summer webinar series.

A fan of aliteration, Jason proposed “Combat, COVID, Courts” as a catchy title capturing all the themes between which he could find parallels, offer tips, and add value.

Then George Floyd was killed, and suddenly, the long-festering, persistent background crisis of racial inequity took over as the top headline issue of the last several weeks.

As a Latinx executive accountable for supplier diversity and sustainability at a bank that touches $1 out of every $10 in global commerce, with a procurement budget of $3.5 billion, Jason fortunately had tips to share on issues of diversity and inclusion.

At the last minute, we learned that Lt. Col. Faye Cuevas, Intel. Policy & Strategy Officer to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could join us. Also a combat veteran, Faye has been a corporate counsel, state and federal prosecutor, senior executive, and gained international attention for her work at the intersection of counter-terrorism, anti-poaching, and women’s entrepreneurship.

Slide used to introduce our guests last night

This post summarizes highlights of some of the wisdom shared by Faye and Jason last night, based on a combined total of over 40 years of service and entrepreneurial leadership experience around the world – often in the role of someone in an under-estimated and under-represented demographic group. Coincidentally and valuable in this context, Faye and Jason are each raising three biracial children, as we discovered in 90 minutes of “pre-gaming” their talking points and the persepectives they could bring to a conversation that risked covering sensitive-but-essential-and-timely topics.

Lessons from combat: tips on managing in times of stress

The slides that served as the springboard for our conversation on managing stress.

Faye and Jason elaborated on the following basic tips for managing under stress:

(1) Minimize the unscripted: proactively think ahead and ask what a mission entails.

(2) Break-down tasks into steps: specific policies and procedures reduce uncertainty.

(3) Practice, practice, practice: drill and master routines, often in adverse conditions.

(4) Focus on the task-at-hand: a million executed tasks will result in eventual victory.

(5) Expect the unexpected. Here’s the balancing act: despite drilling routines, don’t be shocked at change, and be ready to occasionally pivot, improvise, and act decisively despite uncertainty and incomplete information. Get used to it. Faye conveyed this powerfully: “When I was the last person a combat team would see before deploying, they’d ask me how sure I was that the enemy was really as we described (identities as a combatant vs. bystanders, numbers, postion, equipment). As a lawyer, I’d love 100% certainty. But the best teams in the special forces business would take potentially deadly risks based on a threshold of 70-75% certainty.” (paraphrased quote based on two conversations, approved by Faye Cuevas on June 25).

(6) Don’t skip the after-action, or “lessons learned” debrief. In other words, it is invaluable to discuss what went right or wrong, and why. More on this below.

COVID, Courts, Diversity: tips on legal risk + creating value

Both Faye and Jason have legal training and an entrepreneurial outlook, so it was natural to break-down both COVID-19 and the broad topic of diversity and inclusion into two areas: (1) minimizing risks, and (2) maximizing opportunities.

Disclaimer: this is not intended, and should not be relied upon, as legal advice.

Risk minimization tips are similar to the steps above (on minimizing stress), and are roughly the same in the contexts of workplace discrimination and health and safety:

Minimizine legal risks & maximizing opportunities

To minimize risks (in contexts of COVID and diversity and inclusion):

(1) Set clear and specific policies and procedures: proactively plan for contingenices.

(2) Train: make sure everyone knows the rules.

(3) Reporting: whether it’s suspected discrimination or symptoms of illness, is there a communication channel for designated leaders to know when it happens?

(4) Documentation: keep proof of everything, including completion-of-training, reports of suspected incidents (or symptoms), and actions taken.

As a small startup, the law may not require you to take these steps, but, regardless, they can reduce risks, harms, and costs, related to both discrimination and health and safety.

(5) Find alliances and partners: as in all things, relationships make everything easier.

Opportunities and tips in advancing diversity and inclusion:

(1) Performance: research confirms that diverse teams make better decisions.

(2) Cohesion: as argued by the military in legal cases on affirmative action policies, units function better if everyone sees their own kind represented in leadership ranks.

(3) Marketplace: as argued by big businesses in the same landmark legal cases, many regions of the USA are “majority minority” (and a majority if the world is neither white, nor male), a contributing factor to most elites being fundamentally out-of-touch with daily realities of the very people businesses rely upon as employees and customers.

(4) Expectations: employees, customers, and investors increasingly expect some overt and visible commitment to diversity and inclusion (and sustainability, de-carbonization, and envirnomental stewardship, they both hastened to add).

(5) Competition: if nothing else, pointing out comparisons and that “the competition could make us look bad” helps to motivate senior leadership.

More tips on advancing diversity and inclusion (and other causes)

Further tips shared and reiterated by Faye and Jason:

(1) Admit we can do better. Then ask for help.

(2) Use data. Both internally and externally, measuring and reporting on all aspects of organizational performance – including in the arenas of workplace health and safety (COVID), diversity and inclusion, and environmental impact – can help drive better decisions. We manage what we measure.

(3) Shake your stakeholders. There is an increasingly visible trend of business executives shaking stakeholders out of complacency, and aligning their organizations with external networks of partners to better advance causes. This is increasingly seen as normal, accepted, and consistent with their roles as captains of industry, rather than somehow in conflict with their jobs.

Finally, tips on managing in VUCA times

VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) is an acronym over 30 years old, but increasingly fashionable to use in describing our present era. At the same time, some of the “surprise shocks” of recent years have actually been very foreseeable (and not just in retrospect). For example, I remember reading (in 1990) that demographic patterns would probably lead to some kind of civil unrest of the variety, scope, and severity of what eventually became known as the Arab Spring (Faye concurred my memory of this is likely not inaccurate). Bill Gates’ 2015 TED talk on lack of preparedness for a foreseeable pandemic is now famous (and more irrefutably on target). Finally, commentary on police brutality, racial inequity, and other forms of societal injustice and profound inequalities have been a consistent backbeat in the news for decades for anyone listening for it. So, in the opinion of Faye and Jason, what are the next slow-moving and foreseeable “suckerpunches” that will somehow surprise us? We used the following slide as a springboard for discussing this question.

We shared insights on what foreseeable, slow-moving “surprises” will next disrupt the unprepared.

Our guests agreed that various environmental problems will lead to disruptions. Both pointed to the Quadrennial Defense Reviews that have documented these threats. Faye adds that it is no secret that the current Pentagon leadership is looking at global power competition and use of outer space as slowly evolving arenas that we may wake up and realize have fundamentally altered our daily realities.

We discussed tips on how to juggle multiple competing priorities.

We also discussed tips on how to juggle multiple priorities and tasks (not to mention parental obligations) at once (we used the analogy of having multiple grease fires in several frying pans, with no backburner on which to place them).

“Triage” was the key word that Faye offered. Both confirmed that setting priorities and accepting little losses and compromises on non-essential agenda items is essential. Jason also cited to the research of Phil Kim (one of our Babson colleagues present in the webinar), on how critical supportive relationships and social networks can be.

These topics of conversation (first in our “pre-game” chat and then in our recorded webinar) led us to two major generalizable “wrap-up” lessons related to all our themes.

In all arenas of life, progress is non-linear, and advanced by regularly reflecting on lessons learned.

In short:

(1) The arc of history (to paraphrase a famous paraphrasing of a sermon) is a zigzag. Progress is non-linear. In combat, business, social justice movements, advances in technology, science, and human health, and life: we plan, we act, but history teaches that we have to be ready for setbacks, pivots, sidesteps, and leaps forward. Some surprises will be negative, and some will be positive.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is zigzag-of-progress-june-24-2020.png
#ZigZagOfProgress vs. a linear representation of the #ArcOfHistory and #BendingTheCurve

(2) We’ll never have perfect certainty of the future, complete information, nor avoid mistakes — but in any arena, our successes and failures are wasted if they’re not mined for lessons learned. We often avoid painful “after action reviews” of what worked, what did not, and why we failed and how to avoid the same mistake again. All the more so when uncomfortable emotions or truths are at stake. Yet I remember, in prepping students for tests, having to urge that it’s critical to review both the patterns that lead to success and patterns that result in errors (even when there are far fewer intense emotions involved and less dire consequences at stake). As with mastering any skill, reviewing-and-reflecting on how to improve necessitates discipline to relentlessly repeat a pattern that may not always be easy or joyful, but will eventually be rewarding.

Entrepreneurship as Protest

Anti-poverty advocate Brandale Randolph sells high-tech bikes to law enforcement agencies. This Juneteenth, Brandale shares his vision for the future.

Brandale Randolph with one of his earlier (non-police) products.

Background

A history buff with a background in business, Brandale named his company, 1854 Cycling, after the July 4, 1854 protest in Framingham by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, attended by William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and Henry David Thoreau.

Brandale’s founding vision was to hire—at a living wage—formerly incarcerated mothers, who find it hard to get jobs upon their physical release from prison, effectively locking them and their kids into another link in the historical chain of poverty.

Brandale had been making a few hundred bikes per year in his garage since 2016. Yet recent tariffs on Chinese imports drove up the price of bike parts, which nearly smothered his business. Brandale was forced to find a way to pivot.

He retooled his strategy and partnered with well-known local technology companies. The result: an electric power-assisted bike that includes top-end data and communications tools: the Thoreau Tactical System (pictured below). The current challenge: orders by the tens of thousands from law enforcement agencies for the +$10,000 customizable package, who know that bike-mounted officers are less intimidating, more agile and approachable, and work in all weather conditions.

Below are highlights of recent conversations and correspondence with Brandale.

What is your perception of the present moment?

“The racial wealth gap is the scariest part of our current context. As Martin Luther King said, ‘what good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?’”

“I have survivor’s guilt,” Brandale continues, “because there are so many brilliant black people unemployed, or underemployed, that will never make it back. This predates COVID-19. But the pandemic made it worse. Our best and brilliant are under-earning. College-educated young people are driving for Uber.”

“What will close the black wealth gap? Entrepreneurship is one way we move up. But it has gotten harder. How do you bootstrap when your bootstraps have been removed?”

What is it like to do business with law enforcement agencies, especially now, at a time in which police brutality and racial injustice are in the headlines? And what’s your vision for the future?

“My overall goal is to demilitarize the police force. I see a neighborhood and visualize a better way of serving: the same way that I see in other communities. Not with weapons.”

“I am thinking; ‘you are about to go into my neighborhood? Here’s what I want you to have.’ We see breakdowns now in building relations. I’d like all neighborhoods to see an officer helping a homeless person or the elderly.”

“Instead, I want to provide information tools so that officers have context—so that they better understand the communities and the people and the situation.”

“To clarify: I don’t want law enforcement professionals to be social workers, but I see a world where they have a better connection to social workers, mental health professionals, etc.”

Specifics on moving forward: “we have solutions”

“I sell this world, this vision. I see a world where we want to police ourselves with your help (meaning the help of police). In the community I live in now, law enforcement only comes when there’s a problem. There are no suspects. It’s different in predominantly black communities: those are patrolled—and that tension boils over every few years. Why can’t you treat me the same way?”

“We have to make the transition from ‘we’re the people with the problems’ to ‘we have solutions.’ We’re saying: ‘since you’re going to be in our neighborhoods… here’s how to actually serve and protect, here’s how to do your job so patrols are less of an armed exercise of white supremacy.’”

Anything to share on challenges of being a black entrepreneur?

“There can be awkward situations. People try to poke holes in your reasoning, seeming to imply ‘you with are not as smart as you think.’”

“But the offense happens in negotiating contracts like a term sheet. If I ask for $2 million, I hear a response like ‘we’ll give you $500,000 if you hire a COO, and then we want 30% of your company.’ I would prefer a ‘no’ than an insult like that. I see mediocre white businesses get $5-10 million investments for dumb ideas. I see them fail in less than 3-4 months, but at least they got their shot at success. It’s frustrating, yet that is the present reality of the world in which we live.”

“Given this situation, starting and growing my business is my protest and my solution.”

Thank you to Brandale Randolph and his wife, Dr. Angela Randolph, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson College, for the past five years of conversations, correspondence, and friendship. Brandale and I bonded at a Babson event to welcome new professors and their families in 2015. This post is respectfully dedicated to a future worthy of both those we’ve lost and those growing up right now, including the Randolphs’ children. For more background on Juneteenth by Henry Louis Gate, Jr., click here.

Entrepreneurship with U.S. Immigration Law During COVID-19

Originally posted as a blog piece in Babson Blogs on May 4, 2020, and in truncated form in Babson Thought & Action on May 8, 2020, this is the original text with more details:

Imagine being a job seeker, but not being free to accept an offer.

Imagine being an employer who’s not free to hire the most qualified person.

Now imagine being an entrepreneur with a start-up that will serve a community and hire local talent during the COVID-19 outbreak, but your legal status does not allow you to act.

Foreign national founders with the OAF team.

Danielle Goldman (Babson WIN Lab WINner ’19-20) set up Open Avenues Foundation (OAF) to help U.S. employers who could not hire their top choice because that candidate is a foreign national who failed to win a visa in the usual randomized annual lottery. Consistent with U.S. immigration laws, Danielle did this by creating the opportunity for such candidates to work with students from Open Avenues’ partner universities for a minimum of five hours per week, thereby giving them the freedom to, concurrently, legally work for their fulltime employer.

Now, Danielle has also found a way to help aspiring foreign national entrepreneurs who want to stay and serve communities during the COVID-19 crisis by establishing the Social Innovation Incubator Program (SIIP).

Below are details on how both programs work and an illustrative example.

Here are highlights of our recent conversation:

Q: We don’t hear debates about immigration law being framed as a matter of individual liberty, but isn’t this really about the freedom of U.S. employers to hire whom they want, and also the freedom of talented and motivated people to contribute to the U.S. economy and society?

A: Yes! It’s about their freedom to contribute through their work, or now, through setting up a new enterprise to help our local communities get through the COVID-19 crisis. We’ve invested in training these people – through universities and colleges here – in this amazing human capital… and now we’ll lose them? When they’re about to help our local communities here in the USA?

Q: Are you working within the immigration system?

A: We make sure to emphasize this is all innovation within the law and within the system. We are respecting the intent and language of what Congress voted upon and passed into law: which is a cap exemption and process of granting visas outside the lottery cycle for those who do good for American society.

Q: Your story illustrates a theme of real-life cases and guest speakers this semester: that legal astuteness is a lens of strategy – that is, being familiar with the law can help us ask the right questions, and see opportunities that others miss. Anything you want to add to this point?

A: Babson is an institution that believes in big ideas and fosters an environment for smart risk-taking. There are many people I met along the way who could not understand the concept of starting an organization in such a highly regulated space. Everyone I met through the Babson WIN Lab—including you, Adam—saw value in the mission of Open Avenues and the solution we developed. I am grateful for that type of reassurance, encouragement, and support – especially right now when the resilience of all entrepreneurs is being tested.

Q: How would you frame the significance of what you are doing at this particular moment?

A: Buried within the economic and health crisis the country is facing due to COVID-19, our country is challenged with a new immigration crisis—one that significantly impacts international student graduates seeking employment or starting their own ventures. The impact could stymie the future of innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. that is driven by global talent.

Q: What do international students with a great start-up idea normally do? What new challenges have arisen due to COVID-19?

A: There are very few ways to work legally in the U.S. for recent graduates. All graduates have 1-3 years of Optional Practical Training (OPT), but only a relatively few may remain in the United States when their OPT expires. H-1B status is the primary solution, however H-1B is limited to 85,000 new approvals every fiscal year, selected on a randomized basis. This challenge has been amplified due to COVID-19 for three main reasons:

  1. H-1B requires the employer to prove it has the funds to pay the fair prevailing wage.  This is particularly stressful in today’s economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
  2. The law prohibits employers from sponsoring H-1B petitions if the employer has laid off or furloughed employees in the same occupation within six months of filing an H-1B petition. COVID-19 has forced many layoffs.
  3. Many U.S. employers currently have hiring freezes due to COVID-19.

The results have been devastating for many, but especially true for foreign nationals who rely on H-1B jobs for their ability to remain in the United States.

Q: I told my students about you and Open Avenues. Some asked if they can (1) form their own LLC to (2) hire themselves, and (3) use the framework of Open Avenues to get the needed visa status (by respecting the obligations that this entails – mentioned further below)?

A: There are extra challenges for international students who want to start their own venture after graduation:

  1. The U.S. entity must provide evidence proving it controls the day-to-day work of the employee—this is difficult (but not impossible) for founders who want to sponsor themselves.
  2. The U.S. entity must prove it is able to afford to pay the fair prevailing wage for the job, and the entity must in fact pay this wage. There is no sweat equity permitted in the H-1B context.

Q: What is the legal status of Open Avenues Foundation (OAF)?

A: OAF is an “H-1B cap-exempt organization”, meaning OAF can sponsor H-1B work status for its employees at any time of the year, without the need of entering and winning the annual H-1B lottery.

Q: So, if a student is reading this, what two avenues (pun intended) should they explore?

A: OAF offers two distinct solutions to help graduates:

For graduates who have U.S. employers committed to sponsoring them, but who did not win the H-1B lottery, there is the OAF Global Talent Fellowship program. OAF offers this fellowship opportunity to graduates with a STEM focus and works with their employer to facilitate a cap-exempt H-1B work visa that allows them to stay and work for BOTH OAF and the full-time employer.

For founders of social impact initiatives, OAF launched the Social Innovation Incubator which offers international student graduates an opportunity to stay and build their initiative in the U.S. OAF hires social entrepreneurs to work on their ventures part-time with support, resources, and guidance from OAF, and sponsors them for cap-exempt H-1B work visas. Together, OAF and the social innovators work to improve outcomes for communities across the U.S.

Q: What is your longer term vision for the Social Innovation Incubator, and what is a specific example of what ideas may qualify?

A: I see it potentially as an army of individual entrepreneurs who are working to create community benefits through social ventures. The first to join is a recent MIT graduate, Jasmine Qin, whose social enterprise is a platform providing better data and logistics support to frontline organizations and agencies working in disaster relief and epidemic response.

Q: What obligations do recent graduates have to fulfill to get a visa through these channels (within the frameworks offered by Open Avenues that are, in turn, built upon a solid and uncontroversial foundation in U.S. immigration law)?

A: Foreign nationals participating in either of these two programs must commit five hours per week to work with university students at one of OAF’s partner universities. OAF is committed to bringing top global talent to train the future workforce and improve career trajectories for underserved student populations.

Q: I have to ask this question, posed by an entrepreneur who’s experienced firsthand the ordeals of the work visa system in the role of both applicant and now employer: how do you make revenue for the services that you are providing?

A: Employers pay us for our service of promptly assuring the visa status for their desired workers through the Global Talent Fellowship program. They are often very certain, after experiencing the work ethic of a given employee, that no one else will be as good – so they know it is 100% worth it to pay for our service. In the case of our Social Innovation Incubator, as the fiscal sponsor, we receive 12% of grants that they will receive – and in exchange for that, we develop and support the social entrepreneur (whose idea we’ve already vetted and believe in) and pay them a part-time salary as they fund-raise, and, as a local non-profit, we are the legal avenue (that otherwise would not exist to a foreign national) for applying for grants to help local communities.

Q: Finally, I’m collecting stories like yours for a book, Extreme Entrepreneurship (this is a link to teaser content) – any observations on entrepreneurship during a crisis, when reality can change from day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour?

A: It’s incredibly scary. But the potential outcomes for global talent, local companies, and U.S. society make it worth trying.

To learn more, here are the links again to Open Avenues Foundation and to the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), home of the WIN Lab at Babson.

The Last Word: She Persisted Selling Books in Pakistan

Dawn at Shahi Masjid, a 19th Century mosque built by the ul-Mulks, with Tirich Mir peak in the Hindu Kush mountain range in the background.

Pakistan: known to Americans as Osama bin Laden’s last hide-out. I visited in 2010 with a colleague keen on meeting the Kalash, a unique religious and ethnic minority in the Hindu Kush mountain range along the Afghan border, a region now garnering attention as a flashpoint on the frontlines of climate change. Our trek in Pakistan to visit the Kalash began in Lahore, the home of my friend, attorney, and environmental activist Ahmad “Rafay” Alam, whose wife, Aysha Raja, opened the bookstore, The Last Word, in Lahore in 2007. 

Context

A park area adjacent to Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, the largest and last of the grand imperial mosques built by the Mughals. Constructed 1671-1673.

Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest city, a bustling and historic metropolis of over eleven million people and a center of culture and education, with, as Aysha and Rafay point out, a legacy of being relatively progressive. Still, from the confiscation of alcohol upon arrival to the attire of some people to the multiple, simultaneous calls to prayer echoing five times per day, there is little doubt in the mind of a foreign visitor that one is in an Islamic republic. This sense is reinforced if one enters Pakistan from India at an entry point near Lahore and witnesses the passionate displays of national pride at the daily closing of the Wagah border crossing.

Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party demonstrating during the time of our visit in the center of Lahore.

The several years preceding our visit in 2010 seemed like less than safe and stable time. Parts of the country had been under militant control, and terror attacks, including in Islamabad and Lahore, had claimed thousands of lives. In 2009 alone, over 2,500 attacks resulted in over 3,000 deaths in Pakistan. During our visit in 2010, a political party aligned with religious militants held a very open and public political march in Lahore’s center.

Given this context, even in cosmopolitan and progressive Lahore, owning and holding events in a bookstore with secular and progressive literature, including foreign titles from the West, seemed, at least to an outsider, like a risky activity.

Aysha decides she wants The Last Word

Aysha Raja at an event at The Last Word.

When I asked Aysha what motivated her to open a bookstore, she explained, “I couldn’t find any books I wanted to read and resented having to leave town to stock up on books.”  This frustration, coupled with the fact that she was a new mother and her multinational employer was unwilling to offer her a flexible schedule or workplace childcare facilities, helped convince Aysha that the time was right for her to satisfy her own needs, and those of others in her area, for everything that a bookstore can offer a community.

Although she had enough of her own funds to get started and could avoid taking loans, Aysha recalled that there were, “a lot of people in the book business deterring me from joining,” and some went so far as to describe her idea as a “doomed enterprise.”

While not explicit, some of the discouragement and the adversity that Aysha encountered could well have been rooted in bias against her as a woman entrepreneur.

What was it like when you were starting?

Aysha recalled a period of time in her first location during which she was threatened and bullied by “a landlord who had his own business on the same premises which didn’t do too well.” Aysha described that, “at one point I was physically assaulted before I was able to get a restraining order of sorts. He still never quite left me alone until my lease was up.”

Someone outside of Pakistan may wonder: why didn’t a bookstore with Western titles provoke a reaction from militant extremists?

An author speaks at an event at The Last Word.

The answer lies partly in the means through which Aysha attracted new clientele. New customers learned about The Last Word through word-of-mouth.

When asked if she was ever concerned about a risk of attracting a protest or attack, Aysha replied: “at one point, when I did an event on blasphemy, yes.” But overall, because of their reliance on word-of-mouth promotion, the bookstore “didn’t attract unsavory people.”

A surprising insight (for outsiders, at least): some fundamentalists turned out to be fans.

Attendees at an event at The Last Word.

The most surprising insight about society in Lahore emerged when we continued discussing the topic of fear in a context in which ideological disagreements can turn violent. Aysha explains:

“As for fundamentalists, I have many customers who appear conservative. They wear beards and shalwar kurta [a traditional combination of loose trousers and shirt, variations of which are sometimes referred to as shalwar kameez or salwar kurta] but they’re never irked by me. Also there are full veil women who have been very appreciative of our efforts.”

A community finds pride in their bookstore.

In other words, I asked, do some very religious people in Pakistan appreciate a bookstore with literature (and therefore ideas) that may be secular or progressive and clearly not associated with Islam?

“Yeah, I have one bearded and capped fellow who regularly brings his daughter to our story time. Loves it,” Aysha said, adding that “by and large the community is very appreciative and protective of the business. For some, it’s a source of pride for the city.”

What was Aysha’s toughest obstacle, and how did she overcome it?

Attendess at an event at The Last Word.

As it turns out, Aysha’s toughest hurdle was not related to protests by fundamentalists or attacks by militants, but to fairly generic dishonesty. And she overcame this hurdle thanks to the loyalty and support of the community described immediately above.

As Aysha explained: “Exactly a year ago I was evicted from my second premises. As luck would have it, my new landlord (the middleman) absconded without paying the landowner. The entire community went out of their way to buy books from my house. The community made sure I had enough for security. Some who knew the landowner, who resided in Karachi, gave references and a guarantee that we were good people who were just caught in the middle of a horrible fraud. We managed to re-enter a contract with the building owner in Karachi (who is also a woman) and have been happily conducting business.”

There are a few take-away lessons. One would be that, even with a contract in place, sometimes people break their word. As illustrated in other stories in this collection, when the rule-of-law or an enforceable agreement are absent, it seems that reputation and—most importantly—relationships are key to the ability to continue functioning.

If that was the toughest obstacle, what was Aysha’s toughest decision?

An event at The Last Word.

A crisis like the one described above may clarify what must be done, while tough decision points may arise when there is a lack of a clear emergency. As Aysha describes: “The Last Word has been around for more than ten years and the toughest decision for me was three years ago when I closed down the ‘concessions.’ Concessions were more like wall displays at other places of business and for value addition. So I didn’t pay rent. I closed them to open what I call the ‘flagship’ store, which frankly is the only shop.” Moving back to a single store model has meant “putting in more hours and the risk was greater now.” Aysha explains that “raising the stakes has been the toughest decision I made, but what made the risk worth it was that I had established a loyal clientele and reputation, so word of mouth spread fast.”

What lessons would you pass on to your daughter (or any businessperson)?

Aysha Raja at The Last Word.

Aysha’s wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs is to preserve their personal lives away from work: “It is hard, but try to put some space between yourself and your business. With such extreme highs and lows, it really messes with your mental health and sense of self-worth.” Specifically, Aysha takes the following steps: “I no longer go into work every day but have an office at home which is a more tranquil space. All this is as an effort to turn down some of the pressure that can take a toll on your daily life and relationships.” She quickly added: “I do, however, read to kids on a weekly basis and I would not miss that for the world.”

The Last Word’s books and events can be further explored at its website: https://thelastwordbks.com/

SOLAR WOMEN of MADAGASCAR

Improvised unloading, by hand, of one ton of fragile equipment in the village of Marosely, on the northwestern tip of Madagascar

Don’t worry, we know it’s precious, we got this,” said a Malagasy villager, one of about three dozen unloading one-ton pallets of solar panels and equipment by hand from tractor-trailersThe odds of a disastrous drop seemed 50/50.

This post describes the adaptations needed by a business to bring electricity to rural Madagascar, where 90-95% of people in villages are not on any power grid.

In contrast to my doubts, the project leaders seemed confident that the equipment would all be safely unloaded and used to complete a solar-powered mini-grid. Beyond that, they seemed sure that selling access to electricity in Marosely, a village of about 2500 people, would make enough money to pay for itself and even return some money to investors.

But how, I wondered, could this mini-grid (if it got built) be financially viable? Could it make enough money? To satisfy profit-seeking foreign investors? In a village where a filling meal of cakes and coffee for six people (both prepared over a charcoal fire next to a tailor using a hand-powered sewing machine) costs (even at possibly inflated prices) less than two U.S. dollars?

Some context: a hand-powered sewing machine in use by the local tailor next to the breakfast cafe (pictured further below) in Marosely, Madagascar

Camille André-Bataille, Co-CEO of ANKA Madagascar, provided the explanation. Camille was one of several women entrepreneurs and a total of over 55 native Malagasy and expat sources (known as Vazaha if they happen to be light-skinned) with whom I spoke in the summer of 2019. Some were brutally candid about the challenges of starting a business in a pseudo-colonial economy where the legal system doesn’t always work as expected. But Camille sees a way forward, as imagined and now jointly realized with her Co-CEO, Nico Livache.

Mini-grid 3.0: incubating local (client) businesses

“We are the first and only mini-grid builder in Madagascar and one of a very few in the world (as far as we know) who is taking an approach that we may call Mini-grid 3.0, meaning we are – based on local consultations – siting solar power generation and electricity distribution, plus also providing support – and even space sometimes – for local businesses,” Camille explained.

Until now, essential services – including basic medical care and food processing-and-preservation – could not be provided locally for lack of adequate electric power. Essential activities have been costlier, less safe, and worse for the environment because they required transportation of material or people to-and-from a city.

Incubating new local businesses and helping existing village activities to adopt electricity can therefore save-and-improve lives, reduce waste and environmental harms, and result in paying customers that can allow the mini-grid to be financially viable.

Why so confident of success? And that people will pay?

Whether it is in a failing state, emerging market, family business, or where I teach in the Boston area, aspiring entrepreneurs often skeptically ask: “even if contracts and courts may exist, and maybe (sometimes) serve their function, what if I cannot (or do not want to) use the legal system to enforce agreements?

In this case, why are Camille and her colleagues so sure that (1) villagers would start-up (or expand) businesses, and (2) pay what they owed?

Know your customers and build relationships

Villagers and their leaders independently explained why they trust the people and entities building these grids. They said that they appreciated regular consultations and time invested in relationship-building.

Meeting local residents at the village bar

Iry Raïssa Alaoy (who goes by Raïssa) is a Malagasy business development consultant at ANKA who is dedicated to long-term consultations with people in Marosely and other villages. Similarly, Aurélie Buffo of Experts Solidaires (an NGO that cooperates with ANKA to expand electrification) moved to the region – sometimes living in Marosely for many days-at-a-time – to build relationships.

This investment of time in getting to know the needs and wishes of their potential clients has built a consensus around the need for local services, and therefore the viability of new and expanded small businesses, and the ability and desire of locals to pay to keep the electricity flowing.

Raïssa added the interesting detail that rural electrification will allow more young people to work and live close to their families, as many would prefer (rather than being forced to migrate to a city).

Boosting local farms and food processing: why it matters

Raïssa is also accountable for local consultations that are a part of ANKA’s Agri-Grid initiative, a part of its Mini-grid 3.0 approach which specifically will encourage villagers to make the most of local plants that already grow in their yards that go under-utilized, or other resources.

Clockwise, left-to-right: the author, Raïssa, Camille, Eric (an impact investor), and Majika employees John and Teddy (at the breakfast cafe).

She explains: “although we produces staple crops such as cassava, maize, and sugar cane which could be processed into other commodities such as flour, nutritious products, or sugar, Madagascar is a net importer of these kinds of products.” More to come (in future content) on why this is so. Subscribe or follow this blog to be notified when I publish on this (links below).

Two Malagasy businesses show that it is possible to profitably process under-utilized local plants into higher-value products for both domestic consumption and export. Suzanne Jaouen of Moringa Wave explained that the Moringa plant is seen as nearly useless locally around village residences but is prized as a trendy powdered dietary supplement in Europe. Her company hopes to scale-up to both sell more of their product abroad and to educate and distribute more locally to help combat malnutrition. Similarly, Ken Lee Randrianarisoa, founder of Soanamad, turns cassava, breadfruit, and other local vegetation into gluten-free flour and baked goods, including cookies and baguettes. 

The only remaining questions involve math and relationships: can all of these entities (including potential start-ups engaging in processing food) secure enough financing and then make enough revenue to sustain themselves, allowing them to pay for, among other things, electricity from a local mini-grid? 

Tips on entrepreneurship in a tough environment

How do these people keep hope alive when things go badly? Especially in a place famous for nightmarish deforestation? At a time of worldwide environmental collapse? When they see suffering? And when they are very aware that institutions such as courts or other parts of the government can fail?

Aurélie borrowed from an anecdote about a little bird that fought a forest fire by dropping water from its beak: “the other birds laughed at her, but she said ‘I will do what I can.’” She added: “I live in Marosely – I can tell you that already, before the grid is active, there is a difference in people’s lives. There is hope and excitement.”

Raïsa elaborated upon some generalizable lessons: “‘development’ – it is such a big and over-used word – we sometimes are not sure what it means, and some traditionalists and conservatives can instinctively be against change, so it is not easy. But we see that if we get everyone involved it is easier. This is not something anyone can do on their own, but working with partners makes things happen. It takes time. Our continuous communication increases the chances that this tool will be used, and that its implementation will last.”

Interestingly (to an outsider), safety and gender roles were never mentioned by these three women as challenges to leading and managing change.

So? Did they succeed? Does Marosely have a mini-grid?

By the end of our site visits, the pallets had all been successfully unloaded with no damage. Solar panels and equipment were in the process of being installed. Marosely now has a working solar power installation (pictured below in its nearly completed state) and mini-grid. ANKA is about to start incubating start-ups there.

John seems pleased with Marosely’s nearly completed solar power installation, with room to incubate start-ups under its roof of solar panels.

Similarly, Mini-grid 3.0 and all the entities and people involved in helping locals use solar power may defy the expectations of skeptics. During the next few years it will become evident whether, as predicted, new solar-powered mini-grids will be used by villagers to begin (or expand) activities to boost their quality of life.

Next steps: sustaining a fragile balance in many ways

ANKA Madagascar’s Co-CEO, Nico Livache, added that a key to their success so far has been coordinating “a diversity of funding sources and partners: Experts-Solidaires, an international NGO providing technical expertiseGround Squirrel Ventures, an impact investment fund [established by Eric Klose, to whom I am very grateful for letting me tag along – thank you!], corporate foundations (EDFNexansSynergie Solaire), and a financing program of the World Bank.” In his words: “As fragile as the unloading of the panels seemed, so is the balance in development projects — it lies in the ability of all these actors to work together.”

The future: solar-powered rock concerts

In 2020, a touring Malagasy music star, Sisca will perform again in Marosely. The installation’s batteries are expected to store enough power for the show (if not, ANKA’s facility has back-up generators).

Besides finding out if ANKA’s facility can power a nighttime concert, 2020 will also be the year during which we’ll find out if their plan to serve as a business incubator succeeds. Subscribe or follow to find out!

Have a question that was not answered? Please feel free to write it in the comments section below.