One week ago, Middlebury College in Vermont, USA bestowed upon me an incredible honor — something I never expected to receive by the age of 40: an honorary doctorate. I especially pinched myself as I sat on stage with luminaries like John Meacham because just over a month earlier, Nelson Mandela University in South Africa had also awarded me a similar honor together with Billionaire Strive Masiyiwa. Two doctorates in just a month? It all sounds sexy, right? Perhaps. But let me tell you the full story.
By Fred Swaniker
My official Biography
My “official” CV/resume starts with my job as a business analyst at McKinsey and Company. So far so good. That is what you would expect of someone who would eventually become a corporate titan. It then describes how I played a key role in founding 5 organizations — (1) Synexa Life Sciences (a global biotechnology company with locations in Berlin, Cape Town, London and Dublin) (2) Global Leadership Adventures (a leadership development company with sites in 14 countries across Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania); (3) African Leadership Academy (a private boarding school that aims to groom 6,000 leaders for Africa by 2060); (4) African Leadership Network (a network of about 2,000 influential business and political leaders in Africa) and (5) African Leadership University (a globally disruptive re-invention of higher education that aims to develop 3 million leaders for Africa by 2060). Collectively, these organizations employ about 500 people full time (and up to 800 including part-timers). They have raised about $200m in funding over the last 15 years. This year they will collectively generate about $40m in revenue. While I am simply the public representative of the incredible teams who work at these organizations, I suppose both Middlebury College and Nelson Mandela University wanted to recognize my contribution to founding and managing 5 organizations that are hopefully contributing to make this world a better place.
The untold story
The untold story behind these accolades, however, is where my career first started.
My first job was at the age of 18 in a dusty little town called Selebi-Phikwe in Botswana. I had just graduated from high school and had almost a year to wait before I could go to college. So I approached one of the businessmen in our town to ask for a job. His company owned several businesses and he allowed me to rotate through 3 of them. For the first month, I was the assistant to an electrician. I carried his toolbox and went with him to fix things, handing him tools and cleaning up dust and wires after he was done. Then for the next month, I was an attendant in a hardware store. I stood on my feet the whole day, serving customers as they came in. For the last month, this-would-be McKinsey consultant worked at Southern Fried Chicken, a franchise that sold fried chicken and chips. I was behind the counter from 8am to 7pm — 6 days a week — serving customers who wanted ‘chips, chicken and Coke’. I would go home exhausted, smelling of grease and fried chicken.
I then spent the rest of my ‘gap year’ working for my mother, who had started a small school as a side business (she was a full-time English and Sociology teacher in the local high school). The modest school had 25 children and was run out of a rented space in a local church. As day-to-day coordinator of the school, I sought out a lot of support from my mother to successfully teach classes, help coordinate the other teachers, and manage relationships with parents.
By the end of that year, I went off to Macalester College in the USA (thanks to a generous scholarship from the college). My next job, which was in the summer after my freshman year, was in the admissions office. There, I filed applications all day and gave tours to prospective candidates (and had to become adept at walking backwards!). Then I got an internship working for a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, cold-calling random strangers to see if my boss could tell them about our “wonderful financial products”. The next summer, I worked in an insurance company, doing data entry. The job was so boring that I had to drink coffee to stay awake. Finally, just before my senior year, 4 years after my first real job, I got what one would consider a “job worthy of my education and aspirations”. I worked as the personal assistant to the chief investment officer of a $3 billion pension fund, doing analysis for him and helping him prepare PowerPoint slides for board meetings.
It was all this that finally led to my job at McKinsey. The rest, as they say, is history.
What I learned in my first few jobs
The things I learned in my first jobs are arguably the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about being a professional and leader.
These jobs gave me exposure to how organizations work; and showed me how revenue is generated at the ‘frontline’ — whether it was selling chicken, hardware, a college education, or financial products. I became more aware of some of my strengths and areas of development. Upon reflection, I realized that I was drawn to service jobs because I could connect with people easily and build trust, which is a trait I then consciously developed and which has led to me building a powerful network of friends, investors, and colleagues, many of whom have been anchors in bringing my entrepreneurial ventures to life.
With time, I also got a better sense of what I wanted from the world of work. After my insurance job, for instance, I vowed never take a job where I had to drink coffee to keep me awake. And till this day, people who know me will tell you I don’t drink coffee. One way I know I’m in the right job is if my work gives so much energy that I don’t need coffee to stay awake!
Expectations of Professionals:
As an assistant electrician, I learned to be humble, work hard, and do what was asked of me. At the hardware store, I learned the importance of showing up on time (ok, I’m still working on that one!). At the insurance company, I learned how to dress appropriately for the office environment. I also learned how managers think about compensation, and which part of my career development I could expect to come from my manager and which was mine to own. At my mum’s school, as a young professional, I learned how to communicate with older colleagues in a way that was respectful yet firm. I also learned how to navigate workplace politics to get things done and build a professional track record.
I learned resilience: I would spend the entire day calling leads at Merrill Lynch and get hung up on 95% of the time. It was hard to stay in that job after so many rejections, but I stuck with it. I eventually learned that I could get a few more people to say yes if I smiled while on the phone. Through this experience, I learned that positive energy is contagious. I learned to never give up — a trait I draw on now as I face adversity time and time again in my journey as an entrepreneur. I learned how to think quickly and be persistent, sometimes calling the same customer after being freshly rejected because I had thought of a better way of selling to her. I learned how to put my ego aside when I needed to ask for help in closing a deal because deadlines were coming up and I hadn’t hit the numbers I wanted.
Those moments built the habits of mind — resilience, self-regulation, and humility — that have guided me as an entrepreneur, manager, and leader.
There is nothing like an overnight success
The point I want to make to young people today is that success does not come instantly or comfortably. By the time I was a Business Analyst at Mckinsey, I had mastered wrangling data using Microsoft Excel from the previous insurance job that I didn’t enjoy. From my time as a campus tour guide, I had built expertise in engaging people and planning ahead, traits I would leverage later in raising millions of dollars.
In the Instagram and SnapChat generation that we live in, it is easy to see a young tycoon in Silicon Valley who has become a CEO of his or her start-up, sold it after 18 months for $1billion and gone on to become a philanthropist. Your chances of becoming that person are lower than winning the lottery. With artificial intelligence and automation, jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate. Soon you will have fewer and fewer opportunities to learn the early lessons that will one day make you a successful professional. In regions like Africa, where the population is growing at the fastest rate in the world and where 65% of the population is below 25, this situation is even worse because more and more people are competing even for simple jobs like carrying an electrician’s toolbox. In fact, by 2045, Africa will have the largest workforce in the world — larger than China’s or India’s.
That means that competition for fewer job opportunities is only going to get more difficult. Young people will have to think more strategically and plan ahead by building their character and professional track records now.
The Big Secret
In conclusion, if you want to be successful one day, to be a celebrated CEO, win accolades like honorary doctorates, or as Bruno Mars says ‘I wanna be a billionaire, so freakin bad..I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine’, here is the secret: Start. Just get a job. Any job. Find an internship or an apprenticeship or shadow a professional.
Serve people as a waiter or an usher; it might help you meet an event attendee who will change your life. Work as a farmhand in a rural area; you may see opportunities to build technology for the agribusiness supply chain, and develop relationships with farmers who will trust you one day as you pilot your new venture that could become a billion-dollar company. Start selling something, even if just to learn how to manage money and connect with people.
Be humble. Be curious. Invest in yourself. Learn to sacrifice and be uncomfortable. Save up financially to ensure you can take an awesome unpaid internship. Sleep less if that job requires you to be there before 8am.
Don’t undermine people willing to give you a hand. Be grateful, even when someone gives you less than they are capable of or less than they had promised. Build your network. Volunteer where possible. Follow your interests closely; read the news. Find a mentor. Always say thank you.
Do your best at whatever you’re asked to do, with so much positive energy and excellence that your boss and colleagues will take notice. Constantly ask what you can do for your organization, and not what the organization ‘owes’ you. Be patient, and work harder than your boss.
Who knows — with these traits, you could become so successful that you will receive even more awards and accolades than I have been so blessed to receive in the last 2 months. Be focused and resilient in learning the habits of mind that will make you successful, resilient, and adaptable. That way you will continue to reinvent yourself as the world evolves. And the rest will be history.
Postscript #1: What was your first job? For the professionals who are reading this blog, please share what you are doing now and take us back to your very first job. What are the lessons you learned that have led you to where you currently are?
Postscript #2: Here are some first jobs that famous CEO’s first held:
Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon) — worked the grill at a McDonalds restaurant
Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks owner) — sold plastic garbage bags door to door
Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) — sold snacks at a concession stand at Yankee Stadium
Marissa Mayer (President and CEO of Yahoo!) — grocery store clerk
Kat Cole (President of Cinnabon) — hostess at Hooters
Barack Obama (former President to the USA) — scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins
Beth Comstock (Vice Chair of General Electric) — worked on a factory line at Rubbermaid
Michael Dell (founder and CEO of Dell Inc) — washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant
Michael Bloomberg (Billionaire Founder and CEO of Bloomberg LP and former mayor to NYC) — parking lot attendant
Madeline Albright (first US female Secretary of State) — sold bras at a department store
Jackie Zehner (CEO of Women Moving Millions and first female partner at Goldman Sachs) — sold hot dogs at hockey games.
The Author is the founder of the Africa Leadership Academy, and the Africa Leadership University.