What it’s Like to Work With An Impatient Businesswoman
Without hesitation, I dropped everything to come work under the mentorship of Magatte Wade, because I wholeheartedly believed that her dedication to fighting poverty was unlike anything I had seen before. I became inspired by her because at a time when everyone else was thinking about Africa as a helpless continent passively awaiting the world’s AID, Magatte was telling anyone who could hear that Africa was capable of creating brands in multiple fields that could compete on the global market. Where everyone else — though inaccurately — saw a famine ridden, civil war continent, Magatte saw Wakanda. Her sense of pride in her continent was not crouched in nostalgia of what we once were pre-slavery or pre-colonialism; no, hers was grounded in a fierce belief of what we have right now and what we can do to prosper not because of the aid of a western savior complex, but with our own willpower, resources and human capital. That’s who I was dropping everything for: a powerhouse ready to fuel an entire continent which she unwaveringly believes.
But y’all, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I arrived in Senegal. I’m not sure what hit me harder; the sticky, humid heat of Senegal with the sun perched on the mighty Boaobab, or the energy and to do list Magatte had for me. Right in our car ride, we were already discussing the state of her multiple projects and where my skills could fit in. There is work to do. Magatte is in a hurry, she’s impatient, there’s no time to waste. We spoke in the car non-stop while I took notes in my head, though I’d eventually pull out a notebook I had prepared, because something told me I’d need it. Magatte had a lot she needed me to know, a lot she needed to do herself; but somehow amidst it all she’d find time to ask me if I drank enough water, if the car window was low enough for the breeze to cool me down, if the jet lag wasn’t too hard on me. Because this is the kind of person she is. Her mind is running a million miles an hour, but she somehow never misses a chance to be kind, caring, and thoughtful. The whole time I’m thinking, why are you asking me if I’ve drank enough water when you’re busy trying to decimate the supervillain that is poverty in Africa? But I’m gonna argue with Magatte. If she asks me if I’ve drank enough water, you sure as hell bet I’m going to down extra bottles.
We arrive in Mekhe, a small town that is also the headquarters of many of her projects, including:
The Skin is Skin lip balms, a social enterprise structure to educate on and fight implicit bias and racism.
Tiossan the wellness brand with 100% organic ingredients that includes skin care and an upcoming line dedicated to improving your sleep experience
Tiossan Academy where young students are educated to be critical thinkers and disrupters of the status quo
It’s also the famous small town you might have seen in a documentary chronicling her journey to creating jobs and collaborating with local businesses to foster a strong and sustainable economy.
We arrived in Mekhe and we put down our luggage in the house and immediately she is making my bed, making sure the ventilator is working and the mosquito net is properly surrounding my bed. The whole time I’m thinking, why is this woman making my bed? I should be making hers. Little old me, I am standing next to this powerful woman who just months earlier, was gracing the TED Global stage. But sure, make my bed though, and offer me a towel in my favorite color, make sure I’m well rested. I know Magatte is a kind soul but wow, I won’t lie that her attention detail in her care just left me in awe. But anyway, we gotta get rest because the very next day, we get to work. Well…She gets to work. I’m jetlagged, barely slept through the night, so I sluggishly get out of bed, shower and get ready by 10:30am. I meet Magatte outside who’s been up since 8am even though she was up until 3am last night, answering emails and discussing other strategies to move her projects forward. She is up, sweeping the floor of the house showing the maid how she likes things to be done, giving instructions to the school teacher on how to arrange the brand new computers for the students, also on the phone talking to her right hand man about the supplies that need to be picked up for her lab. One does not work for/with her with substandards, that is quite clear.
Her dedication to building a better world, is present even the meticulousness in her space; from her home, to the lab when her products are made with strict manufacturing standards, to the classroom of Tiossan Academy where students are held to high expectations. Not in the way you’d except though. Wade is not interested in churning out obedient robots from her school. She built a school culture where mutual respect between student and teacher is expected, and the notion of teacher as an unquestionable authority figure, is thrown out the door. This reminds me that my culture, we have a habit of naming children with 2 last names. One last is the family name, and the 2nd is a name of an elder in the family. This idea of giving an elder’s last name to a child, is to build a relationship that is stronger than the usual godparent to godchild relationship; the goal is 2 fold: first, it tells us that the child bearing that elder’s last name, should be given the same reverence you’d give to the older person. Second, it is also to seal a bond of mutual respect and responsibility between child and elder. As such, this reinforces the idea that hierarchy is not really the way to build strong relationships; instead, mutual respect, a sense of belonging and responsibility for the joy and pain of one another, is what true relationships are built on. This is what Magatte wants me to remember as I head to the classroom to sit with the students.
I begin working with the local teacher to be sure the kids have moved on from their English lesson to start their Math lesson, and soon after that we begin the Socratic discussion. The Socratic Method as you might know, is a type of discussion with the goal to stimulate critical thinking in the participants, by asking a series of questions, draw out different ways of thinking and encourage diverse perspective. This has been mostly limited to debates, but Michael Strong in his book “Habit of Thought”, really develops this method as an effective tool to incorporate into the school curriculum, if not overhaul it completely. What’s fascinating about using this method in reading and discussion with 6–11 year-old kids, is it truly shows you how they light up when they feel that what they have to say matters. You see them dive deep into subjects and thoughts you’d think ought to be reserved for high school students. We reading stories about cruel emperors, tricky genies, heartless hunters, and we’re asking questions such as:
“who’s the protagonist, who’s the antagonist, the hero, the villain? Why do you believe so? If you were this genie and people always came to ask you for things but never how you feel about being locked in a bag, how would you feel? If you were an emperor and people told you that to protect your empire you need to bury one person alive per mile built would you do it? How would you feel if you were in an empire where the emperor declared his soldiers will be coming to grab random people to bury alive in a wall?
We ask questions and we watch the children say one thing, then change their minds once they consider a different perspective; they then start speculating how else they’d handle an obstacle if they were in the story, first as one character, then as another , and we don’t shy away from complicated questions, trusting that the children can keep up. And they do. I’m in awe of them, but I’m also aware of Magatte who keeps popping into my class, asking how we’re doing, sometimes sitting in on the discussions, sometimes even taking over even though she should be doing something else. I know because other meetings are scheduled for later, because she has to see a coalition of women who sell their handmade woven baskets; she’s proposing a business venture that will allow them to purchase their material at a cheaper price so they can have a higher profit margin and really take care of their families. She also has to meet with the Mayor soon to negotiate a space where I can teach yoga to the women here, and also train a girl or two, to take over after me, because it’s important to her to build sustainable initiatives. She’s still looking to hire more people to work in the lab so we can continue with the making for the lip balms and the prototypes for her other ventures, AND we will soon go meet with the local company that provides her with the baobab fruit that is used in her products.
There’s work to do elsewhere and Magatte brought me here to help alleviate some of it, and me running the school and getting us on a great work flow is part of that. Still once in a while she pokes her head in the class to be sure we’re on track. She’s impatient. She’s anxious. She’s in a hurry. I see it, and I get it, because this school to her, feels like something that should have worked yesterday. We’re playing catch up. We don’t have time to waste, we need to raise and educate children who will turn this world upside down in the best way possible, and participate in this quest to make poverty numbers plummet to oblivion. We have children in this class who incredibly bright, but because of their socioeconomic status, they haven’t had education opportunities that nurture that natural talent. Some hadn’t touched a computer before arriving to Tiossan Academy, many weren’t reading at or even 2 grades below their current level, but barely a year in this program and they were progressing at light speed. These are students who will grow up to be people uninterested in their country as is. Young people in love with their country and equipped with the tools to change it for the better.
There’s work to do, no time to waste. I’m starting to feel it too, this sense of urgency that pulses through her veins, this feeling that we are fighting issues of yesterday, today. This feeling that lives are at stakes and all hands must be on deck. Magatte is from Senegal, a country famous for its pink lake, The gargantuan African Renaissance Monument, the delicious Jollof rice that beats all jollofs (sorry Ghana and Nigeria, I don’t make the rules), and also its gorgeous beach fronts in St Louis and Dakar. But it is also from these beautiful beaches that many Senegalese people hop onto tiny boats to brave the ocean waters, hoping to arrive on the shores of European countries and try their luck at a better life. Sadly, thousands of them never make it to those shores. Hoping for perhaps a better chance of making it, others try to go through the Sahara to get to Libya, then get on a boat there to cross the Mediterranean Sea. But as we know from a recent scandal, many of these people end up sold as slaves for a mere $500.
The loss is not limited to just the lives of those who died at sea or where sold off as slaves, but also with the family members left behind. Because you see, it’s often the strongest, bravest, often most entrepreneurial people, who embark on these quests of no return. You often have single mothers who have lost their children, wives who lost their husbands, families torn by the loss, while still trying to build their lives here at home. Magatte knows all these stories closely, not from headlines, but people she knows by name. When she comes here in Mekhe, she is fully embedded in the day to day life, living the experiences of the people so she can be fully aware of the obstacles they endure. So when I tell you that Magatte is an impatient woman, it’s because for her it’s not just statistics or NYT headlines, it’s real people. She’s impatient. She’s anxious. She’s in a hurry. There’s no time to waste.
Magatte gave a talk at TED Global, which she really fought to have published because she was giving a perspective we’re not used to hearing about African development. Not aid, not clean water, not civil unrest, but business. I mean yes, entrepreneurship in Africa is becoming a buzzword now, but we don’t really discuss how difficult it is do do business on the continent, not because Africans are lazy, but because in many countries, overbearing laws make it difficult for SMEs (small and medium enterprises) to do business. Sure this seems like a minor detail, until you realize why all these people risking their lives only to die at sea or be sold off for less than the price of an Iphone: They don’t have jobs. And why don’t they have jobs? Because if it’s difficult to do business in the country, there won’t be any businesses to create jobs. And if there are no jobs, it means people are poor. and poor people will do anything even if it means they might end up at the bottom of the ocean.
When you watch her talk below, you’ll understand then why there is fire in her steps, an ever present crack in her voice, and a sort of breathlessness to her inhales. She has a sense of urgency, because she literally has business to handle and she needs governments to get out of her way so she can get on with helping people rise out of poverty.
Magatte is anxious. She’s impatient. She’s in a hurry. And I too, have been infected with this sense of urgency, because actual lives are at stakes. Fighting poverty means joining people in building a better life for themselves not just to survive, but to thrive. We need to fight for an economic ecosystem that make it easier for local businesses to sprout, grow, be sustainable, which in turn will supply the jobs people need to find their way out of poverty.
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