Socially Proactive Business is bigger than Acholi Beads. In an effort to remove some of the barriers that people face in entering this sort of business, and also to invite discussion and advice, I’m open-sourcing our business model. This continuing series, Open Circle, will share many of the challenges we have faced and the best practices we’ve established for making Acholi Beads successful on both sides of the world.
My first principle for starting a business in a culture that I don’t belong to, and especially in a developing country, is this: Find and partner with a local visionary.
This where success starts. It is the most important thing you can do to position for long term success by an order of magnitude.
What is a local visionary? She’s the person who knows what is needed in the place you’re looking to work, and knows how to make it happen. How does she know? She grew up there and knows its culture, strengths, and lackings intrinsically, absorbed them like language. She has long been working there to advance the goals that you share, using whatever resources she has marshaled to better her friends, family, and community members. Her life bears the unmistakable gleam of service – the sincere smiles of her community when she sees them. She is the one that her community happily rallies around when she brings them an idea for development.
She is your beginning.
Why is this important? To answer this I like to tell the story of Mahabir Pun, a soft-spoken, pot-bellied, middle-aged man from a small village in rural Nepal. When I met him he had spent the last decade working as a volunteer in his and surrounding villages, building up the local education system. These villages are separated by days’ hikes over steep Himalayan geography, so Mahabir walks and walks and walks, up mountains and down again, sleeping on rough wood or dirt floors, in order to see the children of his home succeed in the rapidly modernizing world. “As long as I can walk I can do this,” he says.
In college I had the marvelous fortune to visit Mahabir and assist in his work to connect these villages to each other and to the world through a long distance wireless network. A brilliant friend of mine wrote a grant to supply the equipment, and we flew to Nepal. Over a month of beautiful monsoon hikes we networked five villages, using two high-altitude relay stations and an internet connection 30+ kilometers away in the nearest city. Leaving Nepal we felt the happy exhilaration of success. But Mahabir’s work had only begun.
In the ensuing years Mahabir networked many more villages in the region, and in other parts of Nepal and Asia, and his work has been hailed with awards and honors from around the world. His success did not depend on us; we only walked alongside him for one step of a much grander journey that he has continued every day since. Mahabir is a local visionary.
Like Mahabir, a local visionary will ensure that your work is to the greatest benefit of the local community. He understands how to organize and manage people in his community, and since he is broadly respected by his peers they trust and appreciate his leadership. He will make your partnership with the local community easier, more enjoyable, and far more effective than otherwise.
What if, you might ask, after an exhaustive search you cannot find a qualified local visionary where you want to work? You have two choices: 1) Go somewhere else, or 2) Cultivate one. Acholi Beads chose option 2, which has brought us a unique set of challenges. These I’ll share in a future edition of Open Circle.