Saturday, April 7, 2012

The need to send appropriate messages to African entrepreneurs

I was recently attending a Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Nairobi where I presented "The Link between Building Higher Education Institutions (HEI) and the Labor Market".
This was a good conference organized by the African Development Bank and UNESCO to discuss policies to promote STI in Africa and come up with practical recommendations to be presented to attending ministers.

One speaker was a Professor of Entrepreneurship from a US School of Business. She was a very excited (and maybe exciting for some) speaker, jumping all over the stage during her presentation, a presentation style often appreciated in the US but maybe not so much in Africa.
She presented some "facts" that I have seen before that many CEOs of successful companies are university drop-offs, the two more famous ones being Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. And thus she was offering the proposal that there are other venues to become a successful entrepreneur than the traditional higher education path.

I think that this is sending the wrong message and even more so to an African audience and I wish that my fellow citizens coming to Africa be more sensitive and adapt their message to their audience. This is the minimum respect you need to show when invited in another culture.

First about the fact itself,  it has been shown that university graduates get better jobs and as a result earn substantially more than people who did not completed higher education. That is the real statistic, and successful drop-offs do not represent the majority. Earning more is only a side benefit (but an important one in Africa) from university studies. Probably more important in good universities is the intellectual development and the broader vision acquired not only in the particular subject of the studies, but about the world in general through interaction with professors and colleague students from all over the world. It opens the mind's horizon and expand the limits of what you think is possible. In summary it prepares you becoming an entrepreneur.

Second, the famous drop-offs are not really drop-offs in the sense of people giving up on their studies. They dropped off because they were brilliant minds who felt slowed down by studies and had a passion and vision. Only a minority of drop-offs fall in that category. The others end up failing in their professional life.

Third, many of those drop-offs where sons and daughters of families where money was not a problem (Gates father was a wealthy attorney and his mother was a bank director) so that their family was able to support them. Obviously this is not the case for the majority of African students. In fact many times, their families has to go into debt to support their studies. Those studies are often the only hope for the family. Family in Africa has a different meaning than in the developed world.The social structure of African families is much broader, covering not only the direct family, but all the members of the large family including uncles and aunts, cousins, grand parents, etc. A typical family can exceed one hundred members who all depend and rely on each other. Often, the university graduate of the family who earns a better salary is providing support to the extended family. He or she will intervene in case of problem, e.g. if a member of the family is sick and needs hospitalization.

I'm sure that the professor's objective was to encourage people to pursue all paths to success and that she successfully teaches those paths. My only recommendation is to be more sensitive to the audience and I must recognize that her short speaking time made it difficult to be more appropriate but that is not a reason not to try.

Seeya later alligator...

1 comment:

Joel Rubino said...

Ah c'est ricains.. heureusement que les belges veillent aux grains ;-)