At the age of 27, I’ve lived, studied and worked in nine countries, many of which were in a state of conflict or just beginning to recover from it.
In Rwanda I once wandered the halls of a hospital looking for a Congolese warlord because I got a tip he was receiving treatment for HIV, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo I spent days listening to horrific stories of rape, poverty and war and then to relax took traditional dance classes from child ex-combatants (child soldiers).
In Lebanon, I once found myself breaking up a fight between two men who each had links to armed groups and today in Yemen I spend my days advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive health and trying my best not to get kidnapped. That doesn’t even begin to count the 43 other destinations I’ve traveled to (and not just their airports) bringing me to a healthy total of 52 states.
But the plan for 2014? To give it all up, throw my adventure travel seeking ways to the wind, and start a new even more scary journey: a social enterprise. The idea: merge my love of fashion, women’s empowerment, storytelling and Africa. But do I have what it takes to be an entrepreneur?
Since setting my sights on this route, inspired by my experiences in journalism and development and motivated by my deep conviction that the private sector can play a role in preventing conflict, improving the status of women and lifting people out of poverty, I’ve become an avid reader of business books and articles. Entrepreneurship, management, marketing, finance, you name the business field, I’m reading about it. Admittedly, motivational self-help books as well. Can’t hurt right?
But is reading about business enough? Do I have what it takes to be an entrepreneur without any prior experience or study? I don’t know yet so don’t expect the answers in this article.
There are some things I do know, things I’ve learned while traveling, living and working in developing countries and post conflict zones that might help me crossover to the startup business world:
1. Comfort with uncertainty/instability
When you’re working in conflict and post-conflict zones you’ve got to accept that at any point the situation could turn violent, you might have to leave, your project might have to close. Even your daily utilities like electricity and water are unpredictable. When backpacking your plans might fall through, your route could change as a result of external factors. You’ve got to be adaptable and open to change.
2. Ability to deal with extreme highs and lows
Without an even temperament, it’s unlikely you’ll make it in the world’s hotspots, and maybe not even on the road. When living in difficult locations or living out of your backpack the highs are extremely high, they mark you forever, and are likely impossible to compare to your “normal” life and certainly impossible to emulate.
The things you’ve seen and the stories you’ve heard hit you and hit you hard. The experiences you’ve had with strangers in hostels, the citizens of your host country and many more are so special you’ll never forget them.
Yet where there are extreme highs, there are extreme lows. Loneliness, isolation, apathy, frustration or just complete burn out are very real and will probably enter your life. Sometimes, it’s so bad you can’t bear the thought of spending one more minute where you are. It’s your balanced mind that gets you through.
3. Rely on yourself
When you’re traveling solo it’s just you. When you’re working in the field sometimes it’s just you. You’ve got to make decisions, you’ve got to deal with the consequences good or bad and you’ve got to move on. It is only you who can accept responsibility for your actions. So you learn to listen to yourself, know yourself and rely on yourself. You can get through difficult situations and you can figure out solutions to problems.
4. Trust your gut
Sometimes there’s just this feeling that you have that says do it! Other times the same feeling comes back with don’t do it! You’ve got to listen to it. Several times I’ve listened to my gut took a leap of faith and had some of the best experiences of my life when everyone else thought I was crazy. There are others that I passed on because my gut said not this one, maybe it was the people, the place, the situation, whatever it was it just didn’t jive with my gut. So I let it go. Maybe I missed out on some amazing experiences or some terrible experiences, I’ll never really know but I listened to my gut and that’s good enough for me.
5. Do more with less
Whether a budget traveler, a journalist or aid worker in a low resource setting you learn to do more with less. Figure out how to get yourself out of a bind where you don’t speak the language, spend those few extra days in a destination you love when you don’t really have the money or implement a project missing half of the required materials and staff. You get creative and figure it out. You are always more resourceful than you think.
6. Make connections
In business jargon this would be networking. On the road, every hostel you stay in, every couch you surf, every bar you walk into provides opportunities to meet and connect with people, people from the same culture or most likely different cultures. Rarely do the geographic, cultural, age or any other ‘differences’ prevent you from having a fascinating conversation, becoming travel buddies or in the best-case scenario lifelong friends. You can connect with people over just about anything. There is not one person I’ve met in my life, with whom I could not find common ground and connect. Traveling and living abroad is all about making connections and they’re often intense, interesting and exciting. This is the greatest part of traveling and living abroad.
7. Accept differences
By being open and making connections you learn to accept differences. There is no ‘my way or the highway’ when you’re traveling or living in another country. In fact, it’s often the opposite. You are the guest, you are the outsider, you are the foreigner in a new land. It is up to you to remember that and embrace the differences, even though I admit that can be challenging. Rarely is there a right or wrong way to do something. There are just different ways. So listen to others’ points of view and let it remold or solidify yours. How boring the world, and perhaps your company or product, would be without difference in opinions. Variety after all is the spice of life.
Perhaps you have a few more skills and qualities to add to this list.
Once my contract in Yemen ends it’s off to Kenya for my plans and me. Fingers crossed I’m right and there is crossover between the world of backpacking and living and working in post-conflict zones and the world of business. Hopefully, I can capitalize on the skills and qualities listed above that I developed over the last seven years. Otherwise it’s going to be slightly embarrassing after declaring my intentions in this article and espousing this list. However, if there’s one thing I’ve taken from all my reading on starting a business, it’s about taking risks. So that’s exactly what I’ve done, I’m doing now and exactly what I’ll be doing next year. I hope you’re inspired to do the same. More specifically, if you haven’t already, I hope you hit the road, and make it a dirt one riddled with potholes in some far-flung country because there’s lots to learn on the bumpy way.
Tanya Castle is a writer, journalist, women’s rights activist, world traveler and soon to be entrepreneur. She has lived, worked and visited more than 50 countries across 5 continents. Tanya has reported on human rights and social justice issues for various media outlets from Rwanda, Cameroon, Kenya, Lebanon, Canada and more and promoted women’s rights with organizations in DRC, Kosovo and Yemen where she is currently based. From her Sanaa apartment she is planning her next journey: starting a social enterprise.
Image credit: CC by Sean MacEntee