A week later, I started my co-op at Heart Capital, an impact investment firm on the outskirts of Cape Town that manages a portfolio of social enterprises in local townships. So what have I learned so far from this incredible opportunity to learn about social enterprise management in one of the regions of the world that needs it most? Read on.
1. Printer ink, Internet access, phone calls, and meetings are luxuries—not necessities.
In Cape Town, I’ve realized that you can still conduct business without a formal corporate infrastructure in place—it’s just a little more difficult. No technology on site? Better make sure you bring everything you need with you. Deliverymen didn’t drop off your compost in the right place? Time to revamp the work schedule so that you can account for manually hauling your supplies to a different location.
Being innovative and flexible are essential in the social space—you often won’t find well-oiled business machines in under-resourced townships.
2. Sometimes, the needs of the business don’t go hand in hand with the needs of beneficiaries. And that can be challenging.
The difficult thing about managing social enterprises is that they don’t operate as for-profit businesses, but they aren’t nonprofit either. In this space, we spend a lot of our time wrestling with wanting to help people directly while still trying to progress the business. These tough decisions make this space incredibly challenging. What’s important is that you figure out the best way to cope with the situation. For me, I’ve found that leaving work at the office and exploring the area allow me to clear my head and face the challenges ahead. Figure out what gives you inner peace and capitalize on that.
3. Creativity is key.
When there isn’t a clear procedure on how to do something, that presents an opportunity for innovative thinking. Past and current interns have developed new systems for inventory management, sourced free materials from willing companies, and launched crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for supplies. Success in this industry—and especially in an international environment—relies on drive, creativity, and innovation.
4. Working internationally is different than working at home.
Sometimes you might forget that cultural norms you took for granted aren’t the same in other countries. Email may not be effective, the laws and regulations for donations may be different, and common words and phrases may not be present in your new space.
Like any new job, it’s important to take each lesson in stride. Sometimes, working in a different country can be frustrating and confusing. It may make you want to tear your hair out, find the nearest McDonalds, and try to un-block Netflix. But by using each experience as a learning opportunity, and then reminding yourself about the lessons you’ll be able to take home with you, you’ll survive—and, even better—thrive.
Sarah Silverstein is currently managing Heart Capital’s ongoing Indiegogo campaign to raise $15,000 USD to purchase a bakkie, or small vehicle, which will drastically improve the organization’s operations on the ground. Check out the campaign page to learn more about the campaign.