What I’ve Learned from Managing a Social Enterprise in South Africa’s Townships—And Other International Co-op Lessons

heart capitalOn Aug. 26, I boarded a plane destined for Cape Town, South Africa. Twenty five hours later I arrived at my new home for the next four months.

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.

Northeastern Career Services Ranked #1 by Princeton Review

No one hearted his co-op more than Spencer Small (left), who was hired by Amazon after an eight-month co-op stint there.

No one hearted his co-op more than Spencer Small (left), who was hired by Amazon after an eight-month co-op stint there.

All we can say is: Thank you, Huskies! The annual Princeton Review Col­lege Rank­ings came out Monday and ranked Northeastern Career Development #1 in the country for “Best Careers Services.” For seven con­sec­u­tive years we’ve been ranked in the top four in the U.S., including four years at No. 1! What makes this such an honor is that it is the students that determine the ranking.

While many grad­u­ates begin their pro­fes­sional careers after grad­u­a­tion, most Huskies start their first co-​​op sopho­more year and can have three pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ences under their belt by grad­u­a­tion. That said, it’s no sur­prise that 90 per­cent of them are working full time or in grad school within nine months after grad­u­a­tion. And 51 per­cent of our grad­u­ates receive a job offer from a pre­vious co-​​op employer.

To under­score a little fur­ther how valu­able the co-​​op expe­ri­ence is, 87 per­cent of those working full time after grad­u­a­tion are doing some­thing closely related to what they studied.

North­eastern is all about inte­grating class­room learning and real-​​world expe­ri­ence. And we pride our­selves on giving our stu­dents the help and resources they need to build suc­cessful careers and become global cit­i­zens. And it’s also nice to be recognized.

Work. Location. Culture.

 

image generated by Wordle.com

image generated by Wordle.com

This article was written by Megan Fernandes, a 4th year international affairs student at NU as a guest blogger for The Works.

Work. Location. Culture. Last year, a professor told me that these are the three distinct elements I need to consider when looking for a job. A few years ago, I might have written this off fairly quickly, but after having a few varied work experiences under my belt, I realized they are all equally important to my happiness and success. Between my first and current co-op, I’ve learned what I need in a workplace to thrive professionally as well as what I need in regards to location and relationships to be happy. Like many other NU students- I have definitely learned what I don’t like in work, even before I figured out what I do.

Work. As college students, we’ve all been encouraged to pursue areas of study that we are passionate about in the hopes of finding a career where we feel we are making a difference. However, I’ve learned over time that feeling too committed to any particular job, industry or institution early on can be very limiting. I had my entire college career planned out by the fall of sophomore year, but so many different opportunities and challenges were presented along the way that threw my plans to the wind and changed what I had previously thought was a priority. Neither the work nor the industry I was in were much of a consideration in choosing my past two co-ops (sustainable agriculture in Cameroon and asset management in Boston), but that doesn’t mean I’ve learned any less about the kind of work I want to do eventually. Being able to stay flexible and transfer over as many professional and social skills between jobs, no matter how different they are, will help keep you positive and confident wherever you go.

Location. Because we attend such a diverse school that offers so many opportunities to leave campus, NU students, more than anyone, understand the importance of location. Cities around the world are becoming more international and physically going and living somewhere else isn’t as difficult as it once was. The big challenge is being OK with being uncomfortable and really giving each new place a real chance; keeping in mind that you may decide, despite your utmost respect for their culture and way of life, that it’s just not for you. Cameroon taught me that, specifically by showing me how different cultural values, social and economic factors can directly dictate the population’s lifestyle. Doing two co-ops in Boston has also taught me that I like living in cities and getting to know a city helps me feel at home.

Culture. Nowadays, people are thinking more broadly about what it means to employ people who are good “fits”. Thinking about if you can sit next to someone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week is more of a consideration in hiring than ever before. It works the other way around as well. I have worked for a company whose mission and work I was highly inspired by, but the internal culture was unexciting and stifling. I have also worked for a company in an industry I am not stimulated by and whose work I often find routine, but its internal culture is more open, laid-back, and appreciative than anywhere else I’ve experienced. This combination has allowed me to see that I need a relaxed culture and the encouragement to form personal and professional relationships to maintain my personal happiness and motivation at work.

As much as it goes against my initial view when I started school, simply working on something you love isn’t enough. I always thought that if you found what it is that you wanted to do, you’d be golden, but I’ve realized that loving what is physically around you, both the location and the people, makes your work even more meaningful and makes you even better at what you do.

Megan Fernandes is an international affairs student in her fourth year at Northeastern with academic interests revolving around global poverty alleviation. Megan is originally from Houston, but went to high school in Bangkok, Thailand before moving to Boston. She loves learning about other cultures and would be happy to show new people around Boston! 

Welcome to the European “Student City”: Leuven, Belgium

City Spot Leuven

“I knew I wanted to travel abroad,” explained Behavioral Neuroscience Senior Jake Jordan, who is currently completing his co-op as a Research Assistant in a lab studying neuroscience in the city of Leuven, Belgium. “I originally went to my co-op advisor who directed me to the international co-op office. At first they didn’t have anything, and I was like ‘okay, I’ll just go abroad after graduation or whatever’ but then she got back to me a while later and said something had opened up in Belgium so I jumped on that.”

Jake has actually been working overseas for about 8 months– longer than the tradition co-op of 6 months and took over for his lab’s very first Northeastern co-op student. “The process wasn’t too bad. The best piece of advice is to do your research and plan way ahead. Like, I didn’t know that there were only a few Belgium visa offices in the whole country, luckily there is one in New York where I’m from, but if I was from the Midwest or something I would have been screwed.”

Market in Leuven, Belgium during one of many summer music festivals

Market in Leuven, Belgium during one of many summer music festivals

Jake interviewed via Skype with his boss who is originally from Canada. He explained that one of his favorite aspects of working in Belgium is the diversity of the people he works with. “There are people from all around the world here, it’s really cool. The culture is a lot different too. It is a little bit more laid back than the US. There are always people in common areas and it’s very common to just walk around and hang out.” When asked what his favorite part of his job was, “it’s always changing, it’s a small office but it’s exciting—which is actually the most challenging thing too, but I really like it so it’s a good challenging.”

His favorite food: the waffles (of course). What does he miss the most? “Northeastern, my friends and my family of course. Oh, and baseball definitely.”

Kelly Scott is a Career Advisor at Northeastern University and social media enthusiast.  A Gen Y, she enjoys writing about workplace culture and personal online branding. For more career insight, follow/tweet her at @kellydscott4.

If you know anyone who would be a great City Spotlight feature, contact Ashley LoBue at a.lobue@neu.edu for more details.