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Sarah Hodsdon, Kenya

by Molly Mohr

Look­ing back, it was pretty crazy,” Sarah Hods­don said of her idea to travel to Kenya. The fifth-year senior, major­ing in inter­na­tional affairs with a minor in social entre­pre­neur­ship, just returned from a leave of absence dur­ing which she jour­neyed around the African coun­try. When asked how she came up with the idea to go, she describes her ambi­tion to expand her knowl­edge of income devel­op­ment beyond that of micro­fi­nance and her choice of Kenya due to it’s bur­geon­ing mar­ket and count­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for social sec­tor progress.

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Arriv­ing with­out a con­crete plan, Sarah did not hes­i­tate to jump in with both feet, so to speak. She began attend­ing con­fer­ences and tak­ing meet­ings with com­pa­nies includ­ing the Savan­nah Fund, Open Cap­i­tal, Tech­noServe, Grameen Foun­da­tion, mSur­vey, iHub, Nailab, Trop­i­cal Fresh, and the Acu­men Fund. Her biggest chal­lenge was “try­ing to learn as much as [I could] while still being really hum­ble.” Sarah worked hard to make con­nec­tions and pro­cure meet­ings, maneu­ver­ing around the city using con­gested pub­lic trans­porta­tion. In one instance, after stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with peo­ple on a long, hot bus ride, she stepped off the vehi­cle, only to be drenched in mud as a car drove past, moments prior to a meet­ing with Acu­men Fund. How­ever, she did not allow incon­ve­niences like this to ham­per her intrigue. Her open mind and thirst for knowl­edge allowed her to learn from the com­pa­nies with which she met.

Accord­ingly, her meet­ings with these busi­nesses quickly led her to an aware­ness of the dif­fer­ence between inven­tion and inno­va­tion. She real­ized that when peo­ple invent a prod­uct with­out con­sid­er­a­tion of the intended mar­ket, it often does not suc­ceed. Not only do entre­pre­neurs encounter this prob­lem, but multi­na­tional com­pa­nies do as well. The solu­tion to this seems to come from the cre­ation of a prod­uct “along­side the mar­ket,” tak­ing into account the local cul­ture, includ­ing prod­uct tastes and pref­er­ences. This real­iza­tion that it is not solely access to funds which impedes an item’s suc­cess in the mar­ket, but an understanding—or misunderstanding—of con­sumer demand, sur­prised Sarah the most through­out her trav­els. Cor­re­spond­ingly, she found it inter­est­ing how young com­pa­nies would increase mar­ket­ing rather than attempt to under­stand consumers.

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This sur­prise and inter­est bol­stered her intrigue in the recent startup, MobileSur­vey (mSur­vey). When asked about the busi­ness she describes it: “Launched within the past two years out of MIT, this com­pany works to gen­er­ate real-time data on com­pa­nies’ prod­ucts and con­sumers in emerg­ing mar­kets that is often dif­fi­cult to access. By lever­ag­ing the wide­spread use of mobile phones in Kenya, mSur­vey is able to develop feed­back loops between com­pa­nies and their con­sumers through SMS sur­veys that enable prod­uct track­ing and val­i­da­tion. In remote areas where end-beneficiaries are highly dis­persed, the company’s cloud tech­nol­ogy works to build their voice into com­pa­nies’ ongo­ing strat­egy devel­op­ment quickly and effec­tively.” In other words, mSur­vey col­lects infor­ma­tion about prod­ucts and con­sumers through sur­veys con­ducted on mobile phones. The abil­ity to use mobile devices to orga­nize sur­veys greatly increases the effi­ciency and amount of mate­r­ial avail­able to busi­nesses about their prod­ucts. Sarah met the CEO of mSur­vey at the DEMO Africa Con­fer­ence and her gen­uine inter­est, as well as hard work, that has led to a job oppor­tu­nity for her at the com­pany once she grad­u­ates this spring.

The way in which she acquired her impend­ing job embod­ies her advice on how to net­work effec­tively. She advises a per­son to estab­lish a rela­tion­ship with another per­son out of a “com­mon thread.” She believes that the abil­ity to dis­cuss this shared knowl­edge can lead to a job offer “organ­i­cally in con­ver­sa­tion.” She also encour­ages stu­dents to cre­ate busi­ness cards because “they make con­nect­ing with peo­ple incred­i­bly easy and natural.” Additionally, she rec­om­mends research­ing local oppor­tu­ni­ties, includ­ing “social gath­er­ings with young peo­ple, [because] there are so many resources in the city [of Boston].”

Over­all, Sarah’s leave of absence allowed her to increase her knowl­edge and her oppor­tu­ni­ties. She will be return­ing to Kenya to work with mSur­vey where she will con­tinue to learn about emerg­ing mar­kets and refine her exper­tise. If you want to read more about her time in Kenya, make sure to check out her blog!

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