My Encore Career in Africa
After a long but profitable career in high tech marketing and sales, I wanted to have more impact on people’s lives while still using the skills, knowledge and experience I had acquired at work. But how to reinvent myself? A colleague recommended a career coach who put me through a battery of tests and different conversations which pointed me to my passions: education, entrepreneurship, youth and women. I then researched organizations that served these passions and networked like crazy.
Eventually I connected with the President of Junior Achievement (JA) in Silicon Valley, who helped me recognize that JA could fulfill at least three of my passions – education, entrepreneurship and youth. Volunteering to be on the Board Marketing Committee, I wrote JA of Silicon Valley’s first-ever marketing plan which led the JA President to hire me as Vice President of Marketing! My encore career was underway, albeit at half of my prior salary, but I immediately felt re-invigorated and could see my impact.
At this point, my husband Rick started to become a bit jealous! Growing restless with high tech consulting, he recognized that he too wanted a career change. His interest was international economic development in places like Africa. Like many of us boomers, he was healthy and could offer his business skills, experiences and knowledge.
It was his turn to read, research, and network. After several months he found TechnoServe, with country programs in Africa and Latin America, and whose tagline is “Business Solutions to Poverty.” Their need for Volunteer Consultants (VolCons) in Africa was very appealing so he proposed we try it.
Although Paris, London or Hong Kong was what I envisioned, I had always wanted to work abroad. Rick and I had taken adventure trips to Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and all over the U.S. for business or vacation, so I was okay leaving my comfort zone. But before moving to a developing country, I had four criteria to be met: 1) no flying bullets; 2) no countries with “-stan” in their name; 3) must have flush toilets; and 4) must have hot showers. After completing some key Junior Achievement assignments, we told TechnoServe’s VolCon manager that we were ready for her to send out our resumes to the country directors.
The Swaziland director was first to respond with great positions for each of us: starting a youth entrepreneurship program (me) and consulting to help small businesses (Rick). Within six weeks we left northern California and were ensconced in a cottage just outside the city of Mbabane (pronounced Mmm-bah baan), Swaziland. The topography was amazingly like California; Mbabane felt Midwestern. Our colleagues were warm, accepting and delighted for us to help on their projects.
We could buy clothes, food, and other retail items in the one local shopping mall, but there were no movie theaters, few good restaurants, and once we left the outskirts of Mbabane, we entered a rural, often poverty-ridden landscape. However, throughout our six months in Swaziland we safari’d multiple times, traveled to Mozambique some, and traveled often to South Africa. We met wonderful people who inspired us by what they had overcome and by their drive to succeed.
Eventually we asked TechnoServe to assign us to another African country for a year. After a break at home for the holidays, we moved to Nairobi, Kenya. This city of nearly 4 million had a very different feel: movie theaters, shopping malls, lots of restaurants, very diverse population. But we lived in an apartment complex surrounded by 8-foot walls, topped with electrified barbed wire that was guarded 24/7. We generally felt safe and actually walked to nearby shopping and restaurants during daylight hours. At night we always traveled by taxi and even sometimes during the day by TechnoServe drivers, all of whom entered the compound, picked us up in front of our building, and drove us inside the next gated compound.
Like any big metropolis, there was high energy and tension around us. Yet we loved Nairobi and made many friends with whom we’ve stayed in touch. We traveled to Uganda where we trekked Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees and saw at least 100 bird species; Rwanda on business; Lamu Island off Kenya’s coast; Zanzibar’s white beaches; and many places across Kenya. Also our adult children and a couple of sets of friends met us for safaris so we could show off our now-second home.
What were our impressions? People are people across the world – warm, friendly, and curious. Life in some ways was quite different from Silicon Valley but in both Swaziland and Kenya we found the drive to succeed was the same – in business and at home with family.
If you’re thinking about a second career, my advice is to dust off your skills, take a risk, and give back to the world around you. If you have a partner, kick them off the sofa and hide their golf clubs. Begin your great adventure – it will change your life!
Wendy Walleigh is a former high tech marketing executive who moved to Africa in 2006 to volunteer for TechnoServe, an international economic development organization, where she developed women’s micro-enterprise programs. Ms. Walleigh is co-author of From Silicon Valley to Swaziland: How One Couple Found Purpose and Adventure in an Encore Career.