Aligning a team — across continents and cultures

Last week I returned from a seven day trip to Uganda. Yes, I spent over 40 hours flying over 16,000 miles to spend less than seven full days in Kampala, Uganda. Why? My team.

As many of you may know, I am co-founder of Neopenda, a medical device startup creating needs-based tech solutions for low-resource health facilities in emerging markets. Our research and design process over the last three years has been largely based in Uganda. I have traveled to Uganda many times, and have spent months visiting hospitals all around the country. My most recent trip was crammed into the final month of Neopenda’s time with Techstars Chicago, a program that has allowed us to accelerate our business’s growth by spending intensive time working with rockstar industry mentors and the incredible Techstars team, alongside our cohort of inspiring companies. As difficult as it was to schedule a trip all the way to Uganda during the final weeks of the short and valuable program, the trip proved to be a well worthwhile and important diversion from my ever-busy schedule.

I had several business objectives for this trip, including meetings with stakeholders and catching up with current partners and collaborators, but the most important objective was to spend quality face time with our talented and passionate Kampala-based team. Dorothy, our tenacious Program Coordinator, focuses on partnership development and customer acquisition, and Michael, our diligent Research Coordinator, oversees all things research and clinical trial related. Since joining us about six months ago, their contributions to Neopenda have been immense. Meanwhile in the US, my co-founder Tess and I have been moving quickly on new initiatives at Techstars over the summer. Leading and growing a team divided by geography and by culture has been a challenge, and that’s why it was my top priority of the trip to ensure Neopenda’s vision was aligned and clearly communicated across our whole team.

Over the week, some things went smoothly and other things went awry, as they always do: meetings fell through, “jams” (Kampala’s famous traffic nightmares) consumed an entire afternoon, and I suffered some minor food poisoning… But, working with the team could not have gone better. I had the unique and powerful opportunity to share my story and why I care so deeply about Neopenda, and listened to equally important stories from Dorthy & Michael in return. And, there are concepts we’re immersed in back in startup land in Chicago, like investor rounds or product development processes, that are unfamiliar territory to them. Hashing things out in person goes a long way in getting us all on the same page. Of course, I learned so much from them as well. I attended meetings with hospital administrators led by Dorothy, and loved hearing the way she pitches Neopenda to fellow Ugandans in her own authentic voice, and working in more culturally appropriate references and value propositions that I would never think of. We shared best practices, lessons learned, resources we lacked, and processes to improve. Aside from the business talk, we spent ages joking around in the car and bonding on a deep level. The end result? A closer, stronger, aligned team. Mission accomplished.

Going back to Uganda is always an eye-opening and wonderful experience, and refreshes my perspective on why we do what we do. As Neopenda continues to grow, it becomes increasingly clear to me that, odd as it seems sometimes, Neopenda exists beyond just my co-founder and me. Dorothy and Michael embody Neopenda, in Uganda, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At the end of the day, a company’s growth, innovation, traction, and momentum are all driven by the people who make up the team, and how they work together. Culture isn’t a fluffy buzzword to us; it’s the product of the values we define and how they inform the way we do our work. Neopenda is our team, and focusing on that is absolutely worth the jetlag and a whirlwind week away from home.

The team, outside our office in central Kampala