An American in Joburg

One move, two months and three (Facebook) updates later . . .

I wanted to share how I’m feeling, what I’m doing and learning professionally, and what I’m doing and learning personally. For those of you tuning in for the first time, on March 1st, 2017 I moved from NYC to Johannesburg, SA to start as COO for Streetlight Schools, a nonprofit organization launching revolutionary, low-cost independent schools across the city. It’s my first time living abroad, and I transitioned professionally from being a connector (aka hustler) to an operator.

An amazing aerial view that encapsulates the divide (photo cred: Johnny Miller and his project Unequal Scenes)

For context, I am living in Bjala Square, which is the building that also houses our first school and central office. It is an apartment in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, considered to be a part of the central business district & suburbs which were systematically stripped (of services & resources), emptied, and impoverished as the apartheid government fell. While not a ‘township’ as traditionally portrayed by the media, the inner city is beautiful but ugly, safe but dangerous, vibrant but decaying, thriving but challenging with

  • a couple rapidly gentrifying and developing areas (that are still tiny relative to the overall size of the CBD),
  • a few large, fenced-off corporate offices and university campuses,
  • a number of hijacked buildings run by informal slumlords (which are gradually being reclaimed),
  • a lot of small businesses and streetside stalls,
  • a decaying urban community right next to posh suburbia
  • a concern for safety, cleanliness and access to amenities that keeps most middle class South Africans from living here (unless they’re in a home behind gates or in an apartment building with security — and to be clear, I’m living in an apartment building with good security)
The view from my building/apartment of Jeppe Park (note the trash strewn across it)

So, how am I feeling about all this?

Professionally, the work is tiring but rewarding. There’s in fact a running collection of photos that encapsulates just how tiring. Every week in real time feels like a month in Streetlight time, echoing a recent post by Brad Feld. To be precise, at the time of writing, I’ve been here 6 weeks in real time, or 6 months in Streetlight time. Overall, I am thriving and thankful. I feel validated in my hunch that coming here would enable me to grow tremendously by working on a dope project, by connecting with dope people, and by being in a dope place.

So, what have I done and learned professionally?

My top three accomplishments are diagnosing a lack of organisational capacity, creating/implementing an ongoing list of issues, and implementing a system for fundraising. I’ve learned a lot about fundraising, about how my work essentially boils down to fundraising and operations, and about how the challenges & constraints of poverty impact our work.

I enabled our school leader to share that she had hit a breaking point, thereby diagnosing a lack of organisational capacity at the school level (and yes, I’m already spelling my words the South African way). We are actively addressing this issue by hiring our social worker full-time and hiring a school operations manager.

I created and implemented an ongoing list (‘tracker’) of issues — or bugs as they’re called in the software industry — ranging from can we get locks for the office doors to can our school accommodate 200 students next year to what is our long-term sustainability strategy. This list has enabled our central organisation team to communicate clearly, raise issues, and prioritise our efforts in addressing these issues and solving problems.

I implemented a system for fundraising (hat tip to Nicole Jarbo for sharing her approach at the 2017 4.0 Schools Community Summit) and helped Streetlight Schools’ founder Melanie:

  • create an updated model/budget and determine our 5-year deficit,
  • make progress on a bunch of fundraising opportunities, and
  • develop a plan for sustained fundraising.

I could talk ad nausea about fundraising, but I’ll simply name my top three learnings, and leave more in-depth analysis for another piece. First, philanthropy in South Africa is weighted strongly toward relationships without a clear strategy or approach by which funders decide what projects to fund. Second, determining who the funding decisionmakers are and the process/timeline for making those decisions is critical. Finally, no fundraising project is complete until money is in the bank.

Additionally, I have learned that all my work falls essentially into two categories: fundraising and operations. Fundraising means predicting how much money we need, considering how our fundraising capacity & environment affects our sustainability and strategy, and of course, actually raising those funds. Operations means building organisational capacity so that our schools (for now, our first school, Streetlight Jeppe Park Primary) and our central organisation can run smoothly, efficiently, and consistently and accomplish our vision, mission, and goals. Building capacity includes hiring, training, implementing systems, creating institutional knowledge and more.

Finally, I’ve learned just how we experience real, human-scale issues of poverty. Some of the challenges that we faced in my first two months include:

  • a student with behavioral issues that affect peers and alcoholic parents (leaving us with a difficult decision, to expel or not to expel)
  • a parent not only failing to pay fees, but potentially spreading rumors that we are a free school and impacting other parents’ payments
  • a staff member with a child in the school winds up in a dispute with the landlord (leaving them nearly homeless)
  • a service provider who has been robbed at gunpoint (once) and had her business broken into (twice)

So, what have I done and learned personally?

For those worried that I am overworked, let me just say the rumors of my hours have been greatly exaggerated. My top three accomplishments are having a number of fun experiences, starting to build deep, meaningful friendships, and remaining connected with people I care about back home. I’ve learned about what works when it comes to connecting with people when you go to a new place, how to choose and appreciate time alone, and balancing different motivations (especially financial) for starting a side project.

First, I’ve had an amazing time experiencing this new country; just to capture a few highlights:

A 32-hour train journey from Joburg to Cape Town and being offline for a couple days in the Cederberg, a star-filled, mountainous, rocky national park two hours north of Cape Town (photo cred: Mel/Cathy)
A roadtrip to Lesotho and Port Elizabeth I impulsively joined with 12 hours notice, during which I spent 3 days full of conversation, driving, landscapes, (word) games, and one serendipitous Chinese restaurant in Lesotho aptly named Fu(li) with these 2 lovely, brilliant people (photo cred: the owners)
Two backyard Sunday brunches hosted by a good friend, including one that started at 10:00 am, lasted the entire day, and ended with a hike up the Melville Koppies and a beautiful sunset over the city
Many fun dinners and nights out, including a challenge to surreptitiously place a photo of us at a restaurant and a mindblowing conversation with a fellow U.S. expat working at African Leadership Academy and a local entrepreneur doing everything from food to fashion to brand/content marketing (photo cred: our waiter)
Joining one of the first protest marches in Pretoria after President Zuma’s removal of the finance minister, and the subsequent downgrade of South Africa’s debt rating by S&P and Fitch to junk status for the first time in 17 years

Second, every single experience mentioned above has involved people with whom I am actively building deep, lasting relationships. It’s comforting to know that I can go to a new place and, combined with a starter group of friends and my usual hustle & personality, I can find people who are values aligned and actively bringing their goals and dreams to life.

Third, I’ve managed to do this while staying in touch with people I care about back home. I’ve sent digital messages, including weekly exchanges with family and a few longer exchanges. I’ve sent a couple physical ones by postcard. I’ve had a couple catchup calls. I’ve shared a few Facebook updates, and now this longer, (slightly) more thought out reflection.

As for what I’ve learned, it’s to be more intentional about who you ask to connect you with people. So far, the strongest relationships I’ve built here have come from two sources: friends of friends who I am aligned with and who are based or have spent a lot of time here OR from meeting dope people, doers, movers, and shakers while out and about. A failed strategy was asking everyone to connect me with people here. Don’t get me wrong; more than 30 of you connected me with people you knew here, and I am thankful to every one of you. But, that approach turned out to be ineffective, as it has yielded only a handful of in-person meetings.

Second, I continue to grow in learning how to effectively utilize and enjoy solo, introvert time. While I shared a number of enjoyable experiences with others, there have been a lot of times where I’ve explored Johannesburg solo; I’ve gone to the coffeeshop (especially this little oasis pictured below) to read, write, and reflect; or I’ve just stayed at home when struck by inspiration to do the same (for instance, a recent Saturday night spent writing this piece). After being sick all of February, I’ve managed to get back into a rhythm of eating well and working out in a new place while keeping fit (including extensive use of an outdoor gym and and the Nike+ workout app at home).

A beautiful garden next to Firebird coffee and The Cosmopolitan in Maboneng, Johannesburg

Finally, I’ve learned about balancing the different motivations for choosing to pursue a side project, and had a key insight when it comes to the financial ones. I had conflated short- and long-term financial goals. I was and still am considering real estate, but I’ve realized that the key reason is not for the short-to-medium term goal of income generation, but the medium-to-long term goal of wealth generation. And, that requires a sufficient time horizon, and one in which my investment choices align with my life choices. Also, the side project I want to pursue does have potential to generate income, but that is not the sole or primary motivation (unlike my goal of generating wealth for long-term personal financial sustainability).

PS I finished the book Building A Better Teacher, and I am already re-reading it. Anyone who works in or is interested in education in the U.S. should read it. It aptly captures and portrays the recent education reform movement there and dives deeply into the process and challenges of becoming and training a better teacher, both individually in a classroom and at scale. It does a great job of balancing the arguments around increased accountability vs increased capacity.

If anyone wants to do a book discussion group on it, let me know 😊

Other things I’ve loved recently:

  • BOOKS: Creativity, Inc (on Pixar, and it served as a powerful tool that allowed me to process and reflect on my time at 4.0 Schools)
  • TV: Rick and Morty (Episode 1 of Season 3!), Mr. Robot (just finished the second and (currently) final season, and it was outstanding; it is by all accounts an accurate portrayal of hacker culture combined with an intense narrator of questionable reliability)
  • PODCASTS: Sh*t Town
  • MUSIC: Kendrick Lamar’s new album Damn, South African musician Nathi