Getting More than I am Capable of Giving: A Social Sabbatical in Ethiopia

Five years ago, SAP and PYXERA Global developed an award-winning portfolio of programs called the SAP Social Sabbatical. SAP employees are placed in highly diverse teams to dedicate their skills, expertise, and know-how in a unique, short-term assignment. The assignment achieves triple impact: solving concrete strategic challenges for client organizations, developing leadership skills of participants, and advancing SAP as an employer of choice. Starting with the flagship program in 2012, the Social Sabbatical has since expanded from 30 to 300 participants annually, giving SAP employees at all levels a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn the vision at SAP to “help the world run better and improve people’s lives” into action.

Jewell Parkinson, head of Human Resources, SAP North America, took advantage of this incredible opportunity a few weeks ago. This is her social sabbatical story.

When I stepped off the plane after the 14-hour flight and gazed at the clear, blue sky and mountainous views, I was transfixed. I knew at that moment an extraordinary experience was about to begin.

As I enter my 20th year at SAP, I am honored to have participated in SAP’s Social Sabbatical for executive engagement with nine colleagues from across the globe in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for 15 days. Home to three million people — more than 70% of whom are under the age of 30 — the city is rich in culture and primed for change.

My inspiration

Last year, I read a blog by Wolfgang Fassnacht sharing his experience as a participant in the Ghana program in 2016, and knew I wanted to get involved. After applying in early January and receiving word of acceptance in early March, this left four weeks to prepare.

In Ethiopia, we spent our time addressing strategic challenges faced by four non-profit organizations and social enterprises focused on bridging the digital divide. Each team of executives focused on a scope of work developed by the organization and refined the proposals so we could make an impact during the short time we’d be in Ethiopia. We primarily served as pro-bono consultants to these organizations, focusing on short-term, tactical goals their leadership could implement immediately inside their business strategies.

15 days to make a difference

My SAP sabbatical partner and I were assigned to work with an organization named iceaddis, the first startup incubation hub and co-creation space in Ethiopia established in May 2011. Working on youth-driven private sector initiatives and facilitating constructive interactions between techies, entrepreneurs, investors and people from the creative industries, iceaddis contributes to Ethiopia’s economic growth. The iceaddis leadership team, including co-founders, Markos Lemma (CEO) and Florian Manderscheid (COO), educated us about their business model and ecosystem and exposed us to the local market and societal norms, which are essential to conducting business in Ethiopia.

During our two-week assignment, working out of the organization’s office, we collaborated with members of the startup community, partners in the ecosystem and other key stakeholders to help drive real change for the organization. iceaddis is where creativity flourishes and great ideas come to life while grappling with the realities of an emerging nation: quality education, infrastructure and connectivity challenges.

We spent our time looking at the organization’s corporate governance, organizational vision, core mission, and provided insight into how they could build their financial structure. The folks at iceaddis could take small steps to achieve some of their overarching goals. For instance, scoping out a well-defined job requisition for a financial business manager who could truly meet their needs.

Though ambitious, with the help and power of our phenomenal SAP extended network (which we tapped into for guidance and support) we successfully met our commitments. Case in point: As we were working to validate iceaddis’ pricing structure, we consulted with our global head of Pricing, we also received fantastic and timely support from Value Management team colleagues in India to advise on business health checks and operational assessment models so we could make sound recommendations. Our cohort was also visited by SAP’s managing director of the East Africa region, Gilbert Saggia, who shared elements of SAP’s regional business strategy.

Soaking in the culture

Outside of the engaging work, we experienced different aspects of Ethiopian life, from enjoying the delicious traditional cuisine to taking in the phenomenal art, music and entertainment from talented local artists. The day was not complete without indulging in another pride of Ethiopia, coffee. Coffee also has its origins in Ethiopia, deriving from the southwest province Kaffa — a mountain rain forest — where coffee grows in countless varieties. My colleagues and I enjoyed taking part in a tribal coffee ceremony where we roasted coffee beans over an open-pan flame and enjoyed popcorn.

Over a weekend, a colleague and I visited Lalibela, a lovely rural town known around the world for its eleven medieval monolithic churches carved from within the earth from “living rock” during the 12th and 13th centuries. In the countryside, we got to experience how Ethiopians live and observe traditions that have been maintained and passed down over many centuries. As in Addis, the people of Lalibela were friendly and hospitable. I was inspired encountering so many kind, smart, curious and inviting people possessing limitless potential throughout my journey.

Historians believe Ethiopia is the origin of mankind. In fact, the oldest human fossil, Lucy, was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. This strong connection to the evolution of woman and mankind itself serves as a foundation for a culture is rooted in pride, humanity, inclusion, peace and community

Getting more than what I was capable of giving

My personal motivation to participate in the executive social sabbatical was born out of a desire to contribute to our vision to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. While in Addis, I strived to absorb as much as I could to make a meaningful contribution and help advance the impressive work well underway at iceaddis. I went with only one objective in mind — to make a difference. What I left with was a profound sense of being and appreciation to the ties that bind us all globally, rooted in our shared humanity. I am humbled having gained so much more than I was capable of giving. This was the greatest gift received from my time in Ethiopia.

As I heard so often throughout my travels in the local Amharic language, I conclude with a common greeting, (ሰላም ) Selam! (peace to you).

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.