It was a little after 5am and I was nearing the top of Kilimanjaro. After 16 hours of climbing, I felt a sudden wave of fatigue and disorientation. Fear bubbled within and I worried that after four and a half days of ascent, altitude sickness would cut my journey short. Phillip, our guide, whispered: “Anne, this is where you pull on your passion.” I grabbed his arm to steady myself, and gathered all my energy for the final push. Not long afterwards, I was above the clouds and felt the sunrise on my face. The sickness disappeared and I pushed on to reach the summit of Africa’s highest peak.
Despite the quest for adventure in my personal life, my career has largely followed a linear path. Two and a half years ago, that changed. I applied to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to do an MBA, writing about my desire to manage HIV operations and analytics in Africa. The rejection notice was a blow. I moped about for three days, then asked myself: “Why does this have to be pinned to Wharton?”
The question awakened in me a calling like I never had before. I wanted more than the traditional path, even if I had to quit my solid job at an HIV biotech company. I needed to get to Africa, no matter how risky or unlikely it seemed. I applied to the Clinton Health Access Initiative to implement HIV programmes in Swaziland. Two weeks later I had an offer. I packed up my life and left the safe harbour of San Francisco.
I came to Africa to learn about the challenges of healthcare delivery in the developing world. I could not anticipate how the experience would reshape my values, hopes and inner purpose. I had no entrepreneurial hopes until I came to Africa. In the US, it can be difficult to spot opportunities in a saturated market. In Africa, markets are emerging, under development or non-existent. Some see this as a problem, but I see boundless opportunity.
I could not face leaving Africa for the US. I felt that burning need to take the unconventional path: to launch a social enterprise start-up in Africa. But there was a hole in my CV – I needed to bolster my understanding of doing business in Africa’s diverse emerging markets.
The University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business emerged as my starting point. The UCT MBA is not a typical programme, which is why I chose it. It teaches that business must have a multi-dimensional purpose that transcends pure profit to include social impact. In one of my favourite classes, the social innovation lab, student teams develop social innovation plans to address social issues. I was able to dedicate significant time to building my social enterprise concept with the help and feedback of passionate students and innovation experts.
The UCT MBA is intense, cramming two years of study into 11 months. Students have classes every day for six months, with mandatory assignments, and must submit a thesis. There were moments when I had no idea how I would get it all done, and days when I pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper, only to turn around and start another.
Nerves can get strained and things can become downright uncomfortable. As a class president, I had to engage with issues that would have been easier to let pass by. When I was elected, I thought it would put me at the point of social activity, helping to co-ordinate needs and relationships across a very diverse class. This was part of it, but being a president widened my understanding of leadership. I realised the difficulty of managing the herd and not allowing the stampede to drown out minority voices. I learned that leadership is not glamorous or about being popular. It is about working through your fears, holding to your convictions and standing up for what is right, even if that means you sometimes stand alone.
Riding this momentum, I am launching my social enterprise start-up in South Africa. The process is moving quite quickly, but I am focused on the precipice and, as Phillip the mountain guide would say, I am pulling on my passion.
Anne Pao took her MBA at the University of Cape Town, where she was a 2013 class president. She is from the US but plans to stay in Cape Town to join an information technology company and work on the launch of her social enterprise start-up, Weaverlution, an online marketplace for social impact campaigns.