Three years ago, Claire Jenkins (now of Grow Movement) was filling out her personal development plan at BT Group, the British telecommunications firm where she worked, and felt the lights slowly going out in her head.
"I went through the main business functions: HR, Transformation, Operations, and felt totally uninspired by any of the options and thought, 'Right, it is time to go and find something that I want to do!'
She found an advertisement on escapethecity.org for a position at Grow Movement, and was excited about the mixture of charity and business combined with the clear goal of creating jobs. Today she is surrounded by incredible volunteers working with smart and driven entrepreneurs from across Africa.
"This matched my value set and away I went!" Claire says.
Today, Claire is the CEO at Grow Movement, a U.K.-based organization that strives to lift people out of poverty by empowering African entrepreneurs with pro bono business coaching via Skype.
Here, she shares more about Grow Movement's mission and how it's helped both volunteers and entrepreneurs alike grow their businesses and experience. Read on:
Can you tell us the story behind Grow Movement?
The Grow Founder Chris Coughlan had spent time as an election monitor for the European Union in Rwanda and Congo. He was struck by the amount of talented youth that were not working because of lack of opportunity. He was also amazed by the number of farmers in rural locations getting text message advice on crop prices. The brain wave came one day when running through Regents Park: if you can do farming advice via text, can you do business advice via Skype? One phone call to the British embassy in Uganda, and our first trial with 10 clients in 2009 started!
Why are you so passionate about empowering African entrepreneurs?
I am passionate about people and correcting life's lottery. I have been such a lucky person. I grew up in a family that respected education. Every opportunity has been made available to me and I have grabbed every single one.
It has always bothered me on a deep level that life's lottery sent me this to this amazing country and incredible parents while others are not so fortunate. They may have the same amazing parents with the same vision, but the opportunities are just not there.
I wanted to help balance this out; I wanted to create opportunities for others, but in a way that is respectful and not demeaning. That brings out the best in people.
Grow Movement does this for both its entrepreneurs and its volunteers.
What are the biggest challenges facing these entrepreneurs today?
The biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs is a lack of business skills. Business owners are often driven into entrepreneurship through lack of any other opportunity in both the private and public sector. Without access to full education and business training, many of our clients have underdeveloped skills in finance, strategy and marketing, which limits the progression of their business. They work incredibly hard with drive, passion and determination, but do not get the benefits.
How can business consultants volunteer for Grow Movement?
Apply to growmovement.org and click on become a volunteer consultant. You will then be interviewed by an existing consultant who will tell you (warts and all) about the challenges and benefits involved! A six-month commitment, 12 sessions, approximately three hours every other week.
What topics or areas are your volunteers most often coaching entrepreneurs on?
The three main areas are finance, marketing and strategy. In terms of finance, it is cash flows, operating costs and pricing. For marketing, it is understanding competition, asking customers what they want, and increasing the average spend per customers and overall number. In terms of strategy, it is how to plan the business. On the softer side, it is the confidence to run a business.
How have these volunteer experiences affected business consultants?
Volunteering with Grow Movement is a motivating, refreshing, unique and AMAZING experience! As people, we are happy and engaged in life when we are learning. No matter the age or business experience, you will learn at Grow Movement about another country, the business landscape and yourself. Many of our consultants have reflected on their life and job and have gone on to be entrepreneurs in their own right. Seeing the challenges our clients face gives them the final push.
Grow Movement has opened up a new volunteering opportunity for men. Most charities run with 70 percent female volunteers; whereas as Grow has 72 percent male volunteers. Prior to Grow, it seemed there was a lack of opportunities for men to volunteer in such a way.
How can volunteering for an organization like yours help a consultant in their career?
- Access a global network of business consultants
- Improve communication skills: cross cultural communication via technology is an increasing part of the business world
- Develop and enhance consulting and coaching skills
- Increase knowledge of emerging markets and problems facing small business
- Bragging rights - lots to talk about in an interview about creating employment in another country by Skype.
What skillsets would you like to see more of your volunteers develop?
How to tackle business problems in a creative, non-standard way.
Too often, our volunteers come up with marketing ideas of TV, flyers and radio; and these just do not suit the audience. Our best volunteers get creative and really listen to the client; and have a way of really knowing when they have suggested a daft idea, but the client is too polite to say! This experience really develops creative problem-solving skills.
Grow gives volunteers the opportunity to be creative. Standard solutions do not always apply here. Our volunteers have the skills to do this, but often are so used to standard tool kits; so they really relish the challenge of being able to take an alternative perspective.
Regarding cross-cultural communication skills: often our volunteers go at such speed they fail to check if our clients have understood them, or if what they have suggested is a good idea. Our clients, out of respect for their teacher, will not always say so. Often, time is wasted on an idea that will not work; and if the volunteer had just slightly altered their questioning and probing skills, they would have realized this.
How do you think these same skills can be applied to their own careers?
Creative problem solving is essential in any role. The Grow Movement experience reignites these skills within the workplace. And along with the refreshing nature of assisting someone in a tangible way, the experience boosts many of our volunteers at work.
Being able to communicate across cultures and via technology helps many of our volunteers to re-evaluate how they can communicate more effectively and simply, while ensuring that have been understood. It also increases people's confidence in working with different cultures.
Can you share one of your favorite success stories?
My favorite stories are always when I see both the client and the volunteer learn and grow. Volunteering is a two-way street and is most successful when both sides benefit.
I met George Msuga, who set up his own business making a unique product that addresses a nutritional problem for young children in his village. Young children are not allowed to eat fish because of problems with choking. George makes a sauce that blends peanut and dried fish that he sells in local shops and via friends. George is just one of those people that you want to help because he inspires you. He is driven yet humble. He left his job working in an abattoir because he wanted to discover who he really was.
I met his consultant, Sean Clancy, a procurement specialist from London. He said, "Claire, this will be easy. I've been around the block a few times, nothing I haven't seen." A few months later this had turned into, "I learn from George each time I speak to him, I am learning more from him than he is from me. This is the best experience I have had in 30 years."
George is now working full time for his business and providing for his family, as well as employing others to sell his product.
Connect with Claire on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.