Five Inspiring Lessons I Learned About Life (And Business) from Teaching in Uganda #techforgood

Happy New Year! I hope everyone is off to an epic 2017! I just got back from Kampala, Uganda, where I was part of a phenomenal team that facilitated an intro to web development course to 50 underprivileged students over the New Year holiday. In my December 2016 blog post I shared details about this #TechForGood initiative.

In partnership with World Help and Mclean Bible Church, I was excited to contribute and help address the need to nurture young people in Uganda, where at least 60 percent of people under the age of 30 are jobless, with relevant skillsets. It is estimated that more than 40,000 students graduate every year from Uganda’s universities. With only about 8,000 jobs available, many graduates remain unemployed.

As I was preparing for the trip, I had a grand vision of the impact I would make and how much the students would learn from the class. Boy, was I wrong! I’m sure the students got a lot out of it – however, I am certain that I benefitted more from the 10-day trip.

Here are the top 5 inspiring lessons I learned about life (and business) from teaching in Uganda:

1. Make your own rules
It was very impressive to see how innovative and resourceful the Ugandans are as they thrive and survive in their developing economy. From the humble Boda-Boda public transportation to making what may be perceived as inedible bananas into a staple food known as matooke, necessity truly became the mother of invention. Too often, we fail to focus on the obvious and take a very academic, “best practice” approach to tackling challenges. While such tactic may be effective in familiar territory, it may not necessarily work in environments where the fundamental needs have not been met. Take Uganda’s tech and start-up scene – this vibrant industry has spawned some really exciting technologies to solve basic issues:

  • Yoza – an Uber-like app for laundry service
  • Pig+ – pig farming app that helps farmers manage their business
  • Mdex – low-cost, portable hardware and software tool for diagnosing sickle cell anemia, a serious hereditary blood disorder.

Lesson: Always keep an open mind and be ready to make your own rules.

2. Teamwork truly makes the dream work

My friend (and rock star web developer) Mike Kelly visited Uganda two years ago, and when he came back, he thought about putting together a computer training program for Destiny School to help fill the skills gap. To make that happen, he had the foresight to assemble a team that could help this vision come to fruition. As the trainers in the team, I am grateful to be a part of the initiative.

Without the support and partnership of my family, friends, and colleagues in the industry, the trip and the training we facilitated wouldn’t have been possible. On site at Destiny School, we also had tremendous help from staff and administrators, who helped ensure we could deliver the best training experience possible to the 50 students who attended.

It made me think about the value of the age-old concept of teamwork. In our personal and professional lives, we are so often dependent on one another – we learn from each other, we’re more productive together, and we each bring unique skills and perspectives to the projects we work on. From start to finish, so many people stepped up to make this initiative a reality – not the least of which were the students themselves, who came ready to learn, work together, and open their minds to new concepts.

Lesson: No matter how large or small the initiative is, never underestimate the fact that it takes a village to ensure success.

3. Never be satisfied with mediocrity
Throughout our trip, Mutebi Hassan of Access Uganda Tours and his team took good care of us. Hassan, as we called him, is the kind of guy who knows everyone, and he handled everything we needed during our stay: from daily transportation, guidance on where to buy computer equipment to restaurant recommendations and tips on where to get the best deals on souvenirs. Despite personal and professional challenges throughout the last 20 years, Hassan was determined to grow his business and focused on one thing: Never be satisfied with mediocrity – demand excellence from yourself and others.

Once you take on a project, you should be all in. For example, Hassan and his team were always 30 minutes early to pick us up and take us wherever we needed to go – he never used the area’s bad traffic nor the local norm of being late as an acceptable excuse. Hassan and his staff were a vital part of our team, and they took their roles in this initiative to develop skillsets and equip the next generation of Ugandans seriously.

The same excellence you expect of yourself should be expected from others – and you should always make sure to communicate this expectation. Hassan strictly enforces this with his team and reminds them of regularly: There are no big or small tasks – put 110% into everything you do.

Lesson: Demand excellence in everything you do.

4. Ensure sustainable and scalable adoption

Our goal for this initiative was to teach the kids “how to fish” – or how to be self-reliant as they finish school enter the vocational world. For example, one of the investments that World Help and Mclean Bible Church made in Destiny School was funding a chicken coop. This allowed the school to help generate income by selling eggs as well as provide food to the 1,600 children in attendance. It’s a concept that Bill Gates himself has endorsed.

We wanted to ensure that this visit was more than a one-time event. As soon as we left, it was important that the students continuously learn, be mentored, and begin to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios. So what did we do? We had Edward Kakooza, a sophomore student in computer science, carry on the torch. Mike met Edward two years ago in Uganda and has been mentoring him in technology since then. Edward stepped up and committed to pay it forward and continue teaching the 50 children on a weekly basis. The good news is that Edward has a lot of support! Through the generosity of the following organizations, relevant resources are being provided to the students at Destiny School:

Lesson: Sustainability and scalability is essential to achieve lasting impact

5. Always celebrate with gratitude

In the 10 days I spent with the people of Uganda, one thing that struck me is how so many of them come off as content, happy, and always thankful. Given the circumstances that they often face as a part of a developing economy, this cannot always be easy.

I was also impressed by the way Ugandans celebrate. The students we worked with celebrated both small wins and momentous occasions alike – whether it be cheering on a key concept they learned in class or the huge party we joined to celebrate the New Year. It reminded me that, while it’s easy to focus on major milestones and objectives in the projects we pursue, we have to stop and celebrate the incremental steps we take to get there. The destination is important, but the journey is too, and we have to remember to celebrate along the way.

Most of all, I was impressed by the attitude of the students we worked with. They were truly grateful for our commitment to invest, support, and mentor them, which made the experience not feel like work at all – it was a pleasure through and through.

Lesson: Celebration is much more meaningful with gratitude.

Uganda was a tremendous experience, and the perfect way to kick of 2017 – which, for me, is the year of #TechforGood. I plan on applying these lessons and taking inspiration from the infectious attitude I saw in the Ugandan people throughout the year.

Now I want to hear from you fellow Insiders. How can you apply these lessons to your life, business, and projects in the New Year? What are you doing for #TechforGood in 2017? Leave a comment or tweet at me to let me know!

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