“What an amazing, incredible, wonderful day!”
That’s the email I received from Jenni Doherty, Co-Founder of Daraja Academy. I felt like I had just pleased an important client.
We had just concluded the inaugural Daraja Business Forum. Each of the 20 girls in the Transition Program had stood before a three-person business panel (plus 40-50 staff members, volunteers, and students) and presented their business idea.
The girls were understandably nervous. Frankly, I don’t think they were all that thrilled to take on this mountain of a challenge on the cusp of graduation. They had already put in almost five years of hard work at Daraja Academy. This presentation was the one thing that stood between them and their pre-graduation class retreat.
Adding the writing and presenting of a business plan to the Transition Program curriculum was Jenni’s big idea. She wanted each girl to have the experience of applying classroom learning to the real world.
I’m honored that Jenni trusted me to carry out her vision.
My coaching sessions with the girls started two weeks prior. Job one was to get each of the girls to commit to a business idea and name. On the side of our whiteboard at the front of our classroom, I listed each of the girls’ names and had them right down their business idea. Having shared their idea publicly, the girls were now committed.
Our first five afternoon working sessions correlated to the five main sections of the business plan– Business Overview, Marketing, Administration, Operations/Service, and Financials. The first few days were challenging. The girls were hesitant to put pen to paper and were falling behind. I would get the same questions repeatedly.
“What do they mean by the justification for the business?” was a common question.
“Describe why the business should exist” was my standard answer. It was often received with a blank stare. They were waiting for me to tell them their answer, not further explain the question.
I sought to bring concepts alive through examples. I referred to a sample org chart to help them think through organizational structure and the number/types of employees. But in my one-on-one conversations, I started to see that each girl was using that exact example for her own business. A cashier was listed whether the business was a book store or a computer school; cleaners and watchmen were reporting to accountants in the org chart hierarchy.
These were the times where I needed to pause and think–exactly how does a teacher encourage creativity while also providing examples and structure? It was a line I straddled every day. The regimented Kenyan educational system focused on answers. The American system I was schooled in focused on thought process. The girls and I were trying to understand the perspective of the other.
Responding to resource limitations, I made numerous adjustments to the girls’ final deliverable over the course of the two weeks. Access to Daraja’s computer room was limited; when internet access was available, the service was so slow that it made online research impossible. Instead, we added an afternoon of “field trips,” whereby my partners Carol and Rashida suggested businesses for each girl to visit to assess competition, demand, and industry dynamics. It proved invaluable.
As I sensed that the girls’ typing skills were not overly strong, I feared precious time might be wasted producing a Word or Powerpoint document, not on thinking through the business plan itself. Simplification was in order, so I whipped together a basic three page template–Introduction, Business Summary, Financial Summary– and listed the handful of required items for each section. Each girl would handwrite her three page summary. It would serve as the script for her presentation, and would be seen by her eyes only.
It comforted each girl to know that on presentation day she would be the only person in the room with “the answers.” I reminded them daily that she would be the leading expert in the room on her subject.
With two days left before the Forum, we were running out of time and needed to transition from writing to rehearsing. There was angst amongst the girls; they didn’t feel ready to present. So I made a promise prior to our breaking for lunch–I would write out my own business plan, and after lunch would deliver it in a 10 minute presentation.
My business was Dorman’s Cafe. Dorman’s is an actual coffee house in town that I’d visited twice. It caters to foreigners–think of it as the Starbucks of Nanyuki. I made up the story of its founding (that I named it after my late coffee-drinking grandfather), outlined its product, services, and business objectives, and made up a bunch of numbers to estimate costs, revenues, and a projected break-even.
After lunch, I stood up in front of the girls and told them how utterly unprepared I felt for my presentation. Then I projected as much confidence as possible and delivered a timed 10 minute presentation of my just-created business plan.
Relief replaced angst on the girls’ faces. They could now see what they needed to do. That afternoon was one of our most productive working sessions.
And for the next day and a half, we rehearsed– in small groups, and in larger groups. I explained that the business panel would look for three things from each presenter:
– Why she chose/named the business and how it connects to her personally
– A detailed justification of why the business should exist
– An explanation of how she arrived at key financial numbers
We did a dress rehearsal. Each girl practiced her entrance and her presentation introduction. I gave them a final challenge– deliver this intro without notes. I wanted them to feel twice as confident tomorrow, delivering the full presentation with notes in hand.
On the morning of the Daraja Business Forum, the girls were all smiles– half nervousness, half thrilled that they were about to have this mountain behind them.
Gitwa kicked off the day, overviewing a chicken rearing business so compelling that I wanted to write a check. From other entrepreneurs, we heard about plans for a posho mill, rabbit rearing, trout farming, and a pudding (juice smoothie) cafe. Shamsia explained that her plan for a gym related to her struggles with her own weight. Florence’s baby care center was inspired by her being the youngest of eight children–“I never had anyone to play with!”
There was five minutes of Q&A following each presentation. The panel asked clarifying questions, and suggested additional opportunities/risks for the entrepreneur’s consideration. It felt similar to the friendly American Idol-style post-performance exchange with the judges.
And with the final presentation, the Forum was over. The girls exploded in smiles, hugs, and laughter–I was grateful to be in the midst of it all. The girls were rightfully proud of themselves. They had climbed a mountain. While I was the person that made them do it, they now saw me as the person who got them to feel this enormous pride.
Pride was exactly what they should be feeling.
Never underestimate the grit of a Daraja girl.
* Photo taken immediately after the Daraja Business Forum. From left, Daraja Transition Program Head Carol Wanjiku, guest panelists Faith and Sammy, Daraja Transition girls (in uniform), Rashida Kinya from Karatina University, volunteer Jodi Morris, panelist and Daraja Academy Co-Founder Jenni Doherty.