How to Be Comfortable With Uncertainty and Spontaneous Changes

It’s true that time flies when you’re having fun. Within the blink of an eye, I spent six weeks in Nairobi, Kenya, working at ALX, an education and talent development platform. I first came across this opportunity from an INSEAD classmate, Sue Xu, who like me, is keen on exploring a career in social impact. She had previously spoken to Victoria Peil, the head of ALX, and who happens to be the elder sister of another classmate, Christina. Sue then put me in touch with Victoria, and not long after, I was having a video interview with her.

I was really keen to intern for ALX because of several key reasons.

Firstly, education and human capital development have always been an issue close to my heart. Coming from a low-income family in Singapore, I was able to enrol and graduate from Singapore Management University (SMU), one of the top universities in Singapore, only because I had access to high quality, affordable public education. Because of the skills, knowledge and network that I gained in SMU, I was then able to apply for and get offered a Product Management role at Partners Group, one of the biggest private equity firms globally.

I’m a living example of the transformative power that education and talent development has on uplifting one’s social and economic status, and I want to be a part of that.

Secondly, the role was a highly exciting one that entails helping ALX expand into the Lagos market and also to define and outline strategic priorities that the company should focus on in the next five years. This was thus a great opportunity for me to apply the frameworks that I’ve learnt from Introduction to Strategy in Period 1.

Thirdly, to someone who has worked in a Swiss private equity firm for most of his career, a chance to work at an African start-up was both thrilling and refreshing.

After the video call with Victoria, I was even more convinced that working at ALX would be one of the best, if not the best, way to spend my summer. Victoria had told me that as a Strategic Initiative intern, I’d get plenty of opportunities to work with and learn from the founders, and also to work on a variety of management-decision projects.

In addition, as this is the first time they’re hiring interns, I’d have the flexibility and autonomy to define the work scope and to set up a process and system that future interns could make reference to. Fast forward two weeks, I received an email offer from ALX and was put on a 13-hour flight to Nairobi!

When I arrived at my apartment in Nairobi (provided by ALX), I was heartened to learn that there were four other INSEAD classmates who had already started their internship with ALX and thus living with me, as well as about 12 other classmates who were interning at other Kenyan start-ups. They had also organised a welcome dinner to “initiate” me and most importantly, introduced me to Kenya’s most popular local beer, Tusker!

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The following day, I reported to work for the first time, and immediately felt welcomed and appreciated: Fred Swaniker, the founder, and Victoria, the head of ALX, had arranged for me to meet with the heads of the product, business development, and partnership teams, to learn and familiarise myself with ALX’s products, clients and the operations in each of ALX’s markets.

Fred and Victoria then sat down with the intern group to brief us on the strategic projects that they have in mind for us to work on. Based on my experience and preference, I was assigned to create an investor pitch book to help ALX raise funds from a convertible note issuance sometime in October this year. Given the limited amount of time I had with ALX, I thought I could contribute the most meaningfully and effectively to this project, given my background in Product Management and Investor Relations.

I couldn’t be more wrong! As it turned out, raising funds for a young Kenyan start-up is very different and much more challenging than for an established private equity firm. The storyline featured in the pitch book has to be compelling and promising to persuade investors to contribute capital to such a high-risk venture. I thus spent many late nights brainstorming with my co-interns on how to best storyboard our investment proposition, and also browsing the fundraising slides of successful start-ups on SlideShare. To ensure that the pitch book included all the key features of the business, I spoke to every team head and senior stakeholder of ALX to get their feedback and input.

Finally after five weeks and 10 draft versions, I’m proud to say that we created a pitch book that was deemed outstanding and ready to be used for fundraising roadshows by the founder himself!

Fred then sent out an email congratulating and thanking us for the hard work the team has put in, with the following photo attached:

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Another highlight of my internship with ALX was when I had to present my proposal for the five-year strategy of ALX in front of the whole firm. I had worked consecutively for three nights past midnight to fully understand our company’s business model, identify key needs of the talent development market in Africa and forecast the growth potential ALX could attain. This exercise served as good preparation work for one of my future career options of a management consultant, in which I’d have to convince clients of my recommendation from an outsider perspective.

My six weeks in Nairobi with ALX then culminated in the biggest highlight of my internship, a fireside chat with the widow of the late Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel.

Graça shared with us the inspiration and motivation behind her humanitarian work at the United Nations and The Elders. One of the biggest lessons I took away from that discussion is to always stand up and put in the hard work for the values you strongly believe in.

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Looking back, the six weeks spent in Nairobi at ALX taught me many valuable lessons that I think could be applied to other aspects of my life.

I learnt to be comfortable with uncertainty and to spontaneous changes in the direction and scope of my work responsibilities.

In the process of building the pitch book, there were many new suggestions and improvement ideas from the founder and the firm’s stakeholders. I had to learn to sieve through these inputs and decide what are useful and relevant to incorporate into my work. I also found it very challenging to gain the trust of my colleagues, and to convince them to be on-board with the strategic projects that I was working on.

However, after witnessing the hard work that I had put in and realising that these projects would bring about future benefits for the company, they had my back and provided full support. I also learnt that to achieve the scale and impact of our outreach, it is important that the business is cash-flow generating. There shouldn’t be a dirty or shameful connotation to profitability for social impact work.

Outside of work and on the weekends, I had the chance to visit Kenya’s safaris and go on a few game drives. The most memorable one was at Maasai Mara, East Africa’s biggest wildlife park, where the Great Wildebeest Migration was taking place. We also got to visit a Maasai village, where we experienced the local culture and way of life.

All in all, I want to thank the INSEAD alumni who have contributed to the Social Impact Fund and made all of these life-changing experiences and learning lessons possible for me. I’m extremely grateful for the support received and will contribute to the Fund after graduation so that future INSEAD students can stand to benefit as I did.