“It’s been two years… this is your reminder.” My mother’s voice echoed on the speakerphone of my Blackberry. For the last couple of years, I had been living the life of a management consultant, advising Fortune 500 Executives on super interesting strategic issues from growth and innovation to downsizing & cost-cutting initiatives. I worked long hours, typically 60-70 hours a week, but took comfort in my downtown apartment with a view of the CN Tower, weekly dinners at some of Toronto’s top restaurants, and the absurd amount of money I was making as a recent undergraduate. For months at a time, I travelled around the country from Monday – Thursday, mastered the art of packing a single carry-on, getting to the airport at the last possible minute, and came to know which hotels had the best room service. I enjoyed my job and saw upward potential, but I had become complacent. I wasn’t being true to what I wanted to achieve in my life. But this call shook me out of my comfort zone - it was a much-needed wake-up call for my soul. The seed had been planted.
I remember the day I was recruited. I was just beginning the final year of my undergraduate degree at the Schulich School of Business where I had been studying as a Loran Scholar. Over the previous three years, I had been supported financially to get my undergraduate degree, but more importantly I was encouraged to challenge myself personally and professionally to get outside of my comfort zone and take meaningful risks. As part of my Loran summers, I had done internships with non-profit civil society organizations, technology start-ups, and even travelled to the other side of the globe to learn about the burgeoning micro-finance industry on a small island in the South Pacific. I met regularly with mentors, one who was a top finance executive and one of Canada's leading social entrepreneurs. With this eclectic set of experiences under my belt, I knew I had the potential, and a responsibility to reach higher. But now that school was coming to an end, and the pressure of recruiting season descended on campus, I got swept up in the race.
Dozens of applications and informational interviews later, I had been called in for a second-round interview with one of the world’s leading management consulting firms. I put on the best suit and tie I owned, jumped on the TTC, and headed to their office downtown. I had practiced case interviews for months, and kept practicing right up until the moment I got off the elevator on the 24th floor. I popped a tic-tac and walked into the office of the Managing Partner – my final interview and the ‘make-or-break’ moment. But instead of diving into a case study he offered me a coffee and casually asked me about myself. He noted from the internships and volunteering on my resume that I had done a lot of social impact work, so I jumped on the opportunity to impress him with how much I had learned, and how much passion I had for international development. “That’s great,” he said, “and we have a lot of incredible opportunities for doing social impact work here that you will love. But, as I’m sure you know, much of the time our job is about making rich people richer.” The words landed like a tonne of bricks.
Did I know that? Of course I knew that, how could I not? But still, I had never internalized it. I had been caught up in the campus recruiting craze, and the amazing group of diverse people I had met in this swanky downtown office with a complimentary M&M machine. A few days later, I got the offer call and shortly thereafter, I accepted. I justified my decision to mentors and friends by talking about how much I would learn, how I could travel the globe, and how this job could give me the credibility and financial security to pursue my dreams in the future.
But I was following the practical, predictable route – go to business school, get a good job, move downtown, and as they say, the rest is history.
Many people are cut out to be consultants for the rest of their lives, but not me. As a first-generation Canadian, I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather about his struggles to survive in Pakistan, working odd-jobs and starting small businesses to support his family. I’ve always wondered why the best brains end up in fields like consulting and investment banking instead of working on solving the world’s most intractable social issues. To ensure I wouldn’t lose my sense of purpose, I put in place one crucial safe-guard: I called my mom the same day to tell her the good news, but also made her promise to remind me that if I was still doing this work after two years that I had become too comfortable and wasn’t challenging myself enough. She obliged.
A few months after my reminder call, I got a call from a friend who was working in Kenya with the Aga Khan Development Network. She was stuck in Nairobi’s infamous traffic, and between sobs she told me about a traumatic experience she had just had. On a chance field visit to an informal settlement (slum) outside of the city, she had encountered what the community called a ‘babycare’ – an informal, unlicensed, daycare centre. The environment was dark, dingy, and smoke from a charcoal cookstove filled the room. The smell made it clear that there were no sanitation facilities, and the coughing of the children suggested there was a clear risk for disease transmission. She explained, “this is the best childcare option for working mothers living in these slums as they don’t have extended family, and can’t take their children with them to the factories, homes, or cities where they work. And they pay for this baby parking lot, between 30 cents – 1 dollar per day…” and that’s when it clicked. “Wait, they pay?” We brainstormed that there was an existing market here and an opportunity to support the development of these young children, if we could just figure out how to provide better quality care at roughly the same price parents were already paying. We soon learned that this was a widespread issue with over 3,000 informal daycares in Nairobi alone, and an additional tens of thousands of young children who were being left home alone or with older siblings who had been pulled out of school. It was a childcare crisis.
This was the day I decided to take my own leap of faith – where the rubber hit the road and I had to put into practice my claim that I would apply the credibility, financial security, and lessons learned in consulting to this massive social problem. When I started to mention the idea to my colleagues, friends and family, I got mixed reactions. Some were excited and encouraging, while others were concerned that maybe I was being a bit too idealistic and should keep the option open to come back to consulting when (not if) things didn’t work out. But I had to follow my gut. Soon after I left my job and booked a ticket to Nairobi to start Kidogo with my friend, and now my wife, Sabrina.
Kidogo means “small” in Swahili and we decided on the name after hearing the African proverb “chanzo cha makubwa ni kidogo” which means “all great things start small.” We’ve spent the last five years building Nairobi’s leading childcare social enterprise that today supports nearly 50 childcare centres in the informal settlements with training, coaching, and resources to improve quality and marketing support to help them grow their micro-businesses. We complement this work with three Early Childhood Hubs that operate as Centres of Excellence and training centres. We give mothers “peace of mind” at work while ensuring their young children get the best start to life, so that they may break out of the inter-generational cycle of poverty.
Our network is helping to unlock the potential of over 1,500 young children everyday...and we’re just getting started! Over the next 5 years, we will continue to grow the organization exponentially using our innovative social-franchising model and lead the way through advocacy efforts to drive new funding, policies and international actors like the World Bank and IFC to address the childcare crisis.
But all this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the three big conversations that led me to this spot. Taking #RisksforGood does take courage and a supportive network, but the onus is on each one of us to keep our eyes open to the opportunities (or challenges) around us that are calling out. For now, I’m again keeping my ear to the ground waiting for the next big conversation to shake me out of my comfort zone… are you?