The beginning of a journey… or not

Random stock photo which seemed appropriate (I’ll update this and future posts with more relevant – read: my own – photos)

I was told when I first accepted a role in Ethiopia that working in the country would require patience and flexibility. Little did I know, my first test of patience would come before I even stepped foot in the country.

When I left Notre Dame with my undergraduate degree in Finance and American Studies, I faced a divergent path. Knowing that I didn’t want to follow the more conventional finance routes through I-banking or corporate finance, I ultimately made the decision between traditional consulting positions or roles in social impact organizations. Coming off an internship in microfinance and social entrepreneurship in Ecuador I had an itch to find ways to apply my degree to make a positive impact in the world. After much thought and consideration, I chose to accept a job in a more traditional consulting firm knowing that the skills I’d develop would be valuable for social impact careers down the road and the relationships I’d form would be helpful regardless of the direction I took my career.

Working at Stax the last 4.5 years was a tremendous learning experience, both personally and professionally. The job, supporting private equity firms in pre-acquisition diligence and helping corporate clients with revenue growth strategy, allowed me to apply my business education in a very tangible way. The demanding clients and short timelines certainly did not make the job easy, but being able to meet client expectations within time constrained environment did make completing projects particularly rewarding. Within this environment, I developed an understanding of the analytical rigor necessary to running a business and making critical investment decisions while appreciating the attention to detail needed as a consultant to support that.

The projects at Stax represented an engaging challenge to quickly become subject matter experts in reasonably niche industries (convenience store cheese dispensers, man-made diamonds, or ERP software for lumberyards). The pace of the work provided an opportunity to see a wide variety of industries, business models, and growth strategies. This combination of challenge, quick learning, and variety fed my intellectual curiosity in a way that kept me in consulting for much longer than I ever really anticipated.

At a small consulting firm that executes projects with thin and nimble teams, I was provided a level of responsibility and exposure much more quickly at Stax than I would have received elsewhere. My strong performance on early projects helped build trust among organizational leadership and afforded me with ever-expanding responsibilities in project work and internal firm initiatives. The result was 4 promotions in as many years, ultimately becoming the youngest manager in Stax history.

Yet despite all of this growth and success, I felt terribly unfulfilled with the work. Looking at the value I provided and the people who benefited most from my work became frustrating. I had a hard time reconciling my work with my ambitions and quickly realized that I was not having the impact that I wanted to have in the world. At the end of a long day, it was hard to justify the amount of stress, effort, and time that went into my work. This took an emotional and physical toll on me. I soon felt burnt out.

Any efforts to seek fulfillment outside of the office felt futile. Despite engaging in pro-bono work with non-profits on the side, building out my own microloan portfolio, and joining mission-driven professional organizations, I couldn’t cure the itch I had when I left undergrad. I began seeking ways to do any sort of impact work within Stax while considering opportunities outside of Stax. Ultimately, I lined up a short-term contract in impact investing followed by a 4-month role in Ethiopia. Leaving my first job, my job of nearly 5 years, and the first city I lived in after college was difficult, but it was the right thing to do.

Now comes the patience and flexibility. I knew switching jobs and moving to a developing country would pose challenges. There was a lot more administrative tasks and planning than I anticipated. Finding a new health insurance plan, rolling over a 401k, signing numerous forms for the new role, completing required health and safety training. Selling, donating or packing my belongings, arranging for a storage unit, cancelling gym membership, forwarding mail, updating my address, getting travel vaccines, booking flights. Applying for a visa. Throughout this process, I had to remind myself of the excitement I felt for the new adventures I am about to embark on and the positive career pivot I am about to take.

With three days to go before my departure, when my packing was near-complete and most final good-byes had been said, I woke up to a surprising email from my new organization in Ethiopia. I’d been approved for a short-term visa when the program really should have applied for a long-term visa on my behalf. I would need to cancel my flight and wait for immigration to approve my visa in Ethiopia before applying through the Ethiopian consulate in DC. It would be at least another week before I could depart for Ethiopia. Recognizing my initial frustration and disappointment with the news reminded me to heed the advice I’d learned about patience and flexibility. It also made me realize that my response to surprise can easily be changed with a small dose of perspective.

I’d signed up for the role in Ethiopia and arranged the dates so that I could maximize my time in the country and fully take advantage of the unique opportunity that presented itself. This meant that I had a very short turnaround between the end of my contract work in Chicago and my flight to Addis, with an equally short turnaround before I jump back into work in the States upon return. I’d felt rushed to tie up all the loose ends and logistics of moving ahead of my scheduled departure date. I choose to look at my delay as a blessing in disguise.

My tendency has always been to do more. Pack my schedule. Multi-task when possible. Listen to podcasts and audiobooks at 1.5x speed. My work at Stax reinforced this mentality. Long hours meant I had to maximize my free time and short-term projects meant it was always “on-to-the-next” with little time to reflect or even breathe. My delayed departure for Ethiopia was a clear reminder that it is okay to do the opposite; to slow down, to enjoy the moment, and to reflect. I set aside the stress of tying loose ends to enjoy a responsibility-free weekend, enjoying rare Chicago spring days and socializing with the many friends who have been so instrumental in my 5-year stint in Chicago.

The past few days, with packing near-complete and Ethiopia plans near-finalized, are the first days since starting my adult life that I’ve had near-zero responsibility. Time to reflect on what’s important. Time to be in the moment. Time to enjoy the city I’ve called home. Time to savor with friends.

Sure, it’s a weird feeling to not be in Ethiopia after building it up in my mind and mentally preparing to leave. Sure, there are moments when I wish I were in Addis already. And it’s sure tough to live with the uncertainty of when I’ll ever leave. But I choose to look at it as a blessing, a reminder that it’s okay to slow down, and the first of many lessons in patience and flexibility that I’ll have on this journey.

Update #1 (Friday May 10th): After 4 business days of waiting (Monday was a national holiday in Ethiopia), I learned that the “system went down” for Immigration Services in Ethiopia and they are waiting for it to come back.

Update #2 (Monday May 13th): I finally received visa approval from Immigration Services BUT… before shipping my passport off to the Embassy in DC, I noticed that my approval was for the wrong Ben Cooper (Benjamin P. Cooper, not Benjamin J. Cooper) with a different passport number. Back to square one. Re-applying on Tuesday.

Update #3 (Wednesday May 15th): I received visa approval from Ethiopian Immigration and have now overnighted my passport to the Embassy in DC for final processing. One step closer, but still a few days out.

Additional Reflections on the visa process: The more time I’ve had to think about my visa issues, the more I’ve recognized the privilege of my situation. I have greater understanding for people who have to go through bureaucratic challenges of living in a developing country. I’ve also gained much more respect and sympathy for individuals globally who have been displaced and live or work in a foreign country. Dealing with visa uncertainty for a short-term trip has been challenging and I can’t imagine living with constant concern about visa/citizenship insecurities as so many do globally. Recognizing that the frustrations I’ve felt during my “nice-to-have” experience pale in comparison of many forced to live out these challenges on a daily basis is a true reminder of the privilege I have to take this opportunity in the first place.

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