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Why Conferences like WABF are Crucial for Our Generation

I should probably start off by admitting that this was my very first African conference. I have never before attended the Wharton African Business Forum (WABF), the Harvard Business School’s African Business Conference, or any

I should probably start off by admitting that this was my very first African conference. I have never before attended the Wharton African Business Forum (WABF), the Harvard Business School’s African Business Conference, or any such convening. So as a newbie, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or what I would get out of the 24th annual WABF. I guess I imagined what most would: that attendees would gain access to speakers from top firms and hobnob with other highly ambitious and traditionally successful young minds – something that isn’t particularly valuable to most, outside of the conventional business(wo)man. This image wasn’t necessarily wrong.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the kind of impact a conference like this could have on intellectually curious individuals looking for guidance and inspiration (aka most diaspora millennials…including myself). If there was one thing I walked away with from WABF24, it was a question posed by Acha Leke, Senior Partner at McKinsey and Co-Founder of the African Leadership Network, that, in my opinion, should be something we all ask ourselves every morning: “Would it matter to Africa that I lived?”

 

WABF24 #2

 

Millennials, especially those in the diaspora, are, by nature, re-designing who we’re supposed to be, re-imagining the future that has been imagined for us, and searching for inspiration anywhere we can find it. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of these conferences do aim to inspire, but what was most impressive about WABF24 was the thought-provoking ideas and conversations that challenged the way we view ourselves, our roles on the African continent, and even our relationship with the continent.

 

Sparked by the sometimes-conflicting views of panelists, these conversations ranged from being fraught with tension to subtly planting seeds that questioned our deep-rooted views. Just over lunch, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, co-founder of Andela and Flutterwave, told us we needed to “focus on building something, not work towards getting a cushiony MBA and working for someone else,” thus challenging the backgrounds of some of his highly esteemed fellow panelists and even the institution that invited him to speak.

 

WABF24 #3

 

Aboyeji urged us to buy a one-way ticket to Africa, burn our bridges, and stop being “that guy who keeps saying ‘I’m going to go back [to Africa]’ but still has his [comfortable] job at Bank of America.” While people in the audience grumbled and some laughed, I realized we need to hear statements like this. We’ve spent the better half of the last decade questioning and challenging external ideas of how Africa will progress and how we can lead her there – or maybe even how we can get a piece of that pie. However, we haven’t spent enough time questioning our tactics and ourselves. What am I looking for? Am I providing a solution or looking for an opportunity… and can I do both? How much am I willing to leave behind? And again, would it matter to Africa that I lived?

 

Kwame Odame, a Ghanaian-born computer science major from Missouri, was one of these young diaspora millennials who benefited from the conference’s dynamic discussions. He was at first taken aback by the audacity of Aboyeji’s statement but soon found himself contemplating the value of taking the path less traveled. “Investing $200,000 in getting an MBA from one of the top business schools, I must admit, is something I want to do. But [Aboyeji is] right in the sense that the same money, can be used to invest in your own company, and even if it fails, you’ll understand that you spent $200,000 to learn how to fail.” This is a lesson Aboyeji believes is crucial to learn as an entrepreneur, because with or without an MBA, failure is an inevitable part of building a successful enterprise.

 

WABF24 #4

 

Throughout the conference, from sessions on adapting product designs for the African market to the growing media industry on the continent and how to tap into it, attendees were pushed to look beyond what we thought we knew. WABF24 had the right idea to convene intellectually provocative speakers and nurture a dissonance of views – this is the only way we will grow as a community and pave a new way to success. While I continue to ponder the question that resonated with me, I know that it has already started to plant a seed in my perspective. So I hope that other African conferences begin to take heed that this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed generation is ready to be a part of something bold, and that we need to continue being dared to break the mold.

 

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