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06 Jul Venturing (Way) South of the Border: Lessons Learned from South Africa

(By Mike Raftery)

Sometimes it helps to get out of town to get some perspective.  Recently I got way, way out of town and accepted an invite to speak at a supply chain conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.  It was an amazing opportunity to get some perspective on life, culture, and business halfway around the world.

First impressions: it’s fall here, and it’s May.  I wonder if I will notice the toilets running backwards.  This looks a lot like Denver.  I need a shower.  People are smiling a lot.  One person just asked me for directions, I must look like a local. I’m wearing a baseball hat; I definitely don’t look like a local.

After a shower, power nap and a snack I was ready for the conference.  I walked around the show floor and noticed that everyone seemed to know each other.  It was more like a project, or a company party than a conference.  This was a common theme throughout the week, the friendliness and camaraderie among the community is not something I’ve ever experienced at any event in the U.S.  In fact, I asked if this group gets together quite a bit, and the organizers told me it was their first conference hosted as a combined group.  It seemed like everyone knew each other for years.

The second thing I noticed was that the industries represented were heavily mining and resources.  Again, something I don’t see much in the states.  It’s something else I saw while touring the country afterwards.  It seemed that natural resources played a huge part of the business community and we saw its influence when touring the country in the days to follow.

Another moment that took me by surprise was a line of questioning during a panel discussion around what us “internationals” had as impressions and advice to the South African companies in attendance.  I was taken aback by this question.  Rarely, in the U.S., do we come up for air, look around and ask what we can learn from others.  But that exercise is an invaluable one and one that we could all stand to do more often.

It’s incredibly cliché, but sometimes you need to explore out of your comfort zone to understand that for as different as the world is, we’re all pretty much the same.  It’s a small world, and building bridges to new connections is more than just making friends.  Using a different lens to get an international perspective on the business world can be as eye opening as traveling abroad as a tourist.  Ok, enough cliché’s and mixed metaphors.  Just go expand your horizons.  You’ll be amazed what you find.

A very special thanks to my friends in the Eventful group.  Especially Andrea Erasmus and Gadeejah Jacobs for making me feel so incredibly welcome in their incredible country.  Also, a quick thanks to my new friends Tim, Joe and Peter for their hospitality, making me feel like an old friend right away.

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