The most defining element of our lives is culture.
It is the jet fuel that powers our dreams or the rock breaking quarry where our hopes remain chained.
Culture definition: the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
Families, nations, and organisations of all sizes have a culture. One which defines their lived experiences, shapes their destiny, setting the angle of ascent or descent into the annals of history.
Culture is a powerful force, which for better or worse, sets the tone and trajectory of our lives, often without our explicit consent.
Almost always a bequeathed phenomena, culture is an imposition on the unsuspecting. Particularly early in life, when the innocence of youth still shields us from this terrifying, exhilarating truth by one of the most singular minds of our time:
We are all born into a culture not of our choosing, and as we move through life will encounter variations on a central theme, all pegged on on how far afield we journey from the locus of our birth and upbringing.
Even within one country cultures can differ greatly, but the harmonizing effects of a national identity tends to provide common ground. For almost everyone on the planet the primordial cultural ooze of their upbringing dominates their world view.
What % of humans would you guess live outside their country of birth?
As of 2020, that number stood at a paltry 3.6% (280 million) of the global population. Essentially, everyone stays home (source GMDA).*
Hey ‘Global North’, is it really an immigration problem you are worried about or merely culture clash?
Back to the lecture at hand*Snoop voice*
The indoctrination commences at once. As soon as the hapless infant pops out of the cosy womb, feverish adult hordes descend upon the harassed soul to exhort her into the ways of their world. Sheesh! Can a child breath? I just got here.
In this way, we emerge into a particular way of life, with its specific set of constraints, expectations, and status apportioning apparatus.
Our understanding of the world begins to be shaped with the ridiculous, implicit message that our particular perspective as a people is the centre of the universe, the best version of living ever envisioned, and every other group’s way of life is off by some measure to how things ought to be. We are the ‘In group’, everyone else is the ‘They’. So weird. A hangover from our Savanna tribal trekking evolutionary path.
Children, begrudgingly accept the narrative, even as they begin to notice contradictions in the lives of the adults around them. When front doors shut, truth breaks free like the desperate gasps of a drowning man coming up for air. Upon crossing the threshold, parents drop the act to reveal what they really think and how they really feel about the outside world and their exhausting, out-of-joint role in it.
America of the 1950’s is the quintessential example. White modernity, with its promise of everlasting happy comfort delivered via the suburban nuclear family, arrived in history.
Interestingly, the next decade threw up that chokingly oppressive way of life. Clearly, humanity wasn’t ready for ‘boxed shipped’ happiness, established such as it was on the misery of others. Shout out to the boomers, they got that one right.
Still, an uncomfortably high percentage of us unquestioningly accept the beliefs and norms in which we find ourselves, taking them as ordained unchangeable realities.
“This is how things are done here”, is the reliable scythe deployed against any head that dares to bob above the compliant crowd to question the usefulness of even clearly outdated norms.
Questioning traditional beliefs is a dangerous business. History is littered with famous victims of the ruthless scythe of compliance.
Closer to home, we will know of many dreams, possibly even our own, that have been dashed at the rocks of cultural acquiescence. It is sobering to think how many great possibilities lie undiscovered in graves and unhappy beating hearts.
If this has been your personal experience, my heart goes out to you, and if perchance you are still within striking distance of a long cherished dream that perturbs the high priests of your particular cultural brand, implore you to strike out urgently in its pursuit. The world, and most importantly you, will be better for it. Go for it!
If culture is clearly so instrumental to our lives why do we study it so little? Why do we so readily accept that which is handed to us even in cases where it has clearly outlived its usefulness? Why do we leave it to artists and a few brave souls to do all the heavy lifting of shifting culture and having all the fun?
Why don’t we invest ourselves more in creating the spaces, places, and the lives we want? Why do we so readily accept beliefs and norms that are so at odds with our internal knowing? Why do we accept so much less than is possible?
The first and obvious answer is we are incapable of changing what we can’t see. We don’t know what we don’t know chiefly because the status quo is singularly invested in beating itself in, and blocking new ideas out of our heads. Indeed, this is the only way it ensures its survival.
The fundamental tension undergirding the human condition is a tug of war between the old and new. Progress, evolution, change, are friction filled endeavours. Painful, by their very nature. It is much easier to comply, accept terms as handed.
Moreover, for the better part of history the price of being different has been too high and material cost of effecting change beyond the scope of ordinary persons. Fortunately, today we don’t burn women at the stake for expressing a different view. We have retrenched to merely excoriating men on Twitter for not towing the particular woke line we espouse, which is not nearly as bad as an actual public burning with real fire. Cancel culture, the new witch hunt.
Today, more people than at any time in history can question pernicious, unhealthy beliefs and norms without pain of death. But there are still entire populations around the world for whom this is not yet true. Those of us who have some measure of ‘freedom’ owe it to them to live our best lives for the greater good.
Hurricane of Change
The good news is a recent technological invention has uprooted the twin towers across which the gates of tradition held entire populations captive.
Tower #1 Information. Tower #2 Opportunity. The Internet has gate crashed the party.
Control access to information and opportunity, control a people.
As of January 2021, 4.66B of the global population was online and growing at an annualized rate of 7.5%.
By this math, all 8B humans are projected to be online by 2028 or shortly thereafter, which means for the first time in history no one will be limited by their place of birth. Everyone will have access to information and consequently, but maybe less immediately, more opportunity. The tyranny of the local will have been shattered.
To borrow a strained analogy from computing; our brain as cpu, our beliefs as apps running on the operating system we call culture, all hosted on limiting local infrastructure will be no more. In 30 years flat, everything will have changed. Our minds will have ascended into the elastic Cloud to commingle with new, far flung ideas, firing our imaginations, drawing inspiration from individuals and learning from disparate cultures clear across the planet.
Thirty years is the period between the birth of the commercial Internet in 1990 and the pandemic of 2020. The year the Internet finally proved beyond any doubt to be the indispensable infrastructure upon which our modern world runs. Try imagining the world with out it?
When the physical world was brought to a grinding halt, the Internet stood up, taking preeminent place at the centre of our lives, and not as a second option. Even the Queen was Zooming. The last luddite line fell, and the page the world had been slowly turning over landed with a decisive THUD! Our species is now squarely in the information age.
The 4 Horsemen
The 4 horsemen, traditional guardians and propagators of culture have in the past two decades been experiencing increasing pressure on their modus operandi; Education, Media & Entertainment, Religion and Work, have all to varying degrees been feeling the irrepressible march of the Internet on their business models.
Netflix, has all but ursuped Hollywood as the center of the story telling universe, wresting control from Southern California scattering wherever great story tellers might be found on the planet. All while operating from the quaint, sleepy suburb of Los Gatos California on the edge of Silicon Valley.
Spotify has shaken up the global music industrial complex forcing old school, domineering, inflexible record companies to accept the new reality of music consumption and share more of the pie with artists. But a recent startup out of New York promises to go even further, giving more control to artists. Rooting for Steve Stoute UnitedMasters to pull it off.
Education and religion had been the final holdouts of the disruptive effects of the Internet. But when all institutions up and down the education industrial complex, including exclusive, over priced, brand name schools were forced onto the same level playing field to deliver their bespoke, one of a kind education experiences via a computer screen, the emperor’s nakedness was finally obvious to all.
A whiplash style reckoning against forever held assumptions of what learning is and how it should be delivered, which in truth had already been happening in gradual, plodding, uncertain tones happened all at once. The spell of manicured, post card style campuses as the ideal place for absorbing information was broken. Learning can happen anywhere yo!
At Impact Africa Network, we were 90 days away from launching JENGA School, a computer sciences professional training institution, which we were unquestioningly planning to deliver in a physical location until the pandemic went global in March of 2020.
For a few weeks we were stumped, unable to fathom the viability of starting a brand new school online in a culture that still very much equated learning with a physical space. But fortunately, there was no other option. Just like Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Oxford, our hand was forced online.
The pandemic has been the best thing that happened to JENGA. It forced us to launch as an online native institution, develop the practices and culture to go with this new normal while eliminating the pernicious cost of renting a physical space in Nairobi. Had we launched in a pandemic free world, JENGA may not have survived chiefly due to the cost of leasing commercial space.
Today, the school is thriving while accelerating the much needed diversity in the tech industry.
Sadhguru, the Indian mystic hit his stride during the pandemic, engaging global influencers in much needed, compelling conversations on existential topics and matters spirituality. Will Smith, Mike Tyson, Mathew McConaughy, Logan Paul, Vusi Themekwayo, Nikki Walton etc…..were all thrilled to engage the man our times so desperately need. Woe be unto your local tithe collecting pastor. Namaskaram Sadhguru.
Work aka The Office
WFH achieved global adoption both as an acronym and fact of life. Every job that could be done remotely was brought home. To the surprise of many, myself included, the Work From Home global experiment proved quite effective for productivity if not for the other elements which make us human. The meaning and purpose of offices as the places where work happens changed. We realized they served an entirely different set of ends; show of power, cultural watering holes, and enablers of the socialization needed to lubricate work life. But also, ideal venues for interruptions and office politics.
Command and control work cultures who viewed employees as lazy, untrustworthy and in need of high levels of micromanagement were yanked into the 21st century in head spinning fashion. You can just picture hapless middle managers feverishly trying to find ways to keep tabs on their charges, completely at sea away from the place that gave them power and control. Clearly, a company culture that has outlived its usefulness.
Fascinating how this sudden paradigm shift comes at a time when the great digital migration is fully upon us. Today, all businesses are technology businesses, some just don’t know it yet, and as such, are sitting ducks for new entrants into their domain.
In Africa particularly, legacy institutions and corporations have ruled the roost for decades, enjoying near monopoly power without the fear of disruption. Entrenched in ‘fat and happy’ status quo invested cultures that couldn’t be bothered to innovate, are utterly unprepared for what is coming.
We are just now entering a vortex of innovation in Africa’s burgeoning startup scene led by bold, intrepid young founders that will see many of the legacy incumbents completely disappeared, or at best, a fraction of their size by decades end. Most will be utterly incapable of making the painful changes needed to survive. Their culture will be their demise.
We can surmise that the times in which we find ourselves have no equal in human history from an individual agency perspective.
We live in a time when individuals out compete governments with their personal ambitions and resources. The space race of 2021 is between 3 billionaire entrepreneurs who a mere two decades ago were nobodies, as common as your regular white male neighbour.
Elon, Bezos, and Branson are today’s NASA, a feat made possible by the patently obvious fact that tech entrepreneurs are the emperors of our day.
Clearly, the times call for different ideas, customs, and social behaviour. The exciting thing is that individuals today have the agency needed to define or join the culture they want. One that suites their view of the world, how they want to exist in it and what they want to manifest on it.
We are no longer victims of long, out dated traditions. We have the freedom to pick and choose what works best and do away with what doesn’t. We can now create cultural oases of our choosing even in harsh deserts.
Such intentional acts of culture creation are a major part of what have allowed the aforementioned billionaire entrepreneurs outpace many countries in wealth creation.
Tesla and Amazon are enterprises established on singular cultures that have enabled them deliver exceptional results in the face of stiff competition including from established incumbents.
How is it that these two were able to transcend the competition when all had the same information and opportunity? Their organizations ideas, customs, and social behaviour, ergo their culture, was better suited for the game they were all playing.
There are numerous examples of similar ‘cause and effect’ outcomes across the business landscape. ‘Good To Great’ by Jim Collins is a seminal work on how corporate culture repeatedly made all the difference in head to head competition between companies.
My favourite book on culture is “What You Do Is Who You Are” by the incomparable Ben Horowitz, who happens to be one of my heroes. A timeless classic that is a corner stone of our reading program at Impact Africa Network. Highly recommended.
One more example. In an unprecedented move at the time, Netflix famously published their culture deck online very early in their journey (2009), the contents of which they ascribe all their success. Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO had learned a great deal from a previous venture and took those lessons to define the culture he wanted to establish at his new venture.
At Impact Africa Network we have made culture the corner stone upon which we are building our big hairy audacious goal we call 10:10:10.
A vision so daunting that we will need to establish the most antifragile of cultures to achieve. One which we will continue to tweak, update, and improve all the way. The purpose of this article is to share our culture deck with you.
And Then What?
What happens after 10 10 10?
Our true, most heartfelt vision is for societal transformation. If we will have only managed to create wealthy individuals who proceed to only pursue their personal, exclusive interests we will have failed. Africa desperately needs leaders animated by the more inclusive, big picture matters of transforming our communities into places where people want to live, not leave.
What we are really working on through our Innovation Fellowship and venture building program is developing a network of financially emancipated, influential business leaders who after achieving success will then go on to shape our society for the better. See Paypal Mafia.
Changing the African narrative is our mantra and in practice it starts by the changing individual mindsets and building great enterprises then using that as a platform for impact. This stands in stark contrast to the prevailing narrative that to make it big in Africa one must be connected, corrupt, or foreign.
In 1993, Wu Tang Clan exploded on the cultural landscape with the timeless classic C.R.E.A.M. That Cash Rules Everything Around Me is a fact no one can argue against, which is why we are first working on the economic engine that will enable everything else.
Poetically and appropriately, the acronym also works for another truth; Culture Rules Everything Around Me, which is why at Impact Africa Network we work as hard and as intentionally on our culture as we do everything else.
Our culture is the jet fuel powering us into the irresistible future.
Onwards and upwards.
Founder & CEO Impact Africa Network