Arc Initiative – Ethiopia

Travel Dates: May 29 – June 15, 2015

I’ve been extremely blessed to have been able to work with the Arc Initiative again this summer. Context: the Arc Initiative is a non-profit organization run out of my university, UBC, that delivers business skills workshops to entrepreneurs in emerging economies. University students, faculty, and alumni mentors are selected to plan & execute a business skills conference which teaches business tools to entrepreneurs who currently have their own businesses, or who are serious about starting a new business. The Arc operates in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Colombia, Peru, and Cambodia.

My involvement with Arc initially started two years ago when I travelled to Ethiopia as a student intern. I was initially intrigued by the program because it was a way to implement the business knowledge I had learned in school and apply it to real-life situations in unique international contexts. I learned about how business can truly be a means to improve developing economies, and I was finally seeing that my business degree can have a positive impact and defy the poor stereotypes of unethical, selfish, and harmful business practices. I also learned so much about myself and my teammates, whom I still keep in contact with regularly.

Upon returning from that trip, I continued to work for Arc, building the organization’s brand and overseeing all of its marketing activities, from social media to event planning. This year, I was requested to come back as a Team Lead, which consisted of overseeing trip logistics for more than 20 students over three travelling teams. While I worked for Arc, I was simultaneously working my second Co-op term; I would spend a few lunch hours per week working on Arc, and I often spent evenings catching up on anything I’d missed during working hours. Leading up to departure, I ran meetings with my teams and stayed on top of all the logistical details that came with coordinating dozens of students’ arrival and departure schedules, accommodation, visas, conference tasks, and more. Although it was tough to balance two jobs, I felt like my days were filled with purpose as I dedicated myself to these teams of students and alumni.

Impressions and Observations of Ethiopia

Fast forward to finally landing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after a long journey: the nostalgia immediately came rushing back to me upon touchdown. Seeing the airport, the stuffy scent of gasoline, feeling the unexpected cold wind… it reminded me of when I came to Addis two years ago with the 2013 Arc Initiative Ethiopia team.

When I finally got out of the terminal, I found my three teammates who had landed earlier and Amy, the manager of our guesthouse. It was so nice to see familiar faces after such a long flight. Cherokee House, the guest house we were staying at, had moved since two years ago. It had mostly the same furniture as the last house, and all the same workers. It was now just a 5 minute drive to Bole International Airport, making it a bit out of the way of more populated areas such as the Merkato. Nonetheless, the Bole area is quite nice, with huge unfinished mansions in our neighbourhood and a “higher end” shopping mall just down the street.

The familiarity of the city came rushing back to me for my second time in Addis. The sight of masses of people in the streets, the smells of berbere spices, the feeling of being a “celebrity” while walking around. What I mean by that last point is that seeing a Chinese girl with a blonde streak in a group of nine other foreigners definitely turns heads in a city like Addis. People often stare and call out, “China!”, and not only at the Chinese people. In Ethiopia, foreigners used to be called “forenjis”. But these days, with so much investment in infrastructure especially from the Chinese, people in Addis just associate any foreigners with the word “China”. Even a Caucasian person is “China”.

Our first meal as a full team!

Our first meal as a full team!

Speaking of foreign investment, the development in Addis is just booming. An above-ground skytrain has gone from just laying the foundation to being almost fully operational just two years later. In Vancouver, we built a similar metro line, but it took at least double the time to be built. That North American bureaucracy!


Ethiopian LRT

Driving through Addis, I also noticed more commercial spaces being built and less goats/donkeys in the streets as a result of the construction. One unfortunate thing about all the development, though, is the increasing amount of pollution in the city. I’m not sure if I lived through rose-coloured glasses the last time I was there, but this time I really noticed the choking black smoke that emerged from cars & trucks clogging up my lungs. I must have also been more out of shape this time, because I was much more affected by the change in altitude. Addis Ababa is 2,000m (8,000ft) above sea level, a stark contrast compared to being “below” sea level in my hometown of Richmond, Canada. I found myself huffing and puffing simply from going up the stairs in the guest house!

Throughout the trip I was recalling Amharic words here and there, and I was so pleased when I could use one of the 30 words/phrases I’d remembered from last time. Recently, I’ve been taking more care to record new words I learn in different languages. If visiting countries for a short period of time where English is not widespread, I’ve learned that the key is to learn the few phrases that are useful in any language: Hello, Goodbye, Thank You (very much), I’m Sorry/Excuse Me, Beautiful/Nice, How Much (does it cost), Friend, No Problem, Big/Lots/Very, Small/Little, Yes, No, and simple numbers. Learn these phrases (and their correct pronunciation), and people will love you.

I have to disclaim that I am no expert on Ethiopian culture. I don’t believe my cumulative 8 weeks in Ethiopia to date is enough to truly understand its intricacies, but these are just observations I’ve made. My observations probably shouldn’t be used as a basis on which to generalize an entire people. So take all of this with a grain of salt!

Ethiopians are outwardly conservative and shy at first, but extremely loving and affectionate when they open up. They are proud of their country (especially the fact that they’ve never been formally colonized), and love specific aspects such as Ethiopian Airlines (which, by the way, is the most profitable airline in Africa), Haile Gebre Selassie (the Olympic runner), their origins in history and Christianity, and their food.

Ethiopian food YUMMMM.

Ethiopian food YUMMMM.

Cultural night at a restaurant called Habesha 2000

Cultural night at a restaurant called Habesha 2000

Most of the Ethiopians we met are also extremely hard-working: one individual (a driver we hired a few times) in particular said something that really stuck with me. His name was Haile (quite the popular Ethiopian name, it means “power”) and he said: “We are following the model of the Chinese, the Asian cultures. I will work hard, not for me, but for my children. One generation has to die for the next.” –cue melodramatic moment- I was so taken aback to hear this, but I think it really speaks to the determination of the Ethiopian people (or at least, of the superstars that we met) and that they see a brighter future for their children as a result of what they painstakingly do each day.

The Friendship building.

The Friendship building.

Many of the entrepreneurs we met have made it their mission to do good in their own community. There is no formalized concept of “social enterprise”. For example, many entrepreneurs will employ disadvantaged people or find ways to reduce, reuse and recycle in their business operations. But these means are not for ulterior motives. It’s not to get consumers to like them more, or “greenwash” anybody – it’s just good business. The notion of positive social impact and improvement of their own local communities is just a given when conducting business. I think this is extremely admirable, and something that we can all learn from. Now what’s not to love about all that?


The Conference

We spent hours and hours in preparation for the conference. Since I was the only one of our group who had organized and executed an Arc conference before, I was the primary source of information. The team asked great questions and were so proactive with planning that I could take a hands-off approach and let the team thrive together. We planned to split up our curriculum and have teammates partner up to teach specific portions of the workshop. After running through the curriculum and logistics of the conference many times, I was confident that we could pull off an extremely successful workshop and that our entrepreneurs would come away with valuable skills and information.

The conference room

The conference room

The Arc conference is extremely interactive, with entrepreneurs seated at table groups and students acting as “floaters” during the workshop sessions. Each morning and afternoon typically consists of two big topics and teaching tools (some examples: SWOT, strategy canvas, break-even analysis, budgeting, value proposition canvas, and more). After giving a very brief (<10 min) lesson about the tool, entrepreneurs are thrown into a group activity where they actually use the tool they’d just learned on one of their own respective businesses. Each group then presents their work to the entire room, and everybody provides feedback and builds on their existing ideas.


Students move around the room, answering questions from entrepreneurs and pushing groups in the right direction. The energy in the room is electric as groups can be heard discussing, focusing, laughing, and engaging in this style of learning. We often receive feedback that this type of interactive group-based collaboration is something completely new to these entrepreneurs (most of whom have university degrees), and that most of them have never experienced anything like our conference. Even as students ourselves, we don’t often get to experience a learning culture that is so vibrant and dynamic.

Part 2 of our conference, held at iceaddis

Part 2 of our conference, held at iceaddis

And what a success it was! The calibre of the group was so high, and each entrepreneur was hyper-engaged and eager to work with us and each other. What I love most about the conference is seeing my teammates learn and grow by working with the entrepreneurs. I saw their “Ah ha!” moments as they got into the groove of building rapport with entrepreneurs, and actually realizing that they serve as more of a guide, pushing groups into the right direction, rather than providing all the answers or their own personal input.

There are also two unique aspects of our conference: a case competition and an innovation challenge. The case competition is similar to the ones we are familiar with, where teams work to solve a hypothetical business’s problem and present their analysis and conclusions to the group. But the other aspect, the innovation challenge, is extremely exciting. Groups will work together to come up with a brand new business idea as a solution to an existing problem. The key is identifying problems that are prevalent in the context of their own city or country, and using the tools taught in the conference to analyze and justify the proposed ventures. We make it a competition between all the teams, and they just love it. The room becomes ablaze with energy and excitement as teams work together; many people get really competitive, too!

A visit from another longtime friend of the Arc, Fitsum, who owns Ethiopia's top tour & travel company.

A visit from another longtime friend of the Arc, Fitsum, who owns Ethiopia’s top tour & travel company.

Overall, I am extremely happy with the conference in Addis Ababa. It was more organized, polished, and fun than the one I’d been a part of in 2013 – this was mostly attributable to the fantastic team, and all the talented individuals who had worked together to create something great. I am so proud of everyone involved!

Arc Consulting

After the conference came the other main component of the Arc Initiative: entrepreneur visits and consulting. Throughout the conference, we asked entrepreneurs to sign up if they wanted an Arc team to visit their business. We then arranged initial meetings with them and discussed how, if at all, a team of Arc students could be of service to these businesses. This is our pseudo consulting arm of Arc, an aspect of the program that allows students to get hands-on experience working with businesses that face challenges that are less complex (compared to the bureaucracy and politics of multi-national corporations that business students are used to hearing about), yet extremely real and pressing.

Meeting Tesfaye, a longtime friend of the Arc. His company manufactures ecopaper made from recycled paper and banana leaf. Such a superstar and an honour to meet him again!

Meeting Tesfaye, a longtime friend of the Arc. His company manufactures ecopaper made from recycled paper and banana leaf. Such a superstar and an honour to meet him again!

We ended up working extensively with several entrepreneurs, including: a landscaping startup, a high-end fashion designer, an artisan jewelry and crafts maker, a security company, and more. Students chose which entrepreneurs they wanted to work with based on their own interests, and where they thought they could add the most value. Teams come up with deliverables to the entrepreneurs by the end of the session, and often leave feeling accomplished and appreciative of their genuine experience with the entrepreneurs they worked with. I love this aspect of the Arc because teams are engaged in work they enjoy, and there is so much learning involved: with the student teams, with team leads, and most importantly, with the entrepreneurs themselves.

Visiting LH Security

Visiting LH Security

Checking out Adila Crafts

Checking out Adila Crafts

Regrettably, I had to leave my team merely two weeks after landing, because meanwhile I was also managing the Arc Rwanda team this summer. Can you believe everything I’d described already only happened in two weeks? One thing I wished I did was leave them in better shape before I left – I could have assigned proper roles to individuals and provided more of a gameplan moving forward, but the fantastic team took initiative and did some great work even without my presence – I am so proud of them!

Last day with my team :(

Last day with my team 😦

I wrote a separate post about my Key Takeaways from the summer, view it <here>.

There are some things I did this time that the team didn’t do last time I was in Addis:

Saw a soccer game at the stadium

  • It was two Ethiopian teams playing: St. George and Derderbit. As usual, we stuck out like sore thumbs, and it didn’t help that we were sitting on the “wrong side” (Derderbit). St. George ended up winning, and the streets were crazy that night with people hanging off busses (which were honking hysterically) and proudly waving the yellow and orange flags of their winning team.



Took more mini busses

  • Last time, we’d hired a driver for the entire month we were there. In contrast, this year the team was really keen on taking mini busses and taxis everywhere because it was cheaper and a more authentic experience. It made me realize how sheltered we were last time with our driver, and how much more I preferred taking the local transportation.

Red Terror museum

  • I really wished I saw this back in 2013 – it’s a museum documenting the accounts of the Communist occupation in the 1970s. The small size of the museum does not take away from the profound impact of that time period, a terrible experience I hope a great country like Ethiopia never has to undergo again. This made me realize how important it is to visit these types of places in order to get a more substantial appreciation for the country I am visiting and its history.

Although there are certainly areas where I thought I could improve as a Team Lead, overall I am very happy with the outcome of this summer. This was an unforgettable experience and really reinforced for me what kind of work I enjoy, and once again that business needs to leave a positive impact. Thanks for reading 🙂

Dinner with some local friends.

Dinner with some local friends.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s