Knowing Thyself

This originally appeared on my Svbtle blog.

Originally, I was going to write about how quitting sucks but necessary at times. I was going to use g.Maarifa as another one of those examples of “oh it was terrible but through perseverance and support, I got through it” triumphant made-direct-to-DVD movies. Except I was going to be sly and put a twist at the end: failure is like your first love. Once you think you have failed, ins spite of the fact that others don’t think of it as a failure, with time (for me, it was 6 months), you can get over it. But you never forget that Significant Other, the sudden plummet of your self-confidence and inversely correlating rising self-doubts and the subsequent Sisyphean depression, and the post-quitting nagging bitter metallic taste in your mouth that makes you want to spit incessantly. The taste only grows when you (re)acquaint with someone and are forced to answer the question, “what do you do?” And you pull the stunt you used to be bristled by: “I no speak English”. And then you hate yourself that you pull the shades down, internally demonize yourself, and freeze out the ones you truly care about because they won’t stop asking nagging questions about your emotional well-being. All while keeping a normal public façade. Because goddamn it, that kind of shit matters in this interconnected world and would jeopardize acquisition talks. Or whatever.

I got halfway done when I realized that while that decision has changed my life, I never self-reflected on the roots of the reasons why I quit. There are the obvious reasons why I quit g.Maarifa. They are the reasons I told clients, supporters, my business partner, and everyone around me. They make acute business sense. They are rational. But as a freak compartmentizer, I have been purposefully avoiding thinking about the actual reasons. The myriad of reasons all boiled down to two sources:

  1. I denied who I was and what g.Maarifa represented. G.Maarifa started out as a nonprofit tech company that aimed to solve the youth unemployment problem in Africa. Then in order to attract impact and regular investors, we swung to the other side of the spectrum and became a strictly profit-centric company. A part of this originated from the frustrating feedback from Western investors who would think that we were a charity the minute we mentioned “Africa”. We were going to make money first. We began to play within the exact same system of nonprofit and development that I had sneered at and continued to criticize. But hey we needed to make money, which is already far too scarce in Africa and the Middle East. As an impact-oriented person, I began to see them as our compacts with the devil, which definitely did not inspire me to jump out of bed every morning. Simultaneously, we were playing the “impact” card because that was what a lot of people thought we did and because there was also some money in it. And we needed money. This made for clashing BD and marketing strategies. G.Maarifa became a confused child who did not know who it was. It had a taste of two diverging roads, but because it could not make up its mind on each road to take, it just squatted down at the fork and sat. Waiting for what, I still don’t know, but it certainly didn’t advance in any directions. We were thirsty and avaricious, wanting everything without sacrificing. We should have just stuck with the impact side and driven forward with g.Maarifa. Yes we probably would have lost some clients, but at least the senior management team have been more passionate on developing the company rather than feeling like hypocrites.
  1. I could have been more grounded. Growing up, my mom’s worst fear was that I wouldn’t be grounded and that I would ride on a high horse. She used to tell me that my IQ was just above average but that I was definitely not a genius, so I needed to perspire and work smart. She was careful not to compliment me a lot and always told me that I could do better. As a child, I resented her for it. Now, I wish she had been in Kenya and Tunisia to keep me in check when I was running g.Maarifa. As a “social entrepreneur working in Africa”, I was getting a lot of media attention and (undeserved) pats on the back. They became addicting. I got caught in the Silicon Valley trend of wanting to raise a lot of money when we in fact didn’t even need the money. That took time away from generating revenue and impact. The ultimate kicker, though, is that I had self-deluded into thinking that I wasn’t getting caught in the hype. Plenty of my peers were doing way more self-promotional events, media interviews, name dropping, etc while neglecting to work on their actual business model. g.Maarifa never opened the floodgate completely (we said no to requests that did not have direct impact on our business development, such as BBC and Al Jazeera and I made the conscious decision to never link conferences that I was speaking at or interviews on my Facebook… even though the latter was so tempting). Yet I was not immune to neither the adrenaline rush that comes with public recognition of our work nor to the power of self-delusion. This not only decreased productivity and squandered resources, but more importantly, it created a false sense of accomplishment- a house of cards.

g.Maarifa is a success story. There are not a lot of 23 year olds who can claim that they move across the world when they are barely 20 to a country where they had exactly two 2nd degree connections, start a company in a conflict zone, expand the company into more (post)- conflict and instable countries, and sell the company. In the process, I found love and new support, experienced terrorist and sexual violence, learned the meaning of community and hospitality, and most importantly, found my principles and what I stand for. I think startup wise, g.Maarifa could have grown so much faster and been a better managed company. This is the failure of the company and collapse of my self-discipline. Yet, at the same time, I will always think of g.Maarifa as a Bildungsroman chapter that taught me that my real Self needs to be embraced and that it is more important than money and public recognition.

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