From Business Clubs and Lab Research to Choir and Africa: ‘Explore All Your Different Passions’

Kristen Hall, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is in the dual degree Huntsman program, which includes courses in both finance and international studies. Interested primarily in international development, she has been thinking of ways to use her academic knowledge in places like Nigeria, Botswana and Tanzania. She was interviewed recently for Knowledge@Wharton High School by classmate Alan Lee.

 

An edited version of the transcript follows.

KWHS: Tell me a little bit about Generation Enterprise. I know that’s been the project that you have been working on quite a bit.

Hall: Generation Enterprise was founded by a Penn alum in 2007, the year that I was coming to Penn. It’s what we call a micro business incubator. Basically, that’s a center where potential entrepreneurs can come in and get advice, mentorship, training and funding to start their own business. The difference with YouthBank is that we operate in the developing world, so that means we operate in some very impoverished areas, in highly urban areas as well, in what’s called a mega city. We cater to young people — people our age who want to start businesses who maybe haven’t been able to find employment elsewhere in what’s called the formal sector.

We started this in 2007. We worked through a business plan. We found funders. We got support from people here at Penn and ultimately brought a team together of students from Penn. We went to Nigeria in August 2009 to start our center. Since then it’s been doing pretty well.

KWHS: What kind of businesses do these younger people run?

Hall: So, so far, we have graduated one class of fellows. I should probably explain that a little bit. Basically, we recruit people who have a street life, who have been living on the streets for years. They come into YouthBank, and then we train them for a period of six months. After that, they pitch a business idea, and then they start their own businesses. We have done one cycle of this and brought in eight people. We’ve graduated four. The businesses include everything from a photography studio to a recording studio to a cell phone company. But in the developing world, they use these little cards where they pre-pay the charge cards. So it’s a charge card company, which is not something you’d probably see here, but something that works over there. We also have an interior decorator as well. So, it’s quite a variety of businesses.

KWHS: That’s good to hear. You’ve mentioned the developing world. But where exactly are you located?

Hall: Right now we’re located in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is the sixth largest mega city in the world. There’s tons of people flooding into Lagos every single day, and I think that’s why we picked Lagos, because it is such a crazy, chaotic city that really needs a service like YouthBank. But in the meantime, we’re looking at potential expansion. We’ve been invited by a number of different African countries, and countries on other continents as well. Right now, we’re looking very seriously at India and hoping to start a center there this summer.

KWHS: Have you ever been to these places?

Hall: I’ve been to Lagos quite a few times. I’ve been to quite a few countries in Africa just through different opportunities from Penn. So I did research in Botswana in my freshman year. I also worked in Botswana as part of a Penn internship. I went to Tanzania and did research there with a bunch of Penn students as well – something very similar, microfinance again. Then I went to Lagos. I also went to South Africa a couple weeks ago for a Penn class that was done there through spring break. So I’ve been to a lot of these countries, and I just love being there. I love meeting new people. I love being able to use what we’re learning in the classroom in this highly challenged, sort of highly stressful environment. So, for me, it’s been really rewarding.

KWHS: I know that in addition to working on Generation Enterprise during the summer, you’ve also spent time at an investment bank. How do you kind of deal with the two? Do you see the two being connected to each other, or do you see the work being sort of separate, but something that you eventually pursue?

Hall: I don’t really see it as being separate so much. I just think, especially in college, that you should expose yourself to as many different disciplines and as many different types of work environments as possible. I think one thing that’s been really great about working in the investment banking world is that a lot of the people that I’m working with are also really interested in development. It’s a passion of theirs. It’s something that the investment bank I worked for, they have a whole program that sends bankers abroad to do programs like this.

So, you get a lot of support. You kind of tap into the knowledge base of the investment banks. At least that’s what I’ve done. Another thing is that some of the techniques and analyses are really useful when you’re thinking about trying to make a sustainable nonprofit work.

So, for me, I guess they seem like two very different things, but I think it’s really important to identify how there’s synergy between them. I think, on a personal note, that just being able to expose yourself to so many different things in your college career, in your high school career, wherever you are in your academic career, exposing yourself to as many different opportunities as possible always serves you well in the future.

KWHS: You are the CFO of Generation Enterprise. Do you think that helps you a little bit?

Hall: Oh, definitely. I mean, before Generation Enterprise, I had never really thought about how you bring money into a company, how you make sure the company makes efficient use of its funds. As a result of being a CFO, I’ve kind of had to force myself into that role. But also, an investment bank is looking at how to analyze companies, and now I’m working for one of the companies that potentially would be analyzed. So you kind of get two different sides of the coin there, and I think it makes you better at both sides. Knowing what the other perspective is and how the other side thinks definitely makes you more efficient at the other side of the coin, if that makes sense.

KWHS: Absolutely. Did you always know you wanted to do this?

Hall: No, totally, definitely did not know I wanted to be going on little adventures in sub-Saharan Africa. It actually started freshman year. I had nothing to do for a summer, and I got this really awesome opportunity to go on a Penn funded trip to Botswana. While I was there, I was working for a company. I guess I was a little bit naïve in that I had thought that a lot of work that you do in sub-Saharan Africa is just nonprofit work. I didn’t know that people were so interested in investing in Africa, and I didn’t know that investing in Africa could actually generate growth. That mentality didn’t exist for me as a freshman.

But when I was there and I saw all these people interested in putting their money in Africa, all these people interested in starting businesses in Africa, I said, “Wow, this is really cool.” It’s more meaningful for me, because you know that everything you do is helping someone. You know that everything you do is generating some kind of economic development outcome. So, for me, I think that’s just a little bit more rewarding and probably why I’m attracted to it.

In addition, there’s just the adventure component. I think going to a new country and meeting new people, having to learn different business norms, cultural norms, it can be a very challenging thing. But once you master that, it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. So, that was just sort of an accidental thing that happened to me. I got this internship and I ended up in Botswana. Then after that — “Oh, this is really cool,” and I started pursuing more internship and research opportunities over there.

KWHS: What’s your favorite part about what you do?

Hall: Being a CFO, there’s a lot of sort of administrative things that you do that aren’t so fun. But you do it, because you know that maybe in a couple of months, you’ll actually be in the ground, in Lagos again. You’ll be meeting these young people who have such amazing ideas who actually are very similar to you and I, but grew up in a totally different system. I think having that interaction, it’s sort of two worlds merging. It’s a very exciting interaction to have. It humbles you. It makes you understand yourself a little bit better. For me, the YouthBank Generation Enterprise Fellows that we help, they’re some of the most incredible human beings I have ever met.

Benjamin is one of our fellows. He’s actually one of my favorites. When we started the business to get fellows, we did a whole recruiting process. So we interviewed them and had them go through basically a very intense interview process in order. Something that I loved about him was he just had this really bright smile on his face the entire day, and the entire day was crazy.

So, we were doing these interviews in a hole in the wall place in this obsolete building in Lagos. The place was literally falling apart. We didn’t know how many kids would be interested in YouthBank, so we thought that this small place would be okay. There were tons of people who came out. So, we’re operating in this small place. No AC, no electricity, and all of these kids are coming to us. Most of them had a smile on their face, but there was something [different] about Benjamin. He is always just so positive about everything. Here we are thinking, “Oh my god, this is a complete failure,” and this kid is just so incredibly positive.

When we interviewed, one of the things that we realized is that some of the questions that you ask, like “Oh, how do your friends perceive you?” are not questions that they’re accustomed to answering. But he still answered those questions. He was very introspective in that he could get outside of himself and sort of figure out who he was, which is not something that a lot of the students could do. Then when we asked him, “What’s the biggest problem in Lagos?” He said mindset was the biggest problem which I thought was crazy, because here you are in a city where the infrastructure is falling apart, where there’s lots of corruption, where the government has cheated people, you know all of these problems that are evident problems, and he said, “No, the mindset of people is the primary problem here.”

So for me, he just became a very endearing person. Now, he’s starting a recording studio, and he’s actually done really, really well for himself. He’s bought all of his own equipment. He’s working with the help of one of our employees, and he’s doing well. I think he supports a family of eight different people, and he uses the money he’s making to do that. So, yeah, I love Benjamin. He’s a cool guy. All of the fellows are really awesome, but Benjamin’s really great.

KWHS: So just to sum up, if there were someone asking you for advice on how to get to where you are today, what advice would you give them and how would they get to go to Africa and do all these cool things?

Hall: Well, I would say don’t restrict your definition of whatever it is you want to do. So, don’t say I want to go into business and that means that I’m necessarily going to be a consultant or I’m going to be an investment banker. Don’t constrain your thinking to a specific vocation. I think you should open yourself up to all different opportunities, all different possibilities. For one, I know that if I was not willing to go to Botswana in my freshman year … if I wasn’t willing to explore that, I would never have identified that interest. I never would have identified that passion, and I never would be where I am today which I think is a pretty good place.

I wouldn’t have had all of those different opportunities. So I think when you’re going into academics and when you’re going into life in general and especially high school, entering college, just open yourself up to as many different opportunities as possible, explore all your different passions.

I can give an example. In high school, I did a club called DECA, which is a business club, and I wrote business plans all the time for that club. I competed nationally and all that stuff. But I also did science research. I did cancer research at a lab. So those were two very different things. Oh yeah, and I also sang. I was also very into choir, right? So, people would say, “Like, wow, none of that makes sense.” But for me, it made sense, because I just wanted to make sure that down the line when I do pick a career path that I have no regrets, that I have explored everything, and that I know whatever I’m pursuing is a deep passion. So I think for a high school student out there, even for college students, even for you and I, opening yourself up to potentially what seems like odd areas, but just opening yourself up to that possibility will really make you [feel] down the line that you’ve chosen the right path.

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