Stanford Seed Intern Michelle Gatonye wasn’t sure what she’d gotten herself into as her plane approached Nigeria. A missed connection and the realization that she was about to fulfill a long-time passion suddenly made her journey seem all too real.
“I wondered, ‘What exactly am I doing?’” she recalled. “I’m actually doing this; I’m going to a different country. I’d heard different stories of working in Nigeria and I was feeling a little anxious.”
Those concerns vanished the next day, as Michelle began her 10-week internship at House of Tara, a successful woman-centric beauty company poised to expand internationally.
“I reported to work and met everyone I’d be working with,” she said. “They have some really phenomenal people who make you feel very welcome and go out of their way to make sure you feel comfortable in your new environment.”
As a 2015 Seed intern, Michelle joins the ranks of Stanford students selected to undertake projects at companies participating in the Seed Transformation Program. The program, which is housed under Stanford Graduate School of Business, offers high-potential leaders a chance to assess their company’s vision, redefine strategies, and make changes toward exponential growth that will create new jobs in their region. Stanford Seed East Africa, based in Kenya, and Stanford Seed West Africa, based in Ghana, eventually will be expanded to include Seed programs in developing economies throughout the world.
Born and raised in Kenya, Michelle has worked at an impact investment fund, as an associate at PwC, and as an investment banking analyst at UBS Investment Bank, and has a background in advising companies how to achieve operational and financial efficiencies. She was eager for a new challenge that included on-the-ground experience in another country. The Seed program streamlined that process, she said.
“If I had to find an internship in Africa outside of the Seed program, it would be much harder,” she explained. “Seed does a lot of that for you; they’ve already been working with some of these companies for over a year.”
Michelle met the company’s founder/CEO and its CFO/COO the first day, quickly establishing a project timetable. Then it was on to research and data collection on the international marketplace, competing companies, and cross-cultural beauty preferences. There was also fieldwork, as Michelle accompanied House of Tara’s commercial director to one of the largest open-air markets in Lagos, where many local women purchase beauty products.
“We talked to some of the distributors and customers on the ground about their concerns about products and what they needed,” she said.
Michelle also worked at the company’s product stand at a beauty exposition and attended a Seed Transformation Program workshop in Ghana, where she took time to visit 20 area beauty stores and canvas customers on their product preferences. By the end of 10 weeks, her project was complete.
“What I delivered was an international expansion strategy in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, and the U.K.,” she said. “This goes into great detail on what products to introduce, when to introduce them, what customers to target, and what marketing channels to use. Aside from being a high-level strategy, it’s a 12-month roadmap as to what the company needed to be doing every single month in each country to meet its goals. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of.”
Her experience included challenges, including overextended firm leaders with little time to spare for meetings, a different type of company structure, and cultural differences.
“Nigerian food in general is much more spicy than at home; I’m not sure I ever got used to it,” she said with a laugh. “And things there are not as structured as working for bigger companies in the U.S., which was my prior experience. In Nigeria, you get surprises pretty much every single day, and you need to be able to respond to them and stay on track.”
The benefits, however, included getting to know her African coworkers and being able to serve as a role model to younger employees in their first post-college job.
“Over the course of 10 weeks I could exhibit how to drive projects forward to completion, how you communicate with other employees about what you need from them, how you set up a project plan, and how you determine if you’re meeting or not meeting goals,” she said.
Her favorite aspect of the internship was experiencing opportunities that would be difficult to find at many U.S. firms.
“One thing I loved was being able to work very closely with the key leaders in the company. You have to learn to communicate and see that your recommendations come across, as well as learn how to defend what you recommend,” she said. “That kind of dynamic was a great training ground at this point in my career.
“Secondly,” she said, “There’s a sense of accomplishment. There was a lot of work I was able to do on my own. I was essentially driving it from beginning to end, top to bottom, and had that sense of ownership. That was very different from what I did in the past. And I really enjoyed it.”
Her Seed internship experience was compelling to potential employers, and the skills she brought home will serve her well as she begins a new job in supply chain strategy at San Francisco-based Gap, she said.
“It’s all very transferable, whether it means being able to communicate new ideas to senior-level leaders or taking ownership and guiding projects forward,” Michelle said. “Overall, I had a great experience. I learned a lot and I think I grew as an individual. It’s a new environment, and you’ll be forced to adapt. That’s what appealed most to me.”
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