The Fetch Blog

Curated reads and events for professionals

Coffee talk: Betty Enyonam Kumahor, catalyst for African businesses — December 6, 2015

Coffee talk: Betty Enyonam Kumahor, catalyst for African businesses

Betty Enoyonam Kumahor is an inspiring, dedicated and dynamic individual. Her professional expertise ranges from developing software to working as a founder and CEO. She’s a featured speaker at this year’s YOW! Conference in Melbourne, Australia, where she’ll talk about frugal innovation and overcoming unique challenges in her home continent of Africa.

How did you get to where you are today?

I didn’t plan to become a software developer, systems analyst, product manager, management consultant, CEO, entrepreneur, business owner, public speaker, or to wear any of the other hats I’ve put on. But I always planned to do three things:

  1. Notice the opportunities that came my way
  2. Work hard at them
  3. Return the favor

The journey that these simple three rules have taken me on is beyond my imagination and has been great fun. I got to where I am today by taking chances, working hard, and paying it forward.

You founded The Cobalt Partners, which helps African businesses with productivity, growth consulting, design thinking, software development and more. What inspired you to create the company?

It was merely a practical solution. I had just left ThoughtWorks with the plan to take a six-month sabbatical. Before I had informed anyone, I was already receiving requests for advisory assistance in one form or another. Within two weeks of requests coming in, I had started a spreadsheet to list them all. I counted 21 asks on my growing list.

The common thread was that increasingly more organisations and leaders — both foreign and local to Africa — were looking for growth catalysts. I had a unique blend of technology, productivity, and consulting experience, along with the leadership style and access to needed talent.

It was clear that there was a gap in the market, so we formed The Cobalt Partners in hopes of being catalysts for pan-African businesses in need of help applying technology, design thinking, and productivity consulting.

You’re doing incredible things. What’s the most challenging part of your day-to-day routine? What’s the most rewarding?

The most challenging and the most rewarding are actually one and the same: solving problems. I’ve always been a management consultant at the core. We seek clients, projects, and strategies that differ by their nature, so there isn’t necessarily a playbook for replicated success.

Betty Enyonam Kumahor

Every day presents a new challenge — whether it’s internal (such as, “how do we reach a new audience of small medium-sized enterprises who don’t even have email or social media services today?”) or for a client (“how do we formulate an innovative collaboration platform for makers in Ghana’s largest e-waste dump?”). It can be frustrating to formulate a thoughtful and robust solution, but it’s certainly rewarding when you see a solution in action.

Which obstacles do African businesses face most often today?

The challenges are big. I’d say talent is the most significant, especially for knowledge roles and business. The African context is unique in that it’s unlike both the East and West. Because of this, solutions in African context must be heavily tailored — but they should also leverage experience and knowledge gained from other parts of the world. Finding people who can do this is both competitive and difficult.

There are other challenges, too. Access to capital, even though capital is available, is still very difficult. Infrastructure costs such as power, transportation, and telecommunications also mean that the cost of operation in many African locations is comparatively higher than elsewhere.

But possibly even more important to address than all these is the challenge of the outdated narrative of Africa as a struggling (war-torn and disease-ridden) continent.

That narrative is myopic and truly ignores the riches, possibilities, and achievements of the continent. The more that this narrative starts to change, the more we’ll see more partners from the East and West working with us on the solutions that solve all current challenges.

You’ve spent your life and career change the age-old narrative. What are some the creative and innovative solutions you see happening already?

Those of us who grew up on the continent can tell you that we always saw creativity and innovation around us.

It was the pool table made completely out of wood and mud; the radio made out of spare parts; the bicycle that was able to transport an entire family to work and school.

We’re currently involved with a simple barcode hospital record filing system that has reduced wait times in clinics from an average of more than two hours to a mere 10 minutes. This solution boasts many innovations, using the elderly in the community to collect abandoned files, nine data points to uniquely identify patients (even if they show up with a different name or are fraudulently using another person’s insurance), to one-hour power sources in the event that  there is no electricity (ensuring new data is not lost and patient intake/checkout can still occur).

You’re speaking at the YOW! 2015 Conference in Australia. Why this event? What are you looking forward to most?

When it comes to technology — and in particular, software development — I’ve had several interactions with Australian conferences, technologists, consulates and businesses (especially in South Africa). Each has been so positive that I believe there is much opportunity to collaborate together in this space.

I am most looking forward to having conversations about what’s been happening in the Australian software development space within the last year, along with what’s been happening in Ghana. I hope we can do more together.

Who do you admire?

I admire my parents. My father was a pioneer in the Big Four Accounting and Advisory firms in Africa. But more importantly, he balanced his work with being a generous person. If I can have a quarter as much impact in my chosen field and in my extended family as he has, I will be in great company.

My mother is one of the most brilliant medical doctors I know and demonstrated her management skill in the African context as a hospital administrator in Ghana. She expanded the polyclinic for the largest health district into an award-winning hospital, accomplishing all of this while raising five children. 

In terms of well-known people, I point to Steve Jobs and Carly Fiorina. Steve Jobs had tremendous success, but more importantly, marched to the beat of his own drum. That takes tremendous strength and character. Carly Fiorina did a stint at my high school and went on to be a prominent female CEO in technology. She takes on challenges with poise and competence.

Where can we find you online?

Find me on Twitter, @enyok, or Facebook.

Last, how do you drink your coffee?

I avoid caffeine — I get enough from life, I like to think — so no coffee or tea for me.

My favorite drink is water, but not just any water. Must be still not sparking. In a bottle, not a glass. Spring not distilled. Dress it up with some Crystal Light (especially Raspberry Lemonade) and watch me grin. 🙂

Coffee talk: Adrian Cockcroft, technology fellow at Battery Ventures — November 15, 2015

Coffee talk: Adrian Cockcroft, technology fellow at Battery Ventures

Adrian Cockcroft has enjoyed a long career working at the leading edge of technology, having helped Sun Microsystems, eBay, and Netflix build and scale their systems. When he’s not serving as a Technology Fellow at Battery Ventures, he writes and speaks extensively about a range of subjects, including his fascination with what comes next. We talked with Adrian about keeping up with technology trends, what makes something intuitive, and which innovations that have surprised him during the last decade.

How did you get to where you are today?

I started out wanting to know how everything worked and got a Physics degree in London. After, I wrote software for a living until I joined Sun Microsystems and spent my time there explaining how Suns worked to customers. I moved to the USA and wrote a few books in the 1990’s including Sun Performance and Tuning. I spent time at eBay learning about large scale web services and moved to Netflix as they launched streaming in 2007. In 2010, I became the cloud architect for Netflix and started explaining cloud-native architecture to everyone else. In 2014, I moved to Battery Ventures to help find interesting companies to invest in and help our portfolio companies scale.

You’re speaking about complex technology at this year’s upcoming YOW! Conference in Australia. What about the event are you most looking forward to?

I attended YOW! 2013 and found that unlike most conferences, the speakers at YOW! Conference travel as a group from Melbourne to Brisbane to Sydney and really get to know each other.
brisbaneThere is also an opportunity to evolve and tune the content, as well as its presentation. I’m really looking forward to hearing new things and making new friends.

Tell us: how do you define something as ‘complicated’?

Complicated things have lots of moving parts and relationships between them, which are initially confusing to try and understand.

In contrast, what makes technology intuitive?

When we have a mental model for how something should work it becomes intuitive, we can manipulate it and the behaviors become more predictable.

How are complicated and intuitive related, if at all? Is there a specific use case you often share to explain the relationship between the two?

Things that start off looking complicated can be learned over time by individuals and groups of people so that they eventually become intuitive. For example, driving a car is very complicated, not only controlling the vehicle, but navigating roads and around other drivers, but it has become intuitive to many people.

You’ve done some incredible work at well-known companies during your career. What, if any, innovations have surprised you?

When Apple released the initial iPhone, it wasn’t a surprise, but the quality of the user interface experience was so deeply intuitive that it surprised everyone.

I saw a two year old using one of the first iPhones, and that was the inspiration for a hack-day project I did at Netflix to create a Netflix for Kids on iPad demo.

This helped the real Netflix for Kids product get started.

What’s the most challenging part about keeping up with your rapidly changing industry?

I’m constantly exposed to new people and ideas, so the challenging part is to figure out which ideas are going to take off, and which will fade away.

What other industry events, courses, and reading do you enjoy?

YOW! Connected, a conference for developers, by developers

I focus on two kinds of events: developer and DevOps oriented conferences that discuss and communicate the state of the art, like the GOTO conference series, DevOps Days, Monitorama and Gluecon; and management oriented events like CIO summits where my focus is on how to setup an organization to be innovative.

To keep up with the latest news, I use Twitter and listen to podcast interviews with interesting people e.g. SE Radio, The Cloudcast dot Net, The New Stack.

Where can we find you online?

Find me on Twitter @adrianco.

Last, how do you like your coffee?

I love cappuccino.

YOW Connected! is a conference for developers, by developers. Learn more about Adrian’s upcoming panel and register for this year’s event here.

Coffee talk: Rena Tom, passionate connector and master curator — October 22, 2015

Coffee talk: Rena Tom, passionate connector and master curator

Two years ago, we talked to San Francisco local Rena Tom who had just cofounded the Makeshift Society, a coworking clubhouse for creatives. Today, we caught up with Rena to talk about how the community has grown, where she’s found new inspiration, and why she continues to put people at the center of her work.

We chatted back in 2013, but would love to get your early story on the record. How did you get to where you are today?

Circuitously yet fortuitously! I wandered from web design to print work and jewelry design, to owning a store and finally to coworking. I really have no idea what’s next for me, though I am looking for work if anyone still wants a generalist/community builder/event planner. 🙂

The Makeshift society has grown so much since we last talked. But tell us: when did you first develop the idea of a place ‘for creatives, by creatives’?

I sold my business in early 2011 and was ramping up my consulting business. I found myself working at cafes, trying to find a quiet place to call clients on Skype, and a bit lonely. Basically, I need a place to work and socialize so I invented it with the help of Victoria Smith and Suzanne Shade.

We wanted to provide a safe, creative space for people to be their best selves. 

What has been the most rewarding part of running the Makeshift Society?

It’s been great finding the best way to explain to people what we do — basically fine-tuning our mission statement every time we talk to prospective members.

Photo by Sarah Deragon

The members have truly shaped our results, and I’m proud of that. I’m also super proud that they continue to do so, to find ways to collaborate and enjoy their own work while supporting others’ work too.

How have you continued to find freelancers, creatives and teams to fill the beautiful space?

We have great word of mouth and because we are friendly to all freelance fields who touch the creative industry, it’s a nice diverse mix of people and professions. We’ve learned to use social media a lot to showcase the space and the members and that brings in new people all the time for our classes and events. We’re indie and very “human” and it shows with our words and images.

How do you describe the vibe and people at Makeshift Society today? What kind of person is drawn to the mission and the space?

San Francisco has come to reflect the West coast well — the vibe is very casual, DIY, and a little bit bohemian. The community started at the maker/blogger/photographer end of the creative spectrum but now includes more design studios and programmers.

Makeshift Society: A clubhouse for creatives

When the Brooklyn location was open, we had more writers, architects, and the like — they loved the more polished, industrial and modern feel of the space. It’s not surprising that the SF space was a little more like me, while the NY space a little more like my business partner there, Bryan Boyer.

Last time we spoke, you told us about the business side of owning Rare Device, a design-led shop in New York City and San Francisco. We’re passionate about curation, so we’d love to know: how did you curate the acclaimed in-store selection?

Rare Device really came from searching the Internet as I initially scoured the web to find products from small designers and international makers who were not represented in the US. Eventually, I attended the trade shows — but doing as much independent research as possible made Rare Device quite unique.

I’m a fan of minimalism, so simple, functional shapes in a limited black and white palette was my signature, as well as incorporating textures like wood and felt to warm things up.

When I partnered with artist Lisa Congdon for our second shop, her vintage sensibilities meant more great graphics, patterns, and bright colors, while still hewing to the Rare Device look.

Which designers, curators, shops, and museums are your favorites?

For influences, I’m currently a fan of MOMA, Canoe, and the ladies at Sight Unseen.

What events and classes do you love and recommend in Brooklyn or San Francisco?

In San Francisco, I like Workshop Residence and the artists they choose for their residencies. They make work for sale but also hold workshops so you can learn techniques, too. Brooklyn (and NYC in general) has a great design festival, NYCxDESIGN, and I read http://whrw.hn/ for a curated view at cool events.

Which Makeshift Society classes have been most valuable to you in the last couple of years? Why?

I liked taking our calligraphy class and a ceramics class. The hands-on classes let me get out of my head and let my hands do the thinking.

Where can we find you online today?

Mostly I’m on Twitter and Instagram, but you can also find me at renatom.net and makeshiftsociety.com.

Last, how do you like your coffee?

I used to drink it with a little cream and no sugar, but lately I’ve switched over to chai. My stomach thanks me!

Coffee talk: Payal Kadakia, CEO of ClassPass and artistic director — October 19, 2015

Coffee talk: Payal Kadakia, CEO of ClassPass and artistic director

If you follow Payal Kadakia, the co-founder and CEO of breakout fitness startup ClassPass, on Twitter, you’ve likely been inspired by her work and the powerful quotes she posts regularly. Blown away by her fast-growing company, dedication to her dream, and unbelievable passion for dance, we talked with Payal about how she made the leap to build her business — without a Plan B. 

How did you get to where you are today?

I have to credit dancing for being a huge factor in my success. Not only did my passion for it drive the business idea for ClassPass, but always having to rehearse my whole life for performances taught me a lot about dedication and ability to change, which is very much ingrained in my work ethic to this day.   

When did you realize that you could turn your love of dance and fitness classes into a business?

My love from dance has been a constant journey in my life from the time I was three years old, to starting an Indian Dance troupe at MIT, and eventually founding my own dance company — it has given me the confidence I needed in myself to realize that I should go after the things I’m most passionate about.  

Payal Kadakia, creative director and dancer

As it relates to ClassPass, I was looking to take a ballet class after work — after hours of searching on the internet only to be left discouraged, I realized that there was a pain point in finding classes and wanted to help remove the friction that often times gets in the way of people doing the things they love. ClassPass is the latest chapter in my journey as I aim to help people find in their lives what dance has always been to me.    

What was the first step you took toward making the idea a reality?

Quitting my job without a Plan B! It can be a scary first step but the moment you put what’s important to you first so many doors can start to open.

We’re inspired by your abilities to be both incredibly creative and business focused. Do you find any similarities in the way you work as an artistic director and as a CEO/founder?

Absolutely! In fact, this is something I actually feel strongly about. So often we have made such a huge separation and distinction between being business oriented or being creative, but it’s not a matter of one or the other — I truly believe that it’s at the intersection of the two where really incredible things can happen.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned on your journey to date?

I’ve learned that it’s incredibly important to be true to yourself and lead in a way that is authentically you.  

It’s so easy to get caught up in living up to certain expectations of how you think you should be acting, but I’ve found more success by trusting my intuition and representing myself in a way that is uniquely my own.  

Who do you admire? Why?

Alvin Ailey and Mira Nair — they have both been such powerful influences in sharing their culture with the world through something they love to do.  

One of the best things about a ClassPass Flex membership is the ability to use it in a variety of cities. Which ClassPass studios and/or classes earn a spot on your list of favorites?

ClassPass Flex: unlimited, boutique fitness classes

I’m a big fan of Exhale and Flywheel in most cities, but part of the appeal for me is discovering brand new studios when I travel — so I always try to mix it up! I love just walking into new barre and dance studios wherever I go.

What activewear lines and gear do you love, rock, and recommend?

I’m a big fan of Outdoor Voices and Lululemon, especially their gym bags – and I just got a pair of really awesome Nike shoes that I love. I also love sporting studio-branded gear. I always find myself shopping right after class.

ClassPass has officially announced plans to launch in the land down under. Why Sydney and Melbourne?

There is already such a vibrant fitness culture in Australia, especially as it relates to boutique fitness, so it seemed like an obvious choice as we continue to think through our expansion globally.  It’s exciting that we’ve already partnered with over 250 studios there, and we’re excited to engage with members and studios alike in Sydney and Melbourne.

What events or meet-ups do you regularly attend in NYC? 

I went through Techstars when I launched Classtivity, the first iteration of ClassPass, and it was such a valuable experience that I learned a tremendous amount from. I’m still active with Techstars and attend many of their ongoing events, as it’s been an important network for me. 

Last, how do you like your coffee?

I actually drink tea! I start my day with a giant green tea, my favorite is the Jade Citrus Mint from Starbucks. I sometimes brew my own tea (Kusmi tea!) in the office in the morning as well.

Coffee talk: Denise Jacobs, creativity evangelist and speaker — September 14, 2015

Coffee talk: Denise Jacobs, creativity evangelist and speaker

Denise Jacobs is a teacher, author and powerful speaker who will discuss processes and techniques for dramatically enhanced creative productivity at this year’s Sydney-based Web Directions Conference. While talking with Denise about her inspiring professional journey, we learned how to overcome speaking fears and procrastination. Read on for her tricks and story about finding her true passion.

How did you get to where you are today?

It feels like a long story, but I started making handmade soap in 1997 to get back in touch with my own creativity. My friends really liked it, and people kept asking if I sold it. At first, I found it baffling and kept saying, ‘no, no, no!’. But when people started asking what was in it, I started offering to teach them how to make it themselves. I had two small classes of about five people each at my house.

From there, I started teaching at an adult extension school. I discovered that I really loved teaching! Though I was working in the web industry on project management projects, I found myself without the passion I felt when helping people. I was knowledgeable about web stuff and had built some experience teaching, so I thought I’d combine them to teach web classes at Seattle Central College. About five years later, that job ended and I coincidentally went to my first web conference. I saw Molly Holzschlag, an open web evangelist, speak. What we were doing was so similar – but she was speaking in front of thousands. I instantly knew I wanted to do the same.

About four years later, I finally broke into the web speaking circuit. I had just authored my first book, The CSS Detective Guide, and it gave me the confidence to pursue opportunities. I took it by storm, applying everywhere, building a reputation as a good speaker. Now I get invited, which is a dream come true!

When did you realize that you had an ability to help others be creative and produce great work? 

It totally came from teaching. Through the soap classes, I realized that I was good at explaining, at helping people learn about the things they found interesting. Once I started at Seattle Central Community College, I knew I had found something that I was passionate about and wanted to do more of.

Today, you’re an accomplished public speaker. What tips do you have those with fear of getting up in front of people?

Two things. The first is to know that if you have one more piece of information to share than someone in the audience already knows, then you are helping. I find that people are afraid to speak because they feel like they don’t have anything new to offer. Remember, the lens of your experience is unique and people always need reminders. You are valuable!

The second piece of advice I can offer is to remember that people are rooting for you. Attendees aren’t sitting and casting an evil eye – they’re there to learn and be entertained. Think about this when you get in front of people. Know that everyone is supporting you.

You’re a featured speaker at the upcoming Web Directions conference. What’s special about this event? What are you most excited about?

I met one of the founders of Web Directions, John Allsop, at SXSW in 2006. I had long admired his work and used it in my classes, and he proved to be one of the best people I met! I’ve been wanting to speak at Web Directions for years, and was finally invited to do so this year.

Sydney, Australia: home of the 2015 Web Directions Conference

I’m also really excited to go to Australia – I’ve never been – and a lot of my industry friends like Hannah Donovan and Daniel Burka are taking part. The crowd is sure to be amazing, and I know it’s going to be a great time.

A frequent traveler, how do you stay connected when moving around? How do you stay focused?

To stay connected, I make a conscious effort to see people I know when I travel. This includes friends, or in new places, digital contacts. Connecting with people makes places more feel meaningful for me. One thing I like to do is shop for groceries wherever I go – it’s an everyday, self-care thing. Restaurants feel less grounded.

For staying focused, I concentrate on the thing that is in front of me. If I can, I don’t think about things that are too far out. I use an email auto responder with my upcoming schedule, Calendly for meetings, and airline apps like Tripit to help take care of little details.

What was your proudest, professional moment?

This past June, I was the closing keynote at a conference in Columbus, OH (an hour from where I was born/grew up). It was the first time I was able to have my Mother at a conference. As if that wasn’t enough, my 91 year old Grandfather also came from Detroit to hear me speak, and friends from my hometown, including my favorite high school teacher, were also in the audience.

This was one of my best speeches as I was really on and felt an amazing connection with the audience.

I had structured my talk in a way that helped me really speak to technical attendees, and made it a point to tie in the opening keynote with several other earlier talks from the conference. I was so honored to receive a standing ovation from that crowd, and in awe over audience feedback. It was a really special, magical milestone in my career.

How do you maintain work/life balance?

I bracket my time carefully when I’m home, and make myself stop working by using alarms. I deliberately don’t work on weekends. I also recently decided to start imposing a ‘mandatory beach day’ for myself after each work trip. This comes after a recent four-day staycation in Palm Beach (my backyard) which left me asking myself, “why don’t I do this all the time?!”

How can someone overcome procrastination to be more productive?

Instead of focusing on doing the task, trying just getting ready to do it. Open your app or document, get your notes together, maybe jot down a couple of ideas. By just getting ready, you may be inspired to do it. Another trick to try is the Pomodoro technique — block off a small amount of time for the thing you don’t want to do, knowing you only have to work on it for a limited time. You’ll be surprised how easily it can kick you into gear!

What, if any, events/workshops/classes do you regularly attend or recommend?

I can’t recommend Improv classes enough. Not only do they teach you how to be creative, but they’re great for building self-trust. They also help you realize that you don’t always need to plan ahead, how to collaborate and rely on others.

BATS in San Francisco offers classes, along with IO in Chicago and Gotham City in New York City. Find a place and go!

Where can we find you online?

My website, Facebook page, and Twitter are all good places to keep up with me.

Last, how do you like your coffee?

I actually prefer a chai tea latte with soymilk over coffee (chai tea is the best!), but if I get a coffee it’s usually a decaf almond milk latte.

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