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Our Encore Careers: Finding Purpose and Adventure in Africa

Why, and how, the authors of 'From Silicon Valley to Swaziland' did it


Former Silicon Valley high tech executives, my husband Rick and I took a 90-degree turn in our 50s to start encore careers that landed us first in Mbabane, Swaziland and then Nairobi, Kenya. We’re now back living in Los Altos, Calif. and wrote about our experience in our new book, From Silicon Valley to Swaziland.

How and why did we get to Swaziland?

We had been fortunate in our lives and careers. We weren’t rich, but had enough saved that we didn’t need to focus on maximizing our income. Also, our children seemed on their way to careers of their own; one was in medical school and the other nearly finished with law school.

Feeling the Urges to Give Back

For a number of years, Rick and I had periodically discussed what we would do next as we contemplated wrapping up our primary careers. Neither of us wanted to be heroic, but we both wanted to “give something back” and work on something of obvious benefit to society.

I took the first step. Feeling frustrated and unsatisfied, I left my career as a director of marketing in the high-tech industry and took time off to contemplate what to do next and how I might contribute to society. I worked with a career coach, who helped narrow my focus to three major themes: youth (especially young women), education and entrepreneurship. Next, I networked over a lot of lunches and coffees to explore potential opportunities.

When we’d talked about an international career assignment, I dreamed of places like Paris. I now knew I wasn’t going to those places.

A friend suggested I join the board of directors of Junior Achievement (JA) in Silicon Valley part-time while I continued to explore. Junior Achievement teaches young people the life and business skills they will need to thrive in our free-market economy — which aligned precisely with my interests. I immediately assessed that this JA needed help with marketing and developed a plan. The executive director loved it, convinced the executive committee of the board she needed someone to implement it and approached me. I was excited but hesitant, since I had expected more time off. In the end, the opportunity was too good to pass up!

The part-time job quickly evolved to full-time. I became JA’s vice president of marketing and then vice president of marketing and development. Though the job paid half of my former salary and I was still putting in long hours, I felt good about my work.

While I was at Junior Achievement, Rick was still pursuing his enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding career in the high-tech industry. He had been a partner in a large consulting firm, a senior vice president at a startup and a general manager in a software company. But four years after my switch, he was ready to contribute back to society, too.

A Quest Without a Background

He’d read Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and in Rick’s opinion, this defined the path to world peace. Paraphrasing, with apologies, Friedman’s idea was to get everyone doing business with each other to generate economic benefits for all parties. Creating enough economic incentives not to go to war would offset other causes that push people to war and, along the way, reduce poverty. So Rick decided to think big: his focus would be world peace.

To become knowledgeable, Rick read over 20 books related to international economic development and became convinced that building private enterprise was the best way to achieve sustainable success. Fortunately, Rick had a lot of experience and skills in helping private businesses solve problems and grow. So he began Internet-based research and networking to see if any organization doing international development might need those skills. He eventually talked to over 80 people in government, academia and large and small nonprofits or NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).

Although they were impressed with Rick’s business background, he kept hearing the same frustrating refrain: “But you have no experience in international development or even the nonprofit arena.”

Silicon Valley to Swaziland Book EmbedAs he spoke to people in the international development field and explained what he wanted to do, a number of them recommended talking to TechnoServe, a nonprofit whose tagline was “Business Solutions to Poverty.”Its mission was to grow businesses that could provide livelihoods for the poor. Rick arranged to meet with TechnoServe’s CEO who said that with his highly relevant business background, it would only take a year or two of international development experience to develop the credibility needed for a senior-level position in an NGO. And the CEO had a solution for where to get the experience.

TechnoServe had a volunteer consultant (“volcons”) program where people with business skills volunteered on its projects to provide business insight. Volcons got housing and $25 per day for food and incidentals; most were in their twenties or early thirties and had worked for prominent consulting organizations. Obviously, Rick and I were older, but we had a lot more business experience and could devote more time to an assignment.

It Wouldn’t Be Paris

Though Rick was immediately ready to sign up, I wasn’t. When we’d previously talked about an international career assignment, I had dreamed of places like Paris, London and Hong Kong. But when we talked about international development and TechnoServe, I knew I wasn’t going to any of those places.

I was willing to try living in a developing country, though, if Rick did proper research and planning. “However,” I said, “I have four conditions for the location: 1) There can be no flying bullets. 2) There must be hot showers. 3) There must be flush toilets. 4) And the name of the country cannot end in “stan.”

Several months later, we submitted our resumés to TechnoServe’s volunteer consultant program and immediately got back an email from Leslie, the country director for Swaziland, asking if we could move to Swaziland soon. The Swaziland program was new and primarily focused on coaching small businesses, so Leslie was attracted by Rick’s consulting background. Another program mandate was to set up a youth entrepreneurship program, so my experience at JA was also very attractive.

In less than a month we were living in Swaziland. Actually, I’d say, in some ways, Swaziland chose us!

Advice for Starting an Encore Career

If you’re considering an encore career, my advice is: Do something that will excite you. Don’t be constrained by old rules that limited you in the past. If you’ve had a wild dream, now is the time to go for it. Have an adventure — though, of course, don’t take unreasonable risks. Then, embrace the new and different.

Also: Do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Many people who have been fortunate in their lives want to start giving back to society. It turns out that “giving back” has personal benefits as well. Psychologists tell us that people who do things for others actually increase their own happiness. So, if you want to be happy, help others — there are lots of ways to do it.

Whether you take my approach of working with a career coach and networking or Rick’s, with lots of reading and researching, choose whichever fits your style.

Pick your own path to your future. This isn’t about what others think about you. What’s important is what you think about yourself.

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