Bain at One Young World – Optimism, wonder and possibility

Lidia OYW

I was gazing out of the bus window at the white and blue OYW badges hurrying out of the entrance of the Sandton Convention Center when a shy “Hello, can I sit here?” from the side of the aisle made me shuffle further to the right in order to make room for the new passenger. The minibus was about to depart for one of a number of breakout sessions around Johannesburg where the delegates could learn firsthand about the problems facing the local communities and the solutions being developed to address these issues. The topics of the off-site breakout sessions ranged from grassroots soccer in the fight against HIV and media freedom to leadership and starting your own business. Both my newly made friend and I chose the latter, preparing ourselves for a half an hour drive north of the center of Johannesburg where the Shanduka Black Umbrellas business incubator was located.

Over the course of the minibus ride the shy passenger sitting next to me opened up to share his courageous and inspirational story. He was a budding young entrepreneur from one of the less developed nations in Africa, excited to represent his country at the conference and eager to bounce his ideas off me about the multitude of potential ventures that he was planning to start. As I discovered through talking to him, the contagious optimism and relentlessness with which he seemed to pursue life were traits shaped or maintained through adversity rather than through good fortune. He came from a family of five that consisted of his mother, his two elder brothers, his younger sister and himself. In order to help feed the family when the times were tough as well as to pay for his little sister’s schooling, he started his first business – a small chicken farm – when he was only 15 years old. The business gradually prospered. However, when his mother fell ill, he sold off the farm to cover the cost of his mother’s medical treatment. Not long after that he won a scholarship to attend university and was now in his first year of economics and management studies, working hard on defining the details of his next business idea in his free time. Despite, or rather in spite of, battling obstacles along the way, he not only did not succumb to his circumstances but instead pushed forward, without resentment and with incredible drive that allowed him to see and act on opportunities where others would have seen despair.

The qualities of this young man that shone through during the conversation were in many ways a reflection of the broader atmosphere that prevailed throughout the One Young World Conference. This sense of optimism, wonder and possibility replaced the cynicism that we so easily/ happily allow to permeate most of our thoughts and interactions in our day-to-day lives. It was not, however, the naïve kind of optimism radiating from the 1500+ strong audience of delegates from around the world, but rather one rooted in a search for concrete and actionable solutions and disseminated by young people not afraid to take action, even if that action meant going against the crowd. The lesson that was demonstrated time and time again by energetic guest panelists such as Professor Muhammad Yunus or NASA astronaut Ron Garan and OYW ambassadors who kick-started initiatives post conference (such as Parker Liautaud and his upcoming expedition to the South Pole or Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh and Erik de Ridder who started InkuluFreeHeid – an online platform for young South Africans to engage in dialogue on the future of the country) is “there is no reason to wait, so whatever it is – just do it.” Sound advice that I also hope to stick to.

Overall I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for having had the chance to attend the One Young World Conference along with my amazing fellow Bainies from Chicago, Johannesburg, Tokyo, San Francisco and Delhi and I am excited to continue contributing to the social impact field at Bain and beyond.

As a final thought, I leave you with something that Arianna Huffington mentioned to us on the topic of media but that I think is applicable to the attitude that one can develop towards life in general: “we have a responsibility to cover solutions with the same relentlessness with which we cover problems.” If you would like to hear more of Arianna’s plenary address or that of any other guest speakers, do check out the videos on the OYW website that contains playback from all of the conference sessions. (Here is the direct link!)

– Lidia, Consultant, Moscow (on externship at the Ethiopian ATA)


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