This interview was first published Oct. 19, 2010.
Matt Doka, age 24, grew up in El Paso, Texas and graduated Coronado High School in May, 2008. He graduated with a degree in Finance and in Material Science Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. This summer he moved to Africa to work with Technoserve, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to improve the productivity and incomes of farmers in underdeveloped nations. Matt’s task: to help dairy farmers in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya who are part of Technoserve’s East African Dairy Development project (EADD) to receive more money for the milk they produce. EADD works with dairy farmer co-operatives, typically 1,000-3,000 farmers in size, to increase milk production by promoting modern dairy practices and to provide a strong, stable market for their milk by advising these co-operatives through the process of financing and setting up a chilling plant facility to better preserve their milk.
How did you get interested in consulting in Africa?
Before I answer that question, let me explain how I ended up in consulting in the first place. I have always been interested in entrepreneurship, but until senior year at Penn, my focus and experience had been heavily weighted towards the finance industry, including working in the Media & Telecom mergers and acqusitions group at Morgan Stanley, an investment bank in New York, and a hedge fund that invested in currencies.
While I did not enjoy investment banking, I loved the intellectually rigorous experience I had in the hedge fund world. But I was ultimately drawn away from finance because of the lack of skill development in entrepreneurship.
Why did entrepreneurship matter so much? When I was a freshman in high school, my dad, who is an ophthalmologist, met an orthopedic surgeon from Colorado who had opened a 10-room hospital, 8 hours south of El Paso, in Chihuahua’s Sierra Madre Mountains to serve the local Tarahumara Indians. My brother and I would go down with them on 4-day trips to serve as translators and clinic screeners while my dad performed surgeries and conducted exams for those who really needed them.
I loved the experience. It was incredibly rewarding to see the impact God allowed my dad to have on the lives of these impoverished Indians, especially the times when we saw inexplicable recoveries on the few surgical cases that had complications. My experience there left me with a burning desire to have a skill set that could be used in similar ways of serving.
When my parents took us on a 2 week trip into Central Mexico with Medical Missions International before my freshman year at Penn, my desire to have service and adventure in my life was sealed. My brother and I discovered a picturesque, enchanting side of Mexico we had never imagined before, and a people just as interesting and in very real need of help. Those experiences played a key role in my decision to pursue both business and engineering, my decision to go into consulting, where I believed I could develop such a skill set, and, most recently, my decision to join Technoserve as a volunteer.
But you might be wondering, “Why not just volunteer in Latin America?” My desire to serve in Africa started with World Vision. I began donating to them at 8 or 9 years old, probably in part to please parents who so admired the organization (I think I even wanted one of my birthday presents to be from their catalogue). Since then, World Vision has always been a part of my life. However, it became a much larger part when, as a senior, I heard Richard Stearns (CEO) share his story.
During his first week on the job, he flew to Kenya and while there, met two orphans the same age as his own children. The children were warm and welcoming, strangely hopeful in the midst of such a difficult life, but their eyes belied their youth, for sorrow and suffering had made them infinitely older than their age. He left that conversation a different man. “Being on the ground” had broken his bubble forever, and from his story, the seeds of my own desire to “be on the ground” were planted. And 2.5 years later, here I am, fulfilling that dream!
A lot of Penn grads leave the Ivy League to seek their fortunes in business. Why did you want to go work instead for a nonprofit group that is trying to help others improve their lives?
In addition to the reasons above, to leave a desirable career at the best consulting firm in the US and go down the path of volunteer work, I had to believe 2 things:
1. The usefulness of my life is not measured by how much money I make: I’ve found money is a surprisingly easy and deceptive way to measure how useful or meaningful your life is. When I was looking for summer internships and post-graduation jobs, there were plenty of times when the first thought that came to mind on considering a job was the potential earnings from it. Sadly, justifying that you’ve spent your time in a meaningful way is much harder than that.
2. I was okay with whatever lack of security or comfort resulted from stepping off the “rat race” career track: I’ve found that the longer you worked in a job that provides adequately for your needs, the harder it becomes to pursue things that lack that steady, calming sense of provision, especially unpaid volunteer work. That’s a bigger hurdle than a sense of personal validation – it cuts to the core of your assumptions about life. With a belief that you are fully in control of all aspects of your life often comes a belief that you are fully responsible and on your own in whatever the worst-case scenario might be. This drives a lot of risk-aversion.
Knowing that God is sovereign over my life and has a purpose at work in all things gave me the strength to let go of the temptation to think I could stay in control of risk by remaining in a “safe job.” He created me to have a passion to pursue volunteering (and afterwards, start a company with friends). So I thought, “If my future works out well, He’s the one who paves the way for that to happen, and if things are challenging, then He’s also allotted that, and it’s my task to honor God and learn as much as I can in either situation.”
Describe a little of what you do. How do you go about accomplishing your goal?
My part of the project focuses on the relationship between these farm co-operatives and the only big dairy processor in Uganda, Sameer Agriculture and Livestock. To put it simply, Sameer has somewhat of a stranglehold on the processed milk market (but not the raw milk market), so I’m trying to work with Sameer and these co-operatives to ensure farmers can earn a good living as suppliers to the processed milk market.
What do you like best about your work and about being in Africa?
1. I’ve learned a ton about the how behind development work – its history, many of the pitfalls made in the past, the effects of wrong assumptions that many in the states, especially politicians, operate under, and, most importantly, seen ways that a country or continent can be developed in an equitable, sustainable way.
2. The cultural experience: from the beautiful places I’ve been able to travel and see, the rural farmers I’ve met, and the immersion in a way of life so different from “American.” The world as I know it has been incredibly broadened. Living and working in Uganda has brought to life what was simply sterile words on textbook pages.
What has been a highlight of your time there?
Adventure-wise, I really enjoyed traveling to Kenya’s vast Masai Mara, a park that rests at the northern end of the Serengeti, during the Great Migration, where wildebeest and zebras migrate north from Tanzania, seeking greener pastures.
People-wise, these brief trip adventures reminded me of what doing life with Westerners was like in the midst of a daily immersion with Ugandan colleagues and friends. That taught me something I value greatly – I’m wired to do life with people who have a Western frame of reference, much more than many of my fellow expats. And of course, that leaves me with a new question to answer: how good would my fit be with Latin American culture?
You’re a long way from the U.S. How do you deal with loneliness, discouragement or with any inner doubts about the journey you’re on?
I touched on this a bit above, but the vast cultural canyon between the Ugandans and I creates a surprising sense of loneliness despite the fact I’m in the midst of a bustling, active city. Even small things like office gossip in the strange language of Lugandan or playing songs that I’m especially fond of can bring a sudden nostaligia for home and a sharp sense of loneliness.
How do I deal with it? Primarily, I rest in a strong conviction that this is where I’m supposed to be and that God is allowing me to learn a vast amount of things by simply being here and experiencing so much. The foreignness that drives loneliness also happens to be an excellent teacher. I also do practical things like keeping in touch with my close friends from home and not spending too much time in my dorm-like single apartment. Finally, I’ve started to develop a good group of expat friends, though the turnover in Kampala is even higher than New York – expats my age typically spend a matter of months here before moving on, so you can imagine how hard it is to develop sustainable relationships with people like yourself. So to round it all out, I’ve been trying to get involved with a local church and make as many local friends as I can.
How many years do you expect to work on this particular project? What long-term plans do you have?
My tenure here is actually only for a few months, and I would recommend 3-6 months period for anyone initially considering volunteer work in another country as it’s long enough to fully immerse yourself in the country but still allow long-term flexibility. My time here is bounded by my plan to start a company with two of the closest friends I made while I was with my former employer, McKinsey. I’m really excited for the opportunity to actually be an entrepreneur, and look forward to opportunities in the future to playing the role of an development investor or entrepreneur instead of an advisor.
… Now that I have a better sense of what economic development looks like, my goal is simply to develop, invest in, and even run businesses in developing countries. The time I’ve spent working with Technoserve has taught me a lot about the types of business models that are most relevant to development work and has also provided a lot of experience with many of the issues that businesses in developing nations face, especially with logistical issues, regulatory problems/corruption, and people development.
What lessons have you learned that will stick with you?
I’ve learned a lot of development work is, at its best, advisory (i.e., we provide business advice and connections to financing and good employees to our farmer co-operatives). Because we’re constrained to provide advice, I have felt powerless to capitalize on a lot of the great opportunities I’ve seen in the dairy industry because I cannot play the role of investor or entrepreneur. In the long run, I do want to be involved in development work, but as an investor, building real business in the developing world, because I believe a socially conscious business is both the most broadly sustainable for the country and the most personally rewarding for me.
And briefly, the worst kind of development work is handouts! I feel like many Americans are driven by guilt at the disparity between their wealth and the poverty in the developing world and donate accordingly. But guilt is often a poor motivator – it would be far better to spend less but take more direct action and responsibility. Unfortunately, it takes more effort than we want to expend to teach men to fish. It’s far easier to just give those who don’t know how to fish a steady ration of fish for the rest of their lives.