This week, we interviewed Samuel Mwangi, from a large NGO in Nairobi. Sammy is a Senior Business Advisor and helps the enterprises this NGO supports to get their businesses “together.” In all honesty, I learned a lot from this interview because I, too, didn’t completely understand what it meant to be a Senior Business Advisor in an NGO capacity.
- Having a science background actually helps you to become a better business person (scientific method, anyone?)
- Being able to conduct cash flow analysis is very important, especially at first glance
- The market is shifting to think less about what papers you have and more about what skills you bring to the table
So Sammy, tell me a little about your career background.
My whole career is based on a few things: As a scientist, I’m trained to think and find solutions to problems. As a development person, I am trained to identify gaps in society that need to be filled. As a business person, I’m trained to close gaps. So that’s how I see myself and my career. I was initially trained in botany and zoology, and then moved into getting trained in cross cultural communication and international development. I did consulting in the private sector in business development and supporting small entrepreneurs. In the end, I wound up in development. Also, I have been running my own businesses since I was 13 years old. Now being 32, I have 18 years of experience in business, and that has been my biggest gift.
What caused you to shift from science into development?
In my career, I started as a volunteer for one year in a Christian organization. Then, I did a course abroad in international development with that same Christian organization – an exchange program. That caused a shift because initially, I wanted to study Bioinformatics and system biology. But, through this experience, I became curious about using business as a tool for development – how can we use business as a tool to help bring people out of poverty. So that’s what I’ve been doing for my career life. Well, that and running a business on the side – that’s what you call side hustle.
What would you say your major day to day activities are?
Like it says in my title, I advise businesses – big and small. In order to do that, I deal with things like project management, business development with new companies, looking at the books to help them put together their records in better ways, linking companies to market, building business strategies, segmenting business ideas, giving people actionable points to focus on and achieve, and helping companies do financial analysis.
What is the skill you need for this job that you can’t live without?
Whenever I look at a business, I can look at the cash flow and know exactly what is going on. And because of my experience, I know what works and doesn’t work for the business.
What are your biggest challenges with your role?
I think my biggest challenge is that I am a perfectionist. Sometimes, I push myself too hard, and push other people around me very hard, and have very high standards for how fast people should do things. My role depends on a lot of other people – interacting with them and getting feedback. So sometimes waiting for that all to come together is frustrating for me.
What skills did you have to learn when you took this job?
Oh I have learned how to manage people – how to give and receive feedback, how to give support to my leaders and team members and to act as a guide rather than an authority about where a project can go. I have also learned how to be humble and be patient both with myself and others. What else…I have learned how to look at cash flows, balance sheets, and conduct financial analysis more critically. That was a big one. I had to take time to read books and grow myself in that area as well since I had dropped out of an MBA course. I actually might go back to complete an MBA course at some point to perfect my abilities.
What tech tools do you use on this job?
Microsoft Outlook is my best friend for planning of meetings. Of course Word and Excel. I use Excel for literally everything. Creating budgets, even note-taking sometimes. And hardware! My diary. That is one of my best friends. I like booking things into it and writing notes in it.
What experience (professional or academic) best prepared you for this role?
Science taught me how to think and be critical, and detailed. I love chaos and complexity because science trained me how to make sense of all of it – to create things out of messes, and I enjoy that. It also gives me a cutting edge because most people I interact with are trained in business. And so, my way of thinking is initially very different from theirs. They have knowledge that I don’t have, but I can be more critical and bring a unique perspective to things. Also, running small and large businesses myself helps me to also be critical and be very focused when I am analyzing a business, especially looking at the bottom line. I start from the bottom line and work upwards.
How has this job improved your professional skill set?
This job has really helped me for my next big thing. The types of people I interact with are very different and has helped me gain insight into food processing that I wouldn’t have gotten before. Through my job, I was able to get trained in the US in the food industry and meet a bunch of businesses over there. Seeing the structures they have in the US opened my eyes to possibilities we have here and increased my competitive edge.
What would be the next logical career step for you based on your experience in this position?
I think for me the next big thing would working at one corporation. That’s what I think would give me a lot of satisfaction in the sense that I can do focused business development for one corporation, and not many clients.
What advice do you have for job seekers about how to apply for a role in your field?
What I think is that the market is slowly shifting from looking at what papers people have to what people can be able to do. The trick will be seeing what people can do and then what gap the company needs filled. If you look at business people all around the world, they didn’t train in business. Most HR managers have degrees in psychology or sociology – degrees that are basically about interacting with people – but not only about HR. If you look at most CEOs of big corporations, you realize they have degrees in mathematics, physics, something not conventional. But they have been in the trade a long time and have become good business people. I think that value is the important part – people who can challenge themselves to apply whatever skills they have to find solutions. Not just people with papers in the industry. It doesn’t matter what you study, the point is that you can be whatever you want to be, just do it well.
Thanks so much, Sammy! I think this interview will be really helpful for people who are studying the sciences to think more broadly about their careers. I also think it will be interesting for people in the NGO sphere who have this thirst for growing companies, and have a business background.
Please comment with your experience in this role or with any questions in the comments section below, and subscribe to the blog to stay updated when we publish another interview. And as always, if you are looking for a job or are looking to hire in the NGO sector, please make sure to visit and complete your profile on www.dumaworks.com.
That’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned in for next week’s What It Take episode, where we will explore What It Takes to be a User Experience Designer (aka “UX Designer”).