Josh Bicknell set up Balloon Kenya – an award-winning social enterprise working to defeat poverty through entrepreneurship.
If not corporate, then what?
In 2009 I was feeling something that I’m sure many of you can relate to. I was about to leave university and really didn’t know what to do with my life. Well, it wasn’t that I had no idea about the future. I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want the corporate life, the morning commute, the desk in the flashy office in London.
The only problem was I had no idea what I wanted to do instead.
How I became interested in Kenya
So to delay having to make this difficult decision I headed off to Vancouver to do a MA in Politic Science. During my time studying in Vancouver I became really interested in the causes of ethnic violence and convinced my department to let me visit Kenya in the summer of 2010 to interview members of the different communities that fought in the 2007-08 post-election violence.
Poverty and fighting
While in Kenya what struck me most was the impact of poverty and unemployment. For a start, it was only the poor fighting. Some were paid to fight. Most were fighting for a better and more prosperous life for themselves and their families.
But it wasn’t just the direct results of poverty on the violence that were so troubling. It was the much wider influence on society – the anger and disappointment of the current generations and the fear of what future generations will do. As Betty, the manager of an orphanage with 115 young children said, “I really don’t know what our children are going to do when they finish school. They will have to find work but there are no jobs here. I fear some could end up back on the streets…”
The frustrating catch-22
I returned to England understanding the desperate need for jobs across all sections of Kenyan society. At the same time I was increasingly frustrated by the lack of job opportunities in the UK for fellow ambitious young people who wanted to pursue meaningful and exciting opportunities in life.
Whilst interning I met Doug who was feeling a similar frustration, fed up with being told that he “didn’t have enough experience” for entry-level positions. We both had enough friends facing the same challenges to know that there were plenty of others feeling the same way.
Setting up Balloon Kenya
Together we decided to set-up Balloon Kenya to address these two social issues directly, believing that the passion and commitment of UK graduates combined with the energy and drive of young Kenyan men and women could be a force for profound change.
For 6 months we listened to a lot of negativity. People telling us that we were too young and inexperienced to embark on such a challenging mission. That the young people we recruit will not have the knowledge and expertise necessary to create successful businesses. And for 6 months we listened politely and carried on. Because we have faith in the capacity of young people to achieve remarkable feats.
We are now 14 months into our journey and we have made good process. We are just coming to the end of our first full programme in Kenya and in September we will be taking another group of passionate young people to Nakuru to work with over 150 unemployed but ambitious Kenyan youths supporting them to launch new businesses that provide jobs in disadvantaged communities.
3 things I learned
There have been many difficult moments on this journey but briefly; here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
1) The only thing that can overcome fear is passion. When you start something ambitious, lots of people will tell you it’s not possible and you’ll fear failure and your reputation if it all goes wrong. Only if you have real passion for what you are doing will you be able to conquer this fear.
2) Break your project into little stages. Don’t think about what you need to achieve in 6 months because you’ll be daunted with the scale of the undertaking. Instead break it down into little chunks. What do I need to do today? What can I do this week?
3) Take the chance, especially if you’re young. You have little to lose. No one is relying on you to support them. And even if it all goes wrong you’ll gain incredible experience and be taking on responsibility not available elsewhere. And it will be great fun!