For Upendo Minja and Patricia Kafoe, attending Chamber of Commerce board meetings in the United States went beyond just recording minutes — the experience was invaluable, as it empowered them with new ideas on business and community development that they hope to implement in their African organizations.
Minja, who is from Tanzania, and Kafoe, from Sierra Leone, participated in a five-week program designed to provide young “rising star” employees of chambers of commerce and business associations overseas with the opportunity to gain valuable additional leadership skills and professional development in the United States.
Both were in agreement that the program — Leaders, Innovators and Knowledge Sharing, sponsored by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — allowed them to see how volunteerism and community development work as nourishment to sustain business growth.
“What I enjoyed the most was the spirit of volunteerism and how people are very committed to community development,” said Minja about her stay at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Minja, a chamber development officer at the Tanzania Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, experienced firsthand how community development “brings people together.”
“They are ready to do anything to make sure that their community and economy is growing,” added Minja.
Kafoe, a business information officer at the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce, said that she will try to develop “an American business culture” at home.
“I saw so much communication between the business communities,” said Kafoe. “Everyone tries to develop their community and their organizations.”
Kafoe, who is responsible for maintaining and increasing her chamber’s membership, is planning to incorporate marketing ideas she learned during her stay at the Troy Chamber of Commerce in Michigan.
“We have limited services that can attract fundraising in our chamber, and in the ‘Just in a Minute’ program in Troy, I saw how businesses got together and in one minute they would explain what their business is all about,” said Kafoe.
“It was fundraising because people paid to go and everyone wanted to go to promote their business. It’s fascinating and instrumental. It takes a short time and it makes you communicate your position. It’s an idea that I want to bring back. And when you keep moving and host meetings in different organizations, it keeps people interested,” Kafoe added.
And keeping an audience engaged was exactly what she was able to do while at Troy.
“She brought people to tears with her charisma and her power of words,” said Michele Hodges, president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce.
“She left an indelible mark at Troy. The assumption was that she was here to learn but we learned more from her. Patricia let us know about what Africa could mean to us in terms of business transactions.”
CIPE partnered with chambers of commerce in five U.S. cities, which hosted participants from Bangladesh, Russia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Brazil.
Daniele Longo, vice president for business development and international trade at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said that participating in the program was a great opportunity to share information about how his organization operates.
Longo said that Minja worked on one-on-one business consulting and entrepreneurship building. He also added that she was able to see how his organization manages volunteers as she worked with some of the 1,500 members that give their time for the chamber’s community activities.
“She is fantastic, very open, very friendly, very easy to work with, and left lots of friends and we will miss her a lot,” said Longo.
But perhaps the chance to work with Minja might just be a click away.
“We are working on a cooperation program where from the United States’ side [through Skype and new video technologies] we can provide counseling and expertise, and from the Tanzanian side there could be a lot of entrepreneurs interested,” said Longo.
And interest about Tanzania has grown, as Minja didn’t miss an opportunity to talk about her country when giving presentations in international programs, schools and board meetings.
“Most of the businesspeople in Kentucky did not know much about Africa, and especially the country I am coming from, and wherever I presented something about my country and the opportunities we have for business they were very interested and some of them want to come to Tanzania,” said Minja.
Minja, Kafoe and the other program participants were in Washington in December, where they met with officials of nonprofit organizations and the U.S. government.
And they were all in agreement: the lesson learned was that community development is key to business development.