Ernesto Sirolli, president of the Sirolli Institute for Enterprise Facilitation and host of the Fall edition of the Innovation Talks 2017, shared with us the experience of a lifetime career in service of the passion of the entrepreneurs all around the world.
The key concept that emerges from your book, Ripples from the Zambesi, and your public speeches, is to help only those who ask for our help. Why do you think it is wrong to do the opposite, that is to try to ignite the motivation and passion of people who might have the potential but are not aware of it to the point of wanting to change themselves?
It’s wrong because it does not work. If it worked, then there would be no problems. For me it was an intellectual crisis, but also a personal and spiritual one, when I found myself after 7 years in Africa realizing that no International Aid project had succeeded.
The problems were way different than those we had identified from Rome. Getting to a foreign country uninvited and with the idea of having the solution to their problems without even knowing what they were, was the sign of an incredible arrogance. After seeing not only our failures, but also the failures of so many other nations, I became really interested in finding alternatives. My idea, very simple, was to say: what if, just for once, instead of arriving by offering our ideas, would we listen to local people to understand what their real needs are? That was the turning point. From that day, I have never looked back and my life has been completely transformed by the discovery that there is no geography of intelligence and passion.
To discover the local intelligence and passion you must have respect and know how to listen, something that Westerners do not succeed at. When we leave the University, as young graduates, we think we know how to help the world. It is a terrible moment of disillusion when we realize that we cannot actually help people who we do not respect.
Undoubtedly, your allegations about the damage caused by the ‘aid’ arbitrarily decided and delivered to the African populations, affect very much us Westerners, born and raised in the myth of fundraisers and humanitarian missions in third world countries.
Can you tell us, in order to better understand, the examples you think best describe the negative outcomes of these interventions?
There are so many examples. Some students from the University of Toronto have created a website called Fail Forward, where they interview those who have carried out humanitarian operations abroad and failed. I have tried those failures personally; the most fun story is the one about the hippos I have told during my Ted Talk.
There are some incredible examples that are impossible to predict. An NGO has created a series of wells to bring water into the houses of five African villages. Two years later, they realized that there were no more marriages. The women of those villages first went to the well and combined weddings, now that water is available at home they no longer have any reason to leave their villages. Since there is no other place for women to meet, the only space where they were free to interact has been destroyed. How do you anticipate such an outcome?
I would describe the engagement in economic development in Africa as a reverse trip with a three-tipper truck. A slight deviation at the beginning causes a dramatic deviation at the back of the truck, so that you cannot make it. The problem of African interventions is never related to what we thought to do, but it is related to the consequences that this tiny change provokes at both economic and social level. To thinking that we have identified a problem that we can solve is the sign of our great ignorance. By solving that problem, we create another ten.
The most striking and breathtaking case is that of the Millennium Villages that the economic development guru Jeffrey Sachs had created in Africa. Economic development cannot be tackled by only one component at a time, for example by educating children if they do not have a home to return to, or drinking water, hygiene, etc. Sachs has therefore created these villages where they took care about everything at the same time: education, homes, drinking water, hygiene, healthcare, technical courses, and job creation. The costs for creating this holistic development, covered by the Gates Foundation, were about $ 35,000 per person. When I ask the experts why the projects have all failed while the money was still on its way, no one can answer. Projects have failed because all neighboring villagers have moved to the village of the project. The super international experts have not predicted that it is not possible to intervene and save a village alone, because all neighbors will move to live there. That village has passed from 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants, all poor again.
I would advise everyone to read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, a Professor of Economics with a PhD at Harward. It is a very important book because it is written from the perspective of an African woman. Parachuting aid from above, in Africa, just does not work. We have to find different methods.
You are the Founder and President of the Sirolli Institute for Enterprise Facilitation, an institution that makes available to the passion, intelligence and imagination of people and communities, a particular professional figure, the Business Facilitator.
What is the main feature that distinguishes a business facilitator from a traditional consultant? What are the skills that are most often missing by the companies and entrepreneurs that you help? For how long is a business facilitator alongside your clients?
The main difference between a business facilitator and a consultant is that the facilitator is not paid by the client. It’s hard to tell to client that is wrong when he is paying you. I see a terrible crisis in the consulting industry coming on the horizon. Consultants and large consulting firms, instead of telling the truth to the CEO who called them, do whatever the CEO has identified. So, if the CEO calls a large consulting agency saying that they have a technology problem, the consultant puts 10 to 20 people to work on it. The problem may be the CEO, but who would ever say this to him?
Our business facilitators are never paid by the customer, but by companies or organizations that are interested in the development of the local economy. The good facilitator listens for 20 minutes and creates a relationship with the person saying: I am interested in your success and I will help you become very good at your business organization. You do not have to convince me; you just have to tell me the truth and in what business area you need help. I’ll help you find the right team.
There is no counseling school, while my business facilitators has been trained the same way for 35 years. They understand each other, speaking the same language. I have discovered, during my career, many self-taught counselors, ranging from extraordinary to very poor ones. I want to create a profession that maybe does not find individual genes but can drive incredible results. We have found out that if this figure is made available to all the people in a community, all those who are motivated, who want to engage in an economic activity, this person may represent a turning point for those who have the talent but have never started a business or it turned out to be unsuccessful.
I hope one day business facilitators will be as common as nurses, a profession that did not exist 200 years ago. We want to show that young, medium-skilled professionals can learn to master a job that transforms the opportunities for local entrepreneurs. The facilitator is always employed by the community and is always someone who lives there. Our Congolese facilitators, for example, have been trained by us, but they live in the community, go around using their means of transportation, speaking all the local dialects. It’s a big change from the idea of the white expert who comes to save you. We go to these villages only if invited by locals. We train a small committee that helps us recruit facilitators and then train a 30-40 people network that supports the facilitator in the work with clients.
The facilitator is always paid by third parties. It could be a mining company, hated by the community because seen as the invader coming to exploit the territory and leave after 20 years, leaving behind just desolation. We explain to these companies that if they want to be the heroes of the local community, they must help people to do at their best what they like to do. They pay for the facilitator’s salary, and he then helps the local populations for 20 years. So, on the day the mining company relocates, it leaves behind 200-300 businesses, not linked to the mining industry and transferable elsewhere. We have foundations, governments, private industries, all interested in helping the local economic development.
We have seen incredible transformations in a few months’ time. If, instead of giving money to the locals and buying licenses to operate, you are really committing with the community, the change in the attitude of the locals is almost immediate.
The results achieved by your work, and the work of the Sirolli Institute, are astonishing. An opinion, perhaps superficial and dictated by preconceptions, which may emerge, is that your working methods can find a good response in underdeveloped and developing countries, while applying less well to Western realities. What do you think about that?
I thought it too, but it is not true. The most upsetting thing that happened to me was four years ago, when I was invited to give a Ted Talk in a small village, Christchurch in New Zealand. I was convinced by my wife, even though I was skeptical. Statistically, people watching a Tedx videos are on average 400. I thought I could say what I wanted, because no one would have looked at it. I had 30 years of anger to express, I said very hard things about us white imperialists and colonialists, unable to listen. I also told a bit about how we help entrepreneurs and some funny anecdotes. What happened then totally surprised me. Thousands of Millennials came in contact with me from all over the world and I got 25 invitations from the world’s most important universities, from Stanford to Berkeley, and today I am here at Bologna Business School.
This was amazing to me. Before I did not realize the level of despair circulating among so many young educated people who finish their degrees and then try to engage in a world where feel lost because of the abysmal difference between business theory they have studied and entrepreneurship. I realized that what I thought to be my experience in facilitating relationships and the International Aid, in fact, also affects so many first-world students who say to me: I have this passion, my parents do not understand me and don’t know why I want to leave this course of study; I have a vision of who I should be, but I live in a society that expects me to insert myself as a dowel, a gear in a mechanism that I do not love.
I am realizing that our message, learned in developing countries, is absolutely valid for us as well.
Is there a moment in your career that you remember with particular pleasure? Would you like to share it with us?
The most beautiful professional moment of my life was when I helped five young Australian fishermen. They were alone, all bankrupt and not working together. They came to me one by one and when I found out they all had the same problem with the same product, I suggested that they work together and find a good sales manager. The wife of one of these fishermen was a very good accountant. I put on a small structure and the sales manager brought their product, fresh tuna fish, to Japan to sell it at the Tokyo fish market. I still remember the moment we received the message that the largest Japanese fish distributing company wanted to represent them. It was a remarkable thing because we spent just $ 1,000 for a market research that none of the Australian firms had ever done, transforming the lives of these fishermen. Before they sold tuna at 60 cents per kg and in one year they came to sell it at $ 15 per kg.
It has been such an extraordinary transformation that encouraged the entire village to come and talk to me. It was the beginning of a career that I have never left. I saw what happens when you put together the passion of those who produce with a sales manager that loves knocking on doors and selling and the passion of an excellent accountant who keeps the financial reins of the company. It was back in 1986. Then the Australian Government asked me if I could teach other people to do the same thing. This path has led me to create 55,000 companies around the world without ever giving money to customers. The thing I’m most proud of is that facilitators are local people, often very young, who bring a basic method to the clients that are passionate, but alone. What we always say at the Sirolli Institute is that loneliness is the entrepreneur’s death. If you are alone, you’ll never make it.