The path from emerging markets township to consulting partner is rarely traveled. Yet it is possible if you focus on what many others do not: do your job well.
There is an interesting pattern to burgeoning new suburbs bearing glamorous names like “Bel Air Gardens” or “Pacific Palisades”. Are you thinking about palm trees, the perfect blue sky and gigantic mansions? Please adjust your mental picture to a place where the closest ocean is 150 miles away, there are no gardens anywhere, let alone parks or bicycle paths.
The truth is they are usually the names given to ultra-low income housing projects in some of the most impoverished countries in the world.
Growing up, I pondered the following questions:
Do developers really think they need to market low-income housing to homeless people?
Is there a segment of the homeless population actually debating the merits of sleeping in a tin house versus a proper home?
Will the lives of the destitute really be brighter since the name is happier? I always wanted to meet one of these developers and understand the logic of their misplaced marketing budgets.
I had plenty of time to think about these things because I was born into such a low-income project in the middle of nowhere in a poor emerging market economy. In a town of poor people, in a very large family and on a combined income of US$350 in a good month, more than 50% less than the national average, we were somehow hovering very close to the bottom of the pyramid.
Before continuing, I will do a little timeout about why I wrote this piece. This article is extracted from a book every Firmsconsulting employee and partner receives when they join our firm. It explains the source of our values.
I chose to edit and publish this section from the book because a lot of clients from emerging markets, even those studying in the US, UK, Canada, Australia etc., write to me about the challenges they face in building their careers and lack of confidence they are battling.
I want to tell you that it is possible to be successful, confident and have the highest ethical standards possible. I became a consulting partner at a strategy consulting firm without any superior advantages. I simply focused on what others did not: I did my job well.
That may sound obvious, but most people do not do this.
Everyone else seemed to be more obsessed with marketing themselves, networking, building relationships and their image. I believed in demonstrated competency. The ability to do well, what one claims to have the ability to do.
It frustrates me when successful graduates of Harvard etc. and citizens of wealthy nations try to teach confidence to those born in tougher locations. It is not just frustrating, but personally offensive.
It is offensive because they are taking money from people with little income knowing full well that the so-called confidence building tools are completely irrelevant and useless.
Here is why.
Of course you would have confidence if you graduated from a great school and was born into a stable and prosperous nation.
Those born with such locational and educational advantages cannot ever understand the challenges of those born with little, because they never had to develop confidence from the base of those born with nothing.
Telling someone in Central Asia they can learn to be equally confident as you when they lack the education and locational advantages is completely misleading.
If the Harvard graduate’s confidence is primarily due to his or her education, then they do not have confidence, they just have a degree.
Make no mistake, I graduated from a great school and have great respect for my peers. However, I am referring to those graduates who create training programs for emerging markets students not knowing the issues those students face.
And do not get me started on those who tell you that you must be an expert on a topic to be confident. That is also the opposite of confidence.
It is exploitative.
Confidence is the ability to believe in oneself, despite a weak paper profile, when no one else will.
In fact, if you can only be confident because you graduated from Yale etc., it implies you actually lack confidence. If you can have confidence without fancy titles, imagine how effective you can be?
I hope those reading this piece will learn how to develop confidence independently of titles.
This article also helps you understand some of the pieces we published recently.
An earlier piece talks about an unusual approach I used to get an outstanding scholarship to succeed at a great university. I followed that up with a piece where I discussed why students from challenging backgrounds still struggle despite entering elite schools. I followed this up with yet another piece about why so many clients mistakenly pursue career competitive advantages when they should pursue career comparative advantages. I did another piece about how to ensure you do not engage in any ethical breaches.
In some ways, this is the prelude those articles.
I was the middle child in a large and financially struggling family. We lived a pretty basic life. There was a period for about 6 years or more of my life where I never bought any new clothing.
Though, I am not implying the other years were any better. It was basically a life of hand-me-downs from a sibling. We could only afford to buy clothing for one child around once every 2 years, and sometimes not at all.
Every shoe I owned had a hole at the bottom.
Walking to school in the rain was a fairly miserable experience since my socks were soaked through. Hot weather was worse. The tar on the road would melt, stick to my shoe and sometimes dissolve into my socks so I ended walking with a limp.
We had no lockers at school so I had to carry this massive backpack every day, huddled and limping in very hot weather. Kind of like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. At least he was immortalized in a book.
There were no choreographed recreational events during summer breaks and I basically meandered around the house helping my parents, working or doing nothing.
There were no community centers, malls or activity centers. The single Ping-Pong table was in the teachers’ lounge at school and that was clearly off-limits. It was basically a school, town hall, football field and tiny little convenience store within a tiny community.
Low-income housing is a term mostly associated with inner cities. Emerging markets are different. To modernize the countryside, which typically means taking farmers’ land to build infrastructure, the government usually creates these mini cities and towns in the rural areas.
Paying money for anything except to survive was a concept we could not grasp, so things like football camp, science camp etc. were luxuries from a different world. Paying for someone else to cook our food and serve us boarded on insanity. Getting a bag of crisps or a pie was a treat like no other. Sadly, that was the highlight of my week for most of my early years.
Like most poor families, we abused our time in the hope of saving just a few dollars. We would wait in long lines just to get a 10% discount or avoid a late fee. I could not relate to the teenagers I saw on US sitcoms or movies.
I watched “Back to the Future” several times and I could not fathom a world where teenagers like Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, not only had time and money to go to malt shops and movies, it was expected of them.
I felt I should be paying my parents to be brought into such a world. Not the other way around.
My only links to the outside world were the semi-liberal newspapers, a horrible state-owned and heavily censored television station and radio network, and a community library the size of my current lounge.
The newspapers we regularly read devoted just half a page to global affairs and the other half to business affairs. Two pages were generally dedicated to agricultural news. A prize cow could conceivably make both the front and back page of the same issue.
That left the library for education where I literally read every scientific and business book, which is not saying much given the size of the library. Almost everything I knew about US teen culture initially came from reading Archie Comic Books.
When I found those books less than useful, I figured out a way to spend extra time at the school library and get my hands on more useful material, like how to get out of a village in the middle of nowhere.
I read a lot. I read so much that I slowly became myopic. In hindsight, my reading is probably what saved me. It opened my mind to the possibilities of what existed outside my tiny village. Time Magazine was the first magazine I read and became a staple of my teenage years. Almost entirely due to the editorial drift of the publication, I now naturally think about the geo-political issues first before thinking about the economic drivers.
If I had read Fortune it would have been largely different. I never read Fortune magazine until I went to university.
Even my style of writing was influenced. Time pioneered the concept of the photo-essay where the broader impact of an issue was seen through the eyes of those affected. It is a style I adopted and feel most comfortable using. It is a very bottom-up style of examining issues.
Beyond reading, I had nothing else to do.
I learned how data could be massaged by watching the state broadcasters. They were experts at lying by omission and almost got away with it. Yes, our country had some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but they forgot to mention most of the country could not access it due to ethnic conflict.
Our surgeons were lauded for their world-first feats, but they practiced at hospitals, which were off-limits to all but a few of the elite ethnic groups.
Our military was well funded and feted in the press significantly, but largely from killing its own citizens.
We owned some of the world’s largest oil storage facilities, mainly because no one would sell us refined oil, despite the fact we had plenty of oil.
There is always a story behind the data and the economy was collapsing as capital was deployed on wasteful policies for the elite.
We remained largely oblivious to the larger political machinations. All that mattered to us was inflation’s impact on the price of basic food items and the interest rate, since all our large purchases like a tiny little radio was bought on credit.
We were not able to afford any imported goods so even the exchange rate mattered little to us. We had no clue about economic theory to realize the inflation rate, interest rate and exchange rate where all linked.
To tame inflationary pressures, we grew most of what we ate since my father had a huge garden and could grow just about anything. He was that good. There was a wide variety growing in any year: oranges, peaches, guavas, strawberries, peas, eggplant, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, cabbage, corn, mandarin, okra, lemons, peanuts, lettuce and cauliflower were the things I can recall and there were undoubtedly more varieties.
The snowy weather sometimes wiped out his crop, but he just persevered.
If he was good at business and ambitious I could have been an AgMag today. For those not born in the high-stakes world of agriculture, that means agriculture magnate to describe a farming tycoon.
Unfortunately, he also tried to grow chickens, which was one of his few messy, smelly and noisy mistakes. Although, that was better than our neighbor who unsuccessfully tried to herd sheep or our other neighbor who opened a full truck repair workshop in his backyard.
Strangely enough, trucks entered but never left his workshop, so it may just have been a front for a smuggling operation.
It has never failed to amuse me that in just about any major city in the world today, good vegetables cost more than meat. Yet, in that very same country’s rural areas, vegetables are really cheap. I grew up eating little meat due to its cost, and today spend a lot just to eat good vegetables. Am I missing something?
We could not afford any vacations and barely managed to buy a used car, which constantly broke down and needed to be manually pushed more than once through the hectic town traffic as we held up impatient drivers.
Trying to jump-start a heavy 1976 American hot rod on a flat road in baking heat was not fun. If I did a total-life-cycle cost of that car today, taking into consideration the extensive maintenance, lost time due to breakdowns and incidental expenses, it was clearly a vanity purchase which we should not have made.
Of course, then we would have to be willing to walk 2 kilometers and wait 3 hours just to save $4 on a pair of spark plugs. The poor do not understand the value of time, though they understand the value of money.
Since my parents could never afford a mechanic for our car, they were always trying to fix things themselves. I was never the son who would be getting his hands dirty fixing cars, I was a book worm, but I could not avoid the ceaseless discussions about radiators, CV-joints, brake pads, brake linings, engine blocks, spark plugs and ultimately, motor racing.
Our house was far too small for that to happen. It was my white noise. After a while, I needed it just to concentrate.
Once, I was travelling in the convertible sports car of a consulting partner, and I was an associate. I had been at the firm for 2 years and knew this partner well. I had never once come across as someone who knew much about cars or even cared.
We were driving up a hill and I made an off-hand comment that he needed to take his car in since his CV-joints were rubbing. He was blown away when the dealership corroborated my diagnosis. That is how much my family’s discussions about car troubles had permeated my brain.
I could diagnose car problems just by listening to the sounds.
Even today I can tap into an endless fountain of useless facts about Formula 1, Super Touring Car and European Off-Road racing despite never having watched a single race in my life. That never fails to surprise people.
My biggest adventure for most of my childhood was visiting the city to do our monthly grocery shopping at an outdoor market. I later realized established chains did not stock the food my people ate so we had to resort to outdoor markets with enterprising and unregistered merchants.
So we visited these sprawling open-air markets where meat, fish, vegetables and all manner of items were sold in baking heat, rain or hail. Everything could be negotiated and only an amateur paid the sticker price.
Our monthly food budget was roughly $100 and my parents made that stretch very far. Today a cocktail costs about $10 dollars in Toronto and a good meal is about $18. That alone puts it into perspective.
While we were poor, we never starved and always had enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner – though it was still a struggle. Although, eating so many vegetables was not pleasant. It is truly astonishing how far $100 can get you with crafty planning.
There was another big adventure, which was far more exciting. Once every 2 years we would also take an even more adventurous trip to visit my relatives in a sprawling slum. For 16 years these were the major events to which I looked forward.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Visiting a doctor was almost certainly out of the picture unless the pain was debilitating. Only dental surgery qualified for that kind of expenditure and the nearest dentist was also in the city: another reason for the trip.
Before we bought the car, we had to take highly unregulated and rickety taxis into the city and then walk a good few kilometers to a debilitated mall to see a dentist whose license had most likely been suspended.
Why else would he treat us? His practice was within a mall, which sold everything from toys to live chickens. Yet, he was cheap and took uninsured patients who paid in monthly installments.
We fit this description perfectly.
Despite cutting costs on everything from medicine to food, we constantly struggled to make ends meet and sometimes did not. My parents were always bartering vegetables from their garden for other food items or buying food on some eat-now-pay-later scheme, which probably was not legal.
My mother also had her own pseudo-bank-assurance program going were housewives would contribute money to a fund to be used for emergencies. Thankfully, it was never tested with a real disaster because despite their best efforts, I doubt any of those housewives had the skill to price risk.
Though I could be wrong, since my parents had the highest credit rating I have seen in my entire life. They had a perfect score. Having to buy everything on credit, and I mean everything, they understood that a poor credit rating was going to cost them in the long term.
So they would do everything possible to not miss the monthly payments required. They would even borrow money from neighbors to make those payments. To them, filing for bankruptcy or living in debt was not acceptable. They did not trust the courts in the least, and with good reason might I add.
Things were so bad so often; we could not even afford $2 for an electromagnetics textbook I wanted to buy. There were some protracted negotiations to increase my education budget. Though, when you grow up in a rural community where everyone is poor, you assume this is just the way it is.
I had never visited a restaurant until I went to university and had never been on an airplane until I was 19 when Bain & Company paid for me to attend a recruiting event. This was incidentally the first time I stayed in a hotel, visited a vineyard or attended a formal dinner.
It was also the first time I saw consulting partners trying to be cool by dancing with students. They more than succeeded. It was downright chilling to watch.
That was a good year for me in general. Several multinational firms came to woo me with trips to fancy locations and nice dinners. I put on some weight that year. A trend, which has unfortunately, not reversed itself since.
To this day I remain the only member of my family to have left the borders and travelled as extensively. My parents have never been on a plane, never stayed in a hotel and never quit working.
When I retired from the firm, my main farewell dinner organized by my team was almost 5 times my father’s peak monthly salary. If you add up all the farewell dinners I had, it was definitely more than my father’s peak yearly salary.
Though, I am getting ahead of myself here because I may need to explain how we ended up in this situation of trying to survive each day. Generational disadvantages played a starring role.
If you found this piece interesting, let me know through your comments below and I will consider adding more background material.
Michael Boricki is a partner and director, based in Firmsconsulting’s Toronto office.
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