Omnia Shawkat & Hend Salih
For many who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, Sudan was a hostile place. Dogma and fiercely strict ideologies were rampant. Youth who were just shaping their world views and drawing out life-plans had to adhere to strict, virtually inescapable blanket state lines without room for maneuvering. The ‘90s decade was a major brain-drain for Sudan; for economic, ideological, political and security reasons, many left the country behind seeking a better life. In parallel spheres, the internet was quickly becoming an essential tool and information technology and management was a burgeoning field. In this interview, we speak to Khalid Mohammed Ali, who upon graduating and finding a stifling and lagging technology environment, migrated to the US for nearly a decade torpedoing his career trajectory by several milestones. Upon repatriating to Sudan in 2008, Khalid forged his way into the Sudanese business ecosystem as a technologist and business manager. Through his journey we trace the path of the lost generation and how Sudan hurt many, only to benefit massively upon their return with business, technology and interpersonal tools that elevated local standards in a fast global race.
We’re sitting at the Impact Hub Khartoum, part of a network of more than 80 Impact Hubs all around the world. From inspiration to execution, how did you get here?
It started when I quit my job in 2014 to start a consultancy with my wife. There was an urgent need to rent an office. At the same time a friend of mine also started his own company, so we thought of finding one inexpensive space that could be suitable for both our companies without eating up our capital investment.
We had many conversations about how the economic situation in Sudan could be improved through start-up projects, especially with a huge population of young people who are currently untapped potential because of the lack of platforms that can spur their venture into business. We did some research around the region to see what could be done in Sudan to catapult start-ups and provide practical solutions that are cost-effective and scalable. We found the rising trend of co-working spaces and cultural centers that catered to and hosted young people with fresh ideas ready for market up-take in arts and technology among other fields. They provided services to enable communities to benefit from multiple aspects in a conducive environment that promotes innovation, creativity and sharing of ideas, resources and lessons learned.
This was the start for us. We looked up the large networks and found Impact Hub to be the most suitable for the Sudanese environment because of the wide-range of experiences gathered through the global network and individual hubs in similar, yet unique, environments. We started creating the concept with a keen aim of keeping it locally entrenched but globally connected.
What prompted the shift from corporate to personal business then community business?
I believe in a better future and in minimizing the challenges I have faced growing up, such as access to decent education and relevant knowledge in my field and to the global tune of development. There is no reason why young Sudanese men and women should face in 2017 the same challenges that we faced in 2000. I had the opportunity to travel, gain exposure and further my studies and career, and I believe there is a certain responsibility and duty to help the coming generation by plugging some of the gaps that I’ve gained experience in, that left unresolved will limit their growth and prosperity as it did to my generation. Progress happens through the accumulation of smaller wins that individuals are perfectly able to achieve.
What are some needs the current generation requires to make the leap?
Youth are rarely welcomed to participate in decision-making, and elders have a mindset that young people are lost and inexperienced. This led to a huge gap between the two fuelled by lack of communication and engagement. Young people deserve to be heard, that’s an inherent need, so they can shape the environment around them to the tune of their own needs of development. Given the chance, I think they have wisdom and stories to offer, as they are more exposed to the world due to globalization and digitalization. If youth have a bigger opportunity to participate actively in society by being consulted and considered, many of their underutilized and suppressed abilities will flourish. All what they need is guidance and a bit of monitoring to leverage their potential to the maximum benefit of society.
How about your generation, do you think you had a better opportunity to be heard?
No, the 90’s were most fittingly dubbed the dark ages of Sudan; everyone had their single version of truth and the ideological nature of the time allowed enforcement in one direction. There was a raging war at the time and as youth we had to complete our national service and play a role without having a choice. Some of us had to serve our country by fighting a part of it. This was very confusing and disturbing for us as a generation. We felt unwelcomed in our own country because we had no choice in how our life was shaped for us. The solution for many was to regain agency over their life choices; thus many immigrated.
Is there anything that could have changed the way things were?
Access to technology and digital platforms for sharing and exchanging ideas. Such empowering tools weren’t available at the time and thus our ability to interact with Sudanese and non-Sudanese people and opinions was limited. We had no exposure to the globe in the extensive manner we have right now with technology. Challenging the status quo using conventional resistance mechanisms was severely punished at the time.
So what are the interlinked responsibilities of these two generations?
It is important that the two generations are able to find connecting points and work together towards a better future. Seniors also need to acknowledge and understand the crucial role youth should play in shaping the future of this country, at the same time youth can use some wisdom from the more experienced. There is a need to highlight the problems clearly so all road bumps are mapped out, then to voice out the stories of small successes and transformations. When we examine history we can pinpoint how transformations take place, in Europe for example it happened over centuries through blood and tears. We don’t have to go through this same road of painful experiences to reach where they are now, a lot of lessons are clearly marked out and ready to be implemented to leap into the future from whatever context we’re in. We need to start with small transformations because change doesn’t happen overnight.
Let’s go back to your journey to the US and years of developing yourself and career; what were the milestones?
I studied computer engineering and there were very narrow job opportunities for this field in Sudan at the time. Along with the blurry political vision of the 90s era, there was an overarching general feeling of deterioration in the country, various industries and education. Upon graduation, I decided to go somewhere where I can expand my knowledge and exposure to the world, so I moved to Florida in the Eastern coast of the United States.
I worked as a PC assembly technician for one year until I saved enough money to go to graduate school, then I received a partial scholarship to complete my Master’s. Right before I finished I already had a job lined up at SPSS, a software company, which was a huge confidence boost for me. The difference in the educational system was clear to me; it focused on what students gained in knowledge and how they use it for problem solving. Innovation, invention and life-long probing into problems to develop answers and solution was a way of life that professors inspired and instilled in us throughout the program. They encouraged us to work harder and to create our own ideas then share them, whether in front of the class or professionally. They also taught us how to receive constructive criticism and process it to further our ideas. Learning to think critically and not to accept ideas at face value was also a milestone in my personal transformation. Through this system I went from a knowledge consumer to a knowledge contributor.
After working for a few multinationals, I got a chance to start my own consulting company in the US. The shift came after realigning my goals and deciding that the point wasn’t to get a decent job and high salary along the milestones trajectory, but to experience functioning in different work environments. Ultimately, progress is a function of the effort you put into your work; a job title hardly defines a person.
You repatriated to Sudan and rejoined its society at a different point in your life, and in the country’s history. Tell us about the journey back.
Going back to Sudan was a certain thing; I have always seen my immigration as a temporary phase. I was emotionally attached to my country and wanted to go back at a certain time, although I was comfortable there it was never a decision to be settled in the US forever. Things started looking up for Sudan after the CPA agreement was signed in 2005 and I wanted to commit to my goal of paying back some of my experience to the society.
The journey back started with setting and managing my own expectations, because with time priorities changes. My first priority was to return and be close to my parents to let them feel my presence around them, although they staunchly opposed my return. I knew there were risks depending on what I wanted to do here, but as an entry point, I used to visit on vacations and reconnect with my peers and explore how the industry is shaping up. There were a lot of services and businesses that started growing at the time, especially in telecommunication and oil sectors. By the time I returned in 2008 I already had a job
lined up, but I actually ended up with another company, Sudan Telecom. At that time I was tasked with running some of the company’s projects in West Africa, which was exciting because it required building things from scratch and that was what I was passionate about. The position also required frequent travel between the Middle East and West Africa, so it kept me a bit far from Sudan, which I still frequented for work but without permanent settlement.
Two years later I accepted another job with the same company but at the headquarters in Khartoum. I worked there for two additional years, and then started to think about the future. I thought about my role in society and what sort of impact I was having through my corporate job, and simply realized that the kind of impact needed cannot be done by one person, but has to be a collective effort with much deeper thinking and visionary planning. The corporate environment was limited in many ways, so I put as much impact into what I can and could do and decided to move on and start my own boutique consulting company with my spouse and most recently as a co-founder of the Impact Hub Khartoum.
You started your boutique consultancy with your spouse, how is that working out for you two?
Nafisa is a brilliant, capable woman whose potential largely surpasses what a corporate environment could offer her. She used to work for a corporate that somewhat limited her role but the comfort of a stable job kept her risk-averse for some time, especially within her very specialized expertise in brand strategy and customer experience management. Eventually she decided to take that risk, and it was important for me that she realized I support her ambitions. It worked out beautifully for us; we work in different disciplines, but the collaboration is strong, so it has been an enriching experience. Sometimes work tends to creep into life but we are keeping that in check and I would certainly encourage couples who can embark on such an adventure to start a business together.
Did many of your peers also repatriate to Sudan?
Moving back was always a huge point of discussions in my circle. After I came back, a lot of my peers asked about the situation but not many came back. Some did, and survived, while others couldn’t and swiftly left. It all depends on everyone’s personal experience and expectations of Sudan.
Do you have any plans of going back to the US?
I have come to the realization that boundaries don’t mean a lot to me anymore; I think I have grown beyond the geographical lines. As long as I’m serving a purpose that’s aligned to my values, it doesn’t matter where I am. I am not necessarily attached to a specific place, so I will stick to wherever gets me closer to living and practicing my purpose.
This article is part of the 5th issue on Migration, you can read the full issue here.
This post is also available in: Arabic