Financial services

Assimilating to a new culture: Sara Speed’s lessons learned

Sara Speed of Alter Domus reckons that when one path closes, another path will always open up.  Image credit: Maison Moderne

Sara Speed of Alter Domus reckons that when one path closes, another path will always open up.  Image credit: Maison Moderne

Sara Speed says “spending time living and working in a culture that is very different to where you’ve grown up, it really opens your eyes to the world,” in this instalment of “Lessons learned”.

Today Speed is a director at Alter Domus, a fund services provider specialised in the alternative investment space, and a vice chair of the British Chamber of Commerce for Luxembourg.

Aaron Grunwald: When did this experience happen, where were you working at the time and what was your role there?

Sara Speed: This was back in 2004. I was working as an audit manager for a big four firm here in Luxembourg. So I’d been to the UK for university, and I started with this big four firm in the UK and did my training there as a chartered accountant. Then I decided I wanted to come back to Luxembourg, because this is where I grew up. So I transferred to the Luxembourg firm, and really came back because I was missing that multilingual environment. And then here, I met my partner, who’s now my husband. He had grown up in West Africa and had always, I think, harboured a desire to go back home, and try and contribute in some way to the development of his country. So we decided to basically just resign from our jobs, pack up all our stuff, put it in a container, and move to Benin in West Africa and just give it a go, really.

The idea when we got there was to start our own auditing business. As independents, obviously, that was what we trained for and that was what we knew. We thought we were coming from a high-quality western firm. And so, you know, we felt that we would be able to add a lot of value to the market in Benin.

So you’ve arrived in Benin and you’re setting up your practice. What were the challenges that you faced there?

Working for a large multinational firm and then setting up your own startup business is not at all the same thing. And even though we spoke the language--the business language is French--and even though my husband, or my partner at that time, this was his country, you know, working there as an adult in the 2000s was very different than growing up there as a young lad in the 70s and 80s. The professional environment was very, very different. The culture was different. That, I would say, ultimately was our biggest challenge. We saw it on several levels.

Before we left, I remember one of my audit partners said to me that he wished us lots of patience. When he said that, I didn’t know quite what he meant, but he was right. Because we were used to working in a fast-paced European environment, where deadlines, decisions, transactions, everything is done quickly, [and people are] used to working very long hours. And Benin is not at all the same. So the pace of life is very different. Business and government administrations move very slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly. We learned the art of waiting in waiting rooms for hours, and then going to a meeting where perhaps no decision was being made. So we had to really learn to slow down, and not expect that everything was going to happen quickly.

The other challenge that we faced was that we realised, fairly quickly, that the audit market would be difficult to penetrate in Benin, because the local dinosaurs, if you like, who had set up their businesses in the post-colonisation era, had no intention of letting people like us come into their market, disrupt it and take business away from them. So, for example, we had to get our qualifications recognised by the ministry of education, so that we would be able to act as auditors and sign off as auditors. And that was super, super difficult. We worked with people who we thought would be willing and positive to help us and then you realise afterwards that no, even if they’re perfectly friendly to your face, they’re actually working against you behind the scenes. It was quite a wakeup call, I suppose.

In terms of corruption and the levels of corruption that you see in Africa, it’s at every level. From the junior clerk up to senior positions. And to be honest, I’m sure it exists here too, in some ways. But there, you really do come to understand that it is everywhere. And you have to figure out how to navigate that, and figure out what your own boundaries are. So paying $10 to get a stamp in your passport to cross the Nigerian border is not the same as paying something to a senior official who considers that you’ve got a contract because of him. That was something that we had to think about and contend with--how we maintained our own integrity. For me, for example, as a UK-chartered accountant, I have that professional qualification and I don’t want to jeopardize that in any way.

On the other side, it’s just sort of the classic startup problems. So, you know, you’re your own IT manager, your own office manager, your own finance manager. You run out of paper in the printer, there isn’t a nice stationery cupboard that’s full of paper, you have to go down to the shop and buy some more. It’s really basic things like that, but you have to learn how to run a business. And that’s good.

Then, of course, for me, it was learning, I was the white foreign woman in a very patriarchal African society. So, I had to consider how I comported myself in meetings, depending on who I had in front of me, who sometimes were very senior officials in state businesses or in government ministries, and they have their own perceptions of their own importance, etc. How I responded to them and how I convinced them of my credibility, if you like, because there can be quite a lot of, ‘you the white people coming to tell us what to do’. You come across resentment like that.

So how did you deal with that?

I was quite open in terms of adapting so that I would assimilate to their culture. And so, for example, I used to wear African dress, local dress, which a lot of women do in Benin. Even if they’re working in a high level position, they can be very well dressed, but with traditional cloth. I actually used to do that sometimes and I think it helps people understand that I was trying to be part of them.

The fact that I spoke French actually was a big help. I did learn that French in Luxembourg and French in Benin is not the same thing, because French in Luxembourg actually can be quite anglicised. I realised that a lot of the accounting vocabulary that we used in a big four [in Luxembourg] were English words with a French accent. And I had to learn, you know, some new vocabulary, which is the ‘real’ French vocabulary for certain accounting terms.

Then, just not being overly aggressive. Sometimes you can come across as a white person, and I saw this with other people, insisting on your points of view. And if you’re too aggressive, it just doesn’t work. That’s not how, I’d say, Benin culture sees how women should act. So it’s a question being more subtle and being more persuasive.

But you did ultimately get your qualifications recognised, right?

Well, no, we didn’t. We never actually became formal auditors. So that was one of the other challenges. We really had to pivot our business model, to provide other services. And so we became more of a consulting firm. We provided accounting and tax compliance, which is quite ironic, because that’s sort of what I do now. In terms of what Alter Domus does, it’s ultimately the same type of thing. And we did a lot of professional training. So, in fact, some of the skills that my partner and I had developed here [in Luxembourg] and [giving] a lot of professional training internally in a big four firm, we took that and developed courses, and then sold those to some quite significant businesses in Benin. That proved to be pretty successful, because I think we were one of the few suppliers of those types of training courses, particularly around soft skills, for example. That’s how we overcame the challenge of not being able to do what we originally planned, but really then having to think and adapt and say, ‘Okay, well, this is how we can use the skills that we’ve got’. And ultimately, I was contacted by a pan-west African telecoms group who needed a finance director in Benin for a project they were working on. And so I went to work for them on secondment, as a consultant but full time, for several years, actually. And that opened up business all over Africa afterwards.

You arrived in Benin in 2004. How long were you there?

We were there till late 2008. Then we went to Kinshasa [in the Democratic Republic of Congo]. We were working on another telecoms project in Kinshasa for about a year, till 2009. [The project] then actually did fail completely, it lost its funding. And that was when we had to make a decision whether we stayed in Africa or to come back to Europe. Ultimately, we did come back to Europe, partly just because I was offered a good position here.

So, for you, what are the lessons learned from this experience? And what advice would you give other people who are looking at maybe moving to a country that is very different from their own?

Definitely, for me, spending time living and working in a culture that is very different to where you’ve grown up, it really opens your eyes to the world, to how perceptions are different. I think you can very much feel that where you are is the centre of the world. And when you do go out further afield, you realise that you’re not. Everyone has their own centre, and there are lots of different centres. So it really awakens your curiosity. And it’s something then that you that take with you everywhere you go, because you’re always open to understand and accept differences and accept that not everyone’s perspective is the same as yours.

For example, I’ve thought about it quite a lot, actually, since I’ve come back, because I’ve been in professional environments since I came back, where you’re in teams that are very homogenous, i.e, people have the same nationality, they grew up in the same country, they went to the same universities, and then they followed the same career path. And so it can make for teams [where] everyone thinks the same, because they all have the same perspective. It can be a very comfortable environment, because everyone agrees with each other. But I think it can also lead to bad decisions. So I’ve always valued teams where people have come from a variety of backgrounds, a variety of educations, because I think it can be more interesting and ultimately, it can really open your eyes to options that you might not even consider....

My advice for someone is that, if you do have a project or an idea that you want to pursue, I would just say, ‘go for it’. And it doesn’t matter if you fail, because at least, even if you fail, you have tried. And I would argue I don’t really see anything as failure. It’s just, you go down a path, and if you need to adapt or change your project, you’ll always find another path and continue going down it.

I would really encourage anyone who wants to try something new to just do it. Because, certainly for me, those years in Africa have been extremely valuable both personally and professionally. I wouldn’t change any of it.