Anyone who’s been fired from a job knows how devastating and paralyzing it can be. But take it from New York native Cherae Robinson: Getting fired could be the best thing that ever happened to you. Named one of the “Top 10 Emerging Women Entrepreneurs to Watch in Africa,” Robinson founded Rare Customs, a consulting company that connects clients to Africa through travel and emerging business opportunities.
When you see someone who has a rewarding career, chances are they’ve stumbled quite a few times before finding success. So on the heels of Robinson’s her recent $10,000 She Leads Africa win, Black Enterprise caught up with her to learn about the “aha moment” that turned her passion into profit.
Describe the moment when you decided to start Rare Customs.
I spent nearly a decade working in international development. I was traveling a lot and had what most people would call a dream life, but it felt empty. After traveling across Africa and South Asia, meeting dynamic people and having cosmopolitan experiences, I began to feel jaded by the process and out of place “selling poverty.”
I was mentally drained and living in Mexico City, but I wasn’t ready to move on from the path I had set for myself. So I accepted a new role working in New York at an Africa-focused nonprofit founded by a celebrity. Within two weeks of moving to New York, I was fired because the CEO thought I didn’t want to be there.
I switched tactics to work for a healthcare startup. Although the CEO loved me I was fired again because “it was obvious that my passion was elsewhere.”
Once again I tried the international development route. The offers started to roll in but I was paralyzed. I couldn’t bring myself to walk into a role I wasn’t passionate about.
My friend and now business partner had been proposing the idea of doing a travel startup. I finally sat down and created a pitch deck for Rare Customs to connect people to hip experiences in Africa. I didn’t even know who I was pitching to, but I knew that if we were going to be successful I had to be ready.
A few weeks later, I went to D.C. for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and was introduced to the person who would eventually become our first adviser. I showed him the deck on my iPhone – he loved it and gave us a much-needed vote of confidence. I never looked back.
Why do you think it’s important to connect people, businesses, and organizations to Africa?
Africa is the world’s next growth opportunity. Whether it’s about solving some of our world’s great challenges or making the world’s next billion, the continent has more potential than anywhere else on this earth.
I’ve spent time with descendants of Africa everywhere from Mexico to the Netherlands to southern India, and, unfortunately, poverty is universally associated with the black experience. This equation has to change. I believe transforming the conversation and building the connection with the continent is a major step in doing this.
When you discussed your business idea was the response positive? Did you need to do a lot of convincing?
I sent my pitch deck to friends and family and there were “crickets” — maybe one person responded but no one was interested in having a conversation. Everyone knew me as having a successful professional career, so switching gears to entrepreneurship didn’t fit the plan.
I took a break from talking about the business to friends and family and really worked on building it. I didn’t talk about it again until I made the finals of She Leads Africa.
You recently won the She Leads Africa pitch competition. Can you give us 3 to 4 tips for delivering a winning pitch?
Winning She Leads Africa was amazing!
- Be sure to answer, who, what, when, and how. Not only should you demonstrate your vision and goals, but also briefly illustrate how your company will grow — a growth plan slide can help with this.
- Be clear about what the investment opportunity is (not the need) and illustrate how you are going to use the money.
- Be visual and tell a story. Don’t read the slides. Reading off of a slide is the surest way to lose your audience.
- Be you. I watched tons of pitch videos before heading to Lagos. While I garnered tools to use in my pitch, ultimately my personality and competence led and were the winning ingredients.
What advice would you give others looking to expand their career or business overseas?
- Understand your craft, not your job title. Consider the value you bring and how it fills any gaps in the market.
- Mix business and leisure travel. This allows you to really see opportunities and maximize your time in a location. The more people you know on the ground, the more people there will be to support you and connect you to resources.
- Learn one or two languages. Knowing the language is still a strong signal that you are dedicated to the market and its people.
Kandia Johnson (@kandiajohnson) is a communications strategist, writer, and world traveler. She is dedicated to empowering audiences to tap into their hidden potential to achieve success. Driven by a passion to help people and organizations turn vision into reality, Johnson creates content that educates, engages, and inspires.