Contributed by Owen Sanderson, Blakeley Fellow 2014
“How’s your summer going?” I have been asked this question countless times from friends, family, and former colleagues since landing in Nairobi four weeks ago. This open-ended inquiry is usually followed up with, “What’s Ushahidi like and how are the people?” While I cannot claim to be an expert, the last month working in the Ushaverse (the collection of enterprises and initiatives launched by Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, David Kobia, and others) has provided me with a healthy taste of life in Kenya’s magnetic entrepreneurial tech scene. And I am happy to report the experience has been incredibly positive.
Over the last six years since graduating from college, I’ve worked for a number of different organizations. Each one maintains a unique feel. Some are massive, with thousands of employees seamlessly operating around-the-clock. Others are smaller in shape and more defined in purpose. A few are global with networks that stretch from Boston to Bangalore. Ushahidi manages to straddle the line between a local outfit and an international enterprise. It is global while remaining lean and agile. This is a beautiful thing. Despite having less than 30 full-time employees, Ushahidi manages to operate worldwide. There have been over 60,000 Ushahidi deployments in 159 countries since Ushahidi launched in 2007. Enabled by a combination of open-source platforms and whip-smart staff members, Ushahidi has unquestionably created an international impact and recognized brand.
So what is the secret sauce that brings this small yet potent cohort of bloggers, coders, policy wonks, and ultimately leaders, together? Passion and good humor. Consider this: Every Monday the Ushahidi team logs onto Hipchat and connects to a global conference call. The weekly touchpoint provides an opportunity for Ushaverse employees to inform their colleagues about product breakthroughs, solicit advice on thorny deliverables, and advertise upcoming events. But besides these professional updates, the weekly call offers a chance for our remote team to connect. This week’s call included way too many bad puns, a bounty of baby pictures, and epic travel stories from the field. At first glance, these virtual updates seem silly (and some may say unnecessary); but I believe they help bind together a remote team spread across time zones. They represent Ushahidi’s dedication to fostering a positive and productive culture that’s not afraid to have fun.
Last week marked the halfway point of my summer with Ushahidi. Simply put, the time has flown by. In four short weeks, I have mocked up a business strategy for a new Ushahidi product, spoken at Tech4Africa in the iHub, ran a half marathon alongside rhinos with a dozen of Ushaverse colleagues, and blogged nearly every other day. In true Ushahidi form, my midway mark was celebrated with a bit of pomp and pageantry. At approximately 3pm, Erik Hersman strode into the batcave (our co-working space located below the iHub) holding a Crowdmap sweatshirt. With a firm handshake and a few snapshots, I was bequeathed a gray hoodie. While only a temporary member of the Ushahidi team, I felt welcomed (and perhaps slightly awestruck). It is this type of camaraderie that drives the Ushaverse forward—and I am very, very proud to be associated with such a path breaking, human-centered organization.