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Whose problem are you solving?
(our obsession with the lucky billion)

ouagadougou protestAs I am flying from London to Asia, sleepless and squashed in my economy class seat, I have visions of the hustle and bustle below me. 1.1 billion Africans, trading spices, textiles or mobile phones on the markets of Ouagadougou, Nairobi and Lagos. 1.5 billion Chinese (and counting) across mainland China and South East Asia, cooking, shopping, building. 1 billion Indians, commuting, washing clothes, watching and making movies, stuck in traffic, visiting family, studying for exams. Everywhere I see lights and crowds and energy. Megacities exploding, chaos, traffic. I think about my little political entity called the European Union with its 500 million people, along with its ally, Land of Dreams America, (as my favourite university professor used to call it) and its 320 million people.

ouagadougou protest2All the start-ups I read about, so called disruptive technologies, to make the lives of this tiny privileged even easier. Sure, in economic terms, this tiny white fraction if humanity is not so tiny. The economies comprising these 800 million human beings (10% of the world total) make up 50% of global GDP. If it’s money your after, sure, you better serve their “needs” and solve their “problems” (I am sorry, but which “problem” is pinterest solving, for example? Oh, I need to keep track of the different bedroom blinds I am considering for my new house). But disruptive innovation? You know what would be really disruptive? Here’s a list of real needs of real people across the globe. If it’s not one of these needs that you’re addressing, you’re probably far less disruptive than you think:

  • provide sanitation and clean water to the 5bn without it today
  • Provide education for the 120 million children out of school today (70% of which are girls)
  • Save developing countries from the sure onslaught of health disaster by promoting their natural diets, by supporting breastfeeding and local fresh food instead of sweets and processed food. Number 1 disruption: help developing countries keep Nestle and Danone out
  • Provide local help in disaster zones to prevent refugees risking their lives trying to enter fortress Europe
  • Provide education about and access to reproductive medicine to help teenage girls decide when they want to start a family
  • Support equal rights for all regardless of race, religion or gender

The list could go on. Please share your other ideas. And maybe you think it’s overambitious or unrealistic to focus on global problems or those in faraway countries when you could be serving needs closer to home. That’s a fair point. If we just focus on cities like London or New York, perhaps we could be radical and disruptive by:

  • minimising the number of teenagers who end up stabbed or shot by their peers on a daily basis
  • addressing fully preventable diseases such as diabetes, anorexia, obesity, tooth decay
  • supporting young parents unable to cope with the responsibilities of parenthood to save the next generation
  • reducing traffic and air pollution

So, my dear New York start-ups, do you still think you’re a disruptive innovator? Think again.

Recent governments in the West seem to have become champions of working mothers. Quoting affordable childcare as the main obstacle for mothers looking to return to the workforce, they are encouraging companies to provide daycare facilities on-site and childcare providers to lower their costs. That’s great, right? We’ve got so much government support. They want to help us, right? Do you really think so? I would love to give you a bit more background on why governments seem to champion feminist ideas of financial independence for women, and this might even help you decide if and how you want to return to work after having children.

Let’s play a game to start with. Imagine Mummy A had Baby A. Mummy was a teacher before having a baby. Then there’s Mummy B. Mummy B used to be a nanny and is now on maternity leave taking care of Baby B. In one scenario, Mummy A quits her job and dedicates her day taking care of Baby A and teaching her. Baby A is happy and Mummy A is happy, although she misses her salary and the recognition that came with her teaching job. The taxman is not happy because Mummy A is not paying income taxes or social security contributions anymore. To make matters worse for the taxman, Mummy B also decides to stay home, asking why should she pay someone else to take care of her child, just to go off to work and look after someone else’s child as a nanny? So have we two stay-at-home mums looking after the children, with no income, and the state who has just lost two taxpayers.

What happens when Mummy A and Mummy B are encouraged to return to work? One idea would be for Mummy A to become a nursery teacher and take care of Baby B. She will earn a salary now, pay taxes and social security contributions again, and create a job, because someone needs to take care of her baby, Baby A. Who is going to take care of Baby A? Mummy B! Mummy B settles her baby into daycare nursery, pays considerable nursery fees for the service, and accepts a job as a nanny looking after Baby A. Even though she pays income tax, her net salary is still higher than what she pays the daycare nursery, because Mummy A is looking after five children at the same time, which is very efficient economically. So what do we have now? Two “working mothers”, fulfilled, building a career, and a happy government, because both mothers are paying taxes now. If you asked the baby A and baby B, they might not like this arrangement, but in pure economic terms, GDP goes up, employment goes up and tax revenue goes up. So that’s why most governments are supporting feminist ideals. They don’t care if your child is happy or you are happy, they want their employment statistics to look good and oversee a bigger budget.

For educated women in highly paid jobs, it often works the way described above because their net salary does tend to be considerably higher than their childcare cost. But because, as we see, a share of 20-50% of your salary is diverted to the state in the form of taxes and social security contributions, unless you earn multiples of what a nanny or a nursery worker earns, at some point it doesn’t pay to go to work. For example, I did eyebrow threading recently and I asked the lady threading my eyebrows who was 7 months pregnant how long she was going to take off from work. She had already decided she was definitely not going back to work until her child went to school. She asked me what my daughter’s nursery cost. I did not want to tell her the monthly cost, because it would sound too shocking, so I just said it came to about £10 per hour (the equivalent of about $15). There are many jobs that pay less than that, so even in economic terms, it doesn’t make sense for people in low paid jobs to go back to work.

Of course, my daughter goes to a very nice nursery with a garden and plenty of staff, where each staff member looks after as few as three or four children at a time. Of course, we can bring down the nursery cost to £5 or even £3 per hour if we

  • increase the number of children each staff member looks after from 4 to 8 or 10 or 15
  • decrease the space the children share, although this might mean they fall ill more often
  • decrease the quality of food, no organic food, no fresh food

Does this sound appealing to you? Is this a good outcome? I am just trying to make it graphic because when a politician talks about bringing down childcare costs to help working parents, it sounds great, but you as a parent need to be aware of how childcare costs can be bought down, and it usually involves lowering the quality of childcare. Maybe as a society it should not be a priority to bring childcare costs down but to recognise the importance of our children’s well-being and development to the extent that we know it is worth gold. Why should we aim to build a society where all the mothers are back in work, paying taxes, while their children are warehoused in childcare centres that are designed to be as cheap as possible? What is the long term benefit of that to anyone? Maybe we should start seeing the value of high quality childcare or mothers dedicated their time to their own children for at least a few years to the benefit of society? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for mothers having the option to work and be financially independent if they want to, but let’s not glorify the idea of all mothers returning to work as soon as possible to the detriment of our children. Life is short.

IMG_4906For those of you who don’t know yet, I quit banking quite a while back now and have joined the world of  entrepreneurs and freelancers. Of the many reactions I got, this was my favourite note from a fellow freelancer:

“Well done you for leaving banking and going on that one way journey to self-employed status. Once one works for oneself, there really is never any going back!”

I couldn’t agree more! My still employed friends, on the other hand, sometimes ask me funny questions like

– “do you miss banking?” or

– “do you regret quitting your job?”

and it usually makes me burst out with laughter. Seriously? I love the freedom of working for myself, even though it means spending evenings / nights and part of my weekends on work. My work is with me all the time now because it is part of me and part of my life, rather than a separate activity I have to endure to earn money.

I remember when I worked at McKinsey, leaving my home town at 6am on Mondays and then collapsing in bed on Friday evenings, waking around noon when the bakeries were just starting to close, I saw nothing of real life that was going on in my community. On rare occasions, when I took a morning off to renew my passport or attend a dentist appointment, I would see people having coffee somewhere or walking to work around 9am in the morning, and I was wondering who all these people were who didn’t sit in offices and how they were paying their bills?

Now my life is very different. I know the mail woman by name, I know my neighbours, I know the people in the shops, the waiters in the local cafes and restaurants, and many other freelancers and entrepreneurs who are free to meet up and exchange ideas in the middle of the day. I pick my favourite coffee shops and restaurants for meetings, or work quietly on my own sofa when I want to be by myself, and it works perfectly. Sometimes, I meet other entrepreneurs in co-working spaces, such as the lovely Forge & Co in Shoreditch, and I feel like the luckiest person on the planet.

It really is a one way journey! There is no going back. Are you thinking of quitting your job? I highly recommend it!