FRANCES MENSAH WILLIAMS
Connecting Africa's professionals
Talk Editor spoke to Frances Mensah Williams, author, business woman and founder of ReConnect Africa.com, an award-winning online careers portal connecting professionals of African heritage from across the world. Since its launch in 2007, ReConnect Africa has reached over 38,000 subscribers globally and the website attracts visitors from more than 90 countries.
Frances is the author of the novels ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and 'Second Helpings' and the non-fiction titles ‘I Want to Work in Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ as well as ‘Everyday Heroes: Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’.
She has spoken at numerous conferences on skills development and the African diaspora and was a speaker at the December 2014 TEDx Euston event in London. Frances is also an executive coach with over 20 years' experience in human resources management in the UK and Africa and she is the founder of the UK-based training and coaching consultancy Interims for Development.
In this interview, Frances talks about how she built her online magazine, what it takes to have a fulfilling career, why she is passionate about writing novels and her best career advice for writers and entrepreneurs.
ReConnect Africa's Story
Frances, you are the founder as well as Managing Editor of ReConnect Africa, a unique career website for professionals of African origin. What inspired you to launch the website 10 years ago?
In 2006, I launched the first issue of ReConnect Africa magazine, along with a website that we hoped would become the ‘go to’ place for professionals of African origin overseas. It was a personal response to many issues that I, along with many other Africans living abroad, have to contend with.
One was the lack of balanced coverage of Africa, with the mainstream Western media reflecting a one-dimensional image of Africa as a graft ridden, famine stricken and disease infested hell-hole. There was little or no mention of African industries, cities, commerce and the innovative, talented and successful initiatives, companies and people that inhabit the continent.
At the same time, there was also a lack of mainstream visibility for professionals of African origin in the UK and elsewhere outside Africa, an important source of role models for new generations of Black and African youth.
It seemed to me that, rather than expecting others to change their tune, it was time for us to write a new song; to share the achievements of Africans around the world and highlight the opportunities the continent offers for careers, business, entrepreneurship - and a lot of fun!
Running ReConnect Africa.com
Over 38,000 people from more than 90 countries have subscribed to ReConnect Africa.com – what is the key to such a successful online magazine?
From the outset, ReConnect Africa was always going to primarily focus on professionals of African origin living outside the continent, and target those organisations that were seeking to reach out to this niche market. What we hadn’t predicted was how much the magazine and website would also appeal to professionals within Africa.
The magazine has been successful because since we launched ReConnect Africa in 2006, we have worked with numerous organisations from private, public and non-governmental sectors to identify and recruit African talent overseas and within the continent, advertised hundreds of job vacancies, promoted thousands of events and shone the spotlight on many projects and initiatives set up by Africans, both within and outside the continent.
5 things that will make your career work
You also built another business which advises companies on people training, recruiting and developing skills for Africa. In your opinion, what are the 5 main ingredients of a fulfilling career in today’s interconnected world?
That’s a great question! I would say the following:
> Meaning – we all ultimately want to spend our time and our talents on something that has meaning for us and taps into our personal values. Doing a job that conflicts with those values and has the wrong kind of impact is guaranteed to leave us feeling unfulfilled.
> Opportunity – a fulfilling career gives us the opportunity to use the talents and gifts that we enjoy using. Sometimes we might be good at something, but that does not necessarily mean that we enjoy doing it.
> Relationships and connections – as human beings, we flourish when we have positive, nurturing relationships. Working with the right people who inspire us, coach us, and bring out the best in us is often key to feeling fulfilled.
> Learning – no matter how old we are, there are always new things we can learn. Whether it’s understanding different concepts or utilising new technology, adopting a life-long approach to learning helps to refresh our view of the world and the possibilities open to us as we move forward in our careers.
> Recognition – financial reward is a good indication of how well our organisation values us, but beyond this is a natural human desire to have our efforts recognised and appreciated. When we choose job roles that bring acknowledgement of our efforts and recognition by those around us, when we are seen, we feel motivated to progress and to do even better.
How did you get into consulting and what is the most enjoyable aspect of being a people advisor?
While working in a senior corporate HR role, I was approached to undertake a short project (in Zimbabwe) for another organisation that specialised in short-term consulting opportunities. I took some unpaid leave to do this and found it a fascinating addition to my ‘9-5’ job. This led to some other consulting projects which, when I decided to set up my own business, gave me the confidence to know that I could work as an independent consultant.
I would say the most enjoyable aspect of advising is meeting new people and thinking creatively about their business challenges. This allows me the freedom to create solutions – whether it’s training, coaching programmes or specific projects – to help my clients resolve their problems.
Passion for writing
Writing has also always been one of your big passions. You have written newspaper and magazine articles, career books and two great novels in recent years. What is more challenging, writing novels or non-fiction?
In my opinion, fiction is by far the more challenging of the two genres! When I write non-fiction, I’m very much the expert in the issues I am explaining and, as a result, I feel quite comfortable about prescribing what needs to be done.
When it comes to fiction, it’s a completely different challenge. Here, you must engage readers who don’t see you as an expert and who are reading to be entertained and informed. It’s a bit like the difference between attending a lecture to be taught (non-fiction) and going to the movies to be entertained (fiction).
As a novelist, it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are about your topic; it’s all about creating characters and situations that make people turn the page because they to find out what’s going to happen.
How do you keep up with your busy work schedule? Do you have a set time for writing?
Sadly, I don’t. I write whenever I can make the time to do so. I have tried to structure my professional life to allow for writing days but, as any busy entrepreneur and mother will tell you, plans are just plans! I must be honest and admit that I also procrastinate a lot and when I have time to write, I’ll often do the laundry, watch online news clips or distract myself for far too long! When I do finally get down to it, though, it’s very, very hard to tear myself away from my computer
What are your future writing goals? Would you like to see your books developed into a film one day?
I’d love to see my books turned into films! I think From Pasta to Pigfoot and its sequel, Second Helpings, would make great movies. It would show contemporary Ghana to a wide audience and demonstrate that young women have the same romantic challenges and insecurities, no matter their cultural background. I think it will also give people an insight into how young Londoners today often come from a blend of ethnic cultures and how they balance their cultures of origin with being British.
I’m currently working on a manuscript for a completely different story set in London…fingers crossed, that will be my third novel!
'From Pasta to Pigfoot' and its sequel, 'Second Helpings', would make great movies. It would show contemporary Ghana to a wide audience and demonstrate that young women have the same romantic challenges and insecurities, no matter their cultural background.
TEDx Euston 2014
You have spoken at TEDx Euston in London in 2014. How do you prepare for public speaking? Do you get nervous?
I have spoken at many events, conferences, etc. over the years and initially I would be a little nervous. But after a while, you get used to it and – if you know your stuff and have prepared thoroughly – it does get easier. Preparation is always key with public speaking; having clarity about what you want to leave the audience knowing and feeling, selecting stories that help you to get your message across, introducing humour where it’s appropriate, and keeping the structure tight.
TEDx Euston stands out for me as one of the most incredible speaking experiences ever. TEDx was different in that the subject matter was intensely personal and was in front of a huge crowd, as well as being streamed globally. It’s also a format that discourages you from using notes and has a fixed time. So, I had to learn my talk – and it took a while!
TEDx is all about sharing ideas and once I realised that it was an incredible platform to do just that, I felt brave enough to share some pretty personal stuff. Luckily, the crowd was amazing, the feedback was fabulous and I felt very proud once it was all over.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and business owners when it comes to finding motivation, if faced with a rejection?
If you need to be motivated to write, I would gently advise you not to bother…there are easier ways of filling your day, believe me! Writing is a lonely task and one that no-one should do if they don’t personally feel the need to. I write because I need to and because I feel unfulfilled when I am not creating or developing a story.
"If you need to be motivated to write, I would gently advise you not to bother…there are easier ways of filling your day, believe me!"
In the same way, if you are determined to run a business, you must be motivated to do so. Being an entrepreneur is tough; you will work longer hours than you ever imagined, sacrifice leisure time and family time, suffer financial insecurity, have daily doubts about your competence, and fear the future. If you are not persistent, tough-minded and resilient, and if you don’t surround yourself with the right people or choose to do something that has meaning for you, (back to my answer to question 3!) it will be very hard to stay the course.
Honestly, it’s not even the end result that matters; it’s the fun and the chaos and the of building something that makes it all worthwhile. I’ve met some amazing people and done some incredible things during my career as a business owner – none of which would have happened if I hadn’t taken the chance to strike out on my own.
So, my advice is: be prepared for things to be not quite as you planned – and go with it, trusting in yourself and enjoying the ride!