My conversation with Jerusha Govender

My conversation with Jerusha Govender

Founder Musings: What I loved, what challenged me and what I didn't expect

Mar 6, 2024

Illustration by Neema Iyer

This past week, I had the very fun privilege of being a guest on Blank Canvas Dialogues, a new podcast by the fabulous Jerusha Govender that explores innovation, leadership and creativity. Though we have never met in person, Jerusha and I have had very similar pathways. We started organisations around the same time, focusing on the same topic of making systemic change through data and creativity. Their project on data artistry was a huge source of inspiration for me and really impacted my thinking on how to navigate the implications of data with local communities. And now, we’ve both stepped down from our roles as founders at our organisations to chart new pathways in the years to come! 

In this podcast, we discussed our entrepreneurial journeys, our inspirations, challenges and even theories on birth order, but most of all, it was a special opportunity to make space to reflect on our journeys so far. While Jerusha’s team has skillfully produced the podcast which you can listen to here, this blog is an extension of our discussion and an exploration of what I loved in the process of founding and growing Pollicy, what challenges I ran into and some of the things that surprised me. I often find many stories of experiences of for-profit founders and I hope that sharing these reflections might be helpful to current and future founders within the non-profit/NGO and social enterprise space. 

Watch the podcast! 

Alright, let’s get started.

What I Loved

  1. Dreaming and executing truly fun projects: When we were new and scrappy, I had the best time coming up with creative projects that we worked on in local communities in Uganda and these are some of my fondest memories. Murals, mockumentaries, podcasts. These evolved into more digital products with interactive fiction games, chatbots, comics and videos. We have often been lucky to work with donors and partners who gave us the flexibility to steer projects as we wished in thematic areas that we identified. 

  2. Working with incredible people: I’ve had the privilege to call some truly big brains my colleagues. Within the team, even when we had to work remotely, I so looked forward to conversations with staff, exploring how and what they’re thinking about, co-developing projects, ranting about the world. With partners, we’ve collaborated with exceptional people at the forefront of digital rights and (attempting) to shape digital technology in the years to come.

  3. Witnessing our growth and impact: Witnessing the tangible outcomes of our efforts, from grassroots community engagement to influencing policy change, has been incredibly rewarding. Hearing our name in rooms across the world sometimes feels unreal!

  4. Watching people grow: There's something truly special about observing people grow (myself included!), not just in their professional capacities but also personally, as they navigate different challenges and then go out into the world and do great things. 

  5. Building a flexible, people-centered remote team: From day 1, Pollicy was built to be a flexible and remote workplace. This was pre-pandemic and even in my previous jobs, I worked remotely and in environments that encouraged outputs rather than bums on seats. Then COVID happened and we were able to further solidify and be forced to think deeper about these principles, given that we have some team members in-country, with access to the office, and some who do not have that same access or privileges like weekly team lunches and team-building activities. As always, still a work in progress!

What Challenged Me

  1. Finding the right people: At first, it was a struggle because I didn’t have the funds to pay what I knew people were worth at the time of founding. But then, it became an issue finding the right talent with skills in data analysis or visualisation or creative thinking or research. Then, it once again became an issue of affording the right talent we need for this global growth phase of the organisation. This was and continues to be a major pain point. 

  2. Fundraising: As a newbie in a new field, there was no track record of what Pollicy could accomplish, and in the first few years, it probably looked like the organisation was all over the place as we figured out our place in the world. But, understandably, fundraising is a challenge for many, if not most, non-profits, and it’s a constant battle to keep the lights on. 

  3. Developing robust finance systems: Huge learning curve. Could probably write a thesis on this.

  4. Onboarding: We struggled to come up with an onboarding process that was thorough enough for a hybrid/remote organisation but every month, we make a bit more progress!

  5. Physical safety and security: You will be surprised about how often you have to deal with theft and break-ins with a physical office.

What Surprised Me

  1. How difficult HR issues can be: Truly thorny stuff. Things I would just never have imagined would be on my plate on a random Tuesday at 8am. How do you deal with conflict or loss or bullying or substance abuse or domestic violence or cross-cultural misunderstandings or de-motivation or underperformance or letting people go and on and on and on? And what are the actual opportunities out there for you to learn how to expect and handle these things other than going through the maze yourself? 

  2. How colonial some donors can be: I knew to expect this but that didn’t make it any less surprising. The worst offenders to me were staff in the local country offices. Complete and absolute contempt and misuse of power. Who will save us when the worst offenders and gatekeepers are our own?

  3. Internal community politics: I naively expected we would all hold hands, sing kumbaya and solve all digital rights challenges together. But where I envisioned partnership and collaboration, instead was sometimes surprisingly competition, mistrust and exclusion. 

  4. Rampant development sector malpractices: Again, perhaps naively, I was shocked when we got a call from the procurement department of a donor asking for a kickback if we wanted to receive the grant we applied for. Only to be told that it’s very standard practice and I was silly to not play this game. We did not play that game and we got the grant anyway. That opened my eyes to how so many different players collude within this space from the funders to the organisations and even the banks. I’m confident that my actual knowledge only begins to scratch the surface of this vast and complex system. I applaud efforts such as a recent engagement by the Women's International Peace Centre in Uganda in addressing allegations and building accountability in feminist organisations - but we need many more conversations and honest dialogue on all of the above - colonial donor practices, malpractice and how to safeguard and truly work for the communities we aim to serve.

As I’ve said before, my founding journey has been a truly fulfilling one and I love having this space and freedom at the moment to reflect and document my experiences. Through these collective lessons and experiences, the Pollicy team grows stronger and wiser with each passing day.

If you would like to chat more about organisational development, non-profit leadership or just chitchat about the future of technology, book a call with me here or send me a message here! I still have TWO coaching slots open for April and May. 

Many thanks again to Jerusha for the wonderful conversation! Do give the podcast a watch or a listen.

Watch the podcast!