Building a bridge through business: Mandela Washington Fellowship program brings young African leaders to the Lehigh Valley

Mike O’Rourke, publisher of Lehigh Valley Business, has been meeting with Tom Edison Shilongo once a week to talk business.

Tom Edison Shilongo, left, talks with Mike O’Rourke, publisher of Lehigh Valley Business -photo by Christopher Holland

Shilongo is a young entrepreneur from Namibia in Africa, and is here in the United States on a Mandela Washington Fellowship.

The fellowship, started by then-president Barack Obama in 2014, aims to grow the relationship between the U.S. and Africa by helping shape young African leaders.

Shilongo is the founder of Launch, a publication that offers digital and print marketing to startup businesses in Namibia, making O’Rourke, with his extensive experience in publishing, a perfect fit as a peer mentor to Shilongo.

“I’ve talked to Tom about what we do here at LVB and how that can be mirrored to structurally build his business,” O’Rourke said. “I give advice on building sales teams and what’s necessary to make a publication successful.”

Shilongo appreciates this time spent with O’Rourke. It’s obvious by the easy smiles exchanged between the two that each admires the other.

“What has been most valuable about meeting with Mike,” Shilongo said, “is that I’m learning that structure is important. As entrepreneurs we tend to be less structural, but you need it. Without structure, you don’t have a business. The money gets lost and things fall through holes. Without structure, the business dies.”

O’Rourke has benefitted from the time spent with Shilongo as well, finding his enthusiasm for the publishing industry energizing.

“It’s been really interesting to hear his dreams and thoughts about launching a startup,” O’Rourke said. “To hear his lust for business is quite inspiring.”

O’Rourke mentions that he is learning from Shilongo just as Shilongo is learning from him.

“I’ve thought about things he has done with his business that we might be able to take advantage of moving forward,” he said. “He has big ideas.”

Those big ideas helped Shilongo’s application rise to the top of the 700-plus Mandela Washington Fellowship applications submitted by Namibians, making him one of only 16 from his home country who were accepted to the program.

The Namibians are among 700 leaders in all from over 30 African countries chosen to come to the United States to study leadership. The fellowship program offers four tracks – in entrepreneurship, civic, education and public management. Shilongo was accepted into the entrepreneurship track.

Twenty-nine universities throughout the U.S. host the fellows for six weeks, providing them with training and networking designed to grow their leadership skills.

Shilongo, along with 24 other fellows, is being hosted by Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Lehigh provides the fellows with intense educational sessions, company site visits, cultural activities and peer mentoring.

“This is the cream of the crop of young leaders in Africa,” said Trisha Alexy, administrative director of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program at Lehigh. “We are so grateful for the opportunity to host them.”

When asked why Lehigh wanted to get involved in the fellowship program, Alexy mentioned that Lehigh understands that Africa will be the next booming economy.

“Lehigh is looking to develop relationships in Africa,” she said. “Anything that we can do to grow that will be a boon. China has gotten quite a foothold in Africa and the U.S. really needs to do more.”

Shilongo echoes Alexy’s statement.

“The Chinese are dominating through their pricing and moving into international markets like Africa,” he said. “We need to create an environment that incentivizes Americans to do business with Africa. We are growing. We have raw materials. Africa can be a huge market for the U.S.”

Shilongo said that if the United States can partner with African businesses to create bilateral alliances, both countries will grow their revenue streams.

“Americans as a nation, you have closed yourself off from the world to a certain extent,” he continued. “You tend to relax, and not to want to branch out to other continents. In order to build a U.S.-Africa bridge, business needs to happen.”

Shilongo is looking to take his own advice and expand his business internationally, bringing Launch to other countries in Africa outside of Namibia. Achieving this dream for Launch will require understanding and capitalizing on his own strengths, he said, something he is learning more about during his time at Lehigh.

“It is important to understand who we are in order to launch a successful business,” he said.

“I’m not a person that wants to work in a system, that setting is just not for me. I can’t think in a closed box. That can sometimes be a problem. Entrepreneurship is my natural state.  I wouldn’t trade it to work for someone else in a ‘regular’ 8 to 5 job.”

Entrepreneurship was something Shilongo dreamed of from a young age. It wasn’t until he was taking a lunch break while an intern at the United Nations Information Center in Namibia, however, that the light bulb moment hit him.

“I was overhearing two entrepreneurs talking over lunch,” he said. “I realized that there was no place for entrepreneurs to advertise their startups besides the Namibian newspaper. I saw a need for a publication to advertise them.”

Soon after, Launch was born.

Today, in addition to working to expand Launch internationally, Shilongo is researching offering startup boot camps designed to coach entrepreneurs on starting a business, and is expanding Launch-sponsored “pitch nights” where startups compete for prize money to fund their businesses.

As Shilongo details these future plans, Lehigh Valley Business publisher O’Rourke looks over and smiles in admiration. Those big ideas are in motion.

The two publishers have a couple more valuable weeks together.  When Shilongo returns to Namibia next month, he will bring a bit of what he learned in the Lehigh Valley back with him.

Brick by brick, a bridge between Africa and the United States is being built.

Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is a career journalist who believes that good journalism can change the world. As the health care reporter, she covers everything from small town medicine to big pharma. You can also find her chasing a good business story in Berks County. She can be reached at dnixon@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, extension 4118.

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