Made in Africa: A Conversation With Dalberg’s James Mwangi

“The thing that I found actually resonated [with potential clients] was less of saying how much we knew, and actually playing into how much we didn’t know. And actually coming in and saying, look, you shouldn’t hire me if you think you shouldn’t hire us, our team. If you think that we know more about this topic or your industry than you do. Because then you know, we should be in your job. What you should hire us for is we will take nothing for granted. Because actually, we don’t take anything as settled wisdom, because we’re not part of the set of wisdom that shaped this context.” — James Mwangi, executive director, Dalberg.

 

In episode two of Driving Change: Made in Africa, Dalberg executive director James Mwangi talks with Sarika Bansal about what it was like to start a business with no name and no brand and build it into one of the most respected international development consultancies. He walks through Dalberg’s journey from its days as a start-up in the US to opening its first office in Africa to becoming a global firm offering sage advice throughout the conversation.

He is open about his setbacks as well his successes. For example, his choice to stay with Dalberg and to use it as his “bridge” to Africa was unexpectedly tough, coming with a unique set of challenges.

Mwangi is particularly insightful about what it was like to be elected the first global managing partner in 2010, at a time when Dalberg was debating its future strategy. His honesty about what he learned and would do differently in retrospect is unusual.

The most interesting part of the discussion may be Mwangi’s description of what it was like to be challenged as global managing partner, how and why he stepped away from the role and how he continued to shape Dalberg without the top title.

“I remember walking up and down a beach on my own at night in Dakar, [Senegal], right after we’d brokered some sort of agreement to keep the whole firm together, and feeling really bad. But then also getting clarity that actually no, this is guidance on what you’re actually supposed to be doing in the world right now. And, frankly, it’s a good outcome for everyone. If you can just get your ego out of the way.”

Today, he is focused on answering one of the biggest questions of this age: “How do we create prosperity through climate action?”

For all public policy, international development and consulting professionals, this discussion is both instructive and inspiring.

Sarika Bansal

Sarika Bansal is an editor and storytelling consultant. She was the founder and editor-in-chief of BRIGHT Magazine, an award-winning digital magazine that told fresh, solutions-oriented stories about social change. Prior to that, she incubated two social impact publications at Medium, developed curriculum and tools for journalists at the Solutions Journalism Network, and served as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. Her byline has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Guardian, VICE, Forbes, FastCompany, and other publications. She holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). She lives in a cottage in a forest in Nairobi, Kenya with her husband, daughter, and elderly German shepherd.

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