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How to do the Impossible with John Stephens

Jul 15, 2022

This week I sat down with John Stephens, CEO of BOMA, a non-profit organisation focussed on eliminating extreme poverty among women in Kenya. BOMA’s mission is to provide the people & governments of Africa’s drylands with economic inclusion programs that increase resilience to multiple crises. Ultimately, their goal is to end extreme poverty in Africa’s drylands.

The BOMA project has to date impacted hundreds of thousands of lives. Since 2009, BOMA has seen over 350,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, they have empowered over 59,000 entrepreneurs and they have helped over 19,000 businesses launch.

John joined the team at BOMA after serving on their Board of Directors for more than a year. He is a seasoned humanitarian professional committed to bringing transformational solutions to the world’s most urgent problems. 


My Key take aways from John were:

1. People are truly watching what you are doing. You are a leader. You might not be a leader of a large company, but you are a leader in some capacity, and your "team" are always watching you. Remember that you are a role model and its your responsibility to carry that with dignity and pride. 

2. You need to keep people connected to the small wins. I call them micro-wins. We are all always chasing the big goals, but along the way to achieving these big goals, we have to remain connected to the small wins. 

3. Just put a price tag on it, and figure out what it takes. We need to make big moves now. So whatever it is that you want to achieve, put a timeline and a price tag on it and get started now! 


What are you doing this week to combat the biggest challenges around you? 


Full Transcription 


John Stephens, James Laughlin 


James Laughlin 00:00 

Welcome to lead on purpose. I'm James Laughlin, former seven-time world champion musician, and now an executive coach to global leaders and high performers. In every episode, I bring you an inspiring leader or expert to help you lead your life and business on purpose. Thanks for taking the time to connect today and investing in yourself. Enjoy the show. 


James Laughlin 00:39 

I love to connect with people who want to solve massive global problems, and people who have inspiring visions. John Stevens is the CEO of the BOMA Project. He's one of those people who is truly inspiring and his team is set to eradicate extreme poverty. They work with female entrepreneurs and leaders in Africa, to give them entrepreneurial skills to receive startup funding and ultimately, for them to graduate from poverty. Sit back and enjoy an epic show today. 


James Laughlin 01:28 

John, a massive welcome to The Lead on Purpose Podcast.  


John Stephens 

Thank you.  


James Laughlin 

So excited to connect with you today. It's amazing to work that you do. And for the listener that's listening are in for an absolute treat. I know it's going to be inspirational. So, I'm going to start by saying that you have helped to create 60,000 leaders in Africa. Now, let's unpack that a little bit. And let's share with the listener what inspires you what BOMA is all about and the problem that you're trying to solve. 


John Stephens 02:01 

Yeah, yeah. Thanks for having me and great questions. You know, the big problem, as I see it across Africa, and most of the world, maybe the most intractable problem is extreme poverty. And this is the type of poverty you know; we talk about poverty a lot. Extreme poverty is people making less than $1.90 a day and oftentimes way wait less than that making 25 cents making 50 cents a day. And in this segment, poverty, extreme poverty is where you find kind of all the worst-case scenarios of what happens, you know, with children and mortality and starvation and just kind of constant crisis. And so, as an organization, you know, our founders very early on, saw this in Northern Kenya, and perhaps more exacerbated in Northern Kenya, because communities up there and last-mile geographies, oftentimes for pastoralists, and so the men would take the livestock and they'd go on multi-month journeys, trying to find pasture. And that would lead the women and children at home to fend for themselves. So, when our co-founders went up there and saw this, you know, this, this just entrenched kind of poverty and knew they had to do something to help solve for that. What they were going to do, you know, wasn't evident at first, there's a bunch of different solutions out there for working with people in extreme poverty. But very quickly, they were turned on to the graduation approach, which is a methodology that came out of Bangladesh in about 2015. And it's a very, you know, it's a unique kind of program, it draws from a kind of off the shelf solutions around starting a business and giving a woman a grant to start that business with some training, and then quickly moving them to create savings account so they can create kind of a cushion against crises and shock. But the way we practice it is very focused, very sequential, with the mentor brought in from that local community, who's really the coach who's kind of the glue to all of these interventions and keeps that woman on track through the program, which for us is 16 or 24 months long, until they get to the end of that program, when we say they've graduated, graduated from extreme poverty and have hit a number of indicators around the health of their business income, as well as savings and then we look at other things like food security and or the children eating because if you're making money and saving money, but kids aren't eating, we know there's something wrong. So, we want to see a green light across the board with all of these things. And what we find, of course, is the women who've come through this program themselves are transformed, right they, they've been coached, they've been given some capital money to start a business they have purchasing power, they have decision making power. And you see this blossoming, in the spirit of these women who continue on long after we're done in this program continue on to be leaders in their community and really show other women, that there is a very easy path forward towards prosperity. 


James Laughlin 05:21 

It's remarkable, and just looking at women in leadership, but let's say we'll go to Africa. So often they will not be given these opportunities to be leaders. So, you're really transforming the whole scene. 


John Stephens 05:35 

Yeah, I mean, I would say it wasn't our original intention to have that kind of, you know, cultural transformation, we were looking discreetly at extreme poverty and what was happening to the women and the children in these households living in extreme poverty. But that leadership piece is so visible when you come back to a home where the woman has graduated from the program. And we hear so many stories now about, you know, women who've just become Mavericks in their community, they do livestock, they go to the livestock market, which was never allowed before. But they just said, I'm here, I've got money, I've got livestock, you want to trade or not? You know, they just open those doors themselves. And they go in, and they're successful traders, they are so savvy, and they are so committed, you know, to earning money that they'll go in and, you know, sell a few goats and buy some other animals typically make a profit, sell everything back by their original animals and leave, you know, so they are, they are just amazing, you know, in terms of what they're capable of doing, again, just with a bit of coaching, some self-competence, and some capital. 


James Laughlin 06:50 

Incredible. And let's zoom out and go big picture again for just a moment. So, the big goal is to end extreme poverty now, that's huge. That's monumental. So, walk me through where that vision came from, and then how you believe that we can actually do this. 


John Stephens 07:09 

Yeah, yeah. Well, so we work in Africa, right. So, there's, there's extreme poverty across the globe. And where you see it really still entrenched, primarily is in Africa, that it's still in other parts of the world, India and Afghanistan and places like that. But Africa quite broadly, it's still there. With COVID-19 and the disruptions to the economy. You know, estimates vary that, you know, a couple of 100 million people may have moved into extreme poverty. But if you just want to work with a big number like 500 million people living in extreme poverty, that's a massive amount of people. So, you know, what that tells us then, as a small organization, is that great that we brought 60,000 women through the program, and we can multiply that by, you know, a factor of five in terms of average household size, but we know that's just a drop in the bucket in terms of what's really needed. And so, you know, it's all about scale. It's all about, you know, how do you create this model, program intervention, and make it fast enough and cheap enough that you can afford to multiply that by 500 million, or whatever number you're looking at. So, scale is key, right? And BOMA looks at ourselves and we say, well, we're a small organization, you know, we're working with 25,000 women this year, we hope to get up to 50,000 next year, and really have that kind of exponential growth that you might see in a tech firm or a startup. But we know that that's still not enough if every organization in our community that practices to graduation approach were functioning at their best effort, we still would not be doing enough. So, the question then is, well, how do you reach that kind of scale? And for us, you know, we've set this target if we want to work with 3 million women and children by 2027. Getting there is really a factor in influencing other organizations to adopt the work we do. So, we know that you know, we through our own direct efforts will only be able to do so much. But if I can convince, you know, care, or I can convince Mercy Corps or you know, the UN to take up our approach, then suddenly, it's a whole different ballgame. Then I've influenced the industry to do the work that I'm doing. And I don't have to raise the funds for it. They're raising their funds. They've converted their programs into the graduation approach. And then we start to hit numbers of 100,000 or a million a year 10 million a year. You start to really start to see that, alright now you're taking a bite out of that big global problem. And to me, that's the only solution. You know, we, again, going back to, you know, how do we solve for big ideas. We can't just take on incremental kind of 100-year plans to solve these things, we need to address this in 10 or 20 years because we see the effects of climate change, we see the effects of migration and extremism, and we're paying for this one way or another. So, I'm saying let's just put a price tag on it, and figure out what it takes. And let's get there. 


James Laughlin 10:39 

Really, really inspiring. And it's interesting, that you talked about influence, because I geek out on leadership, and I talk about leadership day in and day out with great leaders. And I think that leadership, we can distill it down to one thing, and that is influence. And really, everything rises and falls on leadership. And so, the work that you're doing with these women, has a massive pivotal effect on their communities, their regions, their continent, and indeed the world. So, what do you need to do to develop that influence with these other organizations to really wrap things up? 


John Stephens 11:16 

Yeah, that's a great question. I think that's where, you know, we fight our battles day in and day out on this is, you know, what, what are the leverage points around this? So, you know, one is this is a big, conceptual, shift in people's thinking around extreme poverty as a quick, cheaply solvable problem at scale. Right? And if you listen to how people talk about poverty, whether they're a donor or, you know, just people that are donating to charities, you know, they talk about poor people, they talked about their problems of extreme poverty, but they tend to think of it as this kind of almost a general condition, almost a given that, we will just have that. And, and so some of the efforts move to address symptoms, rather than going to the root cause. And so, I think the biggest thing for me to do as CEO is really to get this message out, that this is totally fixable, I've got a plan. I got, you know, two randomized control trials under my belt, now I can prove that it works, I can prove that you know, for every dollar invested in this model, you know, 3.1, dollars come out, right? A great return on investment. So, we've got the product, now we need the money, but a lot of that is just shifting people's thinking to say alright, this is a fixable problem. Let's put some real money towards that. And then let's see some real results. You know, let's put, you know, I estimated just off the kind of back of a napkin, you know, $25 billion, I could probably end the majority of extreme poverty in Africa, for that amount. And by me, I mean, me in a community of people who do this approach, it would take a big group to do this. But that's a rough price tag. So, we just say 25 billion. And oftentimes I go to donors and say that, and they just say, no way, you know, no way that money's coming out. No way. And there's a real disconnect there, right? But, for example, if we just said, well, what did we what's the poll we gave Ukraine on May 20, just a few days ago, 55 billion, right? In the snap of a finger, the US government, sensing an urgent problem, made a commitment there. That's twice what I'm asking for. So clearly, it's not out of the realm of the doable. One country could send twice that amount over the course of 60 days to help another country out. So, we know the monies there. I think it's really about getting that commitment, getting people reoriented that extreme poverty is solvable, solvable, and in a handful of years and something we should be committed to because we could also, you know, spend a few weeks and research out on the other end. What happens when people live in extreme poverty? Well, they require assistance for a lifetime, food security, and other types of security. We also see what happens when people live without hope and prosperity. They leave their communities and we know there are price tags for people who are traveling away from their countries migrating to countries of greater opportunity. We see the devastation of those movements. So, there's a real price tag for not doing not approaching and not attacking extreme poverty that I think we also need to put together to help policymakers really understand that. This isn't charity. This is an investment in humanity. And it's an investment that we can prove pays off. But that's the big takeaway, right? To really get policymakers at the top level to kind of flip their understanding of extreme poverty and see it as, a very solid investment in the future and see how it impacts all these other drains, on budgets, addressing symptomatic issues that come out of extreme poverty. 


James Laughlin 15:31 

Spot on. And as you were saying that I'm thinking of this, as you know, it's a huge problem, but a huge opportunity. And often, there are a few key obstacles, the first one being money, you brought that up. But then the next two are all M's money, mindset, and motivation. So, we've actually removed money from the money's not actually the issue, the money is there. And so, it's like, okay, what is it that motivates these individuals to take action? And what's the mindset shift required? And I guess, perhaps, that's where the influence needs to be put as to how do we shift the mindset so that we are more motivated? So, what do you think you do within boneless control, you can get a really influenced mindset of these decision-makers? 


John Stephens 16:19 

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, I think, you know, one of the issues is that policymakers haven't seen the impact of something like graduation at scale. And so, choosing almost the test country, choosing a country with, you know, a lot of issues around extreme poverty with the big population and extreme poverty, and trying to focus in a large amount of money to turn the tide, you know, and spend five years and show that we can make a big dent in extreme poverty here. And then looking at some of those other indicators that are costing money. You know, we can talk about reductions and extremism, reductions and violence, reductions and migration, and also paint a very strong financial picture, they're about, you know, this is what comes from a good investment, invest in humanity, and see these other things you've been spending money on vanish. You know you don't have to keep addressing these things. And, you know, those price tags are out there, whether it's, you know, looking at the cost of migration into Europe, looking at the cost of military campaigns throughout the Sahel well, and other parts of East Africa put on by the US and other nations. There are real costs there, that oftentimes aren't put into this whole kind of complete accounting of what we're talking about. But I think that's when policymakers pay attention, right? It's the treasuries of big nations that see these outlays of money going out. And you know, our ability to say, you know, you keep putting money out to feed people that could feed themselves, or, you know, to enforce kind of the chaos that comes from communities living without hope, and looking for other solutions. Let's take that money back, let's invest it wisely, and once invested wisely, then that's money that you keep in your coffers, you know, you potentially could reduce your foreign aid in a way that wasn't going to be destabilizing, because you would fix problems instead of just continuing demand. 


James Laughlin 18:34 

Incredible. And when you go to if we come back from that kind of overarching view, we're down to a more granular level. How do you teach leadership? How do you show leadership? How do you grow that with these women, these amazing women in Africa? 


John Stephens 18:51 

Yeah, that's a good question. You know, a big part of it. And I think this goes to mentorship across the board is less about teaching, you know, kind of these curriculum pieces, but mentorship is just someone who believes in you. It's a coach that stands by you may not have all the answers, but is there when you hit a challenge, and a big part of our program and something we're that we're committed to being to always have that mentor in the community working directly with these women. I think a lot of it, you know, my belief, I see leaders everywhere. They always don't always know it, right? So, how do you bring that leadership out in someone? I think a lot of it is just coaching and mentoring and helping them see that in themselves and helping them navigate some of those challenges, but they've got it in themselves. And so, you know, we teach business skills, we teach them how to start a savings account, we teach them how to negotiate with a vendor. You know, those are the pieces but that will be a leadership piece, it's just believing in someone and putting someone on the ground with them to kind of walk with them through that process. I think that's where the leadership comes from, it's in them, we just help bring that out, you know, give them that confidence to let that part of them come out. And it's not easy. You know, I think we go into these communities where there aren't any female leaders. So, there are no models out there, oftentimes very patriarchal, where men have been making decisions for women for many years. Don't include them in decision-making circles, don't think of them as people who can contribute to the household. We shift all that we turn all that on its head, and, you know, the leadership in these women is so evident. And I think the men in those communities as well go through a pretty powerful transformation when they see what their partners are capable of, you know? And I, I think people are like, oh, aren't they angry? Are they violent? It's like, actually be amazed that they're, they're amazed, they're like, wow, you know, I got this very capable partner who was taking care of the children runs a business, I think, you know, more often than not, the men are just amazed, and they've had their mind shifted, and become champions of the women. 


James Laughlin 21:23 

Really important. And to be honest, I feel that we continue to need to do that in, in our world as well, you know, and New Zealand and America, Canada, all over getting more women leaders to the table, to the leadership table. And I think that's a human global wide challenge that we've all got. And I'm glad that you guys are doing that in Africa. Do you ever get anybody saying, Hey, John, what about extreme poverty here in America? And here in the UK? What Why? Why Africa? Do you ever hear that? 


John Stephens 21:54 

You know, I don't hear it too much. But I say it to myself. Because I live in a neighborhood with a lot of extreme poverty, I would say a lot of homelessness, a lot of mental health issues, and addiction issues. And oftentimes, I'm thinking to myself, you know, what's the equivalent to you know, that the graduation approach that we implement is really just a sequence approach with some clear outcome indicators, you know, clear moment of success. And what I would say what I say to myself is, we actually just need to bring that same sort of rigor into the programs, we run in the United States or other developed nations into those social service programs and really look critically at what works and what doesn't, like BOMA does and measure impact and, and be transparent about that go out to the market and say, hey, for this amount of money, this is what I was able to do. Here's the proof. You know, here are the numbers. It's all right there. And so, I think I would say yes, and yes. Yes, I do think about poverty in the United States. And, yes, it's solvable, just like it is in Africa. But we need a different mindset there, we need to take a different look different lens, I think, at the discipline around creating impact. And I would admit, as well, that there are different factors here in the United States around poverty with some of the addiction issues and mental health issues that would not necessarily, you know, make our graduation approach easily and portable, there's more complexity there that I think we'd have to work through. But what I am convinced about that is that it's solvable. Just like other big problems, we measure impact. We compare programs, and we make smart investments and programs that work. 


James Laughlin 23:43 

I love that. And in terms of your own leadership lens. Now, who do you look to for mentorship? Who do you look to as a role model for you in terms of- because obviously, you're the chief executive. So, who are you looking to model the incredible leadership attributes that you're developing within yourself? 


John Stephens 24:01 

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, I'm lucky I have two incredible, a board chair and a vice-chair who both themselves are very accomplished leaders. And, you know, probably the greatest input for me has just been their mentorship. And I speak to them on a frequent basis. And it's really just an opportunity because we work closely together. And it's, you know, I'm open to sharing the real challenges of the organization. They both come from a kind of different, slightly different sectors, but really great people, and managers and have a wealth of advice they give me to help me get through some of these issues. But you know, I also, read a lot of Patrick Lencioni. I like his books. I like this approach. I like his podcasts. I think he's just got a very humble and very pragmatic approach to working with people. So, I'd say I've got a couple of great sources of management coaching around me. So, I'm pretty lucky there. You know, the third thing I do, and what I always tell other CEOs that I meet, especially in the nonprofit world is you've got to find the circle of other CEOs. Doesn't matter if they're running billion-dollar organizations, or $1,000 organizations, there are challenges and wisdom that are common in all these organizations. So, I'm lucky enough to be part of one of those out here in Oregon, international groups that are based in Oregon. And then I'm also on the board of directors of interaction, which is the US umbrella organization of all US International NGOs. Both of those have CEO circles, and that has been so helpful for me, I think part of it, you know, because you're a CEO, you don't have a peer in your organization, but you sit in those circles, and you hear that everyone is going through the same issues that you are has the same concerns and fears. And, you know, it's so refreshing and reaffirming. And so that's probably you know, that that's really been one of the great resources for me as well. 


James Laughlin 26:08 

That's incredible. Yes, sitting in a group of mastermind leaders, I run a mastermind to New Zealand and often get leaders from very diverse industries together, and it's incredible, they actually share all the same problems just with a different facade covering those problems. 


John Stephens 26:23 

Right, right. Yeah. And I think to your point, you know, influence is a big one, and how you work with people and how you show up. And, you know, that's so universal. And I think it's really helpful, you know, even challenge yourself to sit with CEOs from very different organizations, because I think you'll find those common themes come back, and that their wisdom, and when they're successful, it's often because they're just very good at communicating and influencing people. And they do it in a very genuine way. Right? So, you find those people, and they're just fantastic mentors. 


James Laughlin 26:55 

Totally, absolutely. And you mentioned a moment ago just about a rough figure. And you know, on the back of a napkin, it's so interesting when you say that, I think of Richard Branson. And I think of Elon Musk, and they have this real power to take a massive complex issue and distill it right down to the back of a napkin. And really, complexity kills action, complexity stops the momentum. So, you've brought it down to this very simple and distilled method. So how can others do that? How can another listener that's a leader this say, listening right now? How would they apply that thinking? That's a way of thinking to bring it down to something simple. 


John Stephens 27:37 

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, I, when I look at kind of the world of charity, and nonprofits and NGOs, oftentimes, I find, you know, organizations have expanded their missions so broadly, that they're not always focused on what the exact problem is, and maybe that shifted from when they started, or maybe they didn't quite have that focus when they started. So, I think it's an interesting exercise. You know you can, you know, the simple napkin math to say, well, what's the cost of your program per person? You should know that. And how many people need that program? You know, and you multiply those and you get your big number. If you can't do that, then you probably need to go back even a little deeper and say, well, what are we trying to fix? Because it should be pretty clear, right? This is what we're fixing and this is our exit strategy. And when we're done, we're done. And if you can answer that, then you can probably put a price tag on it by looking at your budgets. And then this number, the big, big number, how many people in the world need this? Well, you know, that can take some research, and it's okay for that to be a rough number. You know, when I talk about extreme poverty in Africa, you know, every day that numbers fluctuating, you know, we see big hits like COVID-19, and how that wiped out a lot of the economy suddenly, couple 100 million people move back into extreme poverty, I don't let that worry me. I know that number is big, and that, you know, I'm going to get there. But I think, you know, the challenge for nonprofit leaders is, if you can't make that if you can't do that math, and you need to go back and think about what you're solving for, and make sure you're crystal clear on that. And then come back, because really, I think everyone needs to have that number in their back pocket. That's part of shifting what we're trying to do, you know unless your organization is saying, hey, we just, you know, we want to be a social service provider. We need a couple million a year, we'll just keep nursing this problem along. You know, maybe that's a different kind of mission. But, you know, I think for this new generation of organizations coming out like BOMA, we're crystal clear on what we're trying to solve and how much it costs, and how we're going to do it. And I think that's the new generation of NGOs that are coming up with world-changing ideas. And I think it's no surprise that they're attracting interest from billionaires who also I think came up through some kind of similar organizations where they were just crystal clear about solving big problems or creating big, big products and executing on that. 


James Laughlin 30:12 

And that is, to me, that's magnetic, when, as a billionaire, let's say you have all this influence in this financial wealth. When you can see an NGO with a real crystal-clear vision, well, you know, that you can actually make a very direct impact, and you want to be a part of that. So, for the person that's trying to get clear, because, well, when we lack that clarity, whether we're leading a company, a community, or a country, obviously, there's very little buy-in when we don't know who we are, or where we're headed, what we're trying to solve. Nobody wants to jump on the ship. So, for someone who's trying to just get clear on the problem they solve, what would your advice be to them? 


John Stephens 30:50 

Well, you know, I think so like, imagine a CEO of an organization that's 15 or 20 years old, right. And they may be discovered that they're not so clear on what that problem is, you know, I think you'd go back to the origin, you go back to the place where that organization kind of had that, that original epiphany of like, hey, let's fix this. And you go back and you, you talk to the people. And you get out there into the field and you meet that community of people you serve and try to understand what that problem is, you know, sometimes the problems do change. And the challenges shift. And what you originally started working on maybe isn't relevant anymore. So, you do always need to keep going back and kind of ground-truthing you know, your work in the nonprofit world that you know, that's interesting, right? Because in the for-profit world, if you've got a product and you're selling it, maybe it's hot for five years, and then sales drop off, you know, something's wrong, right? They go back, and they do those focus groups, and they can look at the books and they can count the numbers. In the nonprofit world, it's not always that simple. The product that you're offering is being bought by a donor, and then being given to another community. So, there's kind of a natural disconnect that you need to be aware of, that you can be well funded and thriving as an organization that's producing a product that maybe isn't as relevant or needed. So, you know, I guess the first step for me would be, to go out to the field, talk to people about what they need, what's going on in their lives, really try to understand and be critical of your own program and say, Is this relevant? Is this the best solution for these people? And if not, is there something else out there? 


James Laughlin 32:35 

Really, really powerful. Thank you. And what keeps you when you think of, you know, pretending to your role in BOMA, what keeps you awake at night? What do you do to bed at night? This is a big deal. This is the hard stuff that I'm passionate about this. 


John Stephens 32:50 

Yeah, yeah. You know, I think some of the things that keep me up a bit are more of these kinds of these mega crises that are appearing. And you know, COVID-19 was one of them. And COVID-19 took us all sideways in many different ways, personally, and professionally. And then in the world of nonprofits, you know, a lot of nonprofits just could not deliver services, you know, and so, it was a huge challenge across the board, BOMA was able to, you know, very quickly kind of pivot how we did our work and make sure that, you know, we didn't leave anyone out, all of our programs continued. But, you know, the next one coming down the line may be different. It may not be an epidemic; it may be something else. You know, what I'm tracking right now is all about Ukraine and Russia. And what I've been talking to people about is that we're really not paying attention that, you know, the situation in Ukraine, horrific and the migration out of Ukraine, very much needs to be addressed. But Ukraine and Russia combined produce about 13% of the world's calories that are about to disappear. And a lot of petroleum is coming off the market as well. And people who know about petroleum know that they also use it that make fertilizer, that same fertilizer produces bumper crops, and Africa feeds a lot of people. So those two things disappearing, perhaps overnight, could have a transformational and negative impact on the world development and on BOMA because if people can't get food, we can't start up a business. There's no coaching around that we have to pivot and help people survive. If that happens at scale, we're already seeing huge spikes in commodity prices and fertilizer prices across Africa. So, it's happening. If that happens at a big scale, then that takes everything offline. Then we all kind of turn into emergency responders. And that sets us back 10 years 20 years or more in development, you know, we get through that, and then we start all over. So, I think about these things a lot. And just because it has the potential to take all of our work offline, you know, and really just set us back and change the whole nature of the equation. And then on kind of a more organizational level, I think about culture. And this is one that, you know, we've just moved right into in recent weeks, because we've been expanding dramatically through that grant from Mackenzie Scott expanding out from two out of 10 countries, doubling our staff just building a huge executive team and senior team to help manage these programs and grow them. But culture, culture is so vital to the health of an organization. And you know, I talked a bit about this new generation of world-changing organizations, and I look at Muso Health and One Acre Fund and Myagro, I count BOMA in there as well.  


John Stephens 36:12 

We can't go down the route of kind of the big NGOs in the world because I think, you know what you see in nonprofits, partially because of their compliance mindset because of the charitable history of those organizations. As they grow, they get slow, they develop big rule books and decision-making slows down. And they just don't become effective at scale. They never quite reach scale. And so, you know, culture for me is about really always tacking towards being nimble. And looking at the urgency of the challenges we face and building a team that thinks and acts quickly. And I tell my team, I said we're not going to become another nonprofit, I don't want an office full of 1000 people, you know, putting paperwork through compliance moves, like we're not going to do that we're going to be more like a startup, you know, and we're going to move like a startup and your job may shift. And if you want the same job for 40 years, you're not in the right place. If you're willing to be in a role that may shift and you have to stretch and maybe do something very different because that's what we need to grow and evolve. This is the place for you. And if that's exciting, then welcome on board, it's going to be a lot of fun. But, you know, it takes a lot of work, I think to always wrestle that culture away from its natural inclination, back to something that's kind of with a fast metabolism. And it's a little urgent and maybe a little more embracing of risk, right? You know, I don't know, if I'm going to have a 40-year career here, I might just have five, but it's going to be thrilling. And I'm going to learn a lot and then maybe I punch out. But building that culture, to me, is so critical to achieving scale and to bringing the organization that we want to be and being able to influence you to know, people look at us and just say, Wow, what an amazing group of people, fast thinkers, fast movers. You know, really, that kind of influence piece is so critical. 


James Laughlin 38:05 

What's at stake, if you don't create a thriving culture for BOMA what's at stake here if you get it wrong? 


John Stephens 38:15 

Well, if we get it wrong, you know, just a lot of people stay in extreme poverty. You know, I think our potential is that we could change the world, right? And our potential if we, if we don't get that culture piece, right, is that we, we kind of inch along as an okay, organization doing a fair amount of good work, but we really don't hit that big, big potential of let's change the world. You know, and we'll look back and 20 or 25 years, and we'll see, you know, did BOMA manage to create the culture and be this place of inspiration and influence that shifted an entire industry? Or did they just kind of, you know, join the long list of organizations that tried and did a pretty good job, but didn't quite knock it out of the park. So, you know, for me, it's everything, you know, we exist to end extreme poverty, you know, and anything less isn't what we're here to do. And it is why our donors have given us there, their funding, you know, so it's incumbent on me, I think, to build this organization, to do everything I can to create that culture that gets us to that point. 


James Laughlin 39:32 

I love hearing you say that. And, you know, no matter what anybody says, I firmly believe culture starts at the top, always and it filters down. And so how you act how you think how you carry yourself how you model to others that filters down. and often, CEO so you know, like, well, if we get it wrong, it's not life or death, but I look at what you're doing. And it truly is life or death. Yeah. Yeah, you know, it's incredible. It's such a responsibility but what an opportunity and an honor. 


John Stephens 40:03 

Yeah, no, absolutely. And, you know, I think recently I was just in Kenya for the last month. And every time I go up there, I talked to the team about, you know, we need to, we need to stay quick and fast and keep this urgency of the mission right in front of us. But, you know, I also talk a lot about startups, and I talked about pharmaceutical companies, specifically ones that are creating vaccines. And, you know, what I talked about is like, you can have a great idea, you can create the best vaccine out there, right? Phenomenal saves people 80% - 90% of the time. But now you need 500 million of those, now, you need 5 billion, right? So, it shifts to the second kind of strategy as well about manufacturing and hitting scale. And, you know, so what are these companies look like? You know, are they? Are they slow-moving bureaucratic organizations, and I look at, you know, Pfizer and BioNTech, like, no, these are some pretty fast metabolism organizations who take a lot of risks, and probably, you know, mess up here or there, but really get it right where it counts. How do we match that? How do we think of ourselves in that same light, because I think to your point, we are saving lives, potentially, we get this life-saving product out there that helps people get out of extreme poverty and helps them feed their families? That's life-saving. So, let's think of ourselves in that same vein. And again, kind of going back to that culture piece, you know, believe that you're doing this amazing work, you know, and work at a pace that you would work at if you were saving lives if you knew that lives were on the line. I'm sure that all these vaccine manufacturers do that, you know, even though the rigor of the science and all of the regulations around them that at their core, they know that they're saving lives, and they get their kind of best inspiration out of that. Well, I think we need to emulate that thinking as well. Because we can save lives, we can help address extreme poverty for 500 million people. And that's amazing. 


James Laughlin 42:12 

It truly is. And what does that look like John at an organizational level? So, when I come in, I work for you on a Monday morning and walk-in at 9 am. What do you guys do to really remind all of your staff and all of your team that hey, this is who we are? This is what we're about. This is where we're heading. How often does that happen? That conversation? 


John Stephens 42:32 

Yeah, that's a great question. Because, you know, from our origin, where that happened, and where it happened for me when I came into the organization, which, you know, I came in first as a funder from the foundation and started supporting BOMA, I loved BOMA so much I got onto the board of directors, and then from there became CEO. And that inspiration oftentimes comes from the fact that most of the organization works in the field, most of the organization works directly with our women participants. So, there's constant traffic from everyone, from my level to technical experts, and managers and mentors, who are in the field and who see it every day. A lot of this inspiration, you know, when we talk to the mentors, who are our frontline workers, you know, they work with the women, we go out and we talk to them about what inspires them. And that actually inspires us throughout the whole organization, the stories they tell and how transformational that is to see women in their community, oftentimes, their mothers or their sisters go through the program and just talk about that transformation. But I think, you know, you talk a bit about, you know, what, what keeps me up at night, as we grow, the opportunities for that change a bit, right, you get more people in kind of a headquarters, you get people get a little more removed from the work. And so, I think this is a new question. And a new challenge for us is how do we keep everyone invested in that, you know, how do we keep them inspired? Part of the solution for me is, you know, everyone that comes into the organization, I insist they go out to the field, the first thing they do, go out there, see it, feel it, you know, understand what we mean by the last mile, after you've flown for 12 hours, and then driven a car for eight more, you know, understand the place and the hardship. But I think there's more we can do. And I think in the coming months through this culture project, it's also looking at how do we kind of we always touch, you know, back to that mission and where we found that original passion and inspiration for this and how do we make sure that that's a living feeling throughout the organization, even if you're, you know, you're a fundraiser in France or you're working on the marketing team out of Vermont, or your frontline worker in Kenya, you know, how do we make sure that that's kind of a universal like a shared cultural experience in the organization? 


James Laughlin 45:03 

I love it. When you think of the culture, it would be incredible annually if you could just get a pulse or a heart rate monitor and just measure your culture. So how could you measure this time next year? If you're never catching up? You said, James, it's in high gear, it's phenomenal. The culture is thriving, how would you measure that? 


John Stephens 45:24 

Yeah, well, what we're going to start this year through the culture project, you know, there's a bunch of assessments that are coming out. So, we've hired this great team out of Nairobi, out of Swarthmore University there to do this project. But, you know, what I want to come out with is a quick survey, as a way to really just get a sense of people, if they feel connected to what they're doing, if they feel connected to their role, which is part of that, that they just feel connected into this organization, as it grows, because I think, you know, again, as we grow, you get further and further away, right? And you get these corners of the organization that are not always connected. So, I think just one of the simplest ways is to have that sort of, you know, annual questionnaire goes out with, with a handful of questions, not a long-drawn-out survey, but just quickly check the pulse and say, are you inspired this is feel good by you loving your job, you know, if you get a negative on kind of any of those pieces, you know, that something's up. You know, the other piece for me, in this role, there's just a huge demand around travel. But it's important for me, and I'm, I'm going to make it mandatory, really, for everyone in the executive team, you've got to get out there, and you've got to meet people that are working for us in the front lines, and you've got to just spend the afternoon, you know, taking the pulse in terms of a conversation with them, about, you know, the challenges in their role and how they're feeling motivated. You know, going back to that big, big problem, right, you know, 500 million people living in extreme poverty. It's easy, I think, to become a bit disillusioned, you know, like, we're never going to do it, it's never going to happen. There's, there's a big part of my role, which is reassuring people that we're doing it, that we're getting there that we're building this team, that money's coming in, we are changing minds, we are reshaping the conversation. And I tell the team, every time I'm out in Kenya, people are watching people are paying attention to the work you're doing. The RCT, the randomized controlled trial, those results were the work of hundreds of BOMA staff, you know, over almost four years of work, and I tell people that I went to DC and, you know, we broadcast that at the highest levels of USAID, and that people are tweeting about it. And, you know, the world is watching, this work. And they know it's important and, and they really admire the work, especially of the mentors in the front lines, you know, keeping people connected to the small wins, especially in a big, big challenge, like extreme poverty, I think it's also really important, otherwise you lose sight, right? It just feels like it's never going to end.  


James Laughlin 48:13 

Yeah, I think it's important that every level, no matter what type of organization, you're leading have those micro wins that are measurable. And I see your end game, it's incredibly inspiring. It's a big, big vision. And often to achieve a great outcome there takes legendary leadership and to have legendary leaders, we need longevity, so often the leaders that stand the game the longest, and whether that leader means yourself or your team, or the whole organization, just staying power is so important. So, if you've gone in three years, okay, that we didn't solve the problem. If you're here in 30 years, and the problem is almost solved. That is fantastic. So, what do you do as the captain of the ship, to maintain your health, your well-being your mindset so that you don't burn out? 


John Stephens 49:06 

Yeah, that's a great question. I do think about that a lot. You know, I think as I mentioned, I just traveled quite a bit. You know, really, it's just taking, taking some opportunities for downtime has been helpful for me as well as just trying to keep up with bike riding and things like that, that is pleasurable. But, you know, I talked to my team a lot about just taking weekends. And, you know, it's, it's a, it's a marathon, not a sprint, as much as I preached the urgency. I do know that that balance is important for me and for the team. And so really, you know, taking the weekends and taking time off and kind of not losing focus on the other parts of your life, which are certainly important family and friends and all those different things that kind of keep us balanced, you know, and emulating that at the top, right? That it's okay to take a good vacation, it's, you know, take two weeks at once, because we know that just taking a couple of days spread out over the month doesn't really achieve what we want to in terms of having that downtime to kind of depressurize and, and rejuvenate yourself. 


James Laughlin 50:27 

I love it. And are there any things that you do as a leader to set the tone so for example, you know, I know some CEOs that send the 4 am emails, or the midnight emails or texts or any things that you're like, you know, what I've got boundaries around high leads, that that sets the tone for everyone? 


John Stephens 50:45 

Well, I, you know, I don't always have the luxury of regulating those time zones, because we work in so many different time zones and emails come in, at any odd hour. But I really do encourage, you know, my team members to, you know, I say we build for kind of a nine to five day, you know, I know that every once in a while, we'll make demands, something will come in urgently and we'll have to break that and work extra hours. But, you know, we build teams so that people can have a life, you know, and I want them to do that. So really encouraging, I would say one, people that take their full weekends, and I'll put this on emails, oftentimes, if I'm working, and I'm when I'm traveling, I'm always working, I'll say, don't respond to this, you know, this, this is coming in on a weekend, because I just need to send it out, because I'm traveling or doing something, but next week is fine. You know, and really making sure that I'm not artificially creating that, that need for people to work on the weekends. And then I think just really, you know, I talked to the team a lot, take your vacations, plan them out, you know, let's make sure you map them out so that you've got coverage, you feel good about your time off. Rebuilding your teams, always thinking about that resilience, you know, you've got people you can depend on if you need to step out for any reason vacation, or, or something else. But then really making sure people take that time that people aren't skipping their vacation. I, I think you know, weekends are great, but having two or three weeks off continuously is a whole different sort of rejuvenation that we need, especially in this sort of work, you know, where you're dealing with extreme poverty, you're dealing with a lot of negatives, you know, you need to be able to find time to balance that out and step away from something that, you know, can be overwhelming, and kind of a little bit dark, you know, if you think about some of the things we're fighting against. So, you know, I take that time for myself, I insist that you know, my team and the people that report to them take that as well. And I think holding on to that discipline to make sure everyone's been, you know, has the opportunity to step out and rejuvenate is really critical. 


James Laughlin 52:59 

That's amazing. I hope some of your team get to listen to this and really take that on board and hear that from you. It's so important because you have the staying power, the longevity I see as being a crucial part of your success. 


John Stephens 53:10 

Yeah, and it's, you know, I think about my longevity as well, you know, I hear what you're saying, right, that leadership and kind of building this organization, and the culture is so critical. And yet, I don't want to become, you know, an icon, in a sense in the organization, a lot of what I've done in my time here has been building a broad team of leaders that can all pick up across the board. You know, I think the strength of an organization is really that you've got multiple people who can step up into leadership roles, and having three or four people at any time that could become CEO that are ready for that next step, and that they've got three or four people below them that are ready to step up. As a way to say, yeah, you know, the longevity of the organization and pursuit of this mission is critical. But it's, it's more of a, it's like a group of us that need to bring this along. It's not just me, you know, and it's a little risky to pin all of that on one person, whoever they may be. But you've got a group of, you know, 7 to 10 really, really strong leaders in this executive team are such a strong organization with people who can step up into a variety of roles at any time. So, you know, that's what I'm trying to build. I'm trying to build as much of that in Africa as I can. I feel strongly that the organization needs to be staffed by emerging African leaders, and there's so much talent on the continent, that we can do that and it's shifting the board as well and saying, you know, as CEO, I need advice from people who live in the places where I work, I need that, you know, that's how I think about risk. And people who helped me open doors don't understand risk, they need to be from those places. So, you know, big changes in our board as well as we become more African. 


James Laughlin 55:07 

Amazing, simply amazing. I often hear leaders talk about the challenge of leading a company, whether they are founders or CEOs. And they're starting to feel stress and strain because they're almost stepping into self-rule roles and essentially micromanaging because they don't feel that they can give their leaders or managers autonomy. So, from your own experience, what's the best way to help others step up and be more autonomous? 



John Stephens 55:37 

Yeah, that's a great question. I think, you know, I think we all tend to have those tendencies because perhaps we came from those jobs, and now we're managing folks in those roles, so easy to step back down into that, and kind of CO manage with them. You know, one of our, one of our strongest leaders in the organization, Sam A Willie, who's Kenyan, you know, he oftentimes talks about his relationship with me, and he says, you know, John just says, this is where I want us to go. And he says to us, figure out how we get there. And I think that's, you know, really brilliant insight from him. That, if you're telling people how to get there, you may be on the wrong track, you need to really be saying, we need to be over here, you know, this is the point, whatever that is a financial point, a product point, strategic point, and then challenge them to get you there and trust that they have those skills and don't get too involved back in that conversation, you know, let them lead that conversation. So, I really like that, you know, and I think CEOs really probably need to reflect on how they talk to teams and say, am I really say like, here's my vision, you know, let's go there, or they have in a very different conversation, or they're very much kind of back into one of those jobs, maybe out of that line of management. They came from, you know, marketing or implementation and a little too involved there. But I think it's, you know, again, I challenge the team a lot too, you know, emulate that as well. And always be building up a team of leaders below them, and really making sure that they're creating those pathways for people to come up to the organization. 


James Laughlin 57:30 

It's incredibly helpful. Thanks for sharing that. And just the last couple of questions, but before we wrap up if BOMA had one obsession metric, one thing in 2022, that you wanted to measure more than anything that could turn the dial, what would that obsession metric be? 


John Stephens 57:48 

What would that obsession metric be? Well, you know, I think that the big obsession metric for me is the number of organizations we've influenced, to adopt the program because we could look at the numbers of women, we're enrolling, we can look at the dollars raised, but I think at the end of the day, if we're not changing the mindset of big organizations to uptake our program, then we're not fully succeeding, you know, and that's really where we're going to hit our stride, where we're going to hit scale is going to come from that big, big organizations, and maybe some mid-sized organizations and governments saying, Yeah, we want to do this, you know, this makes sense. And so, you know, those numbers. You know, we have probably five different NGO partners and one big government partner right now. And so, we're hitting those numbers with them. But of course, there's room for massive expansion there. We've been working in Kenya, predominantly since we started, we're now working with the Government of Kenya, training them on how to implement the program. That's phenomenal. But I would say that number is 10. And that, we're going to move into 10 new countries. And I need to do that with each of those governments, right? So big, big ambitions there. 


James Laughlin 59:10 

Incredible. Well, if there's someone listening right now, who is either in a position to influence or has deep connections with an influential organization, or government, what's the best way for them to connect with you to have a conversation to support your mission? 


John Stephens 59:26 

Yeah, absolutely. Well, they can reach out, you know, on our website, on my on the staff page, I'm listed there and it connects right to my email, and you can send me an email through that. You could connect to me through LinkedIn, I'm there as well. Or you can just give us a call on the website. And now, we're still a small enough organization, you can call us and ask to be put in touch with the CEO and we can make that happen quickly. 


James Laughlin 59:52 

John, that's amazing. Well, be sure to put that all in the show notes so that people know where to go with your LinkedIn and on the website. Now it's my pleasure. One last question before we wrap up, so you're at the end of your life. And you know, it's the last day if a few last breaths and someone comes up to you, who you love dearly a young person in your life who's got their life ahead of them. And they say, John, what should I be doing to lead my life with purpose? What would your advice be to that person? 


John Stephens 1:00:22 

Well, that's a big one. That's a big one. You know, I think, like, what I say to my kids is leave the earth a little bit better than how you found it. You know, and if you just strive for that, no matter what you're doing, I think that's a life well-lived. 


James Laughlin 1:00:43 

Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that, John. 


John Stephens 1:00:46 

Absolutely. Great speaking with you. 


James Laughlin 1:00:49 

Yeah, it's been a pleasure. And uh, hey, I'm right behind you with this mission. And anyway, I can support you, and in the months and years ahead, I'm right behind you. 


John Stephens 1:00:58 

Absolutely. Thank you so much.  


James Laughlin 

Thanks, John. 


James Laughlin 1:01:19 

Thanks for tuning in today and investing in your own personal leadership. Please hit that subscribe button. And I'd love it if you'd leave me a rating and review. I've got some amazing guests lined up for you in the coming weeks. And leaders. It's that time to get out there and lead your life on purpose.