This trip is in my role as the chair of Unicef’s New York Philanthropic Advisory Board. Unicef does good for children everywhere in the world. And we are building an amazing board, whose members are bringing an amazing array of skills.
We are here to look, listen and learn. I can tell from the start this is going to be an extraordinary week. Riding around Dakar on Sunday morning is a study of contrasts. Gorgeous, aqua water as I look left. But, inland to the right, relics of the slave trade that vividly and uncomfortably recall a painful chapter of American history.
Here, as the bus navigates largely unpaved roads, it’s clear that poverty is pervasive. I’d learned that 33 per cent of Senegal’s people live on less than $1.25 a day. So many children have no access to housing, nutrition, medicine and education. The sights don’t disabuse the statistics.
It’s Monday and we’re back on the bus. We travel to a few schools. There are posters everywhere, with warnings against child molestation, disease and begging. Disturbing. But, at the schools, I see something else – kids with astonishing energy, enthusiasm and excitement. I see beautiful, meticulous work on slates. Teachers and administrators making miracles out of so little. A little triumph in every corner.
Tuesday takes us farther into Senegal. This next school has a student government run by a second-grader – the most buttoned-up kid I’ve met. I am sure he will lead this country some day. We are treated to some theatre by the children – so integral to the culture of Senegal.
It’s Wednesday and we visit a school programme run by the NBA and partially sponsored by Nike. Sports are a key part of the programme and meant to help develop leadership skills. The programme is run by Gorgui Dieng, who was a member of an American NCAA basketball team and who came out of this school himself. In the States, this guy is a hero; but he’s an even bigger hero here.
On this last day, we spend time with a company that helps social workers bring street kids into the social system with the simple solution of registering and tracking them through mobile phones. I love how this simple app is a bridge to a massive database with all its wonderful human consequences.
Thursday, I’m home and in a meeting with a start-up company leveraging big data and trying to monetise its business model. Culture shock on this end again. I tell them that their data model is pretty amazing, but remind them that insight is still very human. My example comes from the mobile app I’d just seen in Senegal.
On Friday, I do a run-through of our new offices in New York’s Columbus Circle, a neighbourhood that has it all – commerce, media, culture and the city’s largest park all steps away. We moved to Madison Avenue close to 90 years ago and helped give the street its iconic association with advertising. But I am not sad about leaving. Looking out at our new workspace – with its openness and fluidity – I know that Madison Avenue is a state of mind that we are bringing with us and that we are redefining it for the next 90 years.
What a week. I walk home, eager to see my grandchildren over the weekend.
David Sable is the global chief executive at Y&R