Where should you be devoting your energies as a professional? Part of answering that question involves getting clear on which endeavors you feel naturally drawn toward. Former journalist Victoria Crandall shares her unique journey of leaving the US to become a managing director of a cocoa exporter in the Ivory Coast. We’ll talk about the power of curiosity and using your natural interests as a way of guiding your career choices. In the Mental Fuel segment, I’ll also explain the importance of identifying your professional “center of gravity.”
I referenced a quote from Stephen Speilberg about listening to the whispers in your life. Here’s the full video.
I also referenced this episode of Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman featuring Ev Williams.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I challenged you to think about what’s been whispering in your ears. What’s something that seems to keep popping up that could signal where your center of gravity is in your career. It could be something people keep telling you about one of your strengths, or a talent that keeps showing up, or just an idea you can’t stop toying with. Try to capture what your center of gravity is, then take one action this week that COULD move you closer to that place.
Victoria Crandall is a Sub-Saharan African specialist who is passionate about entrepreneurship, disruptive technologies, and agricultural commodities. She has had several career transitions, segueing from business journalism to soft commodity research to commodity trading. Victoria is currently the commercial director of an Ivorian cocoa and raw cashew nut exporter. She is also the creator and host of the Young African Entrepreneur Podcast. Follow Victoria on Twitter and Instagram.
If you have any lingering thoughts, questions, or topics you would like covered on future episodes, record a voicemail for me right here. I LOVE hearing from listeners!
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Teaser (first ~15s): I think I’m inherently drawn to things that are new and challenging. I think it’s my inner pioneer spirit. Once I started becoming interested in Sub-Saharan African markets, I became more and more drawn to being an Africa specialist.
Joseph: Hello, Victoria. Welcome to Career Relaunch. I’m so happy to have you on the show today.
Victoria: Thrilled to be here, Joseph.
Joseph: You are our very first guest on this show based in West Africa. I want to talk about your experiences there in Sub-Saharan Africa, the challenges you tackled reinventing yourself and your perspectives as someone who’s a minority in many ways there in the Ivory Coast. Before we get to all that, can you just kick us off by telling us what you’re up to right now in your career and your life?
Victoria: I work as a Commercial Director at an Ivorian cocoa and cashew nut exporter. What I’m busy doing right now is pretty much booking contracts, making sure that all of our cocoa exports are going out on time. The company has also launched a small cocoa processing factory, so I’m actually getting my first exposure to manufacturing and managing a local factory, which has been pretty interesting.
Joseph: Can you just paint a little bit of a picture for me just because I’ve never been to the Ivory Coast? Can you just describe a little bit about where you live there, where you work? What’s the overall environment there and the setup there for you?
Victoria: First of all, Ivory Coast is a tropical country. There are pretty much two seasons here. It’s either raining or it’s not, so we’re just about to go into the rainy season. Abidjan is more developed as compared to other large cities in West Africa. As compared to Accra and Ghana or Lagos in Nigeria, Abidjan has much better infrastructure. There’s power 24/7, clean drinking water. If you go to any shop, you can find loads of imported goods. There’s a nice movie theater in town. An hour’s drive away, there’s a beautiful beach. It’s a very comfy lifestyle.
I think it’s kind of the best secret that maybe a lot of expats in Ivory Coast maybe don’t want to tell everybody, but it’s a very pleasant life.
Joseph: I know you’re American, and you’re there in the Ivory Coast, so I want to talk about how you ultimately landed there. Before we do that and before we get into more of your role there as a Commercial Director, I’d like to go back in time and talk through the two major chapters in your career prior to this period in your life, and then we can dive into more detail and the dynamics of your current situation. I was wondering, Victoria, if you could just tell us a little bit about your time going way back as a business journalist.
Victoria: My first full-time job was working as a freelance business journalist, but it was a rather atypical job. I was hired for a business intelligence company based out of London, also offices in New York and Hong Kong. They cover mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, joint ventures, and they hired me to read the newspapers in Arabic, because after I finished my studies in the US, I went to Syria, and I studied Arabic for two and a half years. I was very fortunate that I lived there right before the Civil War broke out.
I became proficient in Arabic and moved to Dubai. Luckily, I knew a lot of contacts in the journalism community and was able to reach out to someone at the Financial Times who put me in touch with someone at Mergermarket.
Working as a freelancer, I could live anywhere in the world. I was pretty much a digital nomad before that was a trendy term. That allowed me to live in Dubai. I also lived in Cairo, Egypt. I also traveled to Lagos for six weeks, and then kind of my last stop when I was still working with this company as a business journalist was in Casa Blanca, Morocco.
Joseph: Had you always planned on living the US and living this sort of international lifestyle? If so, what was the draw for you?
Victoria: I didn’t, but in hindsight, it’s not surprising that I was led to make a career abroad. I have an older sister who has been very influential to me. When she was only 24, she got a job in Germany working for Adidas. She being eight years older than me and having such an influence, I kind of looked to her as a mentor or saw that, ‘Wow, you can do that.’ Also, we had traveled a lot together. When I was in high school, I would go and visit her in Europe, and we’d travel somewhere for two weeks, and having studied also languages in high school and in college.
I just love travel. I love learning about new places and cultures, learning new languages. Once I fell down the Middle East rabbit hole so to speak when I was in college, I kind of just fell in love with Arabic. To me, it seemed very logical. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll go and live in an Arabic speaking country for a year, two years, and that will open plenty of doors.’ That’s kind of how it happened.
Joseph: You’re traveling around, you’re doing this journalistic work, what happened next for you?
Victoria: The big game changer was that I became enthralled with Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically with business in Sub-Saharan Africa, because when I was working at this business intelligence company, they gave me the Sub-Saharan African press to cover because no one was really interested in it.
That was because Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, it’s still pretty much still a frontier market. You don’t have a lot of large-size M&A deals, so they were like, ‘You take Kenya and Nigeria and Ghana,’ and I just thought it was fascinating because I think I’m inherently drawn to things that are new and challenging. I think it’s my inner pioneer spirit.
Particularly reading about Nigeria, I just felt like, ‘Wow, this seems like such a crazy, complicated place but so fascinating.’ You look at its population size and its natural resources, and it’s just like, ‘Wow, this place is going to take off at some point.’
Once I started becoming interested in Sub-Saharan African markets—and this was also concurrent with all of the political problems in the Middle East because this was after the Arab Spring—I became more and more drawn to being an Africa specialist.
Joseph: How did you go about become an ‘expert’ in that? What was that journey like for you?
Victoria: I think it’s amazing that, if you’re curious and you’re hungry for information, you can become an expert relatively quickly. I tend to be very self-deprecating, so I really hesitate to call myself an expert. Given that there’s so much information out there, you can learn a lot very quickly.
I didn’t have any business background. I had studied international relations. I was really drawn to politics and kind of always thought I would stay a journalist. Just reading business papers, I was actually able to teach myself a lot, so when I worked as a business journalist, it was kind of an education as well about markets, how they worked, financing.
Again, I’m nowhere near an expert, but at least it made me comfortable with the jargon, and I was able to build a network and I think established credibility pretty quickly.
Joseph: How did you make the transition in to working in soft commodity research for a bank? For those listeners who aren’t familiar with the term soft commodities, can you just very quickly explain the difference between soft and hard commodities?
Victoria: Soft commodities are agricultural commodities – coffee, cocoa, cotton, grains, whether that be corn, sorghum, rice, oil seeds, etc. If you’re going to think of other commodities, they tend to be extractives. It’s diamond, gold, oil, any type of platinum, etc.
I got interested in commodities in a very roundabout way. As I mentioned earlier, I was living in Morocco, and at that point in my life, I felt very adrift. I had taken this promotion to be North Africa Correspondent and moved to Casa Blanca, Morocco. I don’t really like North Africa as a region. I don’t find it as interesting as let’s say Sub-Saharan Africa. For me, it was a pit stop. It was pretty much that, I’m transitioning away from the Middle East, and I want to get to Sub-Saharan Africa, but I haven’t found that opportunity to kind of take me there yet.
I had the good fortune when I was in Morocco, working freelance. I could of course take other projects, and I was able to take a month-long project that took me to Abidjan. That was in March 2013, two years after a period of conflict.
When I came here, things were calm, and investors were starting to come back. It just felt very dynamic, and something was happening here. On a personal level, I just really liked it. I found people were very friendly. The people are very welcoming, and I felt like, Côte d’Ivoire economy is very dynamic. It has agriculture. It has an energy sector. It has an oil refinery. It’s the largest economy in Francophone West Africa.
I’m working on this economic research project, and one of my interviews was with the head of soft commodities research at a pan-African bank, Ecobank. I had a very good interview with the head of research. A couple of days later, when I submitted the quotes from our interview, I had also found out just kind of randomly through LinkedIn that they were actually looking to recruit a soft commodities analyst to be based somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.
When I submitted the quotes to him, I said, ‘Hey, I saw this JD for the Soft Commodities Analyst position, and I’d really like to apply.’ I ended up getting the job, and five to six months later, I moved to Abidjan, and I’ve been here ever since.
Joseph: I guess what’s in my mind, Victoria, as I’m thinking about this, is if I were to make that kind of a move both geographically and also in terms of I guess the function of my job, I would personally be dealing a lot with what I would call impostor syndrome. Did you feel any of that, or was that not so much an issue for you?
Victoria: It was a huge issue for me. I kind of always felt like I was a fraud or at least a misfit working in a bank, because I always felt like I am a liberal arts social sciences type of person and an ex-journalist, and I don’t have that credibility. I never did a CFA. I didn’t do an MBA. I didn’t study finance. Sometimes, that would get to me, but most of the time, I would just talk myself out of it and be like, ‘You’re the one who’s here doing the work.’
It was a position that they really struggled to fill, because unfortunately, a lot of Africans aren’t that interested in agriculture, and they don’t see it as something where they want to be an agricultural commodities analyst. Because I just naturally gravitated toward that position and particularly wanting to study cocoa because Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is the world’s largest cocoa producer, I was able to learn very quickly and to really cut my T’s and to establish credibility.
The only way I handled it is that, sometimes, you have bad days or you have maybe bad experiences that will trigger or at least make you doubt yourself. If you look at your body of work and what you’re accomplishing on the day-to-day, it’s like, ‘No, the work speaks for itself.’
Joseph: That’s really interesting. I guess you’re right. Sometimes, you just have to dive in and just give it your best shot. I know that you’ve got a reason for being there, and there’s a reason why they hired you, and you deserve to be there.
You’re working at Ecobank, and then you eventually make a shift into working in the cocoa and raw cashew nut export business and industry. How did that transition come about for you?
Victoria: That was an interesting one and one I never would have anticipated, because again, I always told myself I could never be a commercial trade person, because I always look at traders, and they tend to be men, they’re very aggressive, it’s a very testosterone kind of…
Joseph: That’s what I have in my mind too.
Victoria: Exactly. I had reached a glass ceiling at Ecobank, and I was kind of becoming frustrated with my work and felt like I couldn’t really advance to the level that I wanted professionally. So I resigned.
There’s another step in between because when I resigned, I decided I’m going to set up my own consultancy firm, because clearly, I’m going to have tons of clients. To my credit, I had established a really great, fantastic network in West Africa, and I really do have this niche knowledge. However, it’s just very difficult to predict how many projects or clients you’re going to have. Over that year that I was freelancing, it was very much feast or famine, and it was pretty difficult.
However, the last client I had towards the end of—I had maybe been freelancing six to eight months at this point—my last client was this local cocoa and cashew nut exporter. I had a one-month mandate. The project went very well, and at the end of the project, he made me a full-time offer to be commercial director in his company.
I hesitated maybe for one second, and then I said, ‘No, I need to do this,’ because I knew that, truly, the only way to learn is to do it – it’s by doing. I had essentially spent two and a half years talking to other people to know how you purchase and export cocoa beans. Sure enough, when I started this new job, I learned more about cocoa trading in two months than I did in two years working in a bank.
Joseph: Can you also just explain a little bit about this dynamic you were just talking about, Victoria, where you’re in a male-dominated trade, and you’re female, you’re a foreigner, what that’s like to be—for a lack of better term—a minority in this industry, both in terms of the work itself but also just geographically there, not being native to the Ivory Coast, in what I’m guessing is driven by a lot of local experts or people who have a lot of tribal knowledge about how things work in that industry?
Victoria: It’s a double-edged sword about being a foreigner, because on one hand, it privileges you in a lot of ways. You get access to a lot of information and to people by virtue of, in my case, being a white American. It also means that you’re less effective at doing some things, because unfortunately, I think as your listeners are going to know or makes sense to them, the commodity business or any type of extractive business, particularly in the export side, it’s very susceptible to predatory and breath-sinking behavior, and that’s particularly in developing countries. By who I am, those are things that I cannot engage in, which is for me, of course, all the better.
Secondly, I would say as for being a woman, it’s pretty challenging because I’ve always based my identity in what matters most to me of being my intelligence, my integrity, my work ethic. Sometimes, particularly working in an African culture or my boss is actually Lebanese, working with someone who’s Arab for instance and just older of a different generation, sometimes, you can feel that I’ve been reduced to how I look, or there are certain things that I can’t do because people do not take me seriously.
Sometimes, I’m having the impression that my gender undercuts me in some way and that I’m not taken as seriously because I’m a woman. I’ve gone to industry functions. I’ve spoken at conferences where I was the only woman in the room.
Joseph: How do you deal with that? How do you deal with what I’m going to guess is potentially a lot of incoming fire or being subject to criticism, not because of the actual work you’re doing but just because of who you are and what you look like on the outside?
Victoria: Honestly, I think the best way to deal with it is always humor. I remember sitting in a meeting. I was with my director. I was with a client who’s Dutch. A lot of cocoa importers are actually based in the Netherlands. My boss have kind of made a wise crack of like, ‘Oh, Victoria. We’re so happy that she gets to represent us abroad,’ and there was kind of an undertone to it that if I’m being maybe more expansive and generous can say, ‘He’s a 60-year-old, Lebanese man. Don’t take offense,’ but also felt a little misogynistic. Again, my value is really just reduced to how I looked, and the client laughed. I felt like I was almost a fly on the wall of this boy’s club, and it felt very diminishing.
When I kind of looked more broadly, it’s that if I cannot execute, if I cannot do my duties, I would not be here. I’m not going to beat myself up about constantly, like do I get access, do I get these meetings because of how I look or because of what I say and what I do?
Joseph: Has there been anything that has been particularly surprising about how you have been able to excel in this industry?
Victoria: I think with anything, you learn by doing, and you learn by making mistakes, which is incredibly painful. The first thing a junior trader will learn is that you have losing trades. You have trades that will go bad. You will lose money. It’s a part of the game. It’s a part of the job, but going through that first losing trade and knowing that I lost tens of thousands of dollars for my company is really hard to deal with.
Half of the time, I think people really don’t know what they’re doing, and there really is a lot of truth to ‘fake it till you make it.’ You have to be willing to learn on the job but also to maintain that authority and credibility at the same time.
Joseph: One of the things we talk about on this show is about throwing yourself into unfamiliar environments and finding a way to make it. Is there something about you that you feel has allowed you to effectively navigate the challenge of being in an unfamiliar place, of working in an unfamiliar market, of being a minority in multiple ways in what sounds like a somewhat homogenous workforce? I guess I’m just wondering what you feel is something about you that’s allowed you to not only survive but to actually thrive there.
Victoria: I would say it’s experience by now because it’s been 10 years. In May, it’ll be 10 years since I graduated from university, and in September, it’ll be 10 years since I left the US to establish my career abroad essentially. I’ve lived in so many foreign countries: Syria, Dubai, Egypt, Morocco, yeah, five countries now, that I think I’m just used to my identity really being tied to being a foreigner. It’s like the first word I learn in any new language is ‘foreigner,’ because I want to know when someone’s talking about me.
I think it’s like anything. It’s like any skill. The more experience you have, the better you’re able to deal with it. I would say professionally, particularly being a commercial director in a very volatile, I think complicated industry, such as cocoa trading, it’s really made me realize that, no, I am the boss and I have to make decisions. I have to make those decisions according to the information that I have at my disposal at the time, and then I’m responsible for them.
That was very scary to me because I’d never had that level of responsibility before. That ultimately I think has been the biggest gain of this job. Everything else I think honestly if you treat people with respect, if you have a sense of humor, if you’re willing to try new things, learn local language to try to endear yourself to others, that goes a really long way.
Joseph: Before we wrap up, I do have just two more questions for you. One is about your career changes, and the other one’s just about the cocoa industry in general because I’m interested in that. You’ve obviously gone through many career changes from journalism to soft commodity research to commodity trading. What’s something you’ve learned about yourself, having been in many situations where you’ve had to find a way to thrive in these unfamiliar territories? By territories, I mean that both literally and also figuratively.
Victoria: That I’m much more resilient than I ever thought. That again, having lived in so many different countries and ones that were very different than the US, where I grew up, there are almost systems you can follow. It’s all about, ‘Let me network and meet up with other people who are also expats or foreigners and figure out how they did things and how do I go out and make friends and how do I learn to build a life here and establish a community.’ Once you do that, it’s not daunting. Any kind of new challenge that comes your way, you can find a solution to it. You can work it out.
Joseph: One of the things that I wanted to also ask you about was I just can’t let you go without asking you a little bit about cocoa and cashew nut exporting. One of the things I noticed about myself when I was working in the consumer goods industry was that it affected my own shopping and buying behavior like when I used to work for an ice cream manufacturer. I’m now really particular whenever I’m buying ice cream products. How has working in a cocoa business affected your own purchasing behaviors when you’re buying cocoa products or any other chocolate products?
Victoria: I’ve actually become a lot more cynical about a lot of initiatives that try to guarantee some type of standards. I know what the supply chain is like in Ivory Coast, I know the realities of the industry, and I know how complicated it is to guarantee actually where buyers are sourcing their cocoa beans.
I feel actually very conflicted about a lot of Fairtrade products or UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, because I think if anyone ever came to a country like Ivory Coast or Ghana, you realize that it’s very, very, very difficult to establish a traceable supply chain.
Joseph: I always wondered about those labels that you see on mostly like chocolate bars and things, like Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade or any sort of soft commodity. You see those stamps and labels, and I always wonder how much those really mean.
Victoria: It’s more because 20 years ago almost, there was an uproar about the use of child labor in the cocoa industry. That spurred legislation in the US that required that cocoa companies really have sustainability initiatives that have traceable procurement strategies, etc.
The reality is that child labor is kind of a part of the landscape. These communities are very poor, and so students often can’t even go to school because they don’t have a birth certificate to go to school, and they work out in the cocoa fields with their parents, and they’re not maybe necessarily doing hazardous work. Maybe they’re collecting cocoa pods, something equivalent of how kids in the Midwest in the summer, they help their parents out on the farm.
It’s actually a much more nuanced and complicated subject, and it still lacks a lot of data and a lot of understanding. There’s been this emotional, knee-jerk reaction to an issue like child labor, with good reason in the cocoa industry, but it makes companies very reactive. So then the solution is, ‘We’re going to have all these certification schemes,’ but then the whole problem becomes, how do we audit actually what’s going on on the ground. That’s the very tricky part.
Joseph: That’s very educational and very illuminating. We can keep talking about this all day, but I got to wrap us up here right now. Before we go, I would love for you to tell us a little bit more about your podcast, which is called the Young African Entrepreneur Podcast. I know this is something that you’re working on in addition to everything you’ve got going on with your day job. Can you just tell us a little bit more about the podcast and the types of people you have on the show?
Victoria: Kind of always being a business nerd, a Sub-Saharan Africa business nerd, luckily because I have a great network and I know lots of people doing really cool things in business, I wanted to launch this podcast focusing on entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve interviewed people, entrepreneurs who are introducing disruptive technologies in supply chains management, use of tractors, or some really cool company in Nigeria that is almost like an Uber for tractors. It’s a really fun passion project that gives me something creative to do and gives me an excuse to talk to really interesting, cool people.
Joseph: Very interesting. We’ll definitely include a link in the show notes so that people can check out your podcast. Thanks so much. This has been really fascinating and educational, Victoria. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. Thanks so much for telling us about your life there in the Ivory Coast and how you’ve navigated some seriously major career changes. I would just love to wish you the best of luck with your work there in the cocoa and the cashew nut industry and also with your podcast.
Victoria: Thank you, Joseph. This was a lot of fun.