Business, Faith & the Second Half

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If private enterprise, rather than charity, is the sustainable solution to poverty in Africa, then how do Americans help? One innovative idea taking root in Rwanda is to draw faith-motivated U.S. businesspeople to the country to lend their talent and invest their resources to promote entrepreneurship and private sector growth. This essay journals the transformation of one boomer-age American entrepreneur as he reignites his passion, redefines success in business into a divine calling and encourages the next generation to fuse a social mission into their careers.

My granddad was a cowboy preacher that dedicated his life to God and to ministering to the hardscrabble working poor of the Texas Panhandle. My dad was a milkman and my parents were small family entrepreneurs. I grew up thinking that I could choose one life or the other. I chose business.

Today, I get to do both. Seven years ago, I decided to set aside my comfortable position at a private investment firm to devote myself to building businesses and supporting education in Rwanda – a tiny, poor and inspiring country in the heart of Africa. While faith calls and challenges me to do what I do, no one confuses me with a pastor.

Halftime

I always wanted to be a “deal” man and entrepreneur. For 22 years after college, I worked as a corporate tax consultant, investment banker, entrepreneur and finally, as the CEO of a private company that distributed truck and trailer parts. I sold the business when I was 46 years old; inexplicably lost my passion to do another big deal; and entered a season of life called “halftime”.

Bob Buford, a successful businessman and protégé of the management guru, Peter Drucker, coined the term “halftime” to describe the common experience of thousands of successful business people when they reach middle age–and get the surprise of their life. They look around and instead of savoring their success, they wonder what it all means. In his books, Halftime and Finishing Well, Buford advises: “For ‘Halftimers’ to reignite their passion and to finish life well, they must move from success to significance…in their second half, they will need to find a mission that allows them to use their time and talent in service to others.” For people of faith, it often means finding God’s call on their lives.

In his book, The Call, Os Guinness asks the question,

“God’s calling is the key to igniting a passion for the deepest growth and highest heroism in life. Do you want to accept a challenge that will be the integrating dynamic of your whole life? One that will engage your loftiest thoughts, your most dedicated exertions, your deepest emotions, and all your abilities and resources, the last step you take and the last breath you breathe? Listen to Jesus of Nazareth; answer his call.”

During my personal “halftime” experience, I began to realize that passion is not self-inspired, but actually a gift from God–a mysterious divine gift of consuming purpose and energy–that seems to come and go of its own accord. I also became convinced that to get my passion back, I would need to redefine my idea of success and align my priorities with what God valued.

My dilemma: Does God really care about business? I was willing to change my life to get my passion back. But I loved being an investment banker and entrepreneur – it’s what I do and who I am. For me, the critical question became, “If I make myself available to work full-time for God, how will He use me? Can building businesses be Kingdom work?”

Business as a Kingdom Venture

Business as a vocation for the followers of Jesus has always been a subject of considerable reflection, even for the leaders of the early Christian church. St Augustine of Hippo, the influential fourth century African bishop, offered support for believers working in the marketplace. He taught that sinfulness is not inherent to any occupation, including commerce, but it is up to the individual to live righteously. Augustine regarded private property as a natural condition and approved of “profit” because it is natural and lawful for “you wish to buy cheap, and sell dear.”

Over the centuries, trade, commerce and private enterprise have had a massive impact on transforming the world. Europe’s ability to explore and dominate the globe beginning in the sixteenth century is often attributed to the rise of capitalism – the economic system that originated in Europe which significantly increased human productivity, investment capital and technical and organizational innovation. What is less well known is the important role the medieval Christian church played in capitalism’s birth.

In The Victory of Reason, author Rodney Stark contends that Catholic monks in the early ninth century were responsible for developing the earliest forms of the modern commercial enterprise. Despite having forsaken worldliness, these entrepreneurial monastic estates were vitally intent on creating wealth to ensure their own long-term financial sustainability. Motivated, disciplined and literate, the estates flourished by introducing productivity gains, new technology, merit-based management, specialization and trade. Led by men who had surrendered their lives to God, the monasteries grew prosperous and became the early entrepreneurial engines that raised the economic tide for their communities and Europe.

In the documentary, Call of the Entrepreneur by the Acton Institute, Rev. Robert Sirico expresses the view that entrepreneurship is a divine vocation reflecting God’s creative image:

“When God fashioned man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life and spoke those first words of vocation to the human family, He invited us to be co-creators with  Him…working with Him in the continuation of the creation of the world. What an awesome vocation that is.”

Classic entrepreneurs are visionary, driven individuals – motivated by the desire to create something where nothing exists. True entrepreneurship is not a zero-sum game that requires someone to lose, but rather a way of orchestrating the talent and energy of others to create something of value – new wealth. Entrepreneurs create products, services, jobs and expand economies. They improve people’s lives. To compete, entrepreneurs must focus on satisfying the needs and desires of others. They are tested by the marketplace, and they are rewarded for how well they serve their fellow human beings.

I had the answer to my question: Of course God cares about business…He cares about every aspect of our lives. The more important question is “will entrepreneurs – who organize, manage and assume the risks and challenges of creating businesses and private enterprises – accept the divine call to be a driving force in God’s transforming work on earth?”

God Lives with the Poor

When I began searching for what God wanted of me, I received some unsettling counsel from a Rwandan bishop: “Our country needs jobs and a vibrant economy or our best and brightest will leave. You’re a businessman. You’ve spent your whole life buying, financing, building and selling businesses. Why don’t you spend the rest of your life building businesses in Rwanda?” Having never been to Africa, I was intimidated by the challenge but curious about what kind of business would make a difference to a significant number of people in a poor African country.

A few months later, I was introduced to Opportunity International, the world’s largest faith-motivated microfinance organization and a pioneer in the industry. Through Opportunity, I got a crash course in world poverty; entrepreneurship at the bottom of the economic pyramid; and the transforming power of capital, training and group guaranteed lending. I learned that the world’s poor aren’t poor because they make bad choices or are lazy. In fact, they work much harder than I ever did – they just don’t have the opportunities they need.

I learned that poor people in poor countries are more like me and my family than I ever imagined. All around the world, parents simply want to feed, care for and educate their children. They’re not looking for a handout. They want a job or any opportunity to work hard and earn what their family needs. Poverty steals people’s dignity and hope. Business and entrepreneurship create the opportunity for people everywhere to support their families and earn back their dignity. When I finally understood this global reality, God whispered, “Serving the poor is what I value. All your life, I’ve prepared you to help create the opportunity they need.” At that moment, a door opened for me. I grasped the call and my passion returned.

Bridge2Rwanda

Today, I serve as the CEO of Bridge2Rwanda, an enterprise born with the mission “to build a bridge from our world to Rwanda and transform lives at both ends.” We connect, encourage and create opportunities for those called to invest their talent and resources in Rwanda. Over the last ten years, Rwanda has called to invest their talent and resources in Rwanda. Over the last ten years, Rwanda has transition from one of the world’s most failed states to an admired model of results-driven nation-building. Many see God’s divine hand at work in Rwanda and its rebirth as a powerful demonstration to the rest of Africa and the world.

Rwandans dream big and have adopted a strategy of “borrowing talent” from friends around the world to help them accomplish their goals. Bridge2Rwanda mobilizes hundreds of friends from developed countries to visit, invest and lend their talent in Rwanda. Inevitably, the borrowed talent comes away inspired, humbled and transformed.

Preparing the Next Generation

In the early seventeenth century, the island-nation of Great Britain began exporting thousands of its young people in small wooden ships to the four corners of the earth. Their global impact was enormous and enduring. The British Empire and the world’s most successful language, culture, economic system and form of government are a testament to their influence. Is it possible that God is planning a similar global movement to grow and unite His Kingdom?

Over the last sixty years, the private sector in the world’s developed countries has brought about the greatest creation of wealth and improved living standards in human history. This is a magnificent accomplishment that sets up an unprecedented challenge for those of us born and educated in affluent countries. Given what we have, there is growing evidence that God is stirring the hearts of thousands with the call to join with Africa’s leaders and its promising young people to tackle the issues of poverty – with solutions driven by entrepreneurship and private enterprise.

At Bridge2Rwanda, we mobilize people of all ages to go to Rwanda. However, the group most passionate about investing their lives is Millennials, young people 18 to 32 years of age. Motivated by faith, compassion, adventure and the desire to live a life of meaning, today’s daring young people, like the world changers of the British Empire, are willing to move beyond their comfort zones to find significance. They are determined to become excellent professionals, to learn how to create wealth anywhere in the world and to fuse a social mission into their lives and careers.

As an American boomer-age businessman riding the wave of this divine movement, how do I best contribute? What role do I play? Following the advice of my friend, Bob Buford, I have set out to be an encourager…”In this season of life, your job is to release and direct energy, not to supply it. Like the catapult on an aircraft carrier, you are the force of encouragement needed to get the talent airborne and on their mission.”

The Second Half

My “second half” began with a hunger to rediscover my passion. I took the plunge – made myself available to God and received much more than I expected. Nothing is quite as energizing as a divine challenge that integrates every aspect of your life into a tailor-made mission. I charge ahead everyday believing that the most significant work of my life is still ahead and that my calling is as authentic and significant to the Kingdom as preaching and leading a church.

As I move further into my “second half”, I think a lot about the two men who most inspired my journey: my dad – the joyful entrepreneur, independent and hard-charging; and my granddad – the rugged man of God, surrendered and serving the poor. While they’ve both been gone for years, it lifts my spirit and makes the “impossible” seem possible when I imagine them watching me run this race – both cheering me on.

Dale Dawson is an investment banker and entrepreneur. He serves on Rwanda President Paul Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council and is the founder of Bridge2Rwanda and Isoko Institute for Entrepreneurship and Strong Societies in Africa. Dale also serves on the boards of Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda and OneHundredX. He is a graduate of the University of Texas and lives in Little Rock.

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