It’s Thursday morning, and I’m just getting off a call with my teammates in Indonesia. I jot down some final thoughts from the meeting, then glance at the clock as I hear the call to prayer rising over the city around me, a euphonious reminder that it’s midday. I close my laptop, grab my book, and head to my favorite kebab store around the corner. I sit in the sun as the owner brings me black tea in a tulip-shaped glass — “from the house,” she always says. I open my book. Mopeds and urbanites glide up and down the steep street around me, and when my kebab arrives at my table, I find myself attended by three or four friendly, but insistent, cats. After giving away half my meal to these new friends, I close my book, pay, and walk back to my apartment, ready to put in a few more hours of work. Later tonight, I’ll walk to Kadıköy to get my fill of baklava for the week. I’ll take a few moments to look out over the sunny Bosporus at the many minarets stretching up to the sun. I’ll go home, maybe do some yoga to account for my rigid daytime chair, then head to bed, ready to wake up at 6:30 the next morning, when my team standup will begin just as the morning call to prayer echoes and fades.
It’s a romantic scene here in Istanbul, to be sure, but not one I would have anticipated a year ago. Back then, I was in the throes of the consulting life, canceling dinner plans with friends to respond to unexpected client requests, working weekends to fact-check reports for strict court deadlines, and admittedly getting a bit cynical about how my work fit into the global picture. I kicked around the thought of business school, or maybe transferring into big tech. All I knew for sure: I wouldn’t be a consultant for life.
During a late night in the office, a friend texted me the link to the Alter Fellowship application. I’d never heard of Alter, so I opened the link, went to Alter’s site, and read. The more I scrolled, the more excited I got. The idea of working with a VC firm that connects ventures in developing tech cities with US capital and talent not only interested me, it resonated with me.
The resonance stemmed from my own story, which includes a half dozen church-led work trips during middle and high school. I learned a lot from these trips — about myself, about wealth and poverty, about the lottery of life — but I also felt the nagging sensation that weeklong semi-vacations for unskilled high schoolers were not the foundations of sustainable local growth. As I moved on to study economics and politics at UVA, I continued to wrestle with the problem of economic development; its drivers, its promises, and its contradictions. I took a job in consulting to build skills and networks, knowing — hoping — that someday soon I’d find a role to play in development.
Alter’s focus on long-term, sustainable development, driven by a region’s most promising startups, filled the mission gap I’d sensed on my high school work trips. I saw an emphasis on local entrepreneurial talent, a push to bring Silicon Valley resources to areas of the world usually left behind by SV’s obsession with the newest new thing. I decided to apply.
Now I’m here in Istanbul, working alongside a half dozen other Alter Fellows. I work for a Jakarta-based venture called Shipper, which handles shipping logistics across the Indonesian archipelago. Only two months in, I’ve learned more during this time than during the entire previous year. Shifting from litigation consulting — a retrospective, cautious, academic industry — into project/product management at a fast-growing startup presented its share of learning curves, many of which I’m still climbing. Adjusting to Indonesian office norms, especially at the arm’s length that is remote work, is a challenge in its own right; doing so while learning about an entirely new industry, all the more. There are plenty of moments when “drinking from the firehose” imagery applies.
But despite the challenges, I’ve had a blast adjusting to this new life for three reasons. The first is my personal drive to learn and grow. The second is the support I enjoy at Shipper. My teammates, both Indonesian and international, take the time to walk me through their work and help me understand where I can help. Phil, our CEO, meets with me regularly to make sure that I’m pursuing projects relevant to my growth goals. Vinesh and Joe (the two other Alter Fellows at Shipper) and I talk about our different workstreams in a type of informal peer-to-peer teaching. The combination has made my time at Shipper a rich learning experience.
The third reason is the Alter community itself. Until a few months ago, Covid stamped a giant question mark on whether I would go abroad with Alter or be stuck at home in Philadelphia working Indonesian hours. I feel supremely lucky to be in Istanbul, where most of the current cycle’s Fellows have landed for the last months of 2020 — not only because Istanbul is a beautiful city, but also because I’ve made fast friends with the other Fellows here. We explore the winding streets of Istanbul together, go on hot air balloon rides in Cappadocia together, and — happily — play a ton of games together, Catan included. I learn just as much from them over Turkish coffee as I do during my working hours.
Going into 2021, we’ll split ways — a few going to Indonesia, one to Bangladesh. Some will stay in Istanbul, some will go back to the US. It’s melancholy to say goodbye, but also invigorating to think about finally being in-country with my coworkers, learning basic phrases in a new language, hearing the call to prayer echoing over a new city. And as much as I’ll miss enjoy laughing over Friendsgiving with the other Fellows (have you ever tried to buy pumpkin pie outside the US…?), we’ve already play-tested online Catan — I have a feeling these friendships are here to stay.