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Altruism, adventure in Africa: Los Altos couple relates experiences in new book


Courtesy of Wendy Walleigh
Rick and Wendy Walleigh spent a year and a half in Swaziland and Kenya.

Los Altos residents Rick and Wendy Walleigh experienced long, successful high-tech careers. But retirement? No, it was time for an encore.

Leaving the corporate world behind by 2005, the Walleighs pursued encore careers that effected positive social change. In 2006, they joined TechnoServe, an international development company focusing on what it calls “business solutions to poverty.” Accepting wages at a fraction of their previous salaries, the Walleighs offered their skills – Wendy’s in marketing, Rick’s in business consulting – to help Africans improve theirs.

Spending six months in Mbabane, Swaziland, and a year in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006-2007, the Walleighs enjoyed the travel, adventure and challenges of working and living in unfamiliar cultures, all while helping out. Wendy paid additional visits to African countries in 2008 and 2009.

Documenting an encore career

The Walleighs, both 66, were so inspired by their experience that they wrote a book about it. The self-published “From Silicon Valley to Swaziland: How One Couple Found Purpose and Adventure in an Encore Career” (Wheatmark, 2015) chronicles how Wendy used her marketing skills and involvement in Junior Achievement stateside to launch a similar program in Swaziland. It relates how Rick used his consulting background to advise small businesses that ranged from a utility-pole processor to a piggery. The Walleighs are donating all proceeds from the book to TechnoServe.

“We want to inspire people to do similar types of things,” Rick said in an interview with the Town Crier. “Try new things, try something different – and explore the world at the same time. … Part of the message of the book is that you can have a great adventure and help people while having it.”

The couple said they experienced “strange, frustrating, sometimes scary and constantly fascinating facets of African traditions, culture and daily life,” according to promotional material for the book. They witnessed 40,000 topless women perform the annual Swazi Reed Dance. They struggled through a bureaucratic nightmare after Rick discovered that his resident visa allowed him to live in Kenya for a year but did not allow him to enter the country. And they survived close encounters with ferocious hailstorms and members of the fearsome Mungiki gang.

Wendy participated in countrywide contests in which young entrepreneurs presented business plans. The most promising received small grants. She recalled with amazement the story of one young Kenyan woman whose appendix ruptured two days prior to her scheduled presentation. Despite the setback, the woman forged ahead with her presentation and won the national contest over tens of thousands of entrants.

Struggle and resilience

The Walleighs discovered the same characteristics in African entrepreneurs that they found in Silicon Valley’s: resilience, persistence, creativity and resourcefulness.

“But their struggles are greater,” Wendy said. “There’s no money, no infrastructure.”

“There’s a lack of understanding of financing and what banks do,” added Rick, who noted that the best investors could hope for were “high-risk, moderate returns.”

Despite the struggles, Rick was impressed with the progress he witnessed.

“A lot of people perceive Africa as this (place) where nothing happens,” he said. “But Africa is growing and (becoming) more successful.”

The couple, now married 44 years, learned a lot about agriculture.

“Seventy-five percent of the world’s poor are farmers,” Rick said. “If you work with the poor, you work with agriculture.”

They found the African climate and topography similar to California’s. But growth of crops like sugar cane abounded and dirt roads were more the norm than the exception.

The Walleighs said they lived modestly while in Africa, but not in mud huts.

“My wife agreed to go (to Africa) on four conditions,” Rick related: “No flying bullets, no countries with ‘stans’ (e.g., Afghanistan), (and only places that offered) flush toilets and hot showers.”

To read an excerpt from the book and for more information, visit walleigh.com or facebook.com/walleighs.

“From Silicon Valley to Swaziland” is available at Amazon and other major online book retailers.

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