by Deb Cummings
Work in Dakar or Singapore? We chat to alumni who are working in both cities about why they uprooted their lives. From career advice to holiday getaways, their candid accounts may give you pause.
Katalina Szewczyk, BComm’10
After perfecting her French while completing a Study Abroad program in Bordeaux, France, Katalina Szewczyk went on to work in Haiti and, most recently, Senegal. She has just wrapped up a two-year contract with JLB Expertises in Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, where she’s been a liaison, bridging the gap between the company’s headquarters in Marseille and a local team in Dakar.
What kind of work does JLB Expertises do? They are a French company that provides survey services for companies that import food from all over the world into Africa. Their role is to note all of the quantities of sound cargo [bags of rice, for example], and to record any losses or damaged merchandise [torn bags, wet bags, oily bags, etc.], as well as implement preventative strategies that lessen the losses.
Why Senegal? It is the only country in continental Africa that has always enjoyed peaceful transfers of political power — no coup d’etats, no revolutions, just peace. I also wanted to live in a predominantly Muslim country during a time when Islam, due to its extremists, keeps getting such a bad image. What I found in both the Senegalese people and the Islam that they practise here, is the value and presence of peace.
Why JLB? I was interested in the entire food chain — from seed to plate. The gratifying part of the job was the preventative aspect; working with logistics companies and insisting on proper handling and storage measures so that less food would be lost and damaged.
How did you use your UCalgary education in this job? I used a lot of the soft skills, which are not always a given in a place like Senegal: (1) allowing everyone to have a voice and making sure they are heard; (2) recognizing individual achievements, but reprimanding in private, never in public.
Advice for those who want to work internationally? Take cultural differences very seriously, because they are real. For example: Senegalese people are very accustomed to hierarchy and a more vertical corporate structure — they want to know who is whose boss and who is responsible for what. Greetings are always long and drawn out, and asking for what you want is considered very rude. And they take appearances and clothing very seriously.
What is the working language? French is the written language used for documents and for speaking with French/European clients; English for dealing with clients from India; and Wolof is spoken by all Senegalese employees and throughout the day. It was quite fun learning a bit of Wolof.
What were your top three favourite things to do in Dakar? The ocean, learning how to surf and the relaxed pace of life in Africa.
What are you reading these days? A lot of good works about Buddhism such as the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, as well as books by Simon Sinek like Start with Why.
What skill would you like to master? Acting, public speaking and telling jokes (that get laughs!) in front of an audience.
What’s your claim to fame? I biked alone across Europe in 2012 as a fundraiser for World Literacy Canada. Most difficult, and also most rewarding, thing I’ve ever done. Afterwards, I made another dream come true: I self-published a book about the trip.
What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with no preparation? How to travel and see the world on a very small budget via various volunteer programs and networks such as couchsurfing, WWOOF, helpexchange, workaway.com and on.
What is something everyone should do at least once in their lives? Live or camp for a time alone in the wilderness.
What movie title best describes your life? Lost in Translation. Trust me … between Polish, English, French, Spanish, Creole and Wolof in my head — sometimes, it’s a complete mess in there.
Dr. Shawn Watson, BSc’08, PhD’13
As the CEO of Senescence Life Sciences, Dr. Shawn Watson is one of Singapore’s top 10 influencers in health care under the age of 40. Although this superstar spends most of his time pitching the company’s vision and closing deals in order to catapult it forward, it’s a tag-team effort. His wife, Tegan, BComm’11, manages the day-to-day business, investor relations and venture capital programs.
What is the genesis behind Senescence, and why Singapore? Dementia is a big part of my family’s life, with many members having succumbed to the disease and several more who are currently living with the condition. I don’t know if our new methods will work, but, so far, things are looking very promising! We based ourselves in Singapore because of access to capital, IP protection, ease of business, access to the Asian market, and it’s a great hub for regional travel.
How did your seven years at UCalgary help you launch this biotech company? It was my supervisors — Dr. W.C. Wildering and Dr. Petra Hermann — who gave me the confidence, curiosity and drive to launch the company and move to Asia. Neither showcased academia as the only route to success after graduate school. Much of my entrepreneurial success comes from their tutelage.
What was the biggest lesson you learned at UCalgary? Curiosity is only a benefit if you have the perseverance to search for the answers.
Did you think of yourself as an entrepreneur while studying? Well, if launching a landscaping company while in high school counts … but grad school did give me the opportunity to work independently, explore topics of interest and leverage my creativity.
What can we do to keep our brains healthy? Physical exercise, adequate sleep and a balanced diet are all proven to make a tangible difference in cognitive health and performance. Conversely, smoking, stress, lack of exercise, bad diets and too much alcohol can increase our risk of developing pathologies like Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
How can Senescene’s natural supplements help stave off cognitive decline? Our company is based upon the growing evidence that diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, start mid-life (30s, 40s and 50s). Our goal is to prevent, slow or stop the transition from healthy brain aging into pathological aging by using natural, targeted supplementation.
Do you have any advice for someone who would like to work abroad? Do it. Don’t hesitate — just book the flight, strap yourself in and experience the world. You will have no regrets — only great learning experiences!
What is your idea of a perfect weekend in Singapore? One of the best aspects of Singapore is its location. Got a long weekend? Let’s go to Bali, Thailand, Vietnam or maybe Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or one of my other favourites, Bagan in Myanmar.
What have been the biggest challenges in running this business? (1) For every one person that believes in you, there will be 500 that say you can’t do it; (2) Disruption is a “sexy” word, but no one really wants it because it requires change; (3) Leaving friends and family and moving to the other side of the world isn’t easy.
Do you wish you had taken any other courses at UCalgary? Marketing; specifically, something related to social media. Even if you aren’t running your own company, using social networks like LinkedIn are critical for making connections across the globe.
What’s the best thing about expat life? Meeting people from all over the world. My perceptions of the world, happiness and priorities have changed dramatically since moving here (and for the better).
Where do you hope you are in a decade? Telling you that we have found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
What do you miss about Calgary? Family, friends, Costco, camping and the Rocky Mountains.
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