Tekedra Mawakana | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Tekedra Mawakana

Background:  

Yahoo is a technology company known for its search engine and web portal. 

The Mistake:

I didn’t make sure I knew what awaited me when I landed in South Africa for a human rights fellowship while I was at Columbia Law School. It was the first summer apartheid was being dismantled. I didn’t call the woman I was going to be working for before I got there. I figured she knew I was coming. Once there, I would work with her on landlord issues in rural areas.

So when I landed in Johannesburg airport, I called her and said, “I’m here.”

Then she said, “Oh. I forgot to call you.” She gave me a number to the local paper and said, “You’re going to need to find housing and a job. And the program for the summer, I’m no longer available to do it with you. And I thought you would’ve called me before you came.”

[A while later, while trying to figure out my plan,] I unintentionally walked into the middle of a standoff between the police and the black South African community, where there were Hummers and men with AK-47s pointed at the crowd. I ran to a plainclothes officer, who dropped me off at my hotel. But later, he came back and said, “Oh, you don’t have a place to stay … I’m going to come back later and take you out.” I started calling professors that I had met with earlier that day, asking to be picked up. When they met me that night, one of them, a well-known prosecutor and scholar, said the man [who said he’d come back for me] had been responsible for disappearances there. He said, "You did the right thing by calling and getting out of there."

The next day, I went to the university and met a lady who was like me — halfway around the world. She was in law school, lived with her mom and she took me home with her. I ended up staying with them during my time there. I worked on some South African Truth Commission work, which was very meaningful.

 

Stick-to-itiveness is something that I value.

 

The Lesson:

Make fewer assumptions. Don’t assume the structure is sound. Test the thesis.

Also, I learned by staying. And I recognize that sometimes a person sitting in front of me seems ill-prepared, but their stick-to-itiveness is something that I value. Their sense that they can actually do more than I may be able to assess is something I encourage them in. I try to get [people] to explore exceedingly uncomfortable experiences — not necessarily exceedingly unsafe, as mine turned out to be. But uncomfortable, because in the midst of that, you find something inside of you that you wouldn’t have found.

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