13 May 2014
Teresa Clarke traded a secure career for a chance to create the Web’s go-to resource on Africaby Constantine von HoffmanTopics:
“The tone most Americans bring to discussions of Africa is one of pity; pity for people who are poor and helpless,” says Teresa Clarke (MBA 1988, JD 1987, AB 1984).
Clarke is working to change that: eliminating those preconceptions by introducing America and the rest of the world to all of Africa as it really is. She’s doing this through the website Africa.com, the Internet’s fastest growing Africa-related website, which gets six million page views per month from visitors in more than 200 countries.
“When I was still at Goldman Sachs, we had a project of reaching out to the wealthiest African-Americans, to help them to manage their money,” she recalls. “These were people like Oprah— people who are on the Forbes list of wealthiest African-Americans.
“I got to know some of them, and at the time we did this there were a dozen or so Africans whose net worth exceeded the African-Americans on the Forbes list. That was, and still is, surprising to many people,” she says. “It’s shocking because our mindset relative to Africa just isn’t programmed to think of them as being wealthier than Americans. We think they are people to pity, not people to emulate.”
According to Clarke, the main reason Americans view Africa as a land of misfortune is that all they hear about in the media is African misfortune. To counter this simplistic picture, Africa.com offers curated articles showing the everyday things that make up much of daily life for the 1.1 billion people living in Africa; things like fashion, arts and culture, and business and finance. It features guides to each of the continent’s 54 nations, where you can find everything from breaking news to museum guides, as well as content from such partners as the Council on Foreign Relations, McKinsey & Co., and Bain.
“When people have complete information about Africa,” Clarke says, “the ignorance will dissipate. I think the desire to engage with Africans becomes real.”
Clarke launched the site in 2010, giving up the certainty and rewards of her position as a managing director of Goldman Sachs’s investment banking division to become chairman, CEO, and executive editor of Africa.com LLC. In this capacity, she has traveled with President Obama to Africa, produced and directed a documentary about Africa, and lectured at numerous Ivy League universities on Africa. This is very different from what she expected her daily life to look like when she was an investment banker.
Originally from Los Angeles, Clarke is a “triple-winner” at Harvard, having earned her undergraduate, law, and business degrees from the University. While interest in such areas as constitutional law, public protection, and consumer rights drew her to law school, she found a better fit at HBS. There she learned the transactional skills that she thrives on: structuring deals and making things happen.
Clarke’s interest in Africa started during a visit to South Africa four years after graduating from HBS, when she was first working at Goldman. It was shortly before Nelson Mandela was elected president and she stood out because there weren’t many African-Americans there at the time. As a result, people kept asking who she was and what she did and then telling her the country needed people like her.
“There was a sense that anything was possible,” Clarke says. “It was like the Wild West, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I didn’t want to pass up. All relationships in South Africa were being formed anew, so as a foreigner I wasn't an outsider; I was a part of the rebirth of this nation.”
Based on this experience, Clarke moved to South Africa for five years, teaching corporate finance at Wits Business School in Johannesburg and serving on the investment committee of a private equity fund. It was also during this time that she acquired the domain name Africa.com, without knowing what she really wanted to do with it.
“I always considered the ownership of Africa.com to be a tremendous opportunity and responsibility,” she says. “I thought that, when I retired, which I imagined would be a long time from now, I would turn it into this great platform to tell the world about Africa.”
And then, in 2009, when she was back at Goldman, Google made her “a very attractive offer” for the domain name and she had to decide whether to take the money and move on. Instead, she put together a website herself over the course of a weekend and watched as the traffic grew and grew. Today the site offers a rich array of political and business news, lifestyle features, travel and entertainment information, plus an A-to-Z (Algeria to Zimbabwe) guide to each African nation.
In one of its latest ventures, Africa.com has begun selling domain names to companies wanting to create a web presence in Africa. Among those that have purchased domains from Africa.com are twitter.africa.com, starbucks.africa.com, and nokia.africa.com.
Clarke says it was an easier to jump into the role of website CEO because of the support of the HBS alumni network. “There’s been no point in my career where that network hasn’t played a role,” she says.
“Just about three weeks ago, we had a very significant problem at Africa.com with an advertiser. And I looked up the HBS alumni network and found the CFO of this company was an HBS alum, reached out to him in that capacity, and we solved what would have been a pretty big problem for our company easily because of that relationship. The power of that network, its depth and its usefulness, is another great help I’ve gotten from HBS.”
Class of MBA 1988, Section I