I have met many people who left the rigor of the private sector for the intellectual blanket of academia, but not many who migrated the other way.
That is, until I met Lucie Phillips, a Minnesota-born wonk with a PhD and a passion for everything Africa, who three decades ago resigned her tenured professorship at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to live in Africa as the wife of a diplomat.
Tenure being academia’s equivalent of pro sports’ no-cut contract (albeit without the outsize income), I wanted to know more about her when she pitched me on her company, Arlington-based government contractor IBI.
The next thing that intrigued me about Phillips is her evolution into a fan of free markets. She thinks they are the best vessel to improve life in Africa.
“Business methods were badly needed in developing countries,” said the 73-year-old Smith College graduate. “Only when you own something and built it with your own savings are you willing to put in the 16-hour days and take the risks necessary to succeed.”
Phillips founded and chairs IBI, which last year grossed $13.3 million and earned a pretax profit of more than $1 million by helping developing countries build their economies.
The vast majority of IBI’s business comes from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). IBI tries to zero in on USAID contracts for which it can add value, like creating a West African business network for women.
Much of IBI’s mission is essential but boring stuff like creating financial systems.
Some of the jobs get interesting.
Following the 9/11 attacks, news reports suggested that al-Qaeda was funding terrorism through the sale of Tanzanite, a cobalt-blue gemstone found only in Tanzania. That set off a boycott, and an entire sector of that country’s economy came to a halt.
American gem dealers lost a big market. IBI helped put together a plan between Tanzania, miners and gem dealers at a wholesale jewelry show in Tucson, where they figured out how to bring the legitimate market back from the dead.
Some of the jobs get dangerous.
When the Ebola epidemic struck in 2014, IBI’s people were asked by the government of Liberia and USAID to stay and help.
IBI coordinated a fleet of trucks and all-terrain vehicles to transport medical teams, Ebola victims, medicine, water and food, generators and fuel, rubber gloves, hazmat suits, and teams of contact-tracers and communicators throughout the country.
“At first, no one knew whether you would get Ebola by touching another person,” Phillips said in an email. “IBI President Dave Colvin came home from a July 2014 workshop having shaken hands with a Liberian colleague the day he left. On the way home he learned that the man’s wife had died of Ebola the night before.
“Elbow touching replaced handshakes, sex was a no-go (expat families had been evacuated), our existing arrangements for staff to get health care and to be evacuated in a health emergency disappeared. Heart attack, diabetes, malaria victims had no options. Doctors were either working on Ebola, had died or had left. Airlines stopped flying and the private service we had contracted through Lloyd’s of London signed a monopoly contract with the State Department, leaving us out of options.
“When food prices shot up and transportation became dangerous, we provided a hot lunch in the office and sanitized commuting. We bought each family an emergency kit — a thermometer to check temperatures, chlorine to wash hands, rubber gloves, buckets, plastic bags for shoes and guidance for handling. Special thermometers that didn’t need to touch any bodily fluids were imported.”
Phillips has been mission-driven since growing up on Lake Minnetonka, near Minneapolis. She sped through high school and Smith in three years each, worked in the civil rights movement in New York City and earned a doctorate in economic history from Columbia University. She also has a certificate in African Studies from its School of International Affairs.
I visited on a June afternoon, when Phillips was still recovering from knee surgery. She skis to stay in shape and loves to sail.
Five clocks hanging in the sixth-floor offices mark the hour in Bangladesh, Kosovo, Ghana, Liberia and Arlington, of course. A table near her office is populated with photos of her late husband (she has remarried) with U.S. presidents including Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. There also are photos from her endless years in Africa as a tourist, diplomat‘s wife, academic and businesswoman.
There are photos of Phillips in the rain forest with gorillas. She is a friend of conservationist Jane Goodall, widely known for her work with chimpanzees.
“I had no interest in business as a young, academic professional,” she said, explaining how she became a capitalist.
Then, she recounted her tale of the fish ponds.
Phillips was doing her research in African communities during the 1970s and 1980s when she learned that miniature fish farms in man-made ponds were providing vital protein for villagers.
The size of a living room and filled with well water, they were stocked and cared for by local entrepreneurs. The fish — mostly tilapia — were harvested several times a year and consumed by the locals. The entrepreneurs made a nice income from the fish.
“It was one of the most productive forms of agriculture that had been introduced anywhere,” Phillips recalled. “It was typically done as part of a project when some expert came in . . . knew how big to make the pond, knew when to harvest and how much it produced.”
When the experts left, however, the ponds fell into disuse. No one took responsibility for upkeep. It dawned on Phillips that, without ownership, no one cared. It fed into her emerging notion that people needed a personal stake in something to make it work.
“Top-down development and ownership of assets didn’t work,” said Phillips, who lived in Africa from 1984 through 1993. The tenure include ambassadorships in Burundi and the Republic of the Congo. “The countries were originally trying to plan development from the center, as had Russia and China. The result was the population couldn’t use their own initiative.”
She provided another example:
“In Mali, during the 1990s, the government granted a tannery a monopoly on hide purchases. The tannery was still unable to operate at more than 20 percent of capacity. Meanwhile, Mali’s huge cattle industry suffered because sales of meat were only profitable if the seller could get a good price for the ‘fifth quarter,’ meaning hides, bones, horns and innards.”
Phillips resigned her UMBC tenure in 1986 and used her time as a diplomat’s wife in Africa to do consulting, earning enough to pay for her two sons’ college educations. She wrote studies for clients such as the World Bank and the United Nations, USAID and UNICEF.
She came to believe that ownership of property was a big part of the answer to what was bedeviling progress in some parts of Africa.
“The basic principal missing in developing countries was protection of private property,” she said. “I tried to introduce ownership rights.”
Many countries that had just loosened themselves from colonial rule “thought capitalism was evil,” she said. “What I saw was the problems were not being solved by socialism.”
After returning to the United States in early 1994, she used savings and $50,000 in loans from her father and aunt to launch IBI. She sublet a small office in Arlington, where she worked with two interns.
Her first contract included USAID-funded studies on behalf of Tanzania, Ghana and other African countries to help spur foreign investment and cross-border trade.
The company is flourishing as a mother-son operation, with Phillips chairing the firm and her son, David Colvin, serving as chief executive.
IBI has a core team of 23 at headquarters. The rest of its staff of 100 is spread around the globe.
IBI employs MBAs, former Peace Corps volunteers and international studies majors. Salaries run from $40,000 for an entry-level job to $170,400 for seasoned employees. The three top executives earn slightly more than that, and there are annual-and spot-bonus opportunities, Phillips said.
IBI is a melting pot, where at least two dozen languages are spoken. Its chief financial officer is from Turkmenistan. Phillips’s assistant is from Mongolia. Another employee is from Ukraine. Others are from Cameroon, India and Indonesia.
I asked her what advice she would offer others starting a similar business.
She said: “Respect the people you work with. Ensure that they own the project, they announce successes and take the credit, not you or your expert employees. Share the wealth.”