Broadening My Horizons: A Working Retirement

A PhD in Management alumna is bringing corporate America to Tanzania

By Victoria Wiseman
July 2015

Dr. Alexandria Osborne
Dr. Alexandria Osborne

Her first task is to let out the chickens—not exactly a chore she had while growing up in New York City. But here in rural Lindi, Tanzania, chickens are the most reliable food source for the occasional unexpected guest. Dr. Alexandria Osborne ’10 then makes herself a cup of coffee and tries to check work e-mails, a task that can take much of the day since her Internet connection is dependent on solar power.

Osborne is no average retiree. Five years ago, she left a 30-year career at pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Upjohn to retire in sub-Saharan Africa. But instead of retiring, she founded a nonprofit that brings food, water, sanitation, health, and education to the poorest members of her community.

Completing her PhD in Management at the end of her corporate career provided the extra encouragement she needed to create positive social change in her new Tanzanian community. “It’s difficult to do nothing while living among people who make less than $2 a day,” Osborne says. “I have this education. Am I going to retire on the beach, or am I going to do something with it?”

Her research about factors that lead to mistrust of public healthcare in Libya landed her a fellowship with CARE International in Tanzania. During that fellowship, Osborne met and married a Tanzanian, and she decided to leave Michigan to retire in Lindi. Her specialization in leadership and organizational change helped her identify the strengths of the leaders in the community, and where they needed help. Donations from American friends enabled Osborne to found the Lindi Islamic Foundation of Tanzania (LIFT).

“LIFT’s team is smart: They know about education and food security. What they need is good governance,” Osborne says. “You want a flat organization where people can make their own decisions. To build capacity is to develop thinkers, decision-makers, and problem-solvers.” v

Soon she had to adapt her American boardroom style of organizational leadership and management to the African way of doing business: Everything is done by hand, on paper, and often with a laissez-faire attitude about things like meeting times. “Something that takes 5 minutes in corporate America can take weeks here,” Osborne says. “I had to adapt my style to move the organization toward efficiency.”

With that in mind, she mentors her management board on acquiring computer skills and creating a filing system—and she sends lots of meeting reminders. In return, they teach her about the customs necessary to run successful programs.

A recent women’s health screening required letters to local bureaucrats and free lunches for the participants—steps that would have been unnecessary in the American business culture familiar to Osborne.

Osborne has documented the first five years of this journey in her memoir, The Black Mzungu. Looking forward, she wants to leave a legacy of service based on integrating her leadership and business skills with the talent and drive of the local community. “I need to make something that is sustainable,” she says. “I don’t want this to go away when I die.”