Suma Reddy went from Peace Corps to Wharton-trained serial entrepreneur
March 15, 2017
Read the highlights
  • Founder: Suma Reddy
  • Company: Waddle
  • From: New York, United States
  • Lived in: Mali, Malawi, India, England
  • Recommended reading: Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse

Key takeaway: The entrepreneur’s journey mirrors that of the expat. We go through the same four phases for both: Honeymoon, Frustration, Understanding, Acclimation. As travelers, we are already in training for entrepreneurship.

Jess Ainlay: Thanks for meeting with me, Suma! What first sparked your desire to live abroad?

Suma Reddy: I did a six-month internship in London my junior year in college, but it was during my senior year, when I went to Malawi, that ended up changing the course of my life.

I went on a two-week immersion trip organized by someone fresh out of his two years with the Peace Corps. This trip was very unlike me. I grew up incredibly sheltered and had never done anything remotely adventurous. I'd also never roughed it, I mean, I had never even gone camping.

Jess Ainlay: So what made you agree to the trip?

Suma Reddy: My gut. I just listened to my gut and went.

Jess Ainlay: What happened during those two weeks that changed your life?

Suma Reddy: So, there I was, suddenly on this trip to Malawi. During one part of our trip, we lived with a family in a rural village and worked on a gardening project. It was an eye-opening experience for me. My host family was incredible, but the physical environment was a challenge. I got a huge bug bite in one eye the first week and it was completely swollen. The second week, I got bit in the other eye. And, oh, there were bugs, which I was deathly afraid of at the time (like I said, I was very sheltered). Despite this, I didn’t want to run home. On the contrary. I felt like my eyes were opening for the first time.

We were there just after monsoon season, so it was incredibly green and lush. I was walking alone, the sun was shining and I felt the distance between me, all the way here in Malawi, and my family back home. This was before smartphones and Facebook, and I thought if something happened to someone in my family, I would have no idea. I felt scared being so disconnected from them. But even with that fear, I just had this moment of reckoning, where I realized, “I think I should do this.” The Peace Corps. My gut spoke louder than my fears.

Jess Ainlay: Did you sign up right then and there?

Suma Reddy: The process can be really long, so I came home and applied right away. I only told my sister. I got accepted really quickly and told my family, “I’m going to Mali in three months. Oh, and I’ll be gone for more than two years.”

Jess Ainlay: And just like that, your whole life changed. What did you do in Mali?

Suma Reddy: I lived in Kangaba, a small town 60km south of the capital, Bamako. My main project involved running a career internship program for kids from different villages around Mali that gave them the opportunity to shadow professionals and take public speaking and presentation classes. I also DJ’d a local radio show to educate people on finance, HIV/AIDS and nutrition.

Jess Ainlay: In French?

Suma Reddy: French is the official language, but we did the show in Bambara, the local language, and played a lot of Bob Marley to get people to actually tune in to learn something. I miss speaking it, and will sometimes still speak it here in New York if, for example, I see a cab driver has a last name from Mali. That’s always fun, but the opportunity doesn’t present itself very often.

Betsy Talbot went from working at US corporate giant to a romance writer living in a Spanish village

Meet Betsy

Jess Ainlay: Do you think you went all in on an idea like Waddle as a direct result of a global perspective gained through traveling and living abroad?

Suma Reddy: Good question. I don’t know how direct the correlation, but living and working abroad taught me about getting comfortable being uncomfortable in a new space, and how to be flexible.

I think that the entrepreneur curve and the expat curve are quite similar. As an expat, you go through those four stages: the honeymoon phase, the frustration phase, the understanding or acceptance phase and then the acclimation phase. The same can be said for the entrepreneur’s journey as well.

Jess Ainlay: That’s an incredible comparison!

Suma Reddy: Yes, and I also think there is so much parallel in the risk, especially the personal risk, in living abroad and entrepreneurship.

Jess Ainlay: Do you think you have to travel long-term or be an expat, to pick up those skills in flexibility and risk-taking?

Suma Reddy: For me, yes, that was part of my journey. As a traveler or an expat, you stay longer in a place and you’re immersed in a culture, far beyond your comfort zone. It's quite a privilege. When you are a tourist, you make the most of the trip, but it’s an escape from your own life, and you can't commit to the harder parts of being abroad that allow for growth and exploration. When you travel, your perspective changes.

Jess Ainlay: No question! Thanks again for meeting with me, Suma.

Suma Reddy: Thanks for doing this! This is a really great topic to explore, and it’ll be interesting to see other people’s perspectives on expat and entrepreneurial life.

Twitter: @letswaddle
Facebook: Waddle
Instagram: Waddle

There's more where that came from.