Congratulations to Jamie Pujara, the 2021 EO Mark Lincoln Volunteer of the Year Award! Jamie is an EO Kenya member and the MEPA Regional Chair. This notable honour is awarded annually to one member who embodies the heart and soul of volunteerism.
(Photo caption: Jamie Pujara and Vivienne van Eijkelenborg)
At the height of the pandemic, Jamie led and served more than 1,000 MEPA members as regional chair, putting their needs above his own. During a time of great personal stress and loss in his own business, Jamie exemplified the true spirit of servant leadership to which all EO members aspire.
We asked Jamie about his experience during the past year as he led the EO MEPA region through the worst of the pandemic:
Tell us about your EO journey.
I joined EO in 2014. At the time, I was trying to close a sale, but the client only wanted to talk to me about this amazing organization he had joined, and how it had impacted his life.
I was frustrated because he didn’t allow me to talk about business! Within a week, I attended an EO Test Drive event. I was blown away by the Forum-type experience they created and realized that having a community of other entrepreneurs was missing in my life and would benefit me greatly as I grew my business.
Once I joined, it was full-steam ahead. EO Kenya was a relatively small chapter, so stepping up was encouraged. Within three months, I put my hand up to be the GSEA Champion, followed by Learning Chair (2016/17), then President (2017/18).
I had no plans to continue my path of leadership beyond my chapter until I attended the Regional Leadership Academy (RLA) in Cape Town. The learnings were so impactful and resonated so deeply with me that I committed to being the best servant leader I could be for EO. I joined the MEPA Regional Council as a Member Products Director (2018/19) and then served as the Regional Chair for MEPA for the last two years (2019/20 and 2020/21).
On a personal level, EO has been incredible. I always tell people that I joined the organization thinking that the immediate impact would be in my business. In reality, the biggest changes have been on me as an individual, father, husband and friend. I’ve made so many changes through the incredible learnings I’ve gotten from EO members both locally and internationally.
Professionally, sometimes it’s hard to see growth in yourself. When I hear Forum, chapter or staff members comment about my development as a leader, it takes me by surprise and then allows me the space to reflect on how far I’ve come.
Tell us about supporting the MEPA region in 2020. What was happening in the entrepreneurial environment in the MEPA region early in the pandemic?
As the effects of COVID started to affect every chapter and the discussion of EO renewals came about, I felt very strongly about making sure we kept our promise of “no member left behind.”
In some countries within the MEPA region, times of crisis typically leave members even more isolated. There is no government support to help business owners or their employees. The decisions entrepreneurs must make about downsizing or shutting down carry a tremendous emotional strain given the implications it can have on their staff and families without government welfare for employees.
I strongly believed that EO had to be there for its members in the hard times, even more so than in the good times. I knew how critical Forum would be to members who were struggling and how the power of EO’s global network would help with regard to industry-specific content. So, I took it to heart to make sure that if a member wanted to be in EO, then the financial implication should not be a barrier.
When the EO Together fund was first announced, I wanted MEPA to get ahead of the curve. By 30 June 2020, the region had already submitted a consolidated request of the needs of every single member from all 21 chapters. This was a massive undertaking, which took us nearly two months to compile. We created an Excel spreadsheet template for each chapter that broke down the ask per member with a “justification” for the request. The renewals team later adopted this same template for all other global requests.
Upon receiving requests from chapters, Ambreen Riyaz, MEPA’s Regional Director, and I would review every single member’s request. We double-checked that a reason was given for the subsidy request and that chapters aligned to the overall instructions (such as not putting forth a blanket request for all members). This exercise took up to 10 days with two to four reviews per chapter.
Ambreen and I spoke several times each day as we reviewed 21 spreadsheets multiple times over the course of multiple revisions. I would then speak to the Council of Regional Chairs regularly, passionately advocating for member support. As a region, we went beyond the EO Together fund and even pledged some of our own budget to ensure we could help all the members that we could, and we closed the year with a record renewal rate for the MEPA region.
You focused on helping others in the MEPA region despite a severe situation with your own business, Tin Tin. What empowered you to do so?
It was hard. I was suffering through so much that it became difficult for me to even think beyond my own situation. Looking back, in the early days, I was paralyzed with fear and making decisions in my business, my family, and EO were all slower than what I should have done.
In the end, two things resonated with me:
- I needed to step up. My responsibility to the organization was something I had to fulfill. Seeing all the other Tier One leaders doing amazing work gave me the strength to realize that I was also in a position where I could impact members, and so it became my mission to double down and do more.
- Being in a business where 95 percent of our revenue was wiped out helped me to identify with the members I wanted to help. Members who loved EO, who had a lot to offer, who wanted to continue to learn and grow but who were unfortunately in a situation where the pandemic had brought their businesses to its knees. I could relate, and I wanted to champion their needs.
What is your response to being honoured with EO’s most notable award, the Mark Lincoln Volunteer of the Year Award?
I’m honoured and touched. All the EO leaders give hours of their time to make this organization better and so many members will see the improvements but not know where the idea came from or the team that brought it to life and so it is great to be recognized for the contribution last year.
However, I also do want to give a huge shout-out to my regional council and regional staff. I am fortunate to work with such incredible people. I know without them, there would be no award. So, while I am honoured with it, I fully recognize the shoulders of those I stand on.
How will what you learned during the pandemic impact your entrepreneurial journey?
My biggest learning has been to live with uncertainty and not let the fear consume me. The first few months of the pandemic, I felt like a deer caught in the headlights and could not think my way through. I was consumed by thoughts of failure.
The situation remains dire today and my restaurant and catering business still hovers on the brink, but I’m handling the fear better now. I can think more within the business and beyond the business with more clarity.
Reflecting on your total experience in the past 12 months, what surprised you most?
The biggest surprise was the reset and realignment of priorities that COVID provided. The time I got to spend with my family made those relationships stronger. The time to experience my country and fall in love with it again due to increased local travel. And the time to focus on myself to reassess my priorities and what’s important to me.
What’s next for you, and for your business?
The restaurant and catering is still in a tricky situation, and if I’m honest I’m not sure if we will make it through. I have pushed forward on my project Aspire Heights where we are building 65 two- and three-bedroom apartments in an up-and-coming area in Nairobi, targeting the middle class.
I had prior experience in the property market from my last company (www.buyrentkenya.com) and had always had my eye to move into the development side. We have just started construction and will be finished in January 2023. We’re in the process of driving sales, which has been encouraging despite the uncertainty around COVID.