Part I: IBMer Matt Berry Takes on Corporate Service Corps, Smarter Cities Challenge, and What It Means to Build a Smarter Planet

To celebrate the 5th anniversary of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC), The New Global Citizen is publishing a series of pieces about IBM CSC and Smarter Cities Challenge (SCC) volunteer consultant Matt Berry, Director of Marketing for IBM Mobile First.  As one of the pilot CSC members, Berry transformed both his personal and professional life while on assignment in Tanzania. Here’s the first edition on how Matt got started as a CSC volunteer.

I distinctly remember the first time I read about IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC). The program had just been launched and was featured in an article on IBM’s internal network, w3.  It was a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon in February, 2008. As I was reading about the program, I knew immediately it was something I wanted to do. An opportunity to help others, see a new part of the world, learn about new cultures, plus a chance to build new skills and grow my career? It was an easy decision. The next day, I spoke to my boss and applied.

In all honesty, I had forgotten about my application until a few months later when I received an acceptance letter from Stan Litow. It felt like being accepted to college all over again. I didn’t know where I was going yet, but it didn’t matter. I was so excited to be among the first IBMers to be part of such a unique and innovative program.

Soon thereafter, I learned that I’d be going to Tanzania for my assignment. I spent the next several months getting to know my teammates, IBMers from 8 different countries, and from all different parts of the IBM company. I used to say to people we were working with, “If you have a business or technical challenge, chances are someone on our team can help you solve it.” We had experts in finance, HR, web design, marketing, and more.

There were nine of us assigned to three different organizations in Tanzania. We immediately got started preparing in advance for our trip.  The team spoke a few times a week, which  wasn’t easy as our team spanned New Zealand, Japan, Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, India and the United States.

This is where things got interesting—I like to compare it to the TV show Survivor: nine strangers dropped into a place we had never been, with some lightly scoped out projects, and asked to work together to figure it out.

In a team building exercise, we all met in Dar es Salaam and spent two nights getting to know one another. Then began what ended up being a two-day journey across the back roads of Tanzania to our final destination, Arusha. While there are many interesting stories from that trip which I could begin to share, I will leave it at this: by the end of those two days, we all knew each other very, very well. I’ll never forget those two days.

We finally arrived in Arusha and immediately began our assignments. I had the pleasure of working with the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators (TATO), which was established to coordinate collective representation in the tourism industry in Tanzania. Tourism is the number one industry in Tanzania, which meant the association had an incredible opportunity to drive economic growth in the country, but TATO faced several challenges. The biggest one was a lack of governance over the thousands of tour companies operating in Tanzania.

There were many cases of people complaining of poor quality tour operators: Vehicles were in bad condition and did not have seatbelts or the tour guides didn’t take them everywhere they expected to go. In some rare cases, there were incidents of travelers being injured, put in danger, or killed. The only time the TATO officials would talk to the press was when something bad happened to a tourist.

In the four weeks we were in Tanzania, we helped TATO develop a website with a tour guide rating system. This way, all tour operators in the country had to register with TATO first and prove they were safe and reliable. Tourists could rate them and leave reviews for future travelers. This proved to be enormously valuable for the respectable tour operators, and for people planning trips to Tanzania. This system required skills ranging from strategy development, web design, and government relations, to name a few. We had to work with the TATO team to help them build a roadmap for evolving the system over time, and addressing issues when negative ratings or reviews were entered by tourists.

In addition, we helped them build a proactive public relations and marketing strategy. Rather than being reactive to press, when something went wrong with a tourist situation, we helped them initiate a positive PR, advertising and marketing campaign to feature all of the great reasons to visit Tanzania, and to negate any notions that Tanzania is a dangerous place to visit. As part of this, they created a new website, launched an advertising campaign, and had articles published globally in newspapers and travel magazines. This really hit home for me when back in the United States a few weeks later,  I opened the New York Times to find a  full-page ad for travel to Tanzania. It put a huge smile on my face.

Overall, TATO was extremely grateful for our efforts, but the partnership didn’t end when our assignment concluded. IBM sent another CSC team to Tanzania a few weeks after we left. We had an intense hand-off process in place to allow the next team to pick up where we left off. Because of this, the engagement lived on and the subsequent teams advanced these projects, and initiated others.

Aside from our work with TATO, other members of our team worked with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and KickStart, an organization that created water pumps for farmers to use in remote places where water is hard to find. These pumps would pull water from deep below the ground by using a “stairmaster” type apparatus.

While each individual team member was assigned to one of the three organizations, we all crossed paths and lent our own area of expertise to help our other teammates. For example, given my communications and marketing background, I worked with the African Wildlife Foundation on a media campaign to help raise donations.

Across all three projects, the people we worked with were so impressed by the skills we were able to bring to their organizations, and the impact we made in just a few weeks. That on its own was quite gratifying.

During our time in Tanzania, we were able to make some interesting weekend trips – on safaris, to very special places like the Ngorogoro Crater, and small villages to meet and spend time with the Massai tribes. These were truly life change experiences for all of us.

One of the greatest aspects of our assignment, was the collaboration of 9 very diverse people from different cultures, backgrounds and areas of expertise. There was no one there to tell us what to do, or who should be our leader. We had to make every decision as a team. This requires balancing opinions, skills, strengths and weaknesses. All of which has stuck with me to this very day.

Not only did I come away with a good understanding for how people in Tanzania communicate and work with one another in a business environment, but I was also able to learn similar lessons about all of my colleagues. We ate practically every meal together for four weeks, and were almost always together, sharing ideas, and learning from one another. So I got a deep dive in how people work and communicate in all of the countries my teammates were from. I also learned about the other disciplines across IBM which I usually don’t have access to. I learned how to think through financial reporting and planning; I got to see how to design a website, and so much more.

When I returned from this trip, it took time for me to realize the extent to which the experience had reshaped my worldview—I was no longer the same person I was before I left. My assignment had a deep impact on my personal and professional life in so many ways. I didn’t look at the world or the way I work and interact with people the same. I resigned myself to the fact that this was something I was going to have to somehow manage to do again.

Stay tuned for the next piece of Matt’s journey!

Matt Berry

Matt Berry is the Director of Marketing for IBM MobileFirst. He has worked for IBM for ten years, mostly in media relations and communications. He lives in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, with his wife Monica and two children, Jack and Lyla.

1 comment

  1. Matt, Thanks for sharing your story… it’s truly inspirational. I admire your adventuresome spirit, it speaks loudly to your character and humanity.

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