After recognizing the high unemployment gap amongst millennials in Kenya, educator, HBCU, and Harvard University graduate, Chandell Stone, founded Stone Solutions. In its second year, Stone Solutions has successfully leveraged talent across Africa to provide the United States and Europe with virtual assistance and consulting services.
Racquel Coral (RC): What was the motivation behind Stone Solutions, and how did you get started?
Chandell Stone (CS): Stone Solutions was born out of this desire to support the African diaspora in a way that extends beyond just bringing in donations to the communities that we’re serving with my other organization, Destination Impact. In the past, we’ve done a lot of work in underserved communities and built a library in Kenya. But unfortunately, there hasn’t been any sustainable development. So I saw this as an opportunity to diversify our engagement and involvement in Kenya. By expanding beyond just supporting through tourism, I saw creating jobs as an impactful pillar in how I was thinking about community development.
When we started two years ago, one of the tour guides for Destination Impact ended up becoming our first Virtual Assistant (VA) and is now the Senior Director of Operations. And so we sort of started together in a lot of ways, by connecting small businesses in the US and Europe, with VAs that are primarily based in Kenya.
RC: How do you go about selecting VAs? Do they sign up, or do you go out and recruit them?
CS: Because unemployment is so high in Kenya, especially in Nairobi, we will get a few hundred applicants per position posted. I think the way that we go about the selection process is particularly revolutionary. It’s the standard application screening with the next round being them having to complete a task to assess their command of the English language. Even though most Kenyans speak English, this is to make sure that they can write in a way that translates well. Then we look for other things that we know our clients will ask to see how far off the mark they are because we understand that some training will be involved. And that’s mostly because they’re not using the same programs we do here in the US. So we try to assess some of those hard skills, which lets us know how much training a person might need to take on clients.
After that, we then have two rounds of interviews, one of which is in person, and then that’s how we select. From there, we have a 30-day internal training program to ensure that employees are going to be ready to support our clients as they come in. And I think that that is something that separates us a bit. Generally, VA companies will hire as the need presents itself. Whereas with Stone Solutions, we end up test driving the VA simultaneously to give more of a guarantee and have more consistency in terms of quality of services for our clients.
RC: What’s the response been like in Kenya and the companies you work with across the US and Europe? Have you noticed that there has been more of a demand on both ends? Are there more needs?
CS: Great question. So I would say that as of late, maybe in the last couple of months, we’ve experienced some increase in demand. And I think that that’s been driven by what’s going on with COVID. It’s a weird thing where businesses are either booming, or it’s the complete opposite. So for people who have benefited from what’s going on with the pandemic, such as online businesses, companies selling essential needs, educational organizations, they are like seeking our services. And that’s just one example of an area where we’ve seen an uptick. On the other hand, companies that are not doing particularly well, who’ve had to, unfortunately, downsize in staff but still need additional support, we’re finding that they have been reaching out to us.
RC: And then how has the impact been in Kenya since doing this?
CS: So it’s interesting. The industry that I’ve been the most plugged into in Kenya has been the travel industry through Destination Impact. And Kenya has been severely and significantly impacted by COVID because travel is such a big industry there, which has affected wildlife and jobs. Because of their infrastructure, the Kenyan president has made a fair assessment of the country’s ability to handle a significant outbreak, and as a result, has been very strict on movement within the country.
For example, Nairobi was completely locked down for a significant period. People couldn’t come into the city, and they had a curfew for a while. And that’s had an impact on a lot of jobs and costs. At one point, at the beginning of the pandemic, they were paying $20 for a mask, which is ridiculous for Americans. But more so for those who were making a fraction of what our monthly income is.
RC: What have been some of the obstacles that you faced when launching stone solutions? And how did you overcome them?
CS: I would say that in terms of obstacles, there are a couple. One of the amazing things about Kenyan people is that they are very humble and don’t do the humblebrag. And I hadn’t realized until I started doing Stone Solutions, just how much we culturally value that in the people we work with. For example, when we’re interacting with a client who wants to launch a social media page, their VA will already be well-versed in this area, but won’t step up or say that they can take the lead on it. They sort of like to defer to others. And that humility can be taken as a lack of knowledge if you don’t speak up. So we then have to have roleplay conversations to understand that they sometimes need to brag on themselves because that’s what people like to hear. I didn’t realize how much we as a country value people managing up, whereas not all cultures are used to doing it. And I think many of our VAs are used to working in an environment where their boss told them precisely what to do.
RC: So what does the future have in store for Stone Solutions?
CS: Only God knows! My team and I will continue working as hard as we can to get the best results. We would love to grow our clients, our clientele, and our revenue by 100%. So we’re just putting the plan in motion to continue to scale and grow and do so in a sustainable way.
For more information on Chandell, visit https://stonesolutions.me/.
Contributing Writer, Racquel Coral is a lifestyle writer based in Chicago. Find her on social media @withloveracquel.