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Leslie Flagg '91

Leslie Flagg '91

Out of Africa: Leslie Flagg uses her ‘outsider’ instincts to transform emerging markets in Nigeria

By Sara Langen

Sitting at a table in a Chicago coffee shop, Leslie Flagg ’91 plays with a half-empty bottle of Pellegrino. Since flying home from Africa, she has been feeling out of sorts – and not just because she has jet-lag.

“I’m getting used to being back in the U.S.,” laughs Flagg, who serves as a private sector advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nigeria. The contrasts between the U.S. and Nigeria go beyond culture or time zone, she says. Working in emerging markets has forced her to look at business from a completely different perspective.

“It’s a new frontier,” says Flagg, who has worked for USAID since 2002. “You have to take a whole new approach, but because I’m not from Africa and I don’t know everything about the market, I don’t make assumptions. People who have preconceived notions miss a lot of things that I don’t.”

In Africa, Flagg has worked on several initiatives that have improved the quality of life for Nigerians. For example, she led a team that partnered with Olam International, an agricultural products company, to increase domestic production of rice. The team organized 10,000 Nigerian farmers to begin large-scale rice operations and built a processing plant, which in turn helped increase farmers’ incomes more than 200 percent.  As a result, Flagg’s team was recognized with the 2008 World Business Development Award by the International Chamber of Commerce.

Flagg also helped develop an innovative strategy to bring the children’s television show “Sesame Street” to Nigeria. In many countries, “Sesame Street” is filmed in a studio, but Flagg’s team suggested that they animate it to reduce production costs. “You can take a segment and put any language you want behind it,” she says. “We were the first country to do it.”

Flagg formerly served as a product development engineer (1984-86)and production manager (1986-89) at Procter & Gamble, where she managed the domestic and international production of three health and personal care products and also managed the plant start-up for the national expansion of Crest Tartar Control Gel.  She enrolled in Kellogg in 1989.

Post-graduation, Flagg accepted a nine-month internship with TechnoServe Inc., a Ghana-based nonprofit organization that helps businesses in the developing world. She immediately became enthralled with the challenges and rewards of working in emerging markets.

“Initially, I had all intentions of coming back [to the U.S], and then I started loving the work,” she says. “That nine-month internship turned into six years.”

In Ghana, finding new approaches to old problems became Flagg’s specialty. For example, she identified a new market niche for retailing high-quality raw cashews, which generated jobs, increased the market price of cashews by 150 percent and raised the incomes of Ghanaian cashew farmers.

In 1997, Flagg returned to the U.S. to give birth to her son. She considered rejoining the corporate world, but found herself cruising Web sites for international jobs. In 2001, she accepted a one-year contract with Chemonics International, a Nigerian-based consulting firm. The contract eventually led to her current role with USAID/Nigeria.

Flagg credits Kellogg with helping her develop the skills that she relies upon in her current role.

“In emerging markets, I’ve been able to use every skill that Kellogg taught me,” she says. “International development is a trillion-dollar market—and Kellogg provided me with the tools to understand it.”

Posted October 2009
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