Volunteer assignment: Centralized Wetmill Program, Colombia, 2014
Current organization: Skilltapp Inc.
Her experience: Rewarding, Fun, Eye-Opening
Why did you apply to the Volunteer Consultant Program?
For a long time, I believed in many of the principles that underlie TechnoServe’s work, especially its focus on market access and commitment to investing in local leaders. But I did not have a clear picture of what I could do to advance those principles. Then, through a Bain & Company connection, I was reminded of a senior manager who took leave from Bain to work with TechnoServe for over a year. I was working at a mergers & acquisitions law firm at the time, and her example inspired me. After doing more research, I realized that my values were closely aligned with TechnoServe’s. I also saw that the analytical skills that I had acquired in the private sector were relevant to solving problems that affect the poorest people in the world.
During college, I interned at a microfinance institution in Bolivia and came to feel a strong kinship with the people I met there. When I learned about the opportunity to return to South America to do business planning for one of the first self-sustaining central wetmills in Colombia, I was very excited. The mill was a coffee processing facility where hundreds of smallholder farmers could sell their raw coffee cherry and get paid right away, without needing to process or dry the product on their farms. In addition to being more environmentally-friendly than decentralized processing, the mill was designed to save farmers time and increase their revenues. In early 2014, I joined TechnoServe’s fantastic Colombian team, and began working with the coffee cooperative that would own the mill.
What was your experience like on the ground?
At first, I did business planning for the mill in a small town ironically named Gigante. That work involved a combination of financial modeling, creating investor presentations and soliciting funding. As time went on, I took on additional projects, including launching a large-scale business training program for farmers. It was some of the most fun, rewarding work I have ever done.
How has the program impacted you and your career?
My experience had a deep and lasting impact on me in two ways.
First, it showed me the value that people like me, coming from the relatively structured world of professional services firms, could offer to community leaders in developing areas like Gigante. The officers of the coffee cooperative where I worked had excellent people skills, worked hard to maintain the trust of their community members, and were eager to improve themselves and their organizations. However, they were operating outside of their comfort zone in order to take on a significant amount of new financing. The value of my work as a Volunteer Consultant was to use data, analysis, and basic organizational techniques, like workplanning, to help them achieve their objectives. I also helped them get comfortable making decisions, such as automating their paper-based payment system, that would impact their budget over the short term, but strengthen their organization over the long term.
Second, the experience gave me an opportunity to reflect more deeply on my personal and professional goals. I thought a lot about the social problems that I am most passionate about solving and how I want to use the next few decades of my career solving them. The social enterprise that I founded when I came back to the United States would not have been possible without my TechnoServe experience. The enterprise connects skilled service providers with people who would value their help but cannot afford to pay for it. In that sense, it aims to do on a local level what TechnoServe does internationally through its VolCon program.
Where are you now?
I am in the California Bay Area, working on the social enterprise.
What advice would you give someone applying to the program?
Keep an open mind and an open heart.