Making a Real Difference

“I want to make a difference but I don’t want to leave my current career.”

“I want to help people but I don’t know where to start.”

“I want to work with non-profits but they require so much time.”

We all hear these statements often. Some of us have said it aloud and many more have thought of it. Can capitalism and altruism coexist? Is there a way to do good and do well? To be an idealist and a realist?

The two of us writing this article think these perspectives can be complementary, and we have seen our lives enriched by our ties to communities far removed from the banks of the Charles and the abundance of opportunity that a place like Harvard offers.  One of us (Rye, ’09) cofounded a nongovernmental organization in 2001 that today involves more than 5,000 young people each year in integrated, locally-led leadership development programs in one of the largest slums in Africa. Another (Amit, ’10) cemented various partnerships to help an organization in India serving a hundred thousand people. Professionally, Amit worked previously for Google and recently joined a venture capital firm; Rye served in the Marine Corps and currently works at Duke Energy.  While the circumstances of our social work and professional careers are different, some of the key lessons we learned are strikingly similar.

Lesson #1: The Inner and the Outer
Amit: The origins of my work lie in a student group at Stanford. I spent the summer of my freshman year teaching in a remote part of eastern India. Having grown up in Brazil and with roots in mid-size towns from a different part of India, I wanted to touch the country at its rawest. Among other things, I was witness to diarrhea, malaria and polio; a marriage and a violent death; smiles of children with a dream; anguish of beggars with little to eat. The combustible mix of these experiences with the inner belief that individuals can make a difference led me down the road I am today.

Rye: Like Amit, I too was stunned by the most visible and tangible elements of poverty when I first travelled to Kibera, a “mega-slum” where more than 250,000 people reside in an area the size of Central Park in Nairobi, Kenya.  It was 2000 and I was there as a college student on a self-structured undergraduate fellowship.  I rented a ten-by-ten foot shack with the intent of conducting ethnographic research on ethnic violence – something I thought I might have to respond to after I graduated and fulfilled my service obligation to the Marine Corps.  The outer shell of Kibera – squalor, density, commotion, noise, the stinging, pervasive stink from what residents called “flying toilets” – was overwhelming.  But what I soon realized through conversations with young people, some of whom have since become close friends and colleagues, is a fundamental truth that rests at the bedrock of our organization:  talent is universal; opportunity is not.

Lesson #2: Starting Small
Amit: When I came back from my volunteer experience, the student group that sent me was unexpectedly devoid of leadership. I felt compelled to give continuity lest it die. The next step was organizing the group so it would never face such a circumstance. I sent more volunteers to India and captured some of them to share the leadership. We then expanded our training program into a course at Stanford to give students a further incentive to sign up. Things were going well for us but not so much in the world — in 2001 there was a devastating earthquake in Gujarat, the prospect of nuclear war between India and Pakistan and the assassination of the Nepalese royal family. We felt we should do more and fund-raised to build a high school lab. When that worked we fund-raised to build a library. Step by step we kept increasing the scope of the work. The pipeline of students with a shared experience led eventually to an organization that existed beyond the confines of the university. I never thought I would be doing what I am today. We had to lay one brick at a time to get where we are.

Rye: Our cofounder Tabitha Festo started our clinic 10 years ago with a $26 grant to sell vegetables.  As the years passed, and we grew Carolina for Kibera (CFK) into what it is today, Tabitha became like a mother to me.  All change starts small.  It starts with a group of committed individuals.  Tabitha’s clinic today treats over 40,000 patients a year in the heart of Kibera.

Lesson #3: Building a Team
Amit: This is the most important task so that you do not you end up collapsing under a growing, inverted pyramid of work. Almost everyone supports in principle the mission of grass-roots sustainability, the biggest challenge is distinguishing those who mean well from those will actually get their hands dirty. I had the privilege of building a chain of trust with various college classmates, which allows us to run an organization virtually. But for every success there are thousands of failures. Often times the most disheartening experiences have not been hearing a no, but putting in much effort into someone who showed genuine interest to have them disappear. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and today we are extremely careful about who we ask to help.

Rye: The reason I was able to stay involved with CFK while serving in the Marines, attending HBS, and now working in the private sector is because CFK is led by local leaders like Tabitha. We have a role to play as outsiders.  But, fundamentally, we cannot solve the problems of a place like Kibera from the outside.  Solutions must be led from within, and, with a little assistance from those of us fortunate to live with abundant opportunities, they will.

Lesson #4: Keeping at It
Amit: I climbed Mt Whitney, the tallest in the continental United States, in 14 hours to kick off the hospital project. There were moments when overcome by dehydration and altitude sickness I felt I wouldn’t be able to move further. But I kept thinking of all the people who have overcome greater adversities and would put one foot in front of the other. I think in many ways it is the same attitude I carry with our work. Lots of things go wrong. We have missed calls, grant applications that yield nothing, chats that glitter with hope and result in dead-ends. Our team’s mindset is to use the failures as learning grounds, to test different ideas, and to get feedback. We always go into conversations with a goal, whether it is to obtain a partnership or another conversation. We have meetings with agendas set before hand and action items emailed, with ownership afterwards. We run the non-profit like a professional business — and so we know that despite the oscillations, as long as we are moving forward, we are making progress.

Rye:  Most modern MBA programs do not include a sales class in their required curriculums. This is unfortunate because sales is the bedrock of commerce.  More importantly, however, “eyeball-to-eyeball” sales is tough to do and typically forces one to confront failure early and often.  That’s true whether you are selling vacuums, investments packages, or charitable contributions. The ability of an entrepreneur to respond to failure is among the most important indicators of their probability of success.

Lesson #5: Franchising
Amit: For us technology has been a crucial differentiator. We are able to communicate with people in an extremely isolated part of the world because they have email — hardly ten years ago it would have been unthinkable. We use Facebook to engage with people all over the world that we have never met to organize events, or call for support. We have never been in the same room together, hold meetings using free conference codes, keep our notes on collaborative documents, communicate with our sister organizations in India, Norway and Sweden through each other’s websites. This is a brave new type of organization, one that is fluid and dynamic and that can make a true difference even if small. Our biggest success will be to prove this works so that thousands of others like us decide to adopt similar models and create nodes of change in their own communities.

Rye: We call our approach in Kibera participatory development.  There are a lot of components to our model.  But at its core, it is about deep, long-term investment in local leadership, and the recognition that innovations don’t simply happen along the Route 128s of the world.  Innovations also happen in Kibera and the slum communities like it around the world where by 2020 up to 20% of our world may reside.  As we prepare to celebrate the 10th anniversary of CFK with a documentary and book launch this April, we are taking the lessons learned from our approach and using them to inspire and inform others working in troubled places at home and abroad.

January 31, 2011

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