Culture Dose: Local Companies Doing Good

Seattle employees take their expertise overseas.

WE Communications’ Global Pro Bono experience offers an opportunity of a lifetime. The program means that a couple employees get selected to join employees from other companies (like DOW, PIMCO and SAP) to travel abroad to developing regions, where they help a local nonprofit organization solve a wide-range of organizational problems.

Last year, WE sent three employees from around the globe to Accra, Ghana, to assist the Ghana Registered Midwives Association (GRMA) with implementation of their organizational strategy plan. WE Seattle’s Chrissy Vaughn attended, and you can read blogs about her time abroad here and here. Another employee, Megg Dunlap, recently returned from a pro bono in Rwanda, and we caught up with the two of them to learn about their amazing adventures.

Chrissy and her new friends

Seattleite: How long was your trip, and can you briefly summarize how you spent your days there?

Megg Dunlap: A group of nine corporate professionals from four different companies came together for a four-week program in Kigali, Rwanda, to help address global health problems. This small but mighty group worked, learned and grew together as we helped Caritas Rwanda, one of the largest healthcare networks in the country, build an implementation roadmap for a Health Management Information System.

Additionally, I saw a need on another of our client teams and was able to lend my communications expertise to the project. The Rwanda Women’s Network, an NGO dedicated to promotion and improvement of the socio-economic welfare of women in Rwanda, needed to rework their communications strategy. I led a full-day communications workshop and provided a brand refresh for the organization.

Chrissy Vaughn: I was one of thirteen professionals from four countries and four different companies – WE Communications, Dow Chemical, SAP and PIMCO—embedded for one month in Accra, Ghana, as part of the USAID Global Health Corporate Champions program. We spent four weeks using our collective expertise in management, communications, product sustainability, operations and finance to complete consulting projects for four social sector health organizations that provide vital healthcare services for communities throughout the region. The very first day we met our new clients, we heard a phrase that served as a beacon for the remainder of the month: If the soup is sweet, they will pull their chairs to the table. No matter what continent you’re on, everyone wants their intended audience to pull their chairs to the table.

Our organization, the Ghana Registered Midwives Association (GRMA) gave us their 45-page strategy plan developed in 2011 by another set of consultants. It was very thorough and complete. But none of it had actually been implemented. The plan told GRMA why their soup wasn’t sweet and what they needed to do about it, but it hadn’t provided the recipe for how to sweeten it.

S: Had you ever traveled to this part of the world before?

MD: This was my first time traveling not only to Rwanda, but to Africa. East Africa will always hold a very special place in my heart, and I’m already planning my next trip back to Rwanda to continue my work and see the smiling faces of the friends I made while I was there. Rwandans are hardworking and future-focused, and the country is seen as the poster child for progress in the region. They acknowledge their past and allow the lessons they learned to inform a brighter and more prosperous future. It was an incredible environment to live and work in for four weeks, and has instilled in me a renewed sense of purpose and global citizenship in a way I never thought possible.

CV: While I had traveled in eastern and southern Africa before, I had never been to West Africa. I think it’s a common misconception that Africa is Africa – you go to one place on the continent and you check it off your list. But that would be like saying after a visit to New York City, that you’ve done the United States. So while I’d been to Africa so had some idea of what to expect, I found Ghana to be unlike anywhere I’d ever been. It is one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. And its people were incredibly welcoming, kind and generous. Optimism pervades the country, with their newly-elected president making much needed investments in in education, healthcare and private sector development. The capital, Accra, is a developed and safe city, though the open gutters, traffic and lack of garbage control make sanitation and air quality less than desirable. They have recently moved from being a low-income to a middle-income developing country, though their past dependence on aid donations could make this improved state problematic when aid dollars shift to other countries with more need.

S: What expectations did you have going into the trip?

MD: There are many western misconceptions about Africa and Rwanda specifically, so I tried to go in with an open mind. I allowed space to build my own views on the country and its complicated history. In relation to the work, I think I was excited to contribute to projects that would have a lasting impact on the incredible work that these NGOs are doing.

CV: I expected to be pushed outside of my comfort zone, which happened. I expected to be very hot, and that also happened. But, my biggest expectation was that, as an obrouni (aka foreign) consultant being brought in to “fix a problem” in a country I’d never been to, I would encounter some defensiveness, some resistance. I also admittedly questioned my ability to effect positive change in such an unfamiliar environment. But none of those expectations turned into reality. We didn’t feel like outsiders, but rather part of the team. We were greatly respected and welcomed as professionals trained in specialties our clients didn’t have, be it business strategy, communications, supply chain, finance or data management.

S: How did you prepare for the experience?

MD: Pyxera Global organized weekly meetings for the two months prior to our departure to prepare us for various aspects of the trip. I also did exhaustive research on the country, the Rwandan healthcare system and the NGO landscape in the region.

CV: Pyxera Global, our host organization, had weekly meetings for two months to prepare us ahead of our departure. Their in-country expertise was invaluable. I also set up time with two sets of Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Ghana, which helped me know what to expect as an aid worker and as a female traveling (sometimes) alone.

S: What were some first impressions upon arrival?

MD: Rwanda is an incredibly clean country. I arrived on Umuganda Day, a monthly clean-up day. The Kinyirwanda word Umuganda refers to a coming together for a common purpose to achieve an outcome. Umuganda has always been part of Rwandan society and became an important national concept in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide. It instills a sense of community, unification and pride in the country’s appearance for every citizen. I learned that this pride translates into their work, homes and daily business.

S: What was the biggest surprise/joy you encountered while there?

CV: Our clients gifted us handmade jewelry and custom-made clothes, and others were housed in their clients’ homes when traveling in the field.

We were lucky to be in country during their 60th Anniversary Independence Day celebration. Party time for this very proud and patriotic country!

S: What was the best thing you ate while there?

CV: So much good food. I’d say my favorite was Kelewele – a popular Ghanaian food made of fried plantains seasoned with tasty spices. Their tilapia was also delicious – and served whole and eaten with fingers.

S: Who were the most memorable people you met?

CV: We had the fortune to meet with some amazing people…a few standouts include:

• The U.S. Ambassador to Ghana attended our closing ceremony to celebrate the public/private/NGO impact of the program.

• First Lady of Ghana, Rebecca Akufo-Addo: We had a very special sit-down with the First Lady of Ghana. Our team were observers in this meeting, where the First Lady actually fell asleep listening to GRMA present their ideas and requests. This meeting cemented why we were there to help GRMA more effectively communicate their value and purpose; as a direct result, we created new, simple tools to run the organization better and facilitated media and presentation training for their spokespeople.

• Superintendent Marufatu “Essie” Braimah was one of the first stakeholders our team met. Essie is a nurse-midwife, police officer, head of nursing and midwifery at the local Police Hospital, and on the GRMA board—and she had more energy and passion than anyone I’d ever met. She literally hoisted me onto her back the first time I met her ! Referencing GRMA’s need to better market itself, Essie called on our team to help the organization tell its story, saying, “If the soup is sweet, they will pull their chairs up to the table.” This really resonated with us on the very first day, and the recommendations we are shared with GRMA centered around a “recipe” of communications and operations strategies focused on how to get people—their current members, prospective members, government agencies, and funding NGOs—to ‘pull their chairs to the table.’

• Our team also spent a really impactful day volunteering in a local village, building a school and mentoring its teachers. My “hostess” for the day was Elizabeth, a young teenage girl who escorted me around her village all day. She was rather shy and quiet…until I asked if I could join in on the pick-up soccer game that the village boys were playing (I was a college soccer player, so I’m like a moth to a flame when there’s a soccer ball around ). She looked at me with an incredulous look in her eyes (given I was a woman) and said OK…and also let me know that she knew how to play soccer. She gathered the boys around, added me to a team and then disappeared. A few minutes later she returned, having swapped her traditional skirt for a pair of soccer shorts – and jumped into the game with me. My heart was SO happy in that moment – to see a young girl having the confidence to join the boys in a sport that women in her country don’t typically play.

S: For you personally, what were the biggest takeaways of WE’s Global Pro Bono Experience program?

MD: This was an incredible opportunity to broaden my global horizons. It challenged me to grow and explore new viewpoints and work across cultural barriers to meet the needs of these incredible organizations. I’m grateful to work at a place like WE, a company that consistently encourages its employees to push past their comfort zone in both their personal and professional lives.

CV: My experience reinforced that carefully run pro bono operations can achieve the triple benefit—for the host organization, for the company and for the employee. All 13 of us agreed that this program benefited us as much as the local NGOs. From being immersed in a new culture to applying business strategies in ways I couldn’t do at home, this was truly a life-changing opportunity for me. We were each skillfully matched with an organization that needed our unique talents, but also paired with teammates who exposed us to new expertise. Working with professionals from three other companies covering a vast array of skill sets meant that we learned just as much from each other as our local organizations learned from us.

I had to learn and adjust to the working styles of not just one but five different countries, and I had to learn to communicate with five different dialects of English, giving me a global perspective, not just about Ghana and Africa but about every country we were representing there. We each returned home refreshed and inspired after a month of socially impactful pro bono work, but also returned to our respective companies as stronger and more confident leaders with a more educated and collaborative view of the world. After I returned, more people in my life told me, unsolicited, that my eyes were brighter and I seemed happier. At WE Communications, we immediately saw this pro bono program paying dividends in terms of employee and client engagement. Employees are saying, “I want to know what I can do now so that I can have this opportunity down the road,” and prospective candidates see this as a unique differentiator that sets WE Communications apart from others competing for similar talent.

Ultimately, though, my month of work meant that more people would survive and live healthier lives. I’m not sure there can be a more rewarding impact than that.

S: Why would you encourage others to go on similar journeys?

MD: On the surface, this type of program provides incredible benefit to the local NGOs. But I cannot emphasize enough the personal journey you’ll take on an assignment like this. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s a life-changing opportunity that will reform your global perspective and realign your priorities both personally and professionally. I learned more about myself on this trip than I ever thought possible and I would encourage anyone looking for growth opportunities to take advantage of similar programs.

CV: I think everyone needs to push pause, get out of their comfort zone, and have a transformational moment in their life, and this was one of those moments for me. It’s changed how I want to live my life going forward. I’m so grateful that WE enabled me to have this opportunity.