Doing Good—and Well—in Haiti

When I left HEC Paris (HEC Full-Time MBA Profile) at the end of May, I looked toward my summer in Haiti with a sense of openness. I was ready for anything. I closed my MBA studies quickly, finishing the three-day Social and Sustainable Business Conference that I had spent the majority of my free time planning and hopped a flight to the U.S.

With a week stateside for transition, I snagged moments with friends and family and prepared for my coming summer internship with Samasource, a San Francisco-based social business that brings paying, Internet-based work to disadvantaged economic areas across the globe.

On June 7, I departed Atlanta for Port au Prince, stopping for an overnight layover in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There, holed up in a Comfort Inn, I opened my Samasource e-mail account and found it filled with e-mails pertaining to operations in Haiti. As my nerves performed a kick line in my stomach, I read forwarded e-mails about current operations in Haiti , as well as plans for the future.

Early the next morning, I arrived at my departure gate and found it crowded with bleary eyed travelers like myself. For the most part, they spoke a language that, despite the intermittent "bonjour" and "comment va-tu," sounded foreign to my French-conditioned ears. These were Haitians speaking Creole, happy to meet fellow countrymen on their way home. I already felt as if I'd left the States.

surveys, quality control, outreach

When the plane set down in Port au Prince, I had no idea what to expect. We disembarked and immediately made our way to a bus that took us across the tarmac to customs and baggage claim, housed in a space similar in appearance to a warehouse. As I squeezed between a line of people and an oversized fan whose breeze I much appreciated, my mind started to churn. Would I find the people who were supposed to pick me up? (I didn't even have a phone.) Ah. Before I could think further, the customs officer was stamping my passport, querying my NGO. "Yes, Samasource," I said. After he told me to move on, I battled the chaos at the baggage claim, found my luggage, and then shuffled through a chaotic crowd to exit the airport. Despite my fears that I wouldn't find my ride amid the airport chaos, I spotted a man holding a sign with my name on it.

In the car, I finally exhaled. I took in the sights—earthquake destroyed buildings, motor-taxis zipping through heavy traffic, and miles of tent cities—of Port au Prince before heading to Mirebalais, a city one-and-a-half-hours to the northeast, where I would spend my summer.

My counterparts at Samasource headquarters and I had discussed many times the focus of my work in Haiti. I would administer surveys to all of Samasource's Haitian-based workers and provide quality control on work performed. I would also help Samasource forge new partnerships in Haiti with potential clients, also known as service partners.

As I arrived in Mirebalais—tired from all my flying and the shock of a new country—I was immediately asked: "When does the training start?" Looking a little dumbfounded, I stammered, "What training?" Before my arrival, rumors had been spread that I would give Web design training. Not one who enjoys disappointing, I meekly informed the workers and the leadership of the service partner that my program did not include Web design training. Since I lived in a room at the back of the office, I felt the disappointment following me like a dark cloud for days.

scaling back before scaling up

Despite my lack of Web design prowess, I ingratiated myself with the 50 or so young workers of the service partner by offering résumé help. This enabled me to get to know them, learn their names, and start my summer on a better footing.

I spent the majority of the season working with the Mirebalais service partner, acquainting myself with its leadership, workers, and problems. Early on, I discovered the Internet troubles. Connectivity issues, common in Haiti, presented challenges to both the service partner (it couldn't do work) and Samasource's faith in the potential of the partnership. Beyond battling the constant Internet struggles, which involved brainstorming ways to achieve better connectivity, I worked with the service partner to understand its breakeven point and revenue model, pinpointing high-cost areas and reasons for low revenues. Sometimes, as I worked with this service partner, I felt like the bearer of bad news. I think Samasource and the leadership of the service partner shared a common goal: We both wanted to develop a business model that would bring jobs to Haitian workers for years to come, even if getting to that model involved scaling back before scaling up.

While I discovered first-hand the difficulties and constraints—Internet connectivity issues, electricity outages, days without running water—of operating in a Third World country, I discovered ambition and drive in all the Haitian workers I met, too.

They showed up to work dressed to impress, bearing enterprise that would trump that of even my most determined business school colleagues. As many of the workers and I were the same age, I could not help but imagine myself in their shoes. Leila Chirayath Janah, Samasource's founder and chief executive officer, has mentioned in speeches that intelligent people who live in developing countries "lost the birth lottery" because for them, opportunity is hard to come by. She sees this as a lost resource. After this summer, I must agree. Working firsthand with many young and talented Haitians, I saw their talent, motivation, and willingness to work. For them, finding paying work is extremely difficult—and not just because of economic recession. There, it's a permanent reality. This all forced me to evaluate my own opportunity-blessed life and to realize the things, such as taking two years off to go to grad school, that I take for granted.

"jugaad:"—a core principle

So I tried my best to add value and create opportunity for the workers. I helped forge new partnerships for Samasource in Haiti, working with the sales team to develop proposals and concept papers. This type of work balanced nicely with my worker interactions because it allowed me to move from the day-to-day nitty-gritty to the bigger picture. It also gave me the opportunity to work closely with my San Francisco-based colleagues, whom I really came to enjoy, despite meeting few of them in person.

I have no doubt that my MBA training helped me effectively complete some of my summer projects, especially those pertaining to proposals and revenue models, though I am not sure that my MBA automatically earned me free points with Samasource. As a young, dynamic organization, chock-full of extremely intelligent Ivy League grads that claim "jugaad"—or ingenuity and cleverness—as one of the organization's core principles, Samasource appreciates resourceful people who get things done. I found that I liked this. Beautiful advanced degree or not, what matters in the end, especially in the field of economic development, is whether you have done what you said you were going to do and accomplished your mission. Samasource's dedication to its mission and entrepreneurial spirit was infectious and made me realize that I enjoy working for growing organizations.

Almost by chance, as my summer progressed in Haiti, I befriended a group of young women working in Port au Prince. Three of them, recent graduates of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, where I am starting this fall, allowed me to indulge my curiosity about my next academic year. This provided me with the perfect bridge to Boston.

I have just arrived at Fletcher, joined by three of my colleagues from HEC who are also pursuing the joint degree, plus over 200 new faces. I am sure the classes will be different—many are law-based—from what I studied at HEC, though I am confident that the joint-degree option was best for me. I look forward to studying the policy and legal implications of international trade and business. I also look forward to 24/7 stores and the U.S. way of scheduling classes at the same times on the same days. Still, I miss my diverse HEC colleagues, the runs through Versailles, and the many friends still in Paris. C'est la vie. (And thank God for e-mail.) The graduate school journey continues.

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