Pay Your Luck Forward: How this Project Manager Used Her Sabbatical to Empower Women #ExperteerSpotlight

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

“Scale” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot when talking businesses. Entrepreneurs strive for it, and investors love it. If an organization is scaling, it means it is growing rapidly, the costs of growth are going down, and the future earning potential is going up. But in today’s global economy with so many environmental and social issues, some businesses are striving to do more than maximizing earnings — they focus on maximizing impact, and use scale as a way to create that impact.

Regardless of whether the returns you’re seeking to maximize are financial, social, or environmental, there are certain prerequisites to achieving scale that apply across sectors: standardization, repeatability, and consistency. It’s like a recipe: you have to have the ingredients right before you can make another batch. For many social enterprises, like Inyenyeri, achieving scale presents a tremendous challenge. Considering the fact that 9 out of 10 startups fail, and 70% of those fail because of premature scaling, Inyenyeri wanted to bring in an expert from the private sector to help the team prepare to scale.

Gabriela leading a training session with the Inyenyeri team

Inyenyeri found a great match in Gabriela, a Quality & Regulatory Project Manager with a knack for process optimization. Already an experienced traveler, Gabriela joined the MovingWorlds Institute to learn a more meaningful way to travel while giving back using real skills in the process. Read her story to see how she applied her regulatory expertise and fellowship training to get Inyenyeri (and herself!) ready for the next level of impact:

What inspired you to ‘take the leap’ and go experteering?

You know, I was born in Romania, which at that time was under the control of a communist regime. The entire country was struggling to survive, and there was widespread poverty without opportunities to make things better. This all changed in 1989 with the Revolution, which ultimately brought the fall of the communist regime in Romania, and with it, many new freedoms and opportunities we’d never had before. I grew up trying to make sense of the principles of democracy against this changing political background, and that curiosity about the world has always stayed with me.

As Carl Sagan would say, “I was always tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote”. I have been lucky enough to travel to exciting parts around the world for vacation the past 10 years, but wanted to find out how to make my travels more meaningful. I wanted to have an immersive experience that went beyond just nice photos and good food; I wanted to give back. I was wary of ‘voluntourism’ programs that can create more harm than good, so it was important to me to find a program making a sustainable impact.

When I came across MovingWorlds and the idea of ‘socially responsible’ travel using my skills, I knew right away that I’d found what I was searching for. I have been blessed in so many ways, and even though I’ve experienced hardships like many others, I still consider myself a pretty lucky person. As my Rwandan park guide, Frank, would say: “If you are lucky in your own country, you will be lucky anywhere, but if you aren’t, then the luck won’t follow”. I guess I wanted to give back, a sort of a “paying the luck forward” for those who needed it the most. This is the first time I am travelling this way and it has been the best so far.

[Editor’s Note: You can learn more here about the difference between Experteering and Voluntourism]

What were you doing before going experteering?

Before taking on this project, I was working for Philips as a Project Manager in the Quality & Regulatory department. In that role, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Philips’ medical business unit, where I learned a lot about their operations in a high-tech environment. Specifically, I was helping the unit adapt their processes in compliance with the European Commission’s new 2017 European Medical Device Regulation legislation.

This new legislation has far-reaching implications across the medical industry, and has resulted in sweeping changes to the operations of all parties involved in the supply chain. My role on the team was to identify the gaps between our existing quality management process and the standards required by the new legislation, propose updates to fill those gaps, then drive the change process forward to reach compliance.

What did you do on your experteering trip?

I matched with Inyenyeri, which is a Rwandan social enterprise building a cleaner world one kitchen at a time. In the developing world, over three billion people cook every day using unhealthy fuels, like charcoal, because they are inexpensive and available. This is a problem because sourcing and burning dirty fuels has devastating effects on people and the planet, like deforestation, erosion, and death by toxic smoke inhalation. More people die annually from toxic smoke intoxication than from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV combined.

Inyenyeri took a human-centered approach to design a comprehensive clean cooking solution. Inyenyeri’s offering consists of a bundle of products and services that meet customer needs at every stage, including: the cooking stove, the wood pellets used with the stoves, stove installation, and training services to use the stove. With this bundle, customers in urban areas, rural areas, and even refugee camps can safely use the Inyenyeri system without needing additional resources.

With their concept proven, Inyenyeri is now focused on achieving scale. The team brought me in to support this next phase of growth to achieve their goal of full coverage in Rwanda, and eventually, covering all of Africa. The focus of our project was building a consistent quality management system across all business units so that Inyenyeri’s operations could be replicated more easily on a bigger scale.

In order to build a quality management system that would meet Inyenyeri’s needs, I started by learning its’ business inside and out. When I arrived in Rwanda, I had the opportunity to learn so much firsthand about the company and its dedicated team. I familiarized myself with their supply chain following different visits I had in the field, including:

  • Plant visits
  • Warehouses visits
  • Retail shops visits
  • Households visits
Inyenyeri Site Visits
Photos from Site Visits with the Inyenyeri Team

These site visits gave me a better understanding of Inyenyeri’s operations at each stage and allowed us to uncover new opportunities to increase efficiency. As a result, we were able to connect the dots between different areas of the business and develop a quality management system that incorporated both existing standard operating procedures as well as new best practices and training.

To minimize any disruption with the rollout, we decided to implement the system in two phases. We used the first phase to pilot the system among a smaller number of support departments, which allowed us to test our model and make any necessary changes before extending to include the core business departments in phase two.

With this in mind, we were able to:

  • Finalize the interviews with the departments involved in the 1st phase of the project (individual + group interviews)
  • Finalize the gap assessment per each enabling department and drafted the list of policies/SOP that will need to be created
  • Finalize the templates to be used for creating the future policies/SOP
  • Choose the right actionable KPIs for each process

To ensure the sustainability of the system even after our project was completed, we also focused a lot on training and building capacity within the local team. I helped organize and deliver training content related to :

  • Supply Chain Management Fundamentals
  • Business Model Canvas
  • Basics of Lean Management and Value stream mapping
  • Basics of process mapping
  • Customer Value proposition

Beyond that, I used my free time to really immerse myself in the culture and discover the country and its people. A few of my most memorable adventures: taking a game drive into the wild with a guide, taking a pottery class in the community and making my own clay pot, touring coffee farms, tasting new foods and teas, dancing Salsa with my Congolese teacher, getting around via moto-taxi, playing volleyball against a rival brewery, taking a boat tour and seeing the Congo across the shore, and lots of laughing and learning. The whole experience filled my soul with joy!

Gabriela taking advantage of her free time by taking a pottery class!

What was the highlight of your experteering trip?

It’s so hard to choose just one, but a major highlight for me was visiting the households of customer’s using Inyenyeri products. What a powerful experience that was! It was a lesson in modesty and humility that we don’t encounter often in our busy lives. It brought me back to basics, and was a good reminder of the simple values that matter most.

Customers using Inyenyeri’s fuel+stove system

Another favorite highlight was the half-day I spent touring a nearby coffee plant. I was inspired by the efficiency and zero-waste processes in place, and although this plant wasn’t related to Inyenyeri, it indirectly supported our project because I could adapt learnings from that tour to be applied in our new quality management system. I was also surprised to learn that despite the many coffee plantations in Rwanda, tea is more popular locally because most of the coffee is exported for sale overseas. Overall, learning about the entire process end-to-end made me appreciate even more the invisible effort that happens behind the scenes to produce my morning cup. [Editors note: We’re big fans of coffee, too, and recently highlighted a partner social enterprise that is doing inspiring work to help farmers get better wages]

What is one thing you wish you knew before volunteering overseas?

I did the prep-work in parallel with my day to day job, so I wish I had a little bit more time to take advantage of all the resources and read/prepare before I went to Rwanda. One other concern I had at first was knowing how in-depth to go in scoping the project. I didn’t want to get too complex, but also wanted to add real value. I wanted to share so much and on so many levels — I was nervous perhaps that I wouldn’t be able to translate my ideas into something easy to implement. Luckily, it wasn’t a problem at all! I was able to be flexible and adapt to the local conditions and, in the end, everything was just fine.

What advice do you have for people thinking about going experteering themselves?

Do it without hesitation! It will be the experience of a lifetime. Set yourself up for success by doing the pre-work in advance so you are prepared in the field. Go with an open heart and mind, ready to lead positive change and also be positively changed in return. Once you’re in the field, let the work teach you — it’s ok to be nervous, or to not have all the answers. It’s normal to be afraid of the unknown, but I promise that facing your fear will lead to growth in unexpected ways.

We’re grateful to Gabriela for sharing her Fellowship experience with us, and to Inyenyeri for the opportunity to be part of its impactful work and growth. Gabriela exemplifies what we look for in a Global Fellow, and we are proud of her work and growth! We’re looking forward to continuing to grow the movement in 2019.

Are you the next #MWIGlobalFellow we’re looking for? Applications are now open for the next MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship cohort, so if Gabriela’s story resonated with you, take the first step towards your own impact trip by submitting your application here!