Using Business to Build a Bigger Future

Mentoring Program Develops Rwandan Entrepreneurs Into Business Leaders

By Published on .

As the Ariana Airlines flight landed, I remarked to the German woman sitting next to me about the hundreds of pretty, little white stones covering the grass between the runways. She smiled, obviously an experienced traveler to Afghanistan. "Each one of those stones marks a Soviet landmine that the Americans haven't had a chance to remove yet." Hmm. I guess we're not in Kansas anymore.

David Ormesher meets with a group of leading Rwandan entrepreneurs during a workshop in Kigali, Rwanda.
David Ormesher meets with a group of leading Rwandan entrepreneurs during a workshop in Kigali, Rwanda.
I had always considered it important to be involved in volunteer work. As a business owner, that often took the shape of nonprofit board involvement. As a board member of a nongovernment organization rebuilding houses, schools and clinics in areas of conflict and disaster, I dutifully showed up for quarterly board meetings to review documents and approve budgets. It was when a major disagreement erupted between the organization and USAID, its major funder in Afghanistan, that I was pulled out of my board chair and thrust directly into the chaos of a war zone.

Following very tense discussions at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul about conflicting data on the progress of 55 schools and clinics we were building in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, I challenged all parties to take a road trip to some of the sites to check things out firsthand. Because of the high risks, however, embassy personnel were restricted to the compound. In a moment of clarity, bravado or idiocy, I announced that I would rent a nondescript Pathfinder, hire a local driver and make some unannounced visits to see for myself.

After a long, dusty and fortunately uneventful tour of five villages in the Afghan countryside, I returned to Kabul with good news for everyone: The medical clinics and elementary schools funded by the American people were being built by local contractors and villagers as planned. In a subsequent upbeat meeting with embassy officials, the senior contracting officer said, "Thank you for showing leadership in this situation. We don't see much of that around here."

On the long flight back to the U.S., I reflected on that comment. Yes, these were unique circumstances, but how I responded to the impasse in Kabul was no different from how most of my peers would have reacted. Decisiveness and a focus on finding solutions are traits we demonstrate every day. That got me thinking: How could I harness the leadership, executive management skills and business insights of my peers to solve some of the global problems of poverty, poor health, education and economic stagnation in developing countries?

Many of us are involved in volunteer work, charity fundraising and nonprofit board service. Some of us travel with faith-based groups to build homes in Haiti or Mexico. But there are few opportunities to actually leverage our professional skills outside our companies. What if there was an opportunity to apply our marketing, finance, HR, creative or project management skills to help transform individuals and communities?

There are many microfinance resources, such as Opportunity International and Kiva, available for the poorest of the poor. And the Clinton Global Fund and the Gates Foundation, along with major donors, underwrite large health and education programs. But there are few resources available in the developing world for the owners of small and midsize enterprises. Often, these are "accidental entrepreneurs" with a few employees, assets and revenue, but little knowledge of or experience in how to grow a business. As in the U.S., where small businesses generate 70% of new jobs, small and midsize businesses in Africa, Asia and Latin America represent significant opportunities for the creation of jobs and wealth, in turn providing a foundation for better education, health, governance and social stability.

Against this backdrop, I joined two other executives in 2007 to establish a nonprofit volunteer organization called Global Relief and Development Partners, or GRDP. Our mission is to inspire and strengthen the leadership and business capacity of high-potential entrepreneurs in emerging economies.

In 2008, we set out to develop and test a model of our thinking in Rwanda, an East African country of 10 million people that is showing remarkable resilience only 16 years since the horrific 100-day genocide that killed nearly 1 million of its citizens. If we could succeed here, perhaps we could create a model that could be replicated in other countries as well.

We created a three-pronged strategy called "Bigger future": quarterly strategic planning and business skill workshops for a group of 40 to 50 Rwandan entrepreneurs, a resource network of North American executives who would be willing to build personal mentoring relationships with these Rwandans and an investment fund to allow us to put "skin in the game" and partner with those businesses that have the highest potential to grow and provide a positive impact on Rwanda.

In November 2010, I took my ninth quarterly trip to Rwanda to lead another in our series of all-day business workshops and to host seven North American executives who made the personal decision to invest in building relationships with these Rwandan business owners. For most of these western executives, it was their first time in Africa. For all of them, it was a profound experience of learning, teaching and providing value in a context that was both completely foreign and very familiar.

The impact of this approach has been remarkable. Unlike traditional NGOs, our goal is to work ourselves out of a job. Rather than provide direct development services, we want to build the leadership and business capacity of Rwanda's business owners so they can lead their country from poverty to middle class. Using strategic planning tools from the Strategic Coach and practical business skills from our visiting executives, we're able to equip these ambitious Rwandan business leaders with intellectual, social and financial capital.

But just as important as the business skills are the shared stories of business life itself: growth and setbacks, client wins and losses, and the struggle to maintain personal confidence and optimism in the face of economic and market challenges. It's at this personal level of relationship that we discover a shared experience that transcends the cultural differences between a prosperous North America and a struggling but proud Rwanda. It's an experience that is life-changing.

David Ormesher is CEO of closerlook, a Chicago-based strategic marketing firm that works primarily with companies in pharmaceuticals, health insurance and health-information technology. For more information on Global Relief and Development Partners, contact Ormesher at 312-640-3701 or visit
Most Popular