“I learned to never, ever settle for anything less than that which makes my heart sing”
Before enrolling on an Emzingo NexGen program in South Africa in 2012, Yvonne Krywyj used to work as an attorney in Washington DC. Now she is in Rwanda, as Business Operations Manager for Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), a company that helps women jumpstart social businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable menstrual pads — “an often overlooked health issue”. Her career-change journey is both insightful and inspiring. Read all about it in this Q&A.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, more specifically about the changes in your career path: What inspired you to make the decisions you’ve made? What did you feel needed to change?
A: Unfulfilled after practicing law for eight years, primarily for the US government, I sought to transition into a career in which I could both solve pressing social problems and travel the world. A leap into social business, specifically geared towards poverty alleviation in developing countries, seemed like a perfect fit, despite my lacking any relevant work experience. I chose to pursue an MBA to gain foundational business knowledge. After all, I reasoned, how could I possibly run a successful social business if I didn’t know anything about running a business in general? Going into the program, I knew that an MBA wouldn’t automatically make the perfect social business career materialize for me, but I hoped it would give me the tools I needed to begin the transition into social business.
Q: What do you feel is the hardest part of making the choice? What did you have to “give up”, and how did you deal with it?
A: The hardest part of making the choice was giving up a lot of stability. I had a job that I had almost no chance of ever losing, with a comfortable income, as well as a rent-controlled apartment, a decent chunk of savings and an amazing social life in DC. I spent those savings on my MBA. Immediately afterwards, I took on a short-term, pro bono consulting contract with Yunus Social Business. It was the best choice for me at that time – I learned a lot about incubating social businesses and gained more Africa experience – but I emerged completely broke. I spent the next four months searching for long-term jobs and surfing friends’ couches in DC, a better place to network for international social enterprise jobs than my parents’ house in Michigan would have been.
I was basically homeless. Some nights I couldn’t sleep worrying that I would have to give it up, go back to law, move in with my parents, or otherwise throw in the towel. There was one point when I got to the final or penultimate round for seven different jobs and didn’t get a single offer. But even at my lowest points, I wasn’t ready to give up. I think I got that first job offer (managing operations and finances for a participatory development and advocacy organization called CMAP, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria) just in time.
Q: What is the most important thing you have gained from this change? What have you learned?
A: I’ve gained a sense of purpose and fulfillment – I feel like I’m doing exactly what I am meant to do here on Earth. I’ve picked up a lot of hard skills, especially in operations management. I’ve discovered that I’d rather either make something work or make it work better for a living than persuade others of something, so it’s a really good thing I didn’t stick with law! I’ve also learned a lot about what I can handle (sporadic electricity / water / internet, insecurity), and what I can’t handle (isolation if I’m living in a place lacking in social outlets) in a developing country situation. Last but not least, I’ve learned to never, ever settle for anything less than that which makes my heart sing.
Q: What is the one piece of “advice” you’d give to anyone thinking of making a similar career change from the corporate —or legal— world into the social impact space?
A: I’m going to cheat and give two pieces of advice. If you’re going through an MBA or similar degree, take advantage of every opportunity you can apart from coursework. My IE experience was valuable not for the classes alone, but for the opportunities it afforded me to plunge headlong into the worlds of social business and entrepreneurship in emerging economies. In addition to the Emzingo fellowship, I organized Impact Weekend, a social business startup weekend, and was invited to join the founding team of Next Generation Lab, a start-up that reached the finals of the school’s Venture Lab start-up incubator competition It was these opportunities, rather than the courses or the degree, that enabled me to change location, sector, and function. If you’re going to school to change careers, don’t just go to class. Find every opportunity that points you in the direction you want to go in.
Whether or not you’re doing a degree, do some skilled volunteering, through a fellowship such as Emzingo, the YSB volunteer program, MBAs without Borders or similar. Don’t just volunteer part time, say, one night a week. Do a skilled volunteer project that uses your prior work experience in a social impact setting for 3-6 months. This will give you a chance to build your skills and demonstrate your commitment that no amount of coursework or part time volunteering will match. In addition, you’ll have a chance to make a real impact with the organization you volunteer with.
Q: Where are you now and what are you doing?
A: I’m now working for a social enterprise called Sustainable Health Enterprises, or SHE for short, managing their business operations in Rwanda. SHE is making and selling affordable (40% lower than the cheapest competitor!) sanitary pads from banana fibers, which would otherwise be discarded as waste. We also provide menstrual health management education and training to teachers and students. Through our operations, we are providing women and girls with a solution to an often overlooked health issue, enabling them to more fully participate in school and work, dispelling myths, breaking taboos, and, because we have vertically integrated production here in Rwanda, creating jobs and increasing income for Rwandan women.
I just joined SHE this past December, and couldn’t be happier to be here! I was ready to move from the advocacy space into an organization offering a market-based solution to a social problem. SHE is producing and selling pads rather than donating them, and financial sustainability and job creation are part of our mission. On another note, everyone on the team is passionate, dedicated, and happy to be working at SHE and with each other. This is the first time I’m managing a team, and it’s a challenge at times, but one I think I’ve been able to rise to thus far and look forward to continuing to do so.
In addition, Kigali is a delightful city. It’s beautiful, safe, and much easier to make friends and contacts here than it was in Port Harcourt. All in all, I couldn’t have chosen a better opportunity.
Follow Yvonne on Twitter: @ykbluedevil.