HomeSpring 2017AlumniTraveling fellow makes global impact

Traveling fellow makes global impact

Brainard standing with farmers in Uganda
"These farmers took me on tours of their farms and sent me home with a large bag of avocados they had grown." Photos courtesy of Doug Brainard

Less than three years after graduation, Doug Brainard (FIN ’13) had what many would consider to be a cushy, promising job in his chosen field. He was working in Washington, D.C., as a consultant with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, managing a multimillion-dollar budget for a variety of projects.

WITH NOAH SSEMPIJJA, founder of Kiva’s partner organization YICE in Kyakatebe, and Winnie Tushabe, head loan officer, outside their office. “I am still in touch with them on a regular basis via WhatsApp.”

WITH NOAH SSEMPIJJA, founder
of Kiva’s partner organization YICE
in Kyakatebe, and Winnie Tushabe,
head loan officer, outside their office.
“I am still in touch with them on a
regular basis via WhatsApp.”

But he wanted a change, and a few months later, he got it: Brainard would spend more than four months in Africa as a Kiva Fellow, traveling around Kenya and Uganda to help Kiva’s partner organizations and ensure they were in compliance with the nonprofit microlender’s rules. He would go weeks without running water and learn to navigate a new culture where he did not know the language.

“I didn’t study abroad in college or do military service,” Brainard says. “I saw this as a way to see the world and give something back.”

Through its website, Kiva allows individuals to give $25 loans to organizations around the world. These crowdfunded microloans help people and organizations grow their businesses, provide clean water, and engage in other activities that help alleviate poverty.

Determination to make an impact

Kiva Fellows assist its partners and provide accountability to its lenders, says Natalie Russell, an associate at Kiva Fellow and Intern Programs. Competition is fierce for the positions — which were unpaid, until recently. “Before the latest change in the program, we’d get between 100 and 200 applicants and had about a 20 percent acceptance rate,” Russell says.

The application process is rigorous, and Kiva makes sure the fellows know what they’ll be getting themselves into. “We’re very upfront about what the experience is going to be like,” says Russell. “We look for those applicants with prior travel experience and demonstrated cross-cultural competency. We screen them for adaptability, flexibility, and the ability to transition and pivot.”

“I had to think on my feet and make decisions constantly.”

Brainard, however, didn’t have a lot of international experience. The winter of his sophomore year, he participated in a Pamplin project in Belize where he taught local teachers how to better use Excel in their classrooms.

DOUG BRAINARD’S HOME for two weeks in Kyakatebe, Uganda, a two-hour bus ride from Kampala. The office-cooler jug of water provided both his drinking and bathing water. On one of his days off, Brainard explored the Crater Lakes in Fort Portal, Uganda.

DOUG BRAINARD’S HOME for two weeks in Kyakatebe, Uganda, a two-hour bus ride from Kampala. The office-cooler jug of water provided both his drinking and bathing water. On one of his days off, Brainard explored the Crater Lakes in Fort Portal, Uganda.

But Russell said his attitude and aptitude made up for any lack of experience. “We saw other qualities in addition to his prior professional experience that made him a great candidate,” she says. “His determination to have an impact on the ground really stood out to us.”

Navigating change

Brainard’s positive attitude had impressed Mike Kender, finance professor of practice, who keeps in touch with his former student through Facebook. “Doug was active in his fraternity,” he recalls, “and was a pleasure to be around.”

After a week of intensive training in San Francisco, Brainard traveled to Uganda, where he spent his first two weeks in a tiny village called Kyakatebe working with Kiva partner YICE (Youth Initiative for Community Empowerment). YICE provides loans to small groups of women, many of whom are single mothers who farm small plots of rented land.

While in Kyakatebe, Brainard went 12 days without running water, using an office-cooler sized jug of water he bought for both drinking and bathing. The language barrier was also an issue, though Brainard says he managed.

“As the only white person in the village, I really stood out,” he says. “People would stare and say, ‘mzungu,’ a phrase commonly used to identify foreigners. Sometimes I was with someone who could help translate, but if not, we’d just use hand gestures and broken English. Almost everyone spoke at least a little English. People really tried to be helpful. If I was looking lost, they’d come see if they could help. I think seeing a stranger was a highlight of their day.”

From Uganda, Brainard went on to assist Evidence Action, a partner in Kenya that is distributing chlorine dispensing stations to villages for purifying water.

“Doug was really essential in making sure our partnership was healthy and strong,” Russell says.

Brainard says his Pamplin experience was helpful. “I didn’t apply a lot of hard skills there,” he says. “It was mostly problem-solving skills and the generally good work ethic that I developed at Pamplin that I was able to use there. I had to think on my feet and make decisions constantly in a world where I was always the center of attention.”

Brainard visited Joseph Kuyamba, a Kiva borrower who runs a mill that grinds cassava root into flour in the western Uganda town of Bwera.

Brainard visited Joseph Kuyamba, a Kiva borrower who runs a mill that grinds cassava root into flour in the western Uganda town of Bwera.

Russell says Kiva Fellows are often looking to pivot into nonprofit work. “Doug wanted to work in a career that he felt passionate about,” she says. “Going in, he wasn’t sure what he wanted do afterward, but he was sure he could leverage the experience.”

What’s next?

Brainard, a native of Lexington, Massachusetts, has started a new job as a senior financial anaylyst at Carbon Black, a Boston-based cyber security company.

He would like to return to Africa eventually. He learned much there. “My time in East Africa taught me a lot about perspective,” Brainard says. “Reading about poverty is completely different than being immersed for several months. It was a truly humbling experience that’s left me much less reliant on ‘things.’”

—Dan Radmacher