Making better decisions

Driving social change with business information technology

Adam Lilienthal stands with children in Africa

Adam Lilienthal (ACIS ’06) had a great job at GE, a promising beginning to a potentially long and rewarding career at the company, if he wanted it. Turned out, he wanted more.

Hired by GE Infrastructure right after graduation, Lilienthal was put through its two-year management training program, comprising six-month rotations with the company’s energy services, water, aviation, and oil and gas divisions. He worked in various U.S. cities, as well as Glasgow, Scotland, and Florence, Italy.

At the program’s end, he was assigned to GE Aviation and appointed SAP project leader, in charge of implementing SAP business software for the company’s global plants. He also led research on such technologies as experimental data integration and RFID and managed vendor contracts as well as more than 60 developers, consultants, and support personnel.

“GE is an amazing company,” Lilienthal says, “and I wouldn’t trade the experience I gained there for anything.” Yet, he felt that his day-to-day work there left him unfulfilled.

Dreams of working for a nonprofit

Inspired by the initiatives of Bill Gates and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus (see sidebar) and encouraged by his own volunteer efforts as a student, Lilienthal dreamed more and more about working full time for a nonprofit.

After his sophomore year, he had participated in a Bike & Build cross-country bicycle trip to raise funds for student-run affordable housing projects. He continued to volunteer with the Philadelphia-based non-profit, applying the IT skills he was learning in class to develop web systems and processes to automate donation and inventory tracking and ensure the security of web-based financial transactions. He also led a social networking initiative on Facebook to promote the organization.

Lilienthal learned that Bike and Build’s founder had been a volunteer consultant with TechnoServe, a nonprofit that focuses on creating business solutions to poverty, and was struck by stories of his service in Swaziland. When a volunteer opportunity with a technology focus opened up at TechnoServe, Lilienthal leapt at the chance.

Developing a management structure in Nairobi, Kenya

Obtaining a four-month leave of absence from GE last year, Lilienthal was dispatched to Nairobi, Kenya, to design and develop a management reporting structure for a dairy-farming venture and advise local teams on industry best practices and project management techniques.

The Hokie Bird at the Great Rift Valley.

As his mission in Nairobi came to a close, he was offered and enthusiastically accepted a full-time job at TechnoServe’s offices in Washington, D.C. “I had been looking at nonprofit opportunities, but nothing seemed to jump out as being something worth leaving GE for.” When the TechnoServe opportunity came along, he says, it seemed like a dream come true.

Driving social change through technical innovation

He is thrilled that his new role lets him use his creativity and leadership skills to create technical innovations that help drive social change. “Through the accounting and information systems program at Pamplin and my time at GE, I was trained in how to design technology solutions to support businesses. Businesses need timely, accurate data to make better decisions. When local businesses in poor countries make better decisions, people get lifted out of poverty. There was no doubt in my mind after reading the job description that I wanted to work in service of these efforts.”

Looking back, he says, the hardest part about making the decision to explore nonprofit work “was explaining to my mother that I was moving to Africa for several months.”

Primary responsibilities

As manager of systems integration, Lilienthal has two primary responsibilities: support the process and technology behind TechnoServe’s major business functions, and design more efficient ways to collect and analyze the large amounts of data generated from its projects around the globe.

“More than half of my job is supporting the accounting and HR systems that drive the fundamentals of our company. It’s the same work I was doing in the corporate world, but even so, knowing the end game of all these debits and credits makes my work incredibly validating.

“Knowing that what I do positively affects some of the poorest people in the world makes me want to come to work every day. I did not get that same motivation working at GE.”

Improving livelihoods with databases and data reporting

The other piece of his job — designing a platform to manage the mountains of data coming from field programs — also is exceptionally fulfilling, he says. “Learning about our different types of programs, seeing the steady increase of farmer incomes coming out of a mind-boggling array of spreadsheets, and knowing that the decisions that come out of these analytics will impact tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods” — these are some examples of “how intangible rewards can be gained by doing regular work,” he adds.

“In Kenya, I reviewed some reports I had built off a newly-created database with the board of directors of a local dairy co-op. They were thrilled with the ability to see their expenses, sales, segments, etc. trended out over time. They immediately started gaining insights into what happened when weather patterns changed or power fluctuations impacted operations. Those insights will help the hundreds of farmers that supply that co-op.”

Difficulties and challenges

What might be the downsides of his job? “A multinational conglomerate has an entire support staff of legal experts to guide you through every move in every country you do business in. At TechnoServe, working in many countries with a small staff is very challenging. One must understand each country’s regulatory environment, cultural norms, and language. This keeps things interesting, but it might also slow the pace of work, which can be frustrating.”

Crediting his Pamplin education for preparing him well, Lilienthal says, the “multiple paths of the accounting and information systems and business information technology departments provide extraordinary opportunities to combine an IT-based degree with the business acumen needed to differentiate yourself in the industry.”

He opted to study the less technical aspect of information technology, he says, involving data analysis/architecture, accounting, and project management. “This combination allows me to do the business evaluations needed to devise data capture and analysis methodologies for our field programs, while still directing the technical design and building of these systems. Pamplin saw this trend emerging and developed a great curriculum with very specialized paths to support people’s exact interests within the sector.”

Adam Lilienthal and a fellow volunteer consultant meet a young resident of Limuru, Kenya.

Finding a career path in the nonprofit sector

Pointing out a common misconception about working at a nonprofit, Lilienthal says many assume “that having a career with a social focus means you can’t have a traditional career path in business and management.”

One can indeed do so, at many types of organizations — for-profit and nonprofit, large and small — “that do great work to save lives all around the world,” he says, and that need people with business and other skills. Examples of such employers are the Red Cross — “bigger than many publicly traded companies, with more than $23 billion of program expenses a year” — and USAID, the principal U.S. agency that provides assistance to foreign countries for disaster and poverty relief, equitable economic development, and democratic reform.

For young people thinking about following his footsteps, Lilienthal has this message: “If you are driven by service, you can use your skills — be they accounting, technology, architecture, engineering, or other — to both make a professional life and help people. You don’t have to be a ‘hippie’ to work in a socially relevant career. You just have to be creative — and use that Virginia Tech Ut Prosim spirit to pave the way!”

Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 2011

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