West Monroe launched the Fischer Global Service Fellowship Program in 2013, aimed at supporting meaningful causes with a global impact while providing West Monroe employees with priceless experiences and learnings that they can apply upon their return to better-serve themselves, their communities, and their clients. Following the submission and acceptance of a proposal detailing how the journey will benefit all parties, fellows are financially supported while traveling to and volunteering at a non-profit organization of his or her choosing for up to six months.
The Chosen Path
I was lucky enough to be chosen as a 2016 Fischer Fellow and to appropriately introduce the organization I volunteered with and why, I must first share the story of my life. Bear with me, I’ll make it brief.
My family and I immigrated to the United States one year after I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. There were several reasons why my parents decided to make the most terrifying journey of their lives, leaving all that was familiar behind. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection of the 1980’s was making life very difficult in Colombo. Buses and buildings were being bombed, universities were ceasing operations due to JVP occupation, and a civil war was also brewing in the north which would soon impact the entire country for decades.
My parents were not unique in wanting to leave the country to provide their children with a safer life, better opportunities to pursue higher education, and eventually a profession to bring them joy, yet the emigration process made it near impossible for most. Shortly after my first birthday, my father, with mostly hard work and a little bit of luck, was offered an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in the U.S.
Fast-forward 26 years. I am a US citizen with fond memories of my childhood, a college education, and a handful of years of work experience as a management consultant. Hunter S. Thompson need look no further, I am the American Dream. As I continued to learn, work, and experience life, I had an itch that needed scratching. I wanted to learn more about my motherland, and when I learned more I wanted to experience more, and when I experienced more, I wanted to help more.
Ten months after my fellowship application was accepted, I embarked on my three-month journey to volunteer at a non-profit called VEGA/BIZ+.
VEGA/BIZ+ got its footing when Sri Lanka’s civil war, which lasted 30 years, ceased in 2009. VEGA/BIZ+’s mission is to stimulate and improve the economy, with a focus on areas directly and negatively impacted by the war. The organization maintains a portfolio of small/medium sized businesses (grantees) for which they provide advisory services and 50% of a predetermined investment, under the condition that the grantee matches that investment.
The Knowledge Sharing
My role with VEGA/BIZ+, in addition to various side projects, was to aid two separate grantees: a small ceramics cooperative in need of a business and operating plan, and a family-run kitchen and pantry manufacturer in need of process maps for their new production facility and showroom. As one can imagine, these grantees are night and day from the clients West Monroe serves, but I discovered I was able to help them by implementing methodologies, similar to those of West Monroe, applying slight tweaks in the right places.
The ceramics cooperative, located about 5 hours east of Colombo, was formed 10 years ago and has been in and out of operation ever since. The location of the co-op was labeled as a ceramics producing area by the government and provided with the materials and machinery necessary to build a profitable business. Without the skills required to make use of their new-found materials, various external trainers were provided to the co-op, many of whom took advantage of the business, stripping them of their skilled labor and materials. Unfortunately, this is very common in rural areas. By the time VEGA / BIZ+ accepted the business’s request for assistance in May, they had been out of operation for several months.
When I began working with the cooperative, I attempted to treat them like I would treat a mid-market company in the U.S. After sending out an agenda and primary goals for the first meeting – in English – a language they didn’t know, I quickly realized my approach needed to shift and I needed to better familiarize myself with the client. This meant several site visits, phone calls (fighting through my broken Sinhalese – the only language they know), conversations with similar businesses, and private debrief sessions to organize my thoughts. I began to understand their story, their skill level, and their dedication to their business (as with many rural villages, work comes second to family, physical ailments, and children). Only after taking these actions was I able to begin formulating a feasible plan. This plan included upcoming revenue-generating opportunities, a marketing strategy, a product design strategy, and internal resource requirements. I realized my goal by creating a feasible 2017 business plan and assisting the business in conducting several sales to generate cash flow before leaving the country.
Even though the main projects took priority, it was unavoidable to take on side projects that I knew West Monroe methodologies could solve, such as mapping out production journey maps for an organic rice farmer, coordinating the creation of a costing model for a steel door manufacturer, and finding export markets for a small scarf manufacturer.
In the end, I realize that what made my work in the fellowship program successful was my willingness to genuinely listen to my clients’ wants and needs, before creating solutions to help them achieve their goals. Even as the complexity of the work was magnified, due to cultural differences, language barriers, and differences in education levels, working to create value for my grantees and their businesses was the most rewarding part of the experience.