Small Business

Terror's Legacy Is a New Volunteerism


Soon after the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center were destroyed on September 11, many people did some serious soul-searching about their job satisfaction, and how they had been balancing work, family, and other commitments. Some reshuffled their priorities with the goal of spending more time at home and less in the office.

Others have embraced more dramatic changes in their working lives. Recruiters say, for example, that more employees are putting their careers on hold to work as volunteers in developing countries, where they often share their entrepreneurial skills with small-business owners.

BEYOND THE CUBICLE. This new wave of professionals is bringing a variety of skills -- from bookkeeping to Web-site construction -- to entrepreneurs from Africa to Turkmenistan. "A lot of people are asking, 'If I had been in those towers, would I have been happy about what I was doing?'" says Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder and CEO of Geekcorps, a nonprofit organization that pairs tech professionals, most from North America and Europe, with small businesses in the West African country of Ghana.

Not everyone who applies to work abroad is dissatisfied with their regular job. Rather, the September massacres and war in Afghanistan have triggered a deeper interest in the global community, say those who recruit volunteers. For most who answer the volunteer call, working abroad is a way to dispel the "ugly American" stereotype and foster a better international understanding of the U.S., recruiters and volunteers explain. "Our volunteers are smart enough to know their worldview is smaller than it needs to be," says Zuckerman, whose organization intends to expand its activities beyond Ghana. The wider world, he adds, "is something you forget when you're working in a cubicle."

Just ask Sidney Chang, 24, of New York City, a computer expert who does systems work for a leading Wall Street brokerage and applied to Geekcorps after reading about the program in a technology magazine. September 11, he explains, "made me realize, hey, it's a world we live in, not just the U.S."

SOARING APPLICATIONS. Applications to Geekcorps, which is based in the western Massachusetts town of North Adams, have doubled to 100 a month since September 11. At the Peace Corps, inquiries for applications were up 48% in November and 53% in December, vs. the same months in 2000.

Recruiters at other nonprofits, such as the International Executive Service (IESC), based in Stamford, Conn., also report a spike in requests for information about the organization, which sends seasoned executives to assist small businesses in 51 countries. "As a nation we're really looking for ways to retool or rethink career and work," says IESC spokeswoman Kathleen Failla.

The upsurge in that sentiment actually began before September 11, gaining ground as the Internet bubble began to deflate and laid-off dot-comers began knocking on the doors of both the Peace Corps and Geekcorps. For many prospective volunteers, the economic downturn was a catalyst that sparked some serious soul-searching, says Stephanie Lindenbaum, Geekcorps' director of recruiting.

Elliot Klein, a 25-year-old information-technology consultant based in New York City, is a case in point. After three years at a large IT outfit, he grew restless. "I felt a sense of urgency to do more for the world and less to help big companies," says Klein, whose five-month Geekcorps assignment in Ghana ended in December, 2001. While in Africa, he used his tech smarts to help a local brokerage and Internet service provider better manage its data systems. Now, he's searching for a job at a nonprofit or what he characterizes as a socially-responsible for-profit outfit.

STORE OF KNOWLEDGE. For some volunteers, working abroad with small businesses becomes a consuming passion. Betty Herriman, the owner of a small antiques business in Covington, Ky., has worked intermittently with small-business owners in Africa for over 30 years. Now 67, she's an IESC volunteer currently stationed in Zambia in southern Africa, where she is teaching small businesses -- that means up to 10 employees -- basic accounting skills and how to secure financing. Herriman's current stint -- her second with the IESC in the past two years -- began in mid-January and will end in May, 2002. Prior to joining IESC, Herriman served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Mali, and Burundi, where most of her work also involved training small-business owners and employees.

In Zambia, Herriman has worked with a general store, a restaurant, and a cooperative representing small farmers. At one combination restaurant/shop for example, she helped the business owner reduce debt and negotiate more favorable terms with the local power company. She also helped the store double its range of wares, from 60 items to 135. "It's fun to solve problems," Herriman says. "And it's exciting -- a small adventure."

Before you get big ideas about a free trip to Africa, however, be aware that it's a serious commitment. Recruiters say the typical application process tends to be time-consuming, often involving a series of interviews. Also, with hundreds of applicants for every dozen-or-so spots, most volunteer groups can afford to be selective.

THE PRIVILEGE OF SACRIFICE. Going abroad also means a hefty investment of time, which can vary from several months for Geekcorps to roughly two years for the Peace Corps. Recruiters note that some volunteers use vacation time for shorter commitments abroad. Other options see volunteers take leaves of absence -- or sometimes, resign from a permanent job.

As the word "volunteer" implies, most programs offer no pay, though they do cover travel costs, room and board, and a stipend of several hundred dollars to defray expenses. Details vary by program, with some employers contributing part of the costs.

For those with an entrepreneurial streak who can afford to take time off, the rewards of volunteering abroad can be many. Says Herriman: "It's a privilege to be able to pass on information that can help others in such an immediate and life-transforming manner." By Heesun Wee in New York


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