My epiphany came as I was recovering from serious orthopedic surgery. I had ruptured a disk and nearly broken my back in a snowboarding accident. I lay bedridden in a hospital in Washington, D.C., unable to move and considering my future.
After finishing high school in Egypt, I had big dreams of becoming a professional freestyle snowboarder like one of my childhood idols, Terje Haakonson. I had been a skateboarder since the age of five, and despite spending most of my youth in various countries across Africa where snow is difficult to come by, I quickly picked up snowboarding during vacations to the French, German, and Swiss Alps. While pursuing my undergraduate degree at George Mason University, I spent much of my free time and hard-earned income supporting this expensive addiction. I was completely hooked on the adrenaline rush. I pushed myself to progress in the sport and eventually planned to join the competitive circuit. But my almost-broken back said differently. From then on, snowboarding would only be a hobby for me.
After spending the majority of my youth in Botswana, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania, it was exciting to move to the United States for college. While abroad, I was fortunate to live a cushy expatriate life, but I was also acutely aware of the economic disparity that was pervasive in the communities around me. During visits to my mother’s hometown of Jimma, four hours’ drive southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was humbling to see the limited economic opportunities that many faced. My mother sometimes recounts stories of her youth, when she and her sisters spent hours everyday carrying heavy loads of water across long distances. Her family could only afford to send some of her oldest brothers to school, so her sisters and younger brothers helped manage the household. It was my mother’s dream for me to be the first member of her family to go to college, not to mention finish high school.
I pondered pursuing a career in international development, but was jaded after witnessing and hearing of countless development failures while living in Africa. I decided to pursue a degree in marketing because I believed it afforded me the opportunity to effectively combine business and creativity. I was fascinated by the consumer insights in marketing research, brand management, and advertising.
As it turned out, launching a marketing career in Washington, D.C. was harder than I had anticipated and I did not have the resources to relocate. I entered a career in consulting, helping federal agencies improve business processes and operate more efficiently. Though I enjoyed many aspects of my career, I felt a strong urge to have more social impact. Pursuing an MBA degree was a logical choice for me, as it would complement my skills while opening the door to new opportunities.
It was in my MBA program at the University of Maryland Smith School that I learned of the great work that social enterprises are doing around the world. Prior to pursuing my MBA, I had only heard the term social enterprise a few times, and I was familiar with only a handful of social enterprise business models. The drive, dedication, and creativity of social entrepreneurs inspired me.
While completing my MBA coursework, I attended a Net Impact event and encountered a large network of like-minded individuals with common values and goals. Net Impact is a global network of changemakers using business skills to improve the world. It was a natural fit for me to get involved. Net Impact greatly increased my awareness of socially responsible business practices and social impact career paths. Following a six-month pro bono consulting project with Net Impact, I joined the board of the DC Net Impact Professional Chapter. Through my MBA coursework and Net Impact programming, I learned a great deal about impact investing, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship.
My desire to contribute to economic development in Africa and my sense of adventure prompted me to look for a career move that would take me back to Africa, even if only on a short-term basis, but I hadn’t found the right opportunity to justify the move. In international development, an emerging professional often needs field experience to get field experience, but I was determined to move past this particular hurdle. After a rigorous job hunt, I was hired by University Research Co. (URC), an international development implementing partner, to support the Translating Research into Action (TRAction) project. TRAction is a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded implementation science project that funds and guides research on how to effectively scale up existing interventions in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), clean cookstoves, food security, malaria, and maternal health interventions.
TRAction was my first direct exposure to international health. There were many opportunities to learn from the Project Director, Dr. Jim Sherry, as well as technical advisors supporting projects and research in Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda. With TRAction, I traveled to Tanzania on multiple occasions to deliver capacity-building workshops to USAID-funded research institutions based in Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Muheza, and Tanga. This experience enabled me to utilize my skills in a more business-oriented international development capacity, and helped me realize that I wanted to be in the field directly implementing projects rather than supporting them.
I first learned about MBAs Without Borders at the 2012 Net Impact Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. Before applying to become an MBAs Without Borders Advisor, I discussed Sanitation as a Business (SaaB) challenges with Dr. Jay Graham, a WASH technical advisor to TRAction, and I decided I would devote my energy to tackling these challenges if given the opportunity. The sector is ripe for innovation, and I want to help bring innovation to scale because of the social and economic impact that will follow.
In Uganda, I will be working with Water for People (WFP), an international non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on increasing access to clean water and improved sanitation in developing countries, while minimizing or eliminating dependence on foreign aid. WFP is launching a SaaB social enterprise in Uganda named Sanitation Solutions Group (SSG). I will be directly supporting the launch and scaling-up of SSG. This experience will afford me the opportunity to help build a new social business sector, to launch and scale a startup social enterprise, to manage a brand, to identify, evaluate, and pursue investment opportunities, to develop organizational strategy, to explore and test business models, to develop business plans with micro-entrepreneurs, and to gain emerging market business experience.
I do not yet know where this next step in my career will lead, but I hope to continue to leverage my experience and knowledge for social impact even after my assignment in Uganda is complete. I often look back on those days I spent in the hospital recovering from surgery and marvel at how different my life is from how I expected it to be. Though I only occasionally make it into snowboard parks or half-pipes anymore, I haven’t lost my appetite for adrenaline and adventure. Embracing the thrill of the unknown is just part of the ride.
Mikael Baker is an MBAs Without Borders Advisor supporting Water For People (WFP) in their effort to launch and scale Sanitation Solutions, a Sanitation as a Business (SaaB) social enterprise in Kampala, Uganda. Mikael and WFP will collaborate with Ugandan micro-entrepreneurs to develop business models across the sanitation value chain. With a breadth of cross-functional, cross-sectoral, and cross-cultural experience as well as a passion for sustainable development, Mikael believes that bottom-up, market-driven approaches are key to creating sustainable social impact.