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World of Difference
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Lots of people move away from a place and keep their memory of “the old neighborhood” frozen in time. Alumni Elaine, MBA ’98 and Easton, MST ’07 Dickson (left) and Rebecca Rosemé Obounou ’06 (right) are working to change the present and improve the future of communities they once called home.
Why did you start your organization?
REBECCA: I’m Haitian-American. I was born in the U.S. and went to live in a rural village called La Coupe, in northern Haiti, as an adolescent. I came to appreciate my heritage and the Haitian culture.
While we were living there, my mother started a social business where she ran a health care clinic that provided low-cost care. She built a reputation of integrity and passion to serve. I saw the way that her work positively impacted the community and provided economic benefits.
I also observed widespread poverty. More importantly, I saw members of the community who were searching for jobs. When I returned to the U.S., I chose to attend Bentley because I was convinced that business was one of the keys to economic prosperity and poverty alleviation in Haiti.
ELAINE: Easton and I grew up in some of Jamaica’s most economically underserved communities, and lived in abject poverty for most of that time. We lacked most of the resources that a typical American kid would take for granted, including access to books. We loved to read, but were severely curtailed in this cherished pastime because we had no books in our homes, and the nearest library was miles away.
A few years ago, we visited some schools in Jamaica and were shocked and disappointed to discover there were no meaningful improvements in many communities and schools, including the areas where we grew up. We started Reading Owls International (ROI) to have a structured, meaningful way of giving back to our birth country.
What is the impact of having your organization based in the United States?
EASTON: We’re able to more easily run a not-for-profit in the U.S. than in Jamaica. The regulatory process is simpler, more transparent and cost-effective. Equally important, the American society is more educated and open to giving to charitable causes, and has more disposable income; we are therefore more likely to achieve our financial targets.
ELAINE: At times it is difficult logistically to fully assess needs on the ground, because we do not have the budget to travel and study the schools as often as we would like. Similarly, follow-up assessments are constrained by distance and budget. So, our best-practice monitoring and quality control is somewhat dependent on third parties. We value these partnerships and hope that, as we continue to grow, this limitation will be greatly mitigated.
REBECCA: I agree that access to resources is a bonus for a U.S.-based organization. When I first started CHES, we largely recruited U.S. volunteers to go to Haiti to support entrepreneurs, particularly women, in rural communities. We have since shifted to a model that leverages more of the local expertise in Haiti. We have a full-time operations director on the ground and a network of local volunteers with more Haiti-relevant business experience and nuanced cultural understanding that U.S. volunteers do not always have.
The disadvantage for CHES being based in the U.S. is that it is sometimes difficult to fundraise. A lot of this is because people who donated to previous Haiti relief efforts learned that millions of dollars were mismanaged and didn’t get to the right places. That has certainly created skepticism and donor fatigue. Now, many funders seem to have swung to the other side, asking if we are a Haitian nonprofit organization. While we are not a Haitian NGO, our localized approach resonates with more careful donors.
How do you manage the organization from afar?
REBECCA: So much of what we do depends on collaboration. I lead, strategize and manage finances, and the CHES Board of Directors is U.S.-based. We also have an office space in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, operating out of the Haitian Center for Leadership and Excellence, an organization founded by a number of respected local leaders from government and nonprofit sectors. Our operations director based in the capital does training, attends meetings, serves as our point of contact for local funders, and works with volunteers who support our entrepreneurial programs in various parts of the country. I leverage technology to work very closely with her and to stay connected with these stakeholders.
ELAINE: ROI trustees are from the U.S. and Jamaica. They are hands-on, fully engaged in all aspects of service delivery. There are separate committees for finance, fundraising, logistics and marketing. As board chair, I do the heavy lifting on not just the strategic planning but also daily operations.
We get real-time information from volunteer educators in the schools, about not just which books students enjoy but also what they struggle with. This really helps us curate a book list that is effective for each school’s specific needs.
The Early Childhood Commission and the Jamaica Library Service, both in Jamaica, and the U.S. Peace Corps are big collaborators in assessing schools that either need a library or require significant upgrade in books or infrastructure.
EASTON: I work as treasurer and I am also a member of the fundraising and finance committees. But because we’re a small entity, our roles are not limited to our titles. When we have something to do, whether it’s a book drive or sorting and cataloguing books, we all jump in to participate.
What are some benchmarks for success?
ELAINE: In just three years, ROI has impacted over 5,000 students and their families and more than 20 communities; renovated or outfitted 12 lending libraries and a computer lab; supplemented two more libraries to become fully functional; delivered over 18,150 books; and helped start a LitClub. These projects are game changing for schools and children, as it is the only avenue through which many of these kids will ever access a book.
EASTON: For me, it is about exporting value to address, directly or indirectly, the whole immigration conundrum, where developing countries are losing stellar residents who migrate to other places in search of better opportunities. If ROI is creating opportunities through investments in education, we are giving people a chance to feel better about staying in and developing their home countries.
REBECCA: Our work is based on building partnerships, so each relationship we build I consider a success. The number one priority is seeing that we have helped develop sustainable Haitian businesses that are cornerstones to their communities. Our role ranges from providing full support — business plan to startup loans to launch — to providing just entrepreneurial training. When I see these flourishing businesses that are socially conscious — focused on not just making money but also making a positive impact — I know I’ve done my job right.
About the Participants
Elaine Dickson, MBA ’98 and Easton Dickson, MST ’07 are co-founders of Reading Owls International (ROI), a nonprofit that partners with schools and community organizations in Jamaica to provide access to books and other learning resources for school-age children. They live in Cumberland, R.I., where Elaine is president of Generis Financial Consultants and Easton is treasurer at Bain & Company.
Rebecca Rosemé Obounou ’06 is founder and president of the nonprofit Christian Haitian Entrepreneurial Society (CHES) International, which funds, educates and mentors entrepreneurs in rural parts of Haiti. She lives in Chelsea, Mass., and serves as assistant director at the Babson College Lewis Institute, Schlesinger Fund for Global Healthcare Entrepreneurship.
Bentley was also named No. 1 for Highest Freshman Retention Rate, No. 3 for Most Innovative Schools and No. 4 for Best Undergraduate Teaching among the regional universities in the “2019 Best Colleges” report.