By Susan Nedza (EMBA 2000)
I recall being assured on entrance to Kellogg that, as a graduate, I would be equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to lead teams even in difficult circumstances. I recently had a chance to test that promise as the president of a U.S.-based non-profit operating in Honduras that had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did I find myself in that role? It was because five years ago, my fellow EMP46 classmate, Don Dilucchio, had recruited me to serve on the board of directors with him.
In mid-March, the organization was suddenly facing the challenge of business continuity as Honduras closed its borders, began a strict quarantine and shut down all but necessary economic activities. The threat to our business was not the disruption of getting a product to market but continuing necessary services to the people of a poor, rural community without an adequate public health or acute healthcare system. We soon realized that the greatest challenge would not be medical in nature, but one of economic disruption in a community with limited resiliency.
About the foundation
A bit of context is necessary to understand the challenge and our response. I lead the Olancho Aid Foundation, a 30-year old, Catholic NGO that works with partners to build an economically sustainable community in Honduras that provides families an opportunity to stay well, stay together and an option to stay at home. Its services include bilingual and college prep education and a school for children with special needs. It also operates twenty-nine clean water projects and supports the local health system. The foundation is governed by a board of volunteers that are distributed across the United States and operates with only one U.S. employee. So, when the government declared the emergency, we were faced with four immediate challenges: ensuring the safe return to the U.S. of strategic advisors and volunteers, deciding if we could afford pay wages to our 125 employees, finding a way to continue educating our students, and exploring how could we support the families we serve. In three short weeks, we were able to secure transportation for our volunteers to the U.S., to bring up online classes for students and to establish a social media communication plan to connect with families and the community. The challenge of meeting the basic needs of those we serve came next.
Doing more to serve the community
The board and executive leadership asked: “Knowing our mission, what else should we be doing now?” The answer was to address food insecurity in the population we serve. We proceeded to design and implement a food distribution program that is compliant with government restrictions on movements, purchases food from local vendors, uses our employees to safely sort products, and leverages our school bus routes to provide weekly food deliveries to 175 families. Additional food is provided to the local diocese for distribution in poverty-stricken rural areas. To support the program, the Olancho Aid Foundation Coronavirus Relief Fund was successfully launched on our fund-raising platform and promoted across our social media channels. The program became a reality on day twenty-two of the quarantine.
Our next challenge will be to examine the sustainability of our current educational models in a country where private education is a luxury and where the families we serve are either the small business owners facing their own business challenges or those dependent on our scholarship programs. Each group will require different solutions. We will start to examine a variety of financial scenarios, knowing that these projections are limited by our inability to predict the length of the quarantine and the short-term impact on the community.
Lessons that began at Kellogg
Looking back at our initial response to this crisis, the challenges we faced were not unique and I was struck by the parallels with so many of the business cases I studied at Kellogg twenty years ago. I recognize that our ability to respond was not solely the result of the actions of our current team. The Kellogg education that Don and I received meant that the organizational culture, business infrastructure, processes and people were in place during his tenure on the board and allowed us to quickly respond to the challenge.
One of our final exercises at Kellogg was to rate our classes based upon how valuable we thought they would prove to be in the future. I remember feeling unprepared to answer the question. If I were asked the same question today, I would answer emphatically that I couldn’t cite one single class. It was the cumulative knowledge I gained and the strong personal bonds I developed through the EMBA experience that would serve me well no matter what challenge I faced.