After receiving her master’s degree in international affairs, Annie Eissler got a job she loved at a nonprofit devoted to promoting Africa’s development in education and work skills. She treasured getting to know a great variety of people and cultures on the continent.
Many years later, she would find herself back, virtually, in Africa, doing similar work as a volunteer. But it would take a much-needed career detour and a life-threatening illness to bring her full circle.
Working for the nonprofit for seven years, she gradually realized that while she had gotten very good at project management, she didn’t have the concrete skills and experience she felt she needed to more directly contribute to the communities. She decided to enter the business world and landed in the sales and marketing department of a tech company.
In 2012, she was diagnosed with, and successfully treated for, stage 3 colon cancer. During her recovery, she asked herself the hard questions about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
“I kept thinking I needed to get back to doing something in Africa – it had gotten under my fingernails,” she says. “I tried to figure out how to combine my passion for the continent with all of this great marketing know-how.”
An internet search brought her to Grow Movement, a London-based network of hundreds of professionals who provide virtual (via Skype, texting, etc.) consulting and mentoring services to entrepreneurs in Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi.
For her first project, Eissler was paired with a young man from Malawi whose small furniture and lumber business employed three others. Earlier this year, part of his business was destroyed when catastrophic floods struck the region.
Once again Eissler was there, available by computer and telephone, to help him “work through putting the pieces back together,” she says.
These days, she’s helping a young clothing designer in Uganda save money for a new sewing machine, create promotional campaigns, and get a better handle on her income and expenses.
This entrepreneur is part of #Uganda600, an ambitious initiative recently unfurled by Grow Movement. The program pairs 600 consultants with 600 small businesses.
Eissler, who holds a high-level marketing position at a software firm, was instrumental in recruiting and vetting the new consultants and now serves as a supervisor of 18 American volunteer consultants based on the West Coast.
The same qualities that go into the making of any successful consultant – flexibility, patience, persistence – are important in this work, Eissler says. But volunteers with the right stuff need to have still more.
“Often consultants are used to working with big companies with big budgets,” she says. “With these projects, they have to be willing to scale back their expectations while understanding that micro improvements can have macro impact.”