Ask the person next to you what image comes to mind when hearing the words “Peace Corps Volunteer” and most likely you’ll get some variation of “a young, adventurous hippie-type bent on changing the world.” A
It’s safe to say “entrepreneur” is not coming up in the description.
Sept. 22 marked the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s signing of the Peace Corps Act. Sitting at my office and looking back on my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the link is undeniable: My service was the training ground for a future in business.
So how do we get from Peace Corps to Corporate America?
For starters, Peace Corps self-selects for enterprising, self-reliant, intrinsically motivated thinkers – and doers.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are trained and battle-tested on a range of business fundamentals: project management, planning, thinking big, thinking lean, navigating uncertainty. The volume of crises coming at you on a regular basis, combined with the scarcity of resources at hand, would have any entrepreneur nodding in solidarity.
I was 27 years old when I joined the Peace Corps. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley with adventure-seeking parents, we traveled extensively as a family. My parents saw such profound value in these experiences that they would often pull my sisters and me out of school to go on another adventure.
I attended North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet and finished at Jack London Continuation High School. I went on to attend five different colleges and universities, the first of which was Valley College where I studied early childhood development and taught at a preschool in Woodland Hills. I began traveling solo and did a few stints as a backpacking, well, hippie-type. Still unresolved was a particular pull to step fully into someone else’s culture. I dove headfirst into the Peace Corps. To this day, it is the hardest job I’ve ever loved.
For two years in Paraguay, I served as an early elementary education specialist, helping local schools implement the country’s newly instituted education reform program.
Our role was to help build the capacity of teachers and schools so they could maximize their efficacy. Regardless of your assignment, the Volunteer was a connector, bringing Paraguayans together to learn from other Paraguayans. What I had not anticipated was the impact I would have on the local community as a single woman serving in the Peace Corps.
I was placed in Caaguazú, a small city with few paved roads. My Paraguayan mother, Sinforiana (“Sinfo”) Gaona, was a mother of six with a fourth-grade education. Always the first one up, she was an extremely hard worker, and as I was thrilled to discover, an incorrigible prankster. But cooking and cleaning since she was 10 years old left her with a trail of unpursued dreams.
Over terere, a cold herbal drink shared out of a gourd, I learned that Sinfo hadn’t left her neighborhood in 18 years. Yes, she went to the market and occasionally to the doctor, but not once in nearly two decades had she gone back to her hometown to see her family.
One day, as I was coming over for lunch, Sinfo was heading out, large bag over her shoulder. “Donde vas?” I asked. “Voy a ver a mi familia,” she responded. She was going to see her family. My Paraguayan father, Getulio, said she saw me, a woman on my own, and decided to take the leap. Sinfo would later visit her daughter in Argentina and start folk dancing lessons – something she dreamed of doing as a little girl.
The reality in rural Paraguay is that many women rarely leave the house. For those living in villages this means that basic medical check-ups are out of reach. Learning that many mothers from my assigned schools had not had any pap smears in years, I couldn’t help but try to find a solution.
I reached out to my Paraguayan sister, Lidia, a local OBGYN nurse, and we arranged for her to travel to the village and offer pap smears and women’s health care. To spread the word, we began by reaching out to the women picking up their children from school. With the initial effort as a model, Lidia then worked with local nurses to create an ongoing nursing outreach program, serving women in rural areas throughout the region.
This is just one example of how Peace Corps Volunteers are trained to recognize problems, make decisions, and collaborate with local resources to implement solutions.
I am only a piece of this story. Serving with me in cohort A-29 were Dawn Crosby, Krista DeBoer, Rick Schettler and Brian Washburn. We became lifelong friends and today they are trusted advisors for my business, providing executive management, accounting, and staff development training. This is no coincidence. Peace Corps is a phenomenal – if unconventional – education in business and leadership.
I urge everybody young, old and anywhere in between to join the Peace Corps (you can even do a two-year service in retirement) or volunteer in your community. You never know where it will take you. But one thing is certain: Service is the gift that keeps on giving.
(In loving memory of Sinforiana Gaona, who volunteered to help me acclimate into my assigned community, who ended up my adopted mom, and who taught me more than I could ever teach. She died Nov. 17.)
Kimberlina Whettam is chief executive of Kimberlina Whettam & Associates, a land-use consulting and permit-expediting firm in downtown Los Angeles. She is vice chair of California’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission, serves on the board of YMCA Burbank, and is a founding board member of La Charla – a nonprofit empowering Nicaraguan teens to achieve their potential through health, life skills and leadership training. A lifelong resident of the San Fernando Valley, she lives in Woodland Hills and is a volunteer teacher with Optimist Youth, teaching pottery to at-risk girls at the non-profit’s Woodland Hills facility.