A Summer in Rural Tajikistan

by Veronica Lescay Megret, MBA '13 (8/12/12)

Veronica Lescay Megret, MBA '13

During a ten-week internship working with an international non-governmental organization (NGO) in the Republic of Tajikistan, in addition to eating an exorbitant amount of plov, I received a real life lesson in cross-cultural management; I learned how business models are created at the base of the economic pyramid; and I realized how vital monitoring and evaluation is in the non-profit sector.

Tajikistan is a small and mountainous landlocked country in Central Asia that shares its borders with Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is a former republic of the Soviet Union and remains the region’s poorest country – an odd place to find an MBA intern.

This summer, I spent ten weeks working in the Republic of Tajikistan with Mercy Corps, a US-based international NGO. Mercy Corps’ mission is to alleviate suffering, poverty, and oppression by helping people build secure, productive, and just communities.

Prior to business school, I worked in the advertising industry in New York City, a far cry from my work this summer. With a desire to do more meaningful work and address the world’s pressing social and environmental issues, I became very involved with sustainability at Johnson by serving on the board of the Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) Club and being the President of the Social Enterprise and Microfinance Club.  In addition, I also completed the Sustainable Global Enterprise immersion, in which I worked an entire semester with the World Bank on a consulting project. By the end of my first year of business school, I was well prepared for my career switch.

Mercy Corps Baking

Mercy Corps' baking course students in Asht, Tajikistan

I chose to work with Mercy Corps for a variety of reasons. It is a large and well-respected NGO; it has been operating in114 countries over the past 30 years; and the organization’s impact is very clear. As a summer intern, I was tasked with monitoring and evaluation (M&E), a completely new subject area for me and one that’s important in the NGO field. Furthermore, I am originally from Russia and fluent in Russian, which would prove beneficial in a former Soviet republic country.

My role as an M&E intern was centered on a program called Tajikistan Stability Enhancement Program (TSEP), a three-year cooperative agreement between Mercy Corps and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). TSEP is a community-based response to meet challenges in 63 rural communities throughout Tajikistan.  It works to strengthen stability in rural areas through improved governance and the participation of marginalized groups in economic and social revitalization.

I was tasked with monitoring and evaluating TSEP’s youth vocational programs which are designed to help vulnerable youth develop trade skills, which will enable them to find productive work in their communities, nearby urban centers, or in Russia. During my ten weeks in Tajikistan, I visited dozens of rural communities to speak with current and former students about their experiences in the courses and their job search upon completion. The trades range from sewing to welding to beekeeping, and the students are typically under 30 years old. As a final deliverable, I created a comprehensive survey, trained and supervised the local staff to successfully conduct the survey throughout all 63 of TSEP’s regions, and evaluated the results for TSEP’s final reporting to USAID.

Mercy Corps SewingMoreover, I was in charge of managing a small business competition for youth. With six grants to award amongst the 63 regions, I supervised eight local staff as we worked to advertise the competition, judge all the applications, interview the finalists, and reward the grant recipients. Business plans in a developing country such as Tajikistan look very different from those appraised in the West, and my judging criterion had to be suitably altered to account for the different level of skill sets that applicants brought to the table. Supervising the small business grant competition sparked my interest in both cross-cultural management and business model innovation at the base of the economic pyramid – topics I plan to study in my second year of business school.

My summer internship has given me the experience I need to start conducting my full-time job search during my second year of business school, in which I will spend a semester studying abroad at the London School of Economics. As a career switcher, I entered the MBA program with no experience in international development. One short year later, I have worked with two well-respected players in the development field – the World Bank and Mercy Corps. Whether or not I pursue a position with an NGO is yet to be seen, as my internship has given me a fresh perspective on non-profits and how they compare with the private sectors’ response to social and environmental issues. Both have their strengths but admittedly operate in different styles. However, I do know that my post-business school career will be international in scale and will address the world’s continuously evolving social and environmental needs.