Takeaways from working abroad in the Philippines

I happen to work for a company that values it’s employees greatly. So much so that global rotations, volunteer opportunities, and sabbaticals are not only available to each employee, they’re proactively encouraged. Until recently, I was never able to fully grasp the value of externships, internships, rotations. Only now, having come out the other end of a month long trip to the Philippines, am I able to understand why these opportunities matter for Google, the company I work for, and also for myself, as someone on the continual, relentless search for data points to be fed into my career optimization logic.

The project: Google Reach, a skills-based volunteer project designed to bring together employees from different parts of the company. These teams of four or six partner with an organization in a developing country to lend a consultative service, understand the operations of the organization, the value brought to the table, and opportunities to go from point A to point B.

My team consisted of a software engineer from Poland, a marketeer from our Google.Org team, a manager from our data server operations group, and myself. All four of us had elected to engage in a social entrepreneurship project, which paired us up with Grameen Bank and the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation (NWTF), a microfinance institution located in Bacolod City in the island of Negros, Philippines. For a month prior to our touch down on the ground, the four of us met with our partners to scope the project, define deliverables and carve out roles and responsibilities.

To (impossibly) summarize our deliverable, we focused on a geospatial analysis leveraging Google Maps Engine so that NWTF could better understand the financial health of households in a given region. In doing so, we also developed a database much more maneuverable than the paper records currently held on file. This database is now in the hands of the research and development team at NWTF.

To put this visually, we went from this:

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to this:

The team honed in on one neighborhood to develop a proof of concept, going out with loan officers into the field and simulating data collection. Before our departure, steps were put in place to implement and scale.

Great? Great. Now, what did I learn?

Every experience with a large chunk of time spent outside of your home will net you personal growth, and I’ve had a few three month and six month long experiences spent in developing countries that can attest to that. But I haven’t yet had that experience as a working adult with some (albeit only a few notches) career knowledge under my belt, which is why I feel the need to specifically call out a couple of takeaways that have contributed to my professional growth. 

1) Understanding the value of your skillset by taking it outside your normal day function

Working in a different country, working with a different team, and working with different partners, I was able to see my professional skills in action in a different context than my day-to-day back in New York City.

Flexing my strongest muscles is something I often do in my day job. But because we mostly function in our organizational silos, it can be difficult to understand what our true strengths are until you see yourself in a very diverse pool of talent. Working in a sales group focused on both advertising platforms and larger sponsorship programs means much of my day involves managing partners, finding opportunities for joint collaboration across companies, and communicating effectively.

Personally, I didn’t think too much about using this skillset when I started scoping our project with NWTF and Grameen Bank. Perhaps it was because whenever one signs up for a volunteer or 20% program, you tend to focus on the details of the project and your own professional limitations. I, for example, knew early on that I was going to be as useful as a doorknob when NWTF asked us to help integrate a Google Maps API into some of their existing databases. I would soon later find out, there were members of our team who could speak to this intelligently.

Taking my real strengths – communication and partner management – and seeing them provide valuable in a different context helped me discover this: that I truly enjoy using those skills. 

For career development, this is key. In college, I remember plenty of talk about transferrable skills. Why? Because it was mostly assumed that the bulk of us were too young and immature to know what we liked doing, what lit us on fire, what we found passionate. So in the meantime, best to round yourself out and make yourself marketable. There wasn’t as much talk around skills one liked using, probably because we were all young, starry eyed, and with zero work experience to baseline the likability of given work (this isn't to be confused with conversations around working in industries or fields that one felt passionate about, regardless of which skillsets are in use; there are plenty of those discussions in the pre-graduation pep talk).

What’s better than having transferrable skills? Possessing transferrable skills that you enjoy using. There’s an element of self-awareness here that is also appealing and I'm still gelling on that.

 2) Understanding the mission statement as another way to look at the big picture value 

My second professional takeaway hinges on how moved I felt by how seriously NWTF took to their mission statement. I go back and forth with mission statements, often because I feel that they can be used more for PR or shareholder purposes.

NWTF takes their mission statement seriously: to provide sustainable, financial, and client-responsive developmental services to the poor. Around 60% of their portfolio is living under the poverty line, compared to 30-40% for the ~100 other MFIs in the Philippines. They’ve also been around for 30 years, proving that their loyalty to the mission statement isn’t some honeymoon start up phase.

On our second day in the office we learned the story of Emma, a now 50 year old woman who was one of NWTF’s first borrowers when the organization first developed in the late 80s. Back then, Emma found her and her family in a cycle of poverty, including one episode where she washed fried chicken from a trash can just to bring the family something different for dinner. After receiving her first loan, she opened up a small sari-sari store (think Filipino bodega). She was driven to make her business succeed. And when she did, she opened another: a piggery. And then a restaurant. And then real estate. Now, she rents out space to the main NWTF headquarters office. When advised to switch to a traditional bank with more lenient interest rates, she rebuffed: “When I was poor, no one wanted to give me a loan, except these guys.”

Underlining any mission statement is the question of purpose. In other words, “Why?” Why does your role exist at your company? When stock values and quarterly earnings are put aside, what is it that my company or organization serves a purpose for? The bottom line answer is rarely ever to simply grow revenue, increase user adoption, or bring in new leads.

I like digging underneath that cursory layer because it better helps me understand why an organization is designed as such. At NWTF, that means not only focusing on developing clients who can pay back their microfinance loans, but also on finding the patience to be with these young women as they learn the struggles of a start-up business in the hopes of growing out of poverty. 

Not included in this brief entry is a list of other lessons picked up from the journey. I'm going to start putting those takeaways into action right now (great to see you again, New York!).