By Denise Prickett

Early in her undergraduate studies at Duke, Nena Sanderson became involved in Duke’s Service-Learning program, which, like Duke I&E, supports the university’s commitment to knowledge in the service of society. Following graduation, Sanderson’s desire to integrate business and service led her to TechnoServe, where she helped to improve the lives of coffee farmers in Rwanda, and Acumen, where she focused on impact investing in Kenya. Sanderson is now helping to grow Living Goods in Kenya and Uganda, supporting micro-entrepreneurs who deliver life-changing products to their communities.

 Our Conversation with Nena Sanderson

Duke I&E: What did you learn through Duke’s Service-Learning program that you still use today?

NS: My first experience with Service-Learning was participating in a book buddies program through an education class with Jennifer Ahern-Dodson. A classmate and I didn’t want the program to end when the semester was over, so we started a club to run it. This was my first experience as a social entrepreneur and taught me my earliest lessons about being a manager and a leader-motivating others around my vision, dealing with team members who didn’t pull their weight, raising money and allocating resources, and most importantly, making sure we always put the best interest of our key stakeholders, the fourth grade students, first.

One example, which may sound trivial, taught me an important lesson. I developed a close relationship with a student, Jaquita. I met her family and took her to a Duke women’s basketball game. We had an amazing time, and the next day, she came to school proudly wearing the Duke T-shirt I had bought her. The other kids were naturally jealous, which created issues in the classroom, and the other Duke students asked me if they should be planning outings with their fourth-grade buddies as well. By not considering the second-order implications of my actions, I had created a host of issues for myself and the group.

There are countless examples of these sorts of indirect effects in international development, far more complex and serious than this. When making decisions on behalf of myself or my organization, I remember this lesson and try my best to understand what other consequences I might be setting in motion.

Duke I&E: After a few years working at a global management consulting firm, you decided to refocus your professional trajectory in order to bring service more fully back into your life. That’s when your career began to focus on international social entrepreneurship. Can you tell us more about what led you up to, through, and beyond that decision?

NS: I always planned to spend my career addressing social issues. My parents are both teachers and I grew up volunteering, so I think it’s in my DNA.

After Duke, I went to Boston Consulting Group to get world-class professional training and to understand the business world, assuming it would make me more effective in the social sector. While at BCG, the chance to travel internationally ignited a love of new cultures and exposed me to a level of poverty and need way beyond what I’d experienced in the U.S.

A trip to Nepal was the turning point that shifted my focus from domestic issues to international development and convinced me to take the leap from BCG. I got a volunteer position with TechnoServe in Rwanda and immediately fell in love with East Africa-the people, the beauty, the vibrancy of each day, and the feeling that I could accomplish something that really mattered. I’ve returned every chance I’ve gotten since, and finally moved to Tanzania long-term when I wrapped up business school last summer.

Duke I&E: You wrote a mentoring manual for a Service-Learning course on women’s leadership while an undergraduate, and you’ve spoken about your “rock-star female role models” at Duke, including Betsy Alden, one of the founding mothers of the service-learning movement. How have your female mentors prepared you for challenges specific to women in innovation and entrepreneurship?

NS: I had the privilege of learning from a trifecta of great women in the Duke Service-Learning department: Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Vicki Stocking, and Betsy Alden.

Jen helped me find my confidence as a freshman and helped me see the world and my future in a dramatically bigger way. During our last day of class, Jen assigned us to write letters to our future selves. I received mine in the mail a few years ago and was amazed at how big and intense my dreams were at age 18. I owe a lot of that (both then and now) to Jen.

Vicki helped me connect who I am as a person with the role I want to play in the world. Through equal doses of friendship and psychology lessons, Vicki taught me something I try to remind myself of each day-that I am most useful to the world when I’m connected with the things and people that make me a happy and fulfilled person.

Betsy remains a tremendous mentor and close friend-she’s officiating my wedding later this year! Besides presiding over the most important day of my life, her Women as Leaders class brought me to call myself a feminist with pride and taught me to tune into the lens of gender, often overlooked, in day-to-day life. I believe this makes me a better manager, friend, and change-maker.

Duke I&E: Your work in East Africa is alleviating poverty and improving lives. Duke’s I&E Initiative aims to re-imagine the role of the university as an institution that seeks practical solutions to the challenges of our time. In what way could universities like Duke help you to accomplish what’s needed next?

NS: For so many organizations in East Africa that improve lives, the biggest constraint to growth is good talent. Duke has the chance to shape the views and futures of a tremendous number of talented young people.

My experience volunteering at TechnoServe came at a pivotal time during my life, changed the trajectory of my career, and channeled a lifetime of effort and passion (mine!) toward international development. But these experiences are hard for a young, unproven, recent graduate to find.

By creating more opportunities for students and recent alums to explore social issues in a deep, meaningful way, universities can help more talented people uncover passions they may never find otherwise, and direct enormous energy and talent toward the world’s most pressing needs. We need all the help we can get!