A Gap Year in Africa

Clarisse Lau, BCom’09, has taken a one-year leave from KPMG to work with an NGO that’s targeting youth in Botswana to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.
By: 
Shelley Pleiter
Issue: 

Clarisse Lau has experienced a few fish-out-of-water moments since moving from Toronto to work with an NGO in Botswana in October 2015. The former high-rise dweller witnessed life in remote villages, some dotted with traditional round, thatched homes, and natural vistas and wildlife encounters that took her breath away. At home in her apartment in central Gaborone, the nation’s capital and largest city (population 231,000), there’s access to most comforts of city life, save for sporadic electricity outages and the occasional lack of running water. All of these new experiences are just part of the adventure of living in Botswana, where Clarisse is on a fourteen-month leave of absence from KPMG’s audit practice. 

Her current role, as the Senior Manager of Finance and Administration at Young 1ove (pronounced ‘love’), is definitely in her comfort zone. At least, most of the time, though perhaps not at her initial meeting with a team of auditors from a local firm vying for Young 1ove’s business. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Clarisse reached into her bag to pull out a notebook and sent a bunch of condoms flying across the meeting table. 

“I was horrified,” she recalls, “but then I said, ‘This is the perfect segue to an explanation of what we do at Young 1ove’, and everybody laughed.” She explained the condoms had been distributed at a UN CONDOMIZE! Campaign event that Young 1ove staffers had recently attended.

It’s a long way from Prince Edward County, Ont., where Clarisse grew up, to Botswana (population two million), the landlocked neighbour of South Africa. The route that brought her there began in Clarisse’s third year in Queen’s Commerce, when she went on exchange to the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. “I loved my experience abroad and the opportunity to travel all over Europe,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve been gallivanting around the world ever since!”

Perhaps her love of travel and adventure served as an outlet for this extremely accomplished young woman. While at Queen’s, Clarisse was active in the Commerce Society, eventually being elected VP External in her final year. The role entailed overseeing student conferences and competitions, and managing a budget in excess of $1.5 million. A summer internship at KPMG in Toronto after her second year led to a job-offer, effective post-graduation. 

Clarisse thrived at KPMG as a member of teams assigned to some of the country’s industry-leading companies — “where $5 million is essentially a rounding error, a far cry from the ten pula [approximately $1] differences I’m determined to reconcile in my current role,” she laughs. In 2011, she completed her CPA, after having been named to the National UFE Honour Roll as one of the top 50 writers of the Canadian Institute for Chartered Accountants’ qualification exam.

A two-month secondment to KPMG’s Johannesburg office in South Africa in 2012 marked the start of Clarisse’s love affair with Africa – its culture, lifestyle and people. The assignment completed, Clarisse travelled the continent for five weeks, including a stay in Botswana, before returning home. Three years later that positive experience helped convince Clarisse to join the ranks of Young 1ove, first as a volunteer, then on a one-year contract. 

“I felt like I was stagnating,” Clarisse explains. “I’d spent five years of my career with a clear next goal in mind: the next promotion, the next stint abroad, the next internal transfer. Suddenly, I reached the level of Senior Manager, and there was no clear ‘next step’ in sight.” She decided to look into volunteer opportunities as a way to expand her horizons. Online research turned up the usual offers to ‘come and build a school or help out at an orphanage,’ none of which struck a chord. 

“The inner economist in me asked, ‘How can I offer the highest and best use of my time?’ I figured I’m not the best person to work in an orphanage or build a school. But I do have expertise in finance and accounting.”

More research uncovered Accounting for International Development (afid.org.uk), which offers “accountants from around the world the opportunity to use their skills to support … non-profit organisations globally.” There were a few options in Africa that had potential, but Young 1ove won out almost immediately. 

This NGO’s mandate is to connect youth with proven life-saving information, through programming focused in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Clarisse explains the urgency: “In Botswana, 45% of men over 40 are infected with HIV and over 90% of young girls don't know this — they think teenage boys are higher risk.” A Skype call confirmed this would be a good match. “There was a strong basis in research, connections to academia and global development organizations and a high-energy, high-achieving culture that very much aligned with my own values,” she says. 

Clarisse arrived for a three-week stint as a volunteer at Young 1ove in June 2015. During that short time, she conducted a needs assessment, developed a priority list of tasks, created templates and contributed to several donor reports. Even before the three weeks were up, she was asked if she’d be interested in returning on a longer-term basis. 

Back in Toronto, she approached her KPMG senior management team to request an unpaid, fourteen-month leave of absence (one year to work with Young 1ove with a month of travel at each end). “Everyone at KPMG was very supportive,” Clarisse says. One of the pillars of the firm’s strategy is Community Leadership. “Allowing me this opportunity was a great example of KPMG putting its strategy into action.” 

By October, Clarisse had finished up her work commitments, vacated her apartment, gave away or stored her possessions, and was on her way back to Gaborone (after squeezing in a surfing holiday in Central America). She settled into the newly created position of Senior Manager of Finance and Administration, reconnecting with friends and colleagues she’d left just four months earlier. 

Clarisse’s role entails acting as a member of the senior management team for the organization, which has 16 full-time local and expat employees as well as up to 81 seasonal local field staff. Her primary responsibilities include the design and implementation of finance, HR, administrative and compliance structures to facilitate growth at scale — a challenge given the rapid rate at which Young 1ove has already expanded. The organization’s annual operating budget has more than quadrupled in two years. She is also directly involved in strategic decision-making for the organization and in managing ongoing relationships with donors and stakeholders, including the Global Innovation Fund, which is supported by the overseas development agencies of the U.S., Britain, Sweden and Australia, and the Omidyar Network, which announced in February that Young 1ove would be sharing a $700,000 USD grant with another NGO, Evidence Action, to continue its HIV/AIDS prevention programs. 

"In Botswana, 45% of men over 40 are infected with HIV and over 90% of young girls don't know this — they think teenage boys are higher risk."

Clarisse spends much of her time at the office in Gaborone but has also witnessed first-hand the programming that Young 1ove delivers. “What sets us apart is our ‘by youth/for youth’ ethos,” she explains. “We have young, vibrant people delivering HIV/AIDS-prevention programs in classrooms throughout the country. You can’t send crusty old government officials into schools to talk about sex with kids. It’s just not going to work.” 

A pilot test of Young 1ove's program gets an enthusiastic response from students at a school in Zimbabwe.

Young 1ove’s strong emphasis on evidence-based results stems from its research roots, including a partnership with the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which has its global office based at MIT. A pilot study in Kenya revealed impressive results. A group that had a 40-minute lesson on HIV risks had a pregnancy rate 28% lower than those who received a standard abstinence-based curriculum. The rate of child bearing with men five years or more their senior was 61% less, according to a New York Times article (“Ideas Help No One on a Shelf. Take Them to the World”, published Feb. 29, 2016).

Young 1ove has adapted the program for the Botswana context using two delivery models — youth facilitators and adult teachers. To date 35,000 young Batswana in a third of Botswana’s schools have participated in the program. The organization is currently conducting a study to test the program’s impact
and determine whether teachers or youth facilitators are
more effective.

Clarisse has travelled into the field to witness the data-gathering process in rural villages and has also spent time working with potential partners in Zimbabwe, where small pilot programs are being conducted. 

With six months to go (at time of writing) before her return in December, she’s already thinking about what her next steps might be. “This has been an amazing experience,” she says. “It has been an opportunity to gain different personal and professional experiences and immerse myself in a foreign culture, while also contributing my skills where they’re needed to fill a critical senior strategic role within a young, developing organization” Already the wheels are turning on how she can make the best use of all she’s learned so far. “There’s a real dearth of private-sector experience within NGOs,” she says. “Many people start and end their careers in the development space and that can sometimes result in a myopic viewpoint. I’d love to see a fellowship program, where professionals with five to ten years of private sector work experience are funded to spend a year working in up-and-coming, high-potential development organizations.”

“Imagine the possibilities and just think of how these skills could be leveraged for the greater good,” she says. ▪

Check out young1ove.org and afid.org.uk for more information.