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BAIL Banter: Perspectives from Bay Area Internationalists (Nozomi Witherspoon)

BAIL Banter is a series of interviews with San Francisco Bay Area experts and members of the BAIL community. If you’d like to be interviewed or to recommend someone we should feature, please contact Prairie Summer.

For this edition, we are pleased to introduce Nozomi Witherspoon, International Programs Manager at Water.org. She joined Water.org in September 2014 and is now launching and implementing programs in Africa and Latin America. Nozomi also leads the coordination of market and impact assessments, and works closely with her team members in country offices and other strategic departments in Water.org to maximize impact on the ground. She brings 11+ years of international development experience with a focus on microfinance and SME development, including work with the Finance and Private Sector Development Department at the World Bank, FINCA Tanzania and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Nozomi is a Japanese national who grew up in Iraq and Tanzania, and holds a BA in International Relations from ICU University (Japan) as well as a Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University (US).

 

BAIL: Tell us about your new role and what excites you most about the work you do.

Two months ago, I joined Water.org as a San Francisco-based International Programs Manager after eight years of work at the World Bank in Washington D.C. The shift was quite a change in my life, not only because of the move from coast to coast, but also transitioning from a mega multilateral organization with 10,000+ staff to a fast-growing non-profit with a team of about 75.

What excites me most about my new work is the impact I get to see and have on the ground. In comparison to my previous work at the World Bank, my new role in the Bay Area allows me to make and see the direct impact on the people I have always wanted to reach. Professionally and personally, this is what inspires and motivates me. In my 11+ years of experience in international development, I have specialized in microfinance and SME (small and medium enterprise) development. At the World Bank I was a Financial Sector Specialist managing multi-million dollar projects in Africa with objectives to strengthen the financial sector, promote access to finance, and lead various policy dialogues with high-level governments and policy makers. While I enjoyed that work, I reached a point where I felt motivated to find a way to leverage my experience to help people and communities more directly. And that is why I joined Water.org. Often when I tell people about my new role they ask me “Why water?  What’s the link with your financial sector background?”.  In fact, there are great linkages and that’s what makes my new role super cool – and, in my own way, “very Bay Area style.”

Woman with loan paper and pump The vision of Water.org is to promote access to safe water and sanitation by providing innovative, market-based solutions. To accomplish this effectively, Water.org is moving one step ahead from the traditional “digging wells” approach and has invented a new solution called WaterCredit. In a nutshell, WaterCredit puts microfinance tools to work in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector. To do this, Water.org connects financial institutions to communities in need of clean water and toilets (or other sanitation products), providing small loans to people and/or community groups. Then as those loans are repaid, that money can be redeployed to more people (which reduces the need for subsidies, allows for greater impact and increases sustainability).

When I learned about the WaterCredit model during my job search process in the Bay Area, it immediately grasped my passion for 3 reasons:

  1. I am a strong believer of the market driven approach to sustainable international development.
  2. It promotes strong community ownership – I trust the power of poor to climb their own economic ladders.
  3. Having access to water is the most fundamental and critical foundation for economic activity.

Seeing this innovative model, I thought the opportunity to work with Water.org on WaterCredit is a great way to leverage my microfinance sector knowledge in Africa and to make direct impact to change people’s lives. Soon after I joined the Water.org, I had an opportunity to travel to Ethiopia and Kenya and witness the impact of this WaterCredit with my own eyes.

I have been in this industry for more than a decade now, but seeing how my projects transform the lives of the poor in the most basic and fundamental way reminded me of the promise that I made to myself on graduation day from my Master’s program. Also to add, I’m Japanese but spent my childhood  in Iraq (3 years) and Tanzania (7 years), so playing a role in poverty alleviation has been my childhood dream and continues to be my life goal.

ethiopia


BAIL: What is the advantage of being based in the Bay Area?

One of the things I see as a great strength of the Bay Area mentality is its ability to move quickly, create new approaches, and quickly test/implement them. As we all know, international development is a complex challenge with multi-layered issues and players. Across the east coast, which I’m more familiar with, I’ve seen more emphasis on national-level policy intervention with longer time frames (often focused on long-term incremental change to systemic problems). Whereas the Bay Area approach I’ve seen more focused on experimenting, testing and pushing for new approaches with measurable impact in the shorter-term.

For example, take mobile banking in Africa. The east coast approach would establish a legal and regulatory framework for mobile banking that enables a level playing field for all financial sector players, which results in increased GDP in 10 years. But the Bay Area approach, from my impression, would think to provide a targeted solution like introducing an app for mobile remittance banking, and expect results in few years if not months. I’m not saying one is better. In order to fight against complex global challenges that we’re facing, I think we need both approaches and more importantly, we need to learn from both. But being immersed in the Bay Area as I tackle this new role is invigorating and driving me to think more creatively about my work.

 

BAIL: What is challenging about being in the Bay Area?

Thanks to BAIL for bringing together people with common awareness and interests, but it’s been a challenge for me to find learning opportunities and ways to connect with others in the international development field outside of work. In Washington D.C, there were so many “learning lunches” and “informational happy hours” that were open to the public, and I benefitted a lot from those casual learning settings. I think we need more space to share our thoughts and learning, and expand our professional networks.

Secondly, I think there’s a fine line between innovations and sustainable solutions. Innovating and creating something “cool” is great, but sometimes orgs/companies seem carried away by the slick design and marketing side of things, and neglecting the perspective of true sustainability and longer term impact.

 

BAIL: You just completed your job search.  Any advice for others in the Bay Area on what was most helpful?  

Perhaps this is not particular to the Bay Area search, but for me, my mantra was to “be open-minded.” In the Bay Area, you will encounter names of startups, boutique companies and organizations that you’ve never heard before. And they are designing solutions that you’ve never thought before. Unlike traditional approaches to international development (something we all learned in our Master’s and PhDs) the Bay Area offers so much more than that. Frankly, I’ve heard ideas that seem unrealistic, too optimistic, or too short-sighted – but before making judgement, I told myself to be open minded. Of course, you still need to be an “expert” and be confident with your knowledge and skills, but compared to east coast job search I enjoyed the process here more. So be open-minded, pay attention to what resonates with you and who knows what you might find! 

 

BAIL: Favorite spot in SF

The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is my go-to spot when I find myself unbalanced.  It’s peaceful, quiet, and lovely spot to sip green tea and take a deep breath. I also love Heath Ceramics in the Mission and Tartine Bakery. They both remind me how life is full of fun things. A bit farther away, I love having hot toddy at Nepenthe in Big Sur after a hike.

nepenthe 2

 

 

 

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