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EMPLOYEE BENEFITS

From Peace Corps to Entrepreneurial Hardcore

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Jude Carter's home as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s, on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.

Living in a bamboo hut with no running water on an isolated island, Peace Corps volunteer Jude Carter learned how to live in extreme conditions. She had no supporting structure but a ready supply of problems.

Sound familiar? The survival skills that Carter picked up in the Peace Corps have served her well in another forum - business. Carter recently started her own company, a professional coaching business called Kick in the Pants, in Providence, R.I., and says that her Peace Corps experience was as important a part of her " training" for entrepreneurship as was her professional experience.

"The Peace Corps work seemed so vast," recalls Carter, who served from 1977 to 1979. "I was one small person there. There were no modern communications tools, no roads. A certain amount of time was spent simply taking care of your own safety, food, and health.

"I learned to be truly resilient," adds Carter, who created an arts cooperative in Palawan, the Philippines. "Peace Corps volunteers from the beginning are required to be incredibly resourceful and adaptable and able to think outside the box. You're just plopped down and expected to create what you were told to do." That resourcefulness has served her well in starting a new business, she says. "The strongest skill you need as an entrepreneur is the ability to shift your thinking on a problem."

It's a well-kept secret, but some of today's most successful businesspeople earned their entrepreneurial and business stripes deep in the trenches of the third world and other underdeveloped regions as Peace Corps volunteers.

John Pettit teaching in Ethiopia in the late 1960s.

Discard the stereotype of the Peace Corps as a hotbed of starry-eyed dreamers. The organization, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last March, now has more than 140,000 alumni. Former Peace Corps volunteers include the chairman of Levi Strauss and the president of Johnson & Johnson Baby Products, as well as the founder of the Nature Company.

The Peace Corps gives birth to entrepreneurs because ex-volunteers are "very practical, how-to people with a great ability to deal with frustration, solve problems creatively, and learn new techniques for getting something done," says Matthew Losak, public affairs director for the Peace Corps Regional Office in New York City. "These are the same skills that businesses need to be on the cutting edge in the global marketplace."

Sean Sullivan, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and Mauritius for five years.
Like Jude Carter, Sean Sullivan also started a business after his Peace Corps stint. Sixteen years ago, Sullivan was a newly returned Peace Corps volunteer and self-described "corporate eunuch" in IBM's advertising department, which he'd worked in before he went away and returned to after his time overseas. Most people in 1980 didn't just quit the secure life of "Big Blue" without getting a sanity check first - especially with four young children - but that's what Sullivan did. His dilemma was that after five years in Africa and the Indian Ocean country of Mauritius working as a Peace Corps trainer and country director, working again at IBM felt like being a redundant cog in a giant machine.

"IBM is a great company, but for me personally, I needed more challenge and a chance to make an impact," he says. He left IBM to become director of marketing for two small high-tech firms, and in 1984 started his own public relations and marketing communications business, Sullivan & Mulvaney, in Stamford, Conn. (The company is launching a Web site this month, at www.sullmul.com.) The 12-person, $1 million agency today serves high-tech companies in the U.S. and Canada - IBM among them.

Sullivan has a business philosophy that many Peace Corps alumni seem to share. "I learned in the Peace Corps that risks are not as scary as they seem," Sullivan says. "I worked with people in West Africa who could hardly find enough to eat, so when it came time for me to leave IBM and then to start my own business, I wasn't afraid because really, how bad could it get?

"I also learned to do more with less. You were expected to throw lots of money and people at a problem in the corporate world - you got in trouble if you didn't. The waste I see in business still bothers me. Not simply from a money perspective but from a human perspective. It's much more satisfying to overcome a challenge using brains and wit than by overwhelming it with resources."

That thought is echoed by John Pettit, who served as a teacher with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1966 to 1968. Pettit says, "I constantly relied on my wits and ideas - it's not like we had many resources - and did a lot of listening so I could try to see the world from the village's perspective." Today, as a vice president of Training Resources Group, a training company in Alexandria, Va., Pettit applies those same skills to helping organizations improve their effectiveness both in the United States and in developing countries. "In consulting, as well as the Peace Corps, things often don't go the way you expect," he says. "People will do the unexpected, something won't work. You learn to quickly adapt to the changes."

Sullivan, Carter, and Pettit all know one another. Sullivan and Pettit have been friends since their Peace Corps days, and Carter and Sullivan hooked up a few years ago when Carter left one high-tech marketing job to help market Sullivan's business. The Peace Corps has its own old boy/girl network - Pettit's 26-person company, for instance, includes 8 former Peace Corps volunteers - and has spawned chapters of ex-Peace Corps volunteers. "There's a common language that binds people who served in the Peace Corps," says Pettit. "When I meet other volunteers, my trust level goes up. It's like I know them even though before we meet."

Wendy Marx is a freelance business writer based in Stamford, Conn., who specializes in marketing and technology.


Further details

The Peace Corps has a nicely put-together Web site, which includes information on becoming a volunteer, details about the countries it operates in, and essays on the experience of being in the corps. ("Herds of African cattle with elegant, long, white horns strolled together across land dotted with huge baobab trees. As we traveled east, the color of the majestic mesas, little mountains of wind-carved rock, changed from hues of deep red-orange to light pink..." writes Deborah Ball in her essay, "Trekking to the Sahara.")

Last updated: Sep 3, 1996




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