Business As A Force for Good: My Volunteer Trip to Ethiopia

There are many reasons why Closed Loop was named as one of the best ad agencies to work at. From the standard things like picking up a majority of healthcare costs, to the more fringe benefits like flexible holidays, Closed Loop is constantly evolving and trying to find ways to improve the quality of its culture and employees’ lives.

One great example of the strides being made is CL’s work toward becoming an accredited B Corporation. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

More tangibly, Closed Loop gives each of its employees two paid days off per year to go and attempt to make the world a better place. In November, I utilized these days and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on behalf of Awake & Alive, a non-profit I’ve been on the board of for the last 5 years. The purpose of the trip centered around our annual strategic meetings, but also included putting on a team-building day for the Ethiopian staff and visiting the 3 compounds the organization runs.

A&A was started by two adoptive moms about 8 years ago. My sister, Danielle, was one of them. Both have adopted kids from Addis Ababa, the 9th largest city on the continent, and the largest by far in Ethiopia. With a fire in their hearts to help vulnerable, disenfranchised kiddos, and a new contact they made through the adoption process, they opened a school in the slum of Ketchene with the help of a Swiss Organization, Bright Future, for 35 kids in 2012. Fast forwarding to today, the organization serves 185 children, ages 4-8, and raises $150k-$200k annually. Pretty awe-inspiring that two stay-at-home moms answered the calling and built something that positively impacts the lives of so many, huh?!

Being an introvert, the trip was way outside of my comfort zone. While I love to travel, I had never been on a trip like this before. I was traveling to a poverty-stricken land by myself, not knowing the language, representing an organization with only an inkling of an idea of what to expect. Increasing the stress level even more was the fact that my wife and I were expecting our first child less than a month later. Thankfully, I had a 3-week cushion between returning home and the birth of my son, Tucker.

While uncomfortable at times, the trip was absolutely awe-inspiring. I get goosebumps just thinking about the people I met and the sacrifices I saw being made for the greater good. I met Swedish doctors traveling to remote villages to help mitigate bacterial illnesses brought on by lack of clean water and knowledge of proper hygiene. I met Swiss surgeons there to fix cleft palates. I spent considerable time with Ethiopian teachers and school administrators who lived in one-room apartments with their family, taking far less pay than they deserve, because of their enormous hearts and desire to help orphaned children prepare for a brighter future.

I also learned a lot about cultural differences along the way. For example, I saw first hand what I’d been reading about – that China’s relationship with Ethiopia (and Africa as a whole), runs deep, as evidenced by the newly completed highway, railroad, housing, and factories financed by the Chinese.

At the staff team building day, where I interacted with the teachers, social workers, cooks, administrators, and other people on the ground, I discovered Western ideas like teambuilding games are not completely natural to Ethiopians.

Another cultural difference — meetings. If you thought American meetings were painful, try an Ethiopian meeting where it is taboo to contradict another individual at any time. As a result, we had a series of pre-meetings, where we hashed out all of the details, and reserved the actual meeting to review what had already been hashed out. We made a variety of decisions during our time together regarding staff pay, severance packages, sponsor updates, compound expansion, and more.

Outside of meetings and team building days, my time in Ethiopia was spent visiting the compounds, fellowshipping with the people, and taking in all the sights and sounds. My favorite day, no doubt, was visiting all of the children, who melted my heart many times over.

Reflecting on my time, I am so very grateful to work for a company like Closed Loop who does what it can to try and nudge its employees to give back through initiatives like volunteer days. In fact, if I wouldn’t have had the extra PTO days, I don’t know if I would have pulled the trigger and went on this trip.

In conclusion, seeing company leadership being so proactive in improving the lives of its employees, and the world at large is so very comforting to me. In fact, it’s a big reason why I’ve stayed with the company these past 3 years, despite outside opportunities. Doing things that, on the surface, negatively impact the bottom line, in order to cultivate both professional and personal development, is something that you don’t see very often in our profit-obsessed culture. The fact that I get to be a part of an organization that thinks differently, is something that I cherish and am incredibly grateful for.


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