By Samuel T. Clover ’91
In 2005, after spending two decades as a corporate marketing and communications professional, Ruth-Anne Renaud ’86 had what she calls “one of those life moments.” She’d started her career at a boutique firm in Arizona, and then spent nine years in Chicago with AT&T. But she longed for deeper purpose.
“I had a long conversation at the kitchen counter with my husband,” Renaud recalls. “I said, ‘You know, I’d really like to do something meaningful with my life and the experience that I’ve gained, and this opportunity sounds incredibly tempting.”
The opportunity was a position with Event 360, a Chicago-based company that helps non-profits organize and market fund-raising initiatives. For the next three years, as director of marketing, she worked with clients such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and United Cerebral Palsy.
But in 2008, opportunity presented itself again, this time with a capital “O.”
Renaud applied for a position with Opportunity International, Oak Brook, Ill., an organization providing microfinance services—micro-loans, banking, insurance, business training—to impoverished individuals in more than 20 developing nations, from India to Mexico, the Phillipines to Kenya, Columbia, and Tanzania. Some 85 percent of the clients are women, who in Renaud’s words are “the poorest of the poor.” The organization’s mission: “To empower people to work their way out of chronic poverty, transforming their lives, their children’s futures, and their communities.”
“I didn’t know the organization, wasn’t necessarily a gender specialist, and didn’t know anything at that juncture about microfinance, and yet the job sounded absolutely intriguing,” Renaud says. “I went through the interview process and got to know the organization, the people, the work, and along the way I said to them, ‘If all that has happened through this is that I have learned something of significance, which is the work that you do and the lives that you transform around the world and the way that you are empowering women, I have received a gift.’”
She got the job.
As vice president of women’s philanthropy, Renaud not only co-leads the marketing team and oversees all of the company’s interactive marketing efforts—including online initiatives and outreach to young professionals and new donors—she also travels to areas of operation to meet clients first-hand.
In January 2009, she took her first trip to Ghana and Uganda. Though she had done what she calls “a fair amount of typical travel in Europe,” Renaud had never lived abroad and it was her first visit to Africa. After landing in Accra, on the coast, she flew inland to Kumasi. There, she boarded a van and traveled for miles down a bumpy, unpaved road that eventually led to Bonwire, a small village lined with thatch-roofed houses, a dilapidated school, and a church that also functioned as a community center—all with the most basic plumbing and electricity.
“It was poor,” Renaud says. “The houses had roofs with holes in them, walls that were not fully sealed, floors that looked like they were dirt floors, and doorways that didn’t always have a door to close.”
One memorable entrepreneur, Rose, gave Renaud a tour of her shop, which makes and sells tablecloths, vestments and other products of kente cloth, the brightly colored, hand-woven fabric native to Ghana. Opportunity International had provided Rose with starting capital—the average loan is $142—and helped her assemble a Trust Group, which consists of 10 to 30 entrepreneurs who guarantee each other’s loans, train together, and support one another. After her success, Rose helped start 10 other Trust Groups, and has become a leader in the community.
“What I realized is that Rose hadn’t just changed her own life, she changed the lives of so many other people there in that village through her own example and by helping them to see how they could do it as well,” Renaud says. “It was humbling in the most fabulous of ways.”
In her last trip to Uganda, in June 2010, Renaud met Maria, who had founded a school in Kampala shortly after her husband had died. By working with Opportunity International, she’s grown the school to serve more than 250 children from the community, and started a conglomerate to supplement her income. In addition to the school, Maria raises chickens and grows produce on a small plot of land outside of town. She then uses the food to provide part of the meals at the school. She even runs a catering business on the weekends.
WOMEN WHO MAKE IT WORK
“Not one of those businesses is doing so well that it lifts her to a life of comfort, but it’s the combination of businesses that enables her to avoid the instability and the unpredictability of life,” Renaud says. “Spending time with Maria was a reminder of how incredibly capable and competent, smart and savvy these women are. Nobody’s telling them how to do all these things. They certainly didn’t have the luxury of a formal education or a university degree to understand how to create a multifaceted business.”
Even so, Renaud, a government and law graduate who serves on the board of Women Advancing Microfinance International, credits Lafayette with providing the start for her own career path. “It is such a blessing to pause, every now and then, and consider the experiences that lead us from one place to another in our life journey. It is amazing to trace my career journey back to a pivotal moment in my Lafayette experience,” she says. “Lafayette definitely provided the springboard that set me on a career path that led me to Opportunity International.”
As a senior, Renaud was encouraged by Dean Alice Sivuluch to pursue an internship, which led to a nontraditional one–working for Jane Allred, a female entrepreneur who Renaud says looking back, ironically, was a woman who believed in her ability to shape her own future. Allred left a senior executive position with a Lehigh Valley ad agency to start her own consulting firm. When she relocated to Scottsdale, Ariz., she invited Renaud to be her first employee. “I took the leap and moved across country. Through that 10-year relationship, I learned a tremendous amount about international business clients, running a start-up business, and personal accountability. In many ways, Lafayette did prepare me to see the world both on a small, intimate scale, and ultimately the impact that we can have on a global scale.”