The Volunteer Who Put Plenty In But Got Even More Out Of It

 

This originally appeared as an interview in Les Affaires magazine.

Stepping into international volunteering usually involves immersing oneself in a new, foreign culture. Not so for Eduardo Diazgranados: it was a case of investing his business skills in order to help an organization in Colombia, the country of his birth.

The 35 year-old spoke to us, midway through his mandate in a trade school, about his Cuso International-sponsored volunteering experience. Cuso International is a development organization that matches highly qualified workers with organizations in developing countries as a means of reducing poverty and inequality in those nations.

What led you to become a volunteer working under the aegis of Cuso International, and why this particular mandate?

I discovered Cuso International through a friend who had taken part in the program. They were looking for volunteers to take on mandates in Colombia. As I was born and grew up there, my friend thought of me.

I was blown away by the very concept of Cuso International. The idea of marrying social issues with my entrepreneurial skills (and, furthermore, being paid to do so!) left me no choice. I just had to sign up for it!

Above all, at that time, and even though I was well settled in Ottawa, I felt that, professionally, opportunities for growth were missing. I was in need of new challenges – so I went for it!

I chose a placement with Fundación Escuela Taller de Bogotá (FETB) because of the mandate itself: it entailed helping the organization become financially self-sufficient. I also liked FETB’s mission. It is a school-workshop whose aim is to socially integrate youths aged 18 to 25, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, by teaching them a trade such as carpentry or cooking.

Finally, even though I’d grown up in Colombia, Bogotá was little known to me. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to discover this dynamic, chaotic town where business opportunities are plenty.

Tell us about your mandate working for FETB.

As my role was to help the school generate revenues, I was heading up several projects at the same time.

I’m currently working to create two retail outlets though which the students can sell their products, as well as a small venture making paper bags for grocery stores. I am also working on a brand image for the Foundation’s products.

On top of that, I’ve launched a bio-agricultural project on the roof of the FETB’s administrative building. And I must not forget that I’ve just been appointed teacher of Entrepreneurship!

What do you think this volunteering experience will bring to your career?

A new awareness of what I am capable of accomplishing. Here, I have combined business development, teaching and agriculture. Who knows what will turn up next!

My experience of project management has increased. I have even got a few business ideas that I intend to bring back to Canada.

During your six months in Bogota, what has marked you the most?

Because I left the country at 17, I knew little about Colombia’s way of doing business. To my eyes, bureaucracy and hierarchy slow up the progress of projects. But the more my superiors came to understand the way I work, the more they trusted me. Sometimes, they even sought my advice!

Have you had any unusual experiences since your arrival?

Where do I begin? I met the Canadian Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, Marie-Claude Bibeau; the Canadian Ambassadress to Colombia; and several other diplomats.

Furthermore, I adore dealing with the Foundation’s students. Just to know that my work here is impacting on their present and, hopefully, future lives… now that is something truly extraordinary. I wake up everyday thinking about the positive things this stay continues to bring me. They add up to much more than I am putting in.