For our 7th episode, Megan interviewed Kelly Nash – founder of Chicago-based organization Lipstick & Ink®, principal success manager at Salesforce, writer, speaker, career advisor and all-around multi-hyphenate about her experience volunteering abroad in Rwanda through Venture2Impact and Hope and Homes for Children Rwanda.

Wider Worldview is a new live podcast hosted by Color & Curiosity founder Megan Zink that explores the power of travel – how it can change the world: spark new ideas, foster different perspectives, catalyst curiosity and lifelong learning. Join her for interviews with entrepreneurs, educators and explorers and get inspired to tap into travel as an experiential learning and empathy building tool.

Head over to this link to catch the full audio recording – but in the meantime, here’s a snippet of the conversation. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Welcome Kelly! I know a lot about you, but can you share a little bit about your background and how you found yourself volunteering in Rwanda?

I work at Salesforce full time, and I also am the founder of Lipstick & Ink®, my blog, my events business, my career advising services – everything wrapped in that. I’ve always had this wanderlust not just to see the world, but also to make an impact on the world, and so I created a bucket list (I think this was probably in high school). There were two of the things on that bucket list: volunteer abroad and visit a third world country, because I wanted to expose myself to that type of environment; get on the ground, see how people live, get to know them and understand their living conditions – how they live, breath and work.

I had looked through different volunteering abroad experiences throughout the years and I just never found anything that I could really connect with. Through working at Salesforce, I found out about this organization called Venture2Impact, which really aims to help communities around the world break the cycle of poverty. My manager at the time was telling us about her experience volunteering in Romania, and that just clicked in my head as something I really wanted to do, and then we found out about an upcoming trip to Rwanda in the fall of 2019. When we got on the ground we partnered with an organization called Hope and Homes for Children – the one in Rwanda is specifically aimed at upskilling people on the ground so they can qualify for better-paying jobs and ultimately reduce childhood abandonment rates that are prevalent in African countries.

There’s a perceived notion in developing countries that placing your children in orphanages may allow them to flourish and live a better life than if they had lived with their actual families – so Hope and Homes for Children is working to debunk that myth and get parents upskilled so they can provide for their children and keep them in their home. I really liked the idea of what we would be doing in terms of teaching these individuals and beneficiaries skills like English and computer skills. There was also a component of working with women specifically on business and entrepreneurial subjects, because there are a lot of women in Rwanda that own their own businesses.

That is so impressive. As I was doing research, I came across an organization called Impact Travel Alliance, and a thought leader named Pippa Biddle who wrote an article in 2014 about this idea of ‘voluntourism’ – you can travel and volunteer, but oftentimes it’s actually a detriment to the communities that you’re going to because you’re not adding anything to the community and it’s more problematic that you’re there, more ‘check the box’.

When I was looking at this Venture2Impact group it struck me that this group seems a little bit different form some of the other organizations out there because it’s not just about material poverty – it’s also about some really complex, intangible and frankly facets of poverty that I’d never even thought about like isolation, vulnerability, powerlessness or physical weakness – do you feel like that was reflected within the program?

So we’re doing the actual volunteering and working with the beneficiaries during the day, but outside of that, when we’d go back to where we were staying, we had what we called ‘team time’ where we talked about subjects like vulnerability and other forms of poverty beyond what we know today. One of those things we talked heavily about was the genocide of 1994, and got acquainted with some of the things that happened that year, specifically that it was so detrimental to the country itself and the people within the country. We went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum and learned about how it really heavily impact impacted the community and still impacts the community, because pretty much every Rwandan today has been affected by the genocide in some shape or form. So getting that level of understanding of what these people have been through was something I really appreciated.

Was there anything in the vein of volunteering abroad that you wish your future self knew before you were getting ready or a challenging or surprising thing that you had prepared for – or maybe didn’t prepare for – for people who are maybe thinking about volunteering abroad?

In my blog I mentioned I had a strong perception of what Rwanda was going to be like – it’s an African country, and I think growing up in the states, if you hadn’t been exposed to a third world country, or an African country – there’s images we’ve seen growing up on the media that we’re conditioned to think of – I had this idea in my head of what it was going to be like. I imagined a very rundown, poverty-stricken city – shame on me – because I was so incorrect. Getting on the ground and being exposed to the area – actually venturing out and taking day trips, and getting exposed to different areas of Kigali, the main city of Rwanda, was super eye-opening. I was elated to see it’s a functioning and modern city: cars, mopeds, tons of hotels, stores, restaurants, bars, etc. You feel this really positive energy electrifying the city. So if I could go back and tell myself what to expect, I would tell myself, ‘don’t have this preconceived notion of what this country is going to be like because it’s going to blow it out of the water and be completely different than what you think it is.’

I had this idea in my head of what it was going to be like. I imagined a very rundown, poverty-stricken city – shame on me – because I was so incorrect. Getting on the ground and being exposed to the area – actually venturing out and taking day trips, and getting exposed to different areas of Kigali, the main city of Rwanda, was super eye-opening.

It’s so interesting that you talk about perception, because we have these preconceived notions in our minds of everything because we have personal biases to all kinds of things. And so then to go and experience them firsthand can really erode that and change the perception of what you know and then you can share it with other people. Something to quantify maybe for people when they’re thinking about doing things like going abroad.

Were there any roadblocks – like a mental sort of ‘ooh, maybe I don’t want to do this or maybe I shouldn’t’ – and how did you overcome it?

I mean, to be honest I was really excited about volunteering abroad, I think the only fear I would say was just traveling that far alone because I had never done that before. I’ve traveled to places just as far as Rwanda, but I’ve always had someone with me, so knowing that I was gonna be going by myself was definitely a fear. I think just going through that uncomfortableness and a little bit of that fear, like, ‘what will happen, I’m a young woman traveling alone, will someone take advantage of me? Will something bad happen?’ The normal things that young women that are traveling alone probably go through first and foremost before they actually get comfortable doing that on their own consistently. I think once you do a trip and you’ve gone through that uncomfortableness it gets easier with time too, so I feel like I could easily go on another volunteering abroad trip on my own and feel perfectly fine now that I’ve done it.

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Related: Learn more about Kelly in her recent interview with Color & Curiosity about being a founder, a woman in technology and how travel inspires her by clicking this link!