In 2011, Kelly Opotzner ’07 was living in Manhattan and working at Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s biggest investment banks. Before that, she had been with Morgan Stanley. The vast resources of the city and of a budding finance career lay at her feet.
In October 2012, however, she pursued a new dream to a very different place: Burkina Faso. A landlocked nation in West Africa, Burkina Faso is one of the world’s least developed countries. As a Peace Corps volunteer, Opotzner lived in a two-room mud hut with a tin roof. In the courtyard, which she shared with a Burkinabe family, they listened to the radio and ate dinner, surrounded by pigs, donkeys, and chickens. More than a year into her stay, she finally got electricity in her house. In January, the cool season, temperatures were in the upper 90s during the day.
A few years after graduating from Wagner with a double major in economics and international politics, Opotzner decided she wanted to be in a “different role, one that had more of a social impact.” She wanted first-hand experience with microfinance, and found out that the Peace Corps had a business development program. She was offered an assignment in West Africa.
She spent her days traveling “way out in the bush,” to places where, in some cases, there are no roads, to give tiny loans to people — women, to be specific — who had never had access to capital before, people who are subsistence farmers. These women are setting up home-based businesses, such as making and selling fritters, drinks, or soap. She also worked with a local shea butter manufacturer to improve their business processes.
Her Wagner education helped prepare her for this path, because it was there that she was first exposed to the discipline of economics, and her studies in international politics allowed her to pursue her interests in international development.
But Opotzner says that, contrary to her original expectation, the most important lesson she learned in Burkina Faso was not how to set up businesses or make them run more efficiently, but how to relate to people who live in such different circumstances than what she had ever known.
“On a personal level, it definitely impacted me substantially,” says Opotzner. “From a career perspective, it solidified for me what I want to spend my life doing, which is finding the intersections between business interests and social impact. I think that’s really the direction that development should be going in. And I want to help organizations become more financially viable and more successful so that they can reach more people in their communities. It’s given me clear career direction, and from a personal perspective it’s been so eye-opening in every aspect.”
Opotzner returned to the US in February, and she will start an MBA program at the prestigious international graduate business school INSEAD in the fall.
Recommended reading: Kelly Opotzner’s Peace Corps blog