MBA student brings economic relief to tsunami victims

Nathalie Butcher applies her operations knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit to help revive devastated communities

Nathalie ButcherWhen the tsunami hit Indonesia last year, Nathalie Butcher, a student in the MBA class of 2006, believed that her MIT Sloan knowledge could make a real difference to the recovery efforts. Butcher's primary interest is operations, and she realized that the flood-stricken country needed operations people to organize contractors, doctors, and relief workers.

Twenty-four hours after appealing to MIT Sloan Senior Associate Dean Alan White for ideas on how she could assist the effort, Butcher landed a summer job with United in Diversity. This small NGO bridges the gaps between the business sector, civil society, and the state to achieve progress in Indonesia — and, more immediately, to get the country back on its feet following the tsunami.

In Indonesia, Butcher hit the ground running, exercising every skill she had under her belt, from operations strategy to entrepreneurship. In the remote village of Sirombu, she established a virgin coconut oil plant.

“I did the research and secured stage one funding that paid for me, a manufacturing specialist, and an environmentalist to survey the area,” she reports. “They looked at the coconut trees to see if this would be the right place to start a facility. Both thought it was.”

The enterprise, under Butcher's leadership, is on the verge of securing $200,000 in stage two funding. At that point, she foresees it will be possible to make the facility profitable. The factory will provide 30 new jobs to the people of Sirombu and employ many more workers as tree climbers.

“We'll get the community restarted and cash flowing into its economy,” she says, which is a bit of an understatement. The coconut oil plant should provide $100,000 profit annually to this small community.

Butcher also tracked progress of construction on 240 houses for homeless villagers, moved the first families into their homes, and secured food aid for 18 remote villages.

Socialization and the politics of aid work

The scrappy social entrepreneur learned lessons in Indonesia that only come from real global business experiences. She heard through the village grapevine, for example, that the local government should help choose the families that would move into the first houses they were completing. This, the locals counseled, would prevent jealousy between families, better serve the most needy, and foster good relations with the government.

“Everything around socialization and politics of aid work is fascinating to me,” Nathalie wrote in her blog A Year of Living Dangerously. “It is a side of life I'm very much not experienced in, coming from finance. It never would have occurred to me to ask the local government to make this decision for us, but I can see its win-win benefits.”

Butcher was working in villages so remote that few NGOs make the effort to establish relief efforts there. Inaccessibility, however, has its benefits, she discovered. “There are a lot of reports about relatively little actually being accomplished in Aceh. It is said that the bureaucracy there is overwhelming and making work virtually impossible. Whereas in Nias, a more remote location, we already have houses up and ... moving people in.”

Butcher says her primary goals for the summer were to use her skills in ways that added the most value to relief efforts.

“This experience was absolutely fantastic,” she says. “It was a great complement to what I was working on at MIT Sloan. The project management work drew on all the skills I had built from marketing to logistics to financials.”

What to tackle, what to leave alone

Her stint with UID also taught her valuable lessons about what to tackle and what to leave alone — a critical aspect of good management. “Early on, we received a request for volunteer teachers from a school in Aceh. I was hit extremely hard by some of the facts, and my initial reaction was to volunteer to be a teacher. Thinking about it later that day, I realized that with my education and background, I could provide more value to more people by applying my business knowledge to projects than by going immediately to the front line as a teacher.”

Though proud of her success, Butcher's MIT Sloan colleagues were not surprised by it. Butcher is copresident of both the MIT Sloan Leadership Club and the MIT Sloan Operations Management Club and during her undergraduate work at Lehigh, was named an Iacocca Scholar for, among other strengths, proven leadership ability.

Now entering her second year as an MBA student, Butcher has resisted the urge to take a leave and work in the hurricane-stricken Gulf. She is eager to get her degree so that she can embark on a life of helping people weather disasters.

“I want to do this permanently ... to work for the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Program, or US AID,” she says. If any of these agencies are fortunate, Nathalie Butcher will get her wish.

Related Links

Nathalie Butcher's blog on her summer >>
United in Diversity >>
MBA Program >>