20 Apr 2016

Steps to Success

Alleviating the effects of climate change to create a viable future in rural Africa
Re: Paige Arnof-Fenn (MBA 1991)
by Jill Radsken


Taken in front a a cashew tree in cooperative garden at Fass Koffe, Senegal (Photo by Patricia Andersson)

The cashew trees growing into a beautiful shady forest in Fass Koffe, a two-acre community garden in Senegal, are a sight to behold.

“Visitors can’t take a step without stepping on a plant,” says Louise Fenn Ruhr (MBA 1977), chief operating officer for the Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology for the Environment (CREATE!), which laid the groundwork for the garden through irrigation basins, a solar-powered pump, and, most importantly, training cooperative groups of village women: “It’s just stunning to see the transformation of the garden and the women. They’re standing tall among all they’ve accomplished.”

As remarkable an achievement as Fass Koffe is, it’s but one of several the Oregon-based nonprofit has completed since its founding in 2008 with a mission to empower poor and displaced communities in the developing world—particularly women—cope with the impact of climate change through sustainable food, water, energy, and income-generation programs. Ruhr, who joined the mission shortly after it began, has been central to its work. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Paris in December 2015, CREATE! received a Gender Just Climate Solutions Award from the Women and Gender Constituency.

“We have assisted nine villages, and three ‘graduated’ at the end of last year by reaching self-sufficiency. That is really the holy grail of the work,” says Ruhr, who visits the West African country several times a year. “We are training very capable people to do things they never knew existed and to achieve mastery of it.”

In describing that sense of accomplishment, Ruhr could well be speaking about the early years of her own career, which was born in Professor Ray A. Goldberg’s agriculture and business class at HBS.

“A lot of people were going into consulting or investment banking. What I was interested in was the grain merchandising business. His class was very popular and tough, and I loved it. Somehow it struck me—all these large companies that move giant quantities of grain around the world, how things get from Point A to Point B,” she recalls.

With Goldberg’s help, Ruhr got a summer job working for General Mills in its Stockton, California, regional grain office. Upon graduating, she went to work for the company, first on the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, and then in Minneapolis.

“I was the person who bought the oats for Cheerios,” she remembers. “I had the great fortune to go to headquarters periodically, and decided to move to the marketing division.”

She spent most of her time in the company’s Big G Division, working with products such as Yoplait yogurt, until 1984 when a headhunter called to recruit her for a small chain of upscale restaurants run by Kansas-based Gilbert-Robinson, Inc. After two years as vice president of marketing, she returned to Minneapolis to work at an ad agency and to do some independent consulting.

In 1998, Ruhr made her first foray into the nonprofit world, at the Minnesota Orchestral Association as vice president of marketing. Her passion for the music matched her enthusiasm for the job, and she enjoyed applying all the lessons she’d learned in business school to the arts world.

“Hardly a month [goes by] that I haven’t pulled out a nugget of a lesson from one of those classes,” she says.

A return to consulting, for marketing firm Mavens & Moguls—run by her sister-in-law, Paige Arnof-Fenn (MBA 1991)—led Ruhr to join the volunteer board of the American Refugee Committee (ARC). Eventually she became president of its Global Partners division, a position that led to her first trip to refugee camps in Rwanda, in 2004.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she recalls. “It was just 10 years after the genocide. Our vehicle pulled into the camp and this young refugee woman grabbed my hand. Off I went with her. In this completely unfamiliar environment, I just had this epiphany that this is where I belong.”

For five years, Ruhr helped women in three different camps, teaching basic technical skills (how to make soap) and, more importantly, how to save money, as part of ARC’s Income Generation Program.

“They were training [them] to save very tiny amounts of money and take loans out of a common fund and pay it back with interest. For these women who have nothing, this was the first time it was implemented successfully,” she says.

Ruhr returned to her native Oregon for family reasons in 2010. It was there she reconnected with CREATE! founder and executive director Barry Wheeler, for whom she had worked in Rwanda.

With donations from individuals and small family foundations, CREATE! has grown to a full-time staff of 12 in Senegal with an annual budget approaching $400,000. Last year, the nonprofit reached more than 4,000 poor and displaced people.

Some of the villages have seen slow progress, and one dropped out entirely, but Ruhr focuses on what CREATE! is building, which includes a workforce trained in computer science and agriculture that can now use QuickBooks for accounting.

“We just break it down. Anything that seems overwhelming—it’s ‘next step and next step, and you will get there.’ And it started at HBS,” Ruhr says. “You break it down and you get there.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1977, Section I

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