25 Jun 2019

After the Storm

How Erik Dyson found balance in helping global communities recover from natural disasters
by Paul Flannery


Photo by John Deputy

It’s fitting that Erik Dyson’s HBS interview was conducted over a pay phone in Costa Rica, where he and his wife, Debbi, were finishing a three-year program for Habitat for Humanity. Now the CEO of the disaster relief organization All Hands and Hearts–Smart Response, Dyson (MBA 1999) always knew he wanted to work with nonprofits, and Habitat offered a way to begin learning on-the-ground skills like transporting cement blocks over crumbling roads in time to build a house.

The plan after graduating from HBS was to work in the corporate sector for seven years, long enough to gain practical management experience and lay the financial groundwork for his family to transition into the world of nonprofits. He wound up staying twice as long.

“Every year it would get to bonus time, and I’d say, ‘All right, next year I’m going to do this,’” Dyson recalls.

He had been managing lottery systems throughout Latin America for GTECH, a Rhode Island–based firm, but when the company expanded into casino gaming and wanted Dyson to manage the portfolio, it was finally too much. He was already spending 80 percent of his time traveling abroad, and his three kids were growing up fast.

He sat down with Debbi, who told him to stop justifying his decision. If he was going to make the move, just do it. They had planned financially for the moment, fully aware that going the nonprofit route would mean a substantial pay cut. That part was fine, but while Dyson may have been ready for nonprofits, they weren’t exactly receptive to the guy from corporate.

During job interviews, the organizations told Dyson he was going through a midlife crisis. Also, his corporate background was a negative in the nonprofit world, and he hadn’t paid his dues. In other words, “You don’t deserve it, and you haven’t earned it.”

It was a humbling reality check. Then Dyson met David Campbell, the founder of All Hands volunteers, an organization that enables volunteers to provide on-the-ground assistance following natural disasters. Initially, Campbell had the same reaction, telling Dyson it was a phase and it would pass. But Dyson was insistent and he made his case over a four-hour lunch at a Panera Bread café in suburban Boston that has become the spot of all their important meetings.

That fateful lunch happened six-and-a-half years ago. Today, Dyson is the CEO of All Hands and Hearts–Smart Response, the result of a merger with supermodel Petra Nemcova’s Happy Hearts Fund. The organization is volunteer-driven and prides itself on showing up early and staying late in the wake of natural disasters, working closely with local agencies to provide, as Dyson puts it, “micro solutions to macro problems.”

Some disasters, like hurricanes, are predictable. Others, such as earthquakes, are not.

“I will get a text from the guy who runs international response for us, 9 p.m. on a Friday night, saying there was just an earthquake and that we should do an assessment,” Dyson says. “I want to get on a plane in the next 24 hours and start formulating my end. So, yes or no?”

Once the decision is made to send a team of volunteers, the organization’s goal is not to be first on the ground, but last. They look for places off the beaten path that might fall through the cracks but are in need of direct assistance long after the initial cleanup operations are finished.

Once they’re on the ground, the mission includes repairing homes, rebuilding schools, health clinics, community centers, and whatever else is needed. It’s a job that taps into his entire skill set, from reorganization and recruiting to fundraising and marketing, and, of course, project management.

“We look at the entire evolution of a disaster—from the day when the hurricane hits all the way through the rebuild of that community, can last five, seven, 10 years,” Dyson says. “We try to stay as long as that community needs us. We’re driven by a view that ordinary people can have a space to help in a natural disaster.”

Dyson had recently returned from Nepal, where a team of 70 volunteers from all over the world has been stationed following the 2015 earthquake. The team is working in a rural outpost, about a seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, where they’ve built 20 schools over the last four years.

It’s a measured response to a national catastrophe. Dyson says that 8,000 schools were damaged by the earthquake. They can’t fix them all, but that’s not the point. “Don’t get overwhelmed by the problem,” he says. “Be focused on the solution we’re offering.”

A management team consisting of local Nepalese and a few expats from the States rented a rice paddy, where they set up a makeshift camp. Volunteers sign up online and pay their own travel expenses. Once they arrive, the organization provides housing and food. In this case, housing is space to set up a tent. The volunteers can stay for as long as they want, with no minimum requirement.

“I’m a non-emotional person,” Dyson observes. “But every time I go to our projects I start crying. I see our teams killing themselves. They’re not doing it for money. They’re not doing it to get into a better college. They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

And, for Dyson, he’s finally found that work-life balance that was unavailable in his past life.

“My worst day at this job is better than my best day at my corporate job,” he says. “You can go out and see what these communities are going through, and then see the hope our teams are bringing back in very tangible, small ways to help families on an individual basis on that long path to recovery. You can’t do that and not be inspired and overwhelmed and humbled.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1999, Section I

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