Name: Courtenay Cabot Venton
Education: BA, Economics, Northwestern University; MSc, Environmental Policy and Management, Oxford
SFS Program: Mexico Fall 1994
Current Profession: Environmental Economist
Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
I have always been an environmentalist at heart. When I was in high school, I ran the environmental club, and I quickly realized that one of the best ways to get people to protect the environment – particularly in the private sector – was to articulate the economic benefits of doing so. So in college I majored in economics. While Northwestern had an excellent economics department, I really wanted to do environmental economics and the head of my program let me design an environmental focus. One part of that was studying in Baja, Mexico with SFS.
Reflecting back on your time in the program, what did you gain from your SFS experience?
I gained so much from my experience, and I still wish that I could go back in time. There is nothing better than experiential learning, and my program was a perfect mix of classroom studies and extensive field work. There is something truly unique as well about living and working with your peers, 24 hours a day. It creates incredible bonding moments, but it also really teaches you to work it out when you have a difficulty with someone, and to really get to know people who come from all different backgrounds, interests, etc.
What is your most profound or lasting memory from your SFS program?
Swimming with a whale shark and rescuing a humpback with a net covering its head!
What do you do for work?
I am an environmental economist. After college, I worked for a U.S. based consultancy focused on U.S. environmental policy. After I did my masters, I wanted to shift to more international development work, and I started working in developing countries. You can’t work on environmental issues in developing countries without working on poverty reduction. Most of my work focuses on helping donors and aid agencies (UN, USAID, etc) to figure out what is working, and what is not, when it comes to poverty reduction. A lot of my work has focused on evaluating different types of interventions –water, health, livelihoods, etc – to determine those that are having the biggest impact for every dollar spent on poverty reduction. More recently, my work has focused heavily on humanitarian aid, specifically addressing the economic case for early response to crises.
My days are either spent at my desk, or in the field. When I am at my desk, I am usually on the phone for the morning with colleagues in Africa and Asia, and my afternoons are focused on analysis and writing. When I am in the field, I am either sitting under a tree discussing poverty and the impact of various interventions with community members, or in the capital city working with government and donor counterparts. My work has taken me all over the world – across Asia, Africa and South America.
Did your SFS experience contribute to where you ended up?
100%. My love for being in the field has been heavily influenced by my time in Mexico with SFS.
Describe an interesting project you’ve worked on.
A few years ago I was asked to evaluate an approach to poverty reduction in Ethiopia. Self Help Groups (SHGs) are groups of 15-20 people – mostly women – who come together to save, invest in small businesses, and support each other and their communities. By saving together they are able to lend to each other for small business activities. But more importantly, by working collectively, the women feel empowered to create change in their communities. What’s more, the approach tends to go viral once seeded, with existing groups helping to set up new groups. Determined to do something more, I pulled together a team and we collectively developed an app that would help facilitators to strengthen and spread the Self Help Group model. The app is designed for the facilitators of the groups, and digitizes the weekly content that they use to run a meeting, We could see the potential for an app to help to deepen and strengthen the spread of the approach.
At the time, I had no idea where this would lead, or if we would be successful. With seed funding from private donors, we started small and developed a prototype. That led to catalytic funding from the U.K. government. Three years in, we have funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a vision for a digital platform to help scale the Self Help Group approach globally.
What advice do you have for other SFS alumni looking to get into your field?
The best advice that I was ever given was that nothing you do is a waste of time. My path in my work has not been linear – I spent some time buying and selling companies for Ernst & Young! But everything that I have done has given me skills that translate through to whatever project I am working on. I have used my experiences from E&Y to build financial models for green technologies, for example, and the negotiating skills that I learned have been invaluable. So don’t be afraid to try something new or different. It can only open your mind to different ways of looking at a problem.