As a Kennedy Memorial Scholar at Harvard Kennedy School, I was invited to participate in the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. It was the summer between my first and second year at grad school; the first year of my degree had hurtled by, incredibly rapidly, and I was starting to wonder about what came next. Being at that stage of life — open to everything and determined to throw your energies out into the world — the Summit in Hawaii was truly electrifying. I remain deeply grateful for the experience, and to have been able to share it with such an outgoing, remarkable group of peers —friendships and bonds that continue to this day.
There were too many incredible moments from of our time in Kona to mention here. Just a few that come to mind: the hypnotic, ethereal underwater images of David Doubilet; the livening intellect and charisma of Lisa Randall; the passionate, inspiring story of Greg Mortenson; and the insightful, humorous reflections of Frank McCourt. I remember one particular conversation with Nicholas Kristof, talking at length with him about how he had come to form his belief that educating girls and women is the most powerful of all development tools. This resonated with my own experiences in India and the Maldives, and I have thought of his words often since then.
After grad school, pursuing my passion in this area took me to Bangladesh, where I was part of a fantastic team helping to develop safer workplaces and better job opportunities for young female migrants in the garment industry; to Peru, where I had the opportunity to learn from some fiercely determined and successful women entrepreneurs; and to Papua New Guinea, where I have worked with the World Bank to bring literacy, energy and basic health services to indigenous women whose remote communities have been turned upside down by extractive industries.
These experiences were tremendous privileges. I learned a lot, traveled and met some amazing people, and hopefully contributed in a few small but meaningful ways. Yet after a few years, I had a persistent feeling that there was something a bit surreal about my lifestyle. I questioned the itinerancy of it, and doubted the utility of my ephemeral engagement in these complex, intractable contexts. I have always loved poetry, and a few of the words from W.S. Merwin’s marvelous speech had stayed with me from the Summit. I don’t remember the exact phrases, but he spoke of the importance of finding roots in a “place” rather than looking for “situations,” and of his belief that all people should seek vocations that express their singularity, their unique talents and make their own contribution to the world. This reflection inspired me, and I realized I needed to radically change my life.
I was living in D.C. at the time, but I have always felt a strong affinity with nature, having grown up in a fishing village, and have found myself happiest when outdoors and in the ocean on my surfboard. At the same time, the more I traveled in the developing world, the more I came to believe in the power of a commercial approach to service delivery. I’d long been interested in solar energy, and I had a vague idea that I could combine this with my passions for protecting the environment and my interest in an entrepreneurial approach to helping people help themselves.
So I sold or gave away most of my furniture and belongings, left my apartment in the U.S., and moved to Fiji. It was, in all ways, a leap of faith. I knew nobody there, and had no idea how I was going to transition from part-time consulting in international development to setting up a solar company in the Pacific Islands. Yet two years on — through an amazing stroke of luck in linking up with likeminded people, and with a ton of hard work from all of us — that’s exactly what I am doing. The company is called Sunergise, and we are a full-service solar developer, working to bring businesses and communities clean, affordable energy. From December 22, 2012, when our first installation was completed (and then promptly struck by a hurricane — but it survived!) until today, when we have almost 3MW installed, it’s been a wild journey, but I’m grateful for all of it. Participating in the Academy’s Summit, though I didn’t realize it at the time, helped to immerse me in a world of people whose lives demonstrate that almost anything is possible if you commit wholeheartedly. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Catherine and Wayne Reynolds for their generosity and vision in helping to inspire me, and so many others, as we find our places in the world.