CHANGERS PROFILE: Erin Guttenplan—Edge of Seven

I got some great international response to the blog recently, including a lovely and heartfelt comment yesterday from a reader in Kathmandu, Nepal. How perfect that today I am running this interview with the amazing Erin Guttenplan who created the service tour/volunteer travel company, Edge of Seven (with a great program—that I am desperate to do—that creates more education opportunities for girls in Nepal). Erin is one of those folks I find so fascinating, who saw the world a particular way, and it demanded that she step up and create something new. I love what she’s up to, and how the world reaps the benefits of her work, and her astute perceptions of how some charitable organizations/NGOs are not doing what they say they are was sadly but vividly played out similarly in my recent experiences in Haiti…

Erin Guttenplan

ERIN GUTTENPLAN (Founder/Executive Director), EDGE OF SEVEN

Erin believes in the potential of international service to foster global understanding between people and nations. She created Edge of Seven because she has worked with communities in need in the developing world. She has also met volunteers who want to serve in any capacity, big or small. Erin believes that Edge of Seven is an affordable vehicle to harness the potential in connecting the two.

The mission of Edge of Seven is to create awareness and volunteer support for service projects in developing countries that are sustainable, community driven, and responsive to local needs. We at Edge of Seven believe that change is possible with collective action over time.

Tell me a little bit about the genesis of EDGE OF SEVEN—why this? And what’s the scoop on that name?
It really began years ago when I attended an info session about the Peace Corps. After learning that it was a 2 ½ year time commitment, I decided not to apply. I felt that I couldn’t go that far away, for that long, at that time in my life. I searched for a short-term alternative but they were too expensive. I noticed a need.

As for easier things to start, I’m a firm believer that we learn the most from our greatest challenges. I have been incredibly lucky to have the unwavering support of my family and friends every step of the way. Everything is easier with people behind you. (I also love wine. That certainly helps.)

Our name! I love telling the story of our name. Edge is our heart. When I was thinking about names for a volunteering-abroad-in-developing-countries-around-the-world nonprofit, I was looking for a word that signified adventure. Enter “edge”. We strive to create a bold experience that pushes volunteers since real discovery happens outside of our comfort zone. Further, we think that intercultural cooperation happens when you feel how people live halfway across the world. Seven is our vision. We’d like to support projects on all seven continents in the future. We’ll grow slowly because the most important piece of the puzzle is that we find the RIGHT projects. We’re on the hunt for projects that are community driven, sustainable, and responsive to local needs. Those projects exist all over the world and we’re excited to find them. (More after the jump)

What work or pursuits were you up to that led you here? Did your youth/upbringing/family life seem to put you on this path, or did you come to it later?
I’ve always been in awe of entrepreneurs. I’ve always wanted to be one. My grandfather had his own company and when I have difficult moments, my mom always reminds me of his challenges. And, she also reminds me that ultimately, he overcame them.

I worked for a start-up right out of college because it was called a start-up. Seriously. I worked for a concierge service in Beacon Hill (Boston) running errands for wealthy clients. That’s a fancy way of saying I walked dogs and shoveled snow. But, I also learned a great deal about starting a small business.

After taking a year off to waitress in Australia and backpack through Asia, I landed at EF Education for the greater part of the last decade. I held seven different roles with EF, the world leader in international education, working in sales, customer service, marketing, human resources, and business development. It was a great company to “grow-up” in because EF people are given real responsibility very early in their careers. It’s about as entrepreneurial as you get for a corporate office. EF taught me leadership skills, self-awareness, and how to take big risks.

What was your awareness and experience with Nepal before you started this program?
I visited Nepal for the first time as a tourist in November 2008 and fell in love with the country, the scenery, and the people. I saw an opportunity. I saw an opportunity to connect American volunteers with projects in Nepal and other developing countries at an affordable price point.

What obstacles along the way almost stopped you?
Everything. Nothing. That’s a tough question. Truthfully, nothing has almost stopped me. There are a million things that have overwhelmed me. But what starts to happen is that every day has a small victory. The small victories start to outweigh the challenges. I’m not naïve – I’m far from in the clear. But, I’m hopeful.

In a nutshell—what is the problem facing the communities you serve? Why is the program needed?
Our projects are consistent with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that respond to the world’s main development challenges. They include goals and targets on income poverty, hunger, maternal and child mortality, disease, inadequate shelter, gender inequality, environmental degradation, and the Global Partnership for Development. We connect volunteers with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the developing countries that are searching for their experience or skill set to help with these challenges.

I spent last fall/winter in Nepal, India, Thailand, and India meeting with various NGOs and spending loads of quality time with international volunteers. I listened to their praises and their criticisms and shaped Edge of Seven accordingly. I think our program is needed for a two key reasons:

We connect donors and volunteers with quality NGOs.
NGOs are local. They live in the communities they serve. They understand the need. They can sustain development efforts. We create awareness and volunteer support for great projects that are already happening. Unfortunately, about half of the NGOs that I met with were not doing what they said they were doing. You can’t tell that halfway across the world and before you spend your time or money supporting a cause, you need to make sure it’s legit. Volunteers want to be useful when they serve abroad. I saw many cases of irate volunteers who had spent large sums of money to be placed on “fluff” projects. Donors want to know exactly where their money is going. 100% of our donations go to the project site. No overhead. No administrative costs.

We make it easy and affordable for Americans to volunteer abroad.
I think it is critical for Americans to travel in order to become global citizens. I think that we need to understand the challenges that our world faces, not just our country. Our program fees are all-inclusive. They include flights, room & board, orientation, transportation, and 24/7 local support. We do the work for you. Our prices are customized to the individual and we are committed to keeping our program fees as low as possible. By partnering with NGOs in developing countries, we can keep our overhead costs extremely low and pass savings onto our volunteers. You can go for 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years. You can go with a group or by yourself. You decide.

Does the work of this organization ever end? Is there a measurable result that makes the need go away?
No. The need never goes away because we are tackling all levels of need on all continents. To give you an idea, Nepal is one of 189 countries trying to achieve these goals [Millenium Development Goals]. These are guidelines for the global community to begin tackling extreme poverty throughout the developing world. It will take many lifetimes to eliminate it.

When deciding to dedicate yourself to this, did family and friends support you or think you were nuts?

Erin's Father—Nepal

This question makes me teary. I have the most incredible family in this world. I would not be able to do this without them. My father, a man who before May had traveled to a few touristy places in Europe with my mom, lived in rural village in Nepal for two weeks to show his support for his daughter. Equally as difficult, my mom let him go. My brothers and sister- in-law are constantly spreading the word about Edge of Seven, investing in my projects, and offering words of encouragement when it’s most needed. My boyfriend spent two months with me working on the project in Nepal and didn’t break up with me when I acted like a lunatic. When I think I’m nuts, they tell me I can do it. They are my team.

What is your earliest memory of volunteering or dedicating yourself to someone or something else?
When I was about 12, a good family friend of ours ran for State Representative. She was the underdog. Everyone pitched in to help her campaign by dropping flyers, making phone calls, putting up signs, or doing whatever needed to be done. After months of campaigning, and by a narrow margin, Peg won. It was a great life lesson that a community with a united goal can overcome the odds.

What is an example of a typical day for a participant on one of your trips?
I think it varies a bit if you are in the field or in an office. If you are in the field, you get up at sunrise with your host family. There are no hotels in rural areas. You’ll work, take a long lunch break around 10:30 or 11AM, and head back to work around 1 or 2PM. You’ll work again until dark(ish), “shower” with a bucket full of water, eat dinner, and head to bed around 8:30 or 9PM. Sprinkle a few tea breaks in throughout the day. Don’t expect electricity or WiFi. If you are working in a more urban area in the NGO office, you can stay with a host family or in a guesthouse. You’ll work more normal business hours, from 9 or 10AM until 5 or 6PM. Urban areas tend to follow the Western average day more closely and have more amenities.

Is there an ideal client for an Edge of Seven trip?
Yes. We look for volunteers who are self-motivated, able communicators, and extremely flexible. This question makes me think of the following quote that I recently came across on Timberland’s website: “If you come only to help me, you can go back home. But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle for survival, then maybe we can work together.”
– An Aboriginal Woman

To me, this quote says it all. We look for volunteers who look at international service as an opportunity for personal and global development. It’s all in a volunteer’s attitude. If you go in thinking that you have all of the answers, you may do more damage than good. If you go in thinking that you might just gain more than you can give, you will make a difference in at least two lives – one of them being your own.

Any advice for others wanting to create a service organization or charitable effort?
Make sure the endeavor you are pursuing is the thing that you are most passionate about. If it is, you’ll find a way to make it work.

If not this, what? (What might you be doing if not Edge of Seven?)
I’ve always wanted to be a female rapper.

How can the rest of us get involved? What about from home?
Volunteer. If you can make the trip to Asia, I’d love to put you to work in Nepal, India, Thailand, or Cambodia. As you can see, there is tremendous opportunity. If you can’t make the trip to Asia, I need help in the U.S. You can hold a fundraising event, support our administrative efforts, or spread the word through social media! Drop me a line at erin@edgeofseven.org if you want to volunteer.

Donate. We are currently raising $22,500 to fund a women’s hostel in Nepal. You can visit our fundraising page at http://edgeofseven.chipin.com/solukhumbu-womens-empowerment-project for more details.

What has been the best reward for the work you do?
This summer, we built a primary school in a rural village in Nepal. The current school was collapsing. One of the teachers, through translated English, made a speech on our last day in the village. She told us that during rainy season she used to watch the water run down the walls and worry constantly about the building collapsing, both for her children’s safety and the educational future of the village. She thanked us for bringing a new school and a renewed sense of hope to her community. My job pays me in moments. They are priceless.

What has been the greatest disappointment along the way? Hardest lesson?
When you are getting started, you don’t know what questions to ask. Instead of soliciting help, I trusted that a given situation would work out OK. It did and it didn’t. My mistake created extra work and stress for several people, including myself. I learned that trading pride for information is always a worthwhile exchange.

What’s next?
This fall, we’re headed back to Nepal! Our Solukhumbu Women’s Empowerment project provides an opportunity for women in the Everest region Nepal to continue their studies by offering a safe and affordable housing solution near the higher secondary school. In this region, approximately 70% of women drop out of school after the 10th grade because it is too difficult, both financially and geographically, for them to continue their studies. We are building a 15 room hostel in the district headquarters to empower 50 women per year to complete their educational journey. The project begins on November 8th.

There are ongoing individual opportunities year-round in Nepal, India, Thailand, and Cambodia. We offer placements in teaching posts, advisory roles, empowerment initiatives, development opportunities, and building projects.

Finally, we’re re-launching our website in the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for the new and improved www.edgeofseven.org.

One response to this post.

  1. […] opportunity to support my friends at Edge of Seven (see interview with founder, Erin Guttenplan, here), where the deal gets as many of us as possible to donate just $10 (and if 45 of us do, it will […]

    Reply

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