|14 Oct 2021
I didn’t grow up with a calling to work in Africa. I finished university only knowing that I wanted to find a way to work with bright people, get some good training and challenge myself. Having a look around, I opted for management consultancy and started at Oliver Wyman after graduation. I thought I’d only last two years, but in the end I made great friends and had some interesting work and stayed for six years.
Three years in, feeling restless and wanting to try something different, I took up the firm’s offer of a not-for-profit secondment. I chose to spend four months working at a small charity I’d come across called PEAS. They build and run secondary schools in Africa, and at the time were growing fast, but with only three employees in the London office. PEAS was set up to meet the huge gap for secondary education in Uganda, where only one in four children can access an affordable secondary school when they leave primary, and girls are the most often left behind.
Everyone I met was optimistic about their chance to make a difference, but they also had an impressively thoughtful approach to the downfalls of international aid and what to avoid. I’d had a picture in my mind of the charity sector: slow moving, emotional, consensus driven. PEAS wasn’t like that at all. I got stuck in, and quickly got a flavour for how much you could get done in a small start-up environment compared to the industry giants I’d worked in as a consultant.
When I went back to my consulting role, after a while the shine started to fade. I was doing important and interesting projects, working with senior execs in top FTSE companies, but I still couldn’t get excited about it. So I decided to look for a permanent role in the not-for-profit sector.
I moved to become COO at an organisation now called Skills Builder, which worked closely with UK schools to develop skills like teamwork, resilience and presenting for students who don’t get a chance to learn those at home. It was a great opportunity to shape a real organisation, and while I was there it grew from eight to 26 employees.
Then after three years when I decided I was ready for a new challenge, I jumped at the chance to re-join PEAS as their COO. I haven’t regretted it for a second. The job is hard and keeps me thinking on my feet, and what PEAS achieves every year makes me incredibly proud, even of my small role. We now educate over 15,000 students across Uganda and Zambia, and I look after finance and HR, and manage the Country Directors for both Uganda and Zambia.
While the feel-good factor of working in the social sector is undeniable, there are certainly downsides. The highs are high, but the lows are low. Finding out that despite a lot of hard work, we have missed out on some funding that could have helped one of our schools reach hundreds more students is tough for the whole team. My trips out to our schools are probably the best days of the job. Meeting our students is always really inspiring and I love seeing the difference that our schools can make to their lives.
My proudest moment at PEAS was visiting a new school we opened in Zambia in 2018. I was involved right from the very beginning: from walking through the bush to help choose the land site to selecting the building contractors; I even went with the team to meet the local traditional chief to persuade him to join us in persuading his people to move away from child marriage and enrol their daughters in our school to opening the school. It was the first ever school in that area with no day fees, and that was important in an area where 75% of the families live on less than $1.90 a day for the entire household.
It took months and months of fundraising, painstaking applications, endless conference calls, but it was all worth it when we got there to see a real school with real kids. Every single child in the school – 315 of them – stood outside in a huge square in their bright orange uniforms singing to us as we walked in. There wasn’t a dry eye among us – certainly a day to remember!
Rising star Poppy Gilbert, Class of 2015, has wanted to act since she was 12 and seized every opportunity at LEH. Since … More...