Originally published on December 1, 2017.
Growing up in a small town in southern Ireland, Kate Coffey dreamed of visiting far off places. These big dreams, along with Kate’s intellect, business acumen and passion for volunteering are what led Kate from Ireland to Canada to Nepal and eventually Sri Lanka, where we meet her today – volunteering with USAID’s VEGA/BIZ+ program.
An impressive financial career used for good
Kate spent 25+ years working as a senior business strategist for large investment management firms, Kate credits her success to having common sense, being a quick learner and having an ability to work with all kinds of people. Though her career was demanding, she still found time to pursue other passions like supporting the arts and her local community, volunteering and traveling. In 2012, she was able to do both at the same time.
“After I got back from my first trip to Nepal, I knew I wanted to find a way back. I put in my one year notice,” says Kate.
In 2013, Kate resigned from her permanent corporate position for a new adventure. She matched with a volunteer opportunity at the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center (SIRC) in Nepal, where she helped coordinate fundraising efforts, coached and mentored staff as well as created a staff response process to spinal cord injuries following the 2015 earthquakes.
Business development support in Sri Lanka
Kate’s most recent stint has been nine months spent volunteering in Sri Lanka with the VEGA/BIZ+ program. Funded by the U.S. Government’s development arm, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, this program provides matching grants to small local businesses looking to increase productivity and create job opportunities and incomes for people in their communities.
BIZ+ not only supports these businesses with financial support, but also with technical and business assistance to set them up for long-term success. This is where Kate comes in. With many years of experience analyzing and coaching businesses, Kate uses her expertise to support four BIZ+ businesses in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces: a rice flour mill, a manufacturer of woven bags for agriculture products, an heirloom rice producer, and a garment factory.
A day in Kate’s Sri Lanka life
“He was a designer, an artist. He wasn’t a business owner by training. Equipping him with tools like this enables him to run his business more effectively.”
When Kate first arrives at the Agash Garment Factory for the day, she is all smiles. She points to neatly stacked and labeled boxes in the corner. “Look how organized they are!” Kate exclaims in her Irish-Canadian accent. “It’s things like this that help me see our trainings are being used.”
Agash is a garment factory located in Jaffna, the main city in Sri Lanka’s northern province. Many business owners like Agash’s Muruganantham lost their jobs, businesses, and homes due to the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war. Becoming reestablished wasn’t easy. Muruganantham, who designs and sews men’s clothing exclusively for a domestic market, got his garment factory back on its feet in 2010, but he struggled to grow his business. Shortly after opening, VEGA BIZ+ provided a matching grant to Agash to purchase sewing machines, solar panels, other materials to expand the factory.
During this time, Kate and BIZ+ colleagues regularly provided in person coaching, trainings and human resource guidance to Muruganantham. “He was a designer, an artist. He wasn’t a business owner by training. Equipping him with tools like this enables him to run his business more effectively,” says Kate.
While displaying some of his latest shirts, Muruganantham talks about his experience working with Kate, “She would spend a day with us, then give us homework…like keeping records of sales...and she helped us to understand inventory and how to get more profit from the raw materials,” he says. Trainings included sessions on how to manage employees, maximize inventory efficiency and keep track of financial records. “She also taught me to be more proactive and work together with my employees.”
Since BIZ+’s initial investment in 2016, Agash has expanded operations in the area, created 32 new jobs, and seen a 25 percent increase in profit for each shirt made.
“I am now able to do business in the proper manner and think about the future,” says Muruganantham.
So, what’s next for Kate?
As for Kate’s immediate future, she’s headed back to Vancouver to work and spend some time at home. Though she’s not sure where or exactly when she’ll head back overseas for volunteering. She likes thinking about how many possibilities there are out there. Like majestic Mt. Everest, the sky is the limit for Kate.