From aid worker to social entrepreneur: 6 tips to make the leap

A Solévolt solar-powered energy system. Photo by: Solévolt

Rosalia Gitau is no stranger to new challenges and reinventing herself. The former corporate lawyer first traded her gilded office in Manhattan for the life of a United Nations humanitarian aid worker responding to crises in Lebanon, Guinea, Nigeria, Central African Republic and Haiti. Now, she has embarked on another “karmic reincarnation” as the chief operating officer of a social enterprise she started with a former colleague.

Her new venture, Solévolt, provides off-grid solar-powered energy systems that can provide clean and cheap electricity to homes, businesses, clinics and schools. Currently operating in Guinea, Haiti and the Philippines, Solévolt’s mission is to supply the 1.2 billion people currently without access to power with clean energy in high enough quantities to power a small business, a local clinic or a school.

Gitau is also the co-founder of the Humanitarian Women’s Network, a group set up in 2016 to shine a light on the underreported issue of sexual harassment and abuse against female aid workers. The serial entrepreneur said she left her job at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to start Solévolt because she believed that “a private-sector driven and innovative tech approach” was needed in order to address the endless poverty she had witnessed during her 10 years as an aid worker.  

“I knew I wanted to work in a startup about a year before I started Solévolt,” Gitau said. “I had the dawning realization that people 10 years younger than me were entering the job market with skills that I just did not possess; I knew that if I didn’t skill-up, I risked being irrelevant in the 21st century economy.”

Talking about the experience of starting her own social enterprise, Gitau has six tips for others contemplating the same leap.

1. Have a plan and some savings.

“Don’t leave a job before you have a job” is Gitau’s first piece of advice to would-be entrepreneurs thinking about going it alone.

The former aid worker said she spent all her free hours and weekends developing and fine tuning the Solévolt concept — including beginning product development and registering the company — before making the decision to quit her job. She recommends that other aspiring innovators do the same: this way you can “take your issue from concept to reality” while you’re still employed, and really hit the ground running, she said.

Having enough cash to last you for at least two years is also important, so that when you do quit, you can focus on your new venture without being distracted by financial worries or being tempted by the lure of lucrative freelance assignments. “You must be 100 percent committed to your new endeavor and being cash-strapped at the outset will compromise this commitment,” she warned.

For an added level of security, Gitau recommends that those leaving behind full-time jobs contact their organization’s human resources team to explore whether they can offer a sabbatical or special leave arrangement. “This will ensure that you still get to be a staff member and will not have to restart your career as an external candidate should you decide to go back to aid. And you’ll just feel like you have a bit of a safety net,” she said.

2. Be prepared to work hard — but think about outsourcing the more specialized parts.

Once you’ve made the leap, be prepared to work at least 70 hours a week and at all hours of the night and day, Gitau said. “Starting your own shop is a serious time commitment and approaching it as a sabbatical year will end in tears and debt,” she said.

To make sure you’ve got what it takes, “do some serious introspection” about your work habits before starting a venture, she advised. “Do you reply to emails within 24 hours or 24 days? If you’re the former, go for it. If you’re the latter, consider partnering with someone to keep motivation and workflow high.”

On the other hand, you don’t need to do everything, and Gitau recommends using platforms such as UpWork and Freelancer to scout affordable technical specialists and freelancers.

3. Location is key.

A good internet connection, affordable rent and ease of travel will be key considerations when thinking about where to set up shop, Gitau said. She recommends Bangkok, Nairobi, Dakar or Berlin as good “regional hubs” with a healthy mixture of technology companies, private sector and also international agencies.

“A supportive ecosystem and network will help your business substantially but heading straight to Silicon Valley or New York is going to eat very quickly into your savings,” she said.

4. Sound mind, sound body.

Leaving the safety and security of a steady job can be hard on your sense of self-worth, according to Gitau, who recommends that would-be entrepreneurs get themselves fit and ready for the “roller-coaster ride that is starting your own business in the fast-paced start-up world.”

She recommends meditation, exercise and a good diet. “This is an all-encompassing endeavor and you need to be ready to handle the physical pressure,” she said.

5. Go in knowing you will fail.

Failing — not just once but “countless times” — is to be expected. Although this will likely lead to feelings of embarrassment and shame, these experiences will help in the long run since “failure is the best teacher for an entrepreneur,” Gitau said.

She and her partner at Solévolt recently experienced this first hand. “In October we were rejected from a major investor in Silicon Valley — the type of investor that would have turned our lives around. However, we used this failure to bring our business to the next level and now we are nowhere we could have imagined when we started out,” she said.

6. Go for it, learn new skills and have the time of your life.

Once you’ve finalized your plan, found a location, put some money aside, and prepared yourself mentally and physically, Gitau’s next piece of advice is to “pick a date to quit your job and just do it.”

Her own experience has been worth the hard work and the risk. “I feel like I’m getting an MBA crash course — these are all amazing skillsets that are transferrable to whatever you decide to do next,” she said. “I am, unequivocally, having the best work experience I have had in years.”

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.