Gina Alm C’18 interned at Kmerpad in Yaoundé, Cameroon

2016 Startup Internship Award Winner supported by The Rosalind (WG’76) and Roy (WG’76) Neff Entrepreneurial Internship Fund

Kmerpad is a small startup based in Yaoundé, Cameroon with a progressive social agenda and an innovative business model; they employ local women to sew washable menstrual pads, sell them and use the revenue to provide reproductive health education to vulnerable communities throughout the country. I worked for Kmerpad this summer as a Strategy Intern.

When the opportunity first presented itself, I assumed that remote work would likely be the best way for me to contribute. Traveling to Africa and taking up residence for two months seemed excessive for what appeared to be one big consulting case. Yet, co-founder Yap Boum insisted that it would be necessary. Further, he felt that 2 months would barely cut it. He was absolutely right. Why? Context.

Context has never played a more critical role in my life and work as it did this summer. Socially, politically, economically and environmentally, I witnessed fundamental disparities between my lifelong surroundings and the environment I immersed myself in for just 8 short weeks in Cameroon. More surprising and arguably more valuable, I can attest to countless axiological similarities: proof that there are significant human patterns of behavior that transcend even the most robust cultures in the world.

The first half of my internship was necessarily spent uncovering all of these truths as they play into the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. Having the opportunity to view their operations as both an insider and an outsider, I could offer Kmerpad a new perspective on the scope of their mission, marketing strategy and target audience. It’s exciting to know that these conversations alone would offer a critical boost to countless forward-thinking social enterprises that may be limited by a similar kind of geographic or cultural isolation.

For the remaining month, fellow intern Michelle White and I spent time with Kmerpad’s management team laying the foundations for them to continue developing in the way that we all collectively envisioned. We designed media templates, a digital accounting system and a growth plan that incorporated step-by-step transitions complete with cost estimates and opportunities for alternative funding. If Kmerpad can successfully transition into a for-profit business over the course of the next 1 to 2 years, they will be able to take complete ownership of their educational outreach program: undoubtedly the most important thing that they do.

On that note, I’d like to share a story from one of the seminars we held this summer in collaboration with UN Woman. When we asked the participants to share some of their personal experiences, we heard several recounts of their very first periods (where they were, how they felt, who they told, etc…). One woman shared something particularly eye-opening.

She was only 10 when she experienced what she would later understand to be her first monthly period. At the time she had no knowledge to prepare her for the event, and she was understandably terrified. She asked her mother what was wrong and her mother responded by beating her. She must be having sex, her mother assumed, and she must have become pregnant. After taking her daughter to the hospital for a pregnancy test that, expectedly, was negative, she continued to beat her every month for several years, refusing to acknowledge that what her daughter was experiencing was not only natural, but healthy.

By the time she finished speaking, most everyone in the room was in tears.

I have come to believe that suffering from this kind of body illiteracy is the most degrading systemic problem that real women face today. Most important, I have seen that the moment when a woman can break the silence and take pride in every part of her body is empowering beyond measure.

I want to thank the Wharton School and WSII for not only supporting my work, but for believing in my ability to make it a valuable experience for everyone involved. Countless faculty members offered their guidance and mentorship, and most important, their confidence my application of the professional skills that I have acquired at Penn over the past two years. The fact that we were not only trusted but encouraged to pioneer this whole two month excursion says a lot about how much the school truly values its students. It is clear that the impact of their investments really does extend far beyond the classroom.

Questions:

How did you find the position?

My friend and fellow intern Michelle White connected me to Professor Katherine Klein in the Wharton School. Katherine met Yap Boum, co-founder of Kmerpad, through the African Leadership Network and was particularly moved by his mission and his work. Michelle and I then coordinated the internship directly through Kmerpad.

What was your motivation for working at a startup this summer?

I wanted to do something new. An impact-driven startup in Cameroon, Africa was new in all the best ways.

What advice would you give to students interested in working at a startup this summer?

My best advice is to quickly strike a balance between offering your general help and suggesting specific tasks where you feel the company could most benefit from your work. I found that while both are appreciated, the best results come from a place somewhere in between.