What One KANAVA Team Member Taught Me about Resilience

By Susan M. Puska

  KANAVA IT Specialist Matthew Tyson (standing in back) with his colleagues and their children at a 2016 Vietnam Veterans Commemoration Event in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. 

KANAVA IT Specialist Matthew Tyson (standing in back) with his colleagues and their children at a 2016 Vietnam Veterans Commemoration Event in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. 

When a series of unlucky breaks made it hard for him to sleep, bringing on bouts of anxiety and depression, Matthew Tyson found comfort in walking.

“I like to walk -- a lot,” the 33-year-old software engineer and KANAVA IT Specialist told me when I first met him in the winter of 2014. The problem then, as with every winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was that walking in America’s “snow capital” could be a very uncomfortable experience.  In fact, it could be deadly.

Matthew knew more about that than anyone should. When he had to give up his first job to deal with complications from Crohn’s disease, the financial blow left him homeless, fending for himself in a place where winter temperatures average well below freezing.

That’s when city officials in Sault Ste. Marie, where Matthew lived at the time, stepped in to help. Thanks to a publicly funded program to protect the homeless from dangerous temperatures, Matthew spent “a few months” in a local hotel, where he met representatives of a local non-profit that connects out-of-work residents of the Upper Peninsula with potential employers.

I met Matthew through this program, run by the amazing Northern Transitions with support from Michigan Rehabilitation Services, which pairs unemployed individuals with disabilities with potential employers in all 83 of the state’s counties. Born and raised in “the Soo,” as we Michiganders call our northern border town, I was proud to be affiliated with this program.

Like all small businesses, KANAVA looks for employees who can help us build our organization through hard work and commitment to a shared vision. In many cases, new businesses have little more than that vision to offer job applicants, so I was looking for capable people who were willing to go “all in” on the KANAVA journey.

That’s exactly what I found in Matthew. Today, four years after I first met him, he has helped KANAVA grow from a two-person start-up to a respected international development firm with projects around the world. From developing KANAVA’s new website to digitizing our signature Impact Strengthening Development (ISD) tool, Matthew’s work continues to be instrumental to our success.

In many cases, new businesses have little more than [a] vision to offer job applicants, so I was looking for capable people who were willing to go ‘all in’ on the KANAVA journey. That’s exactly what I found in Matthew.

When we checked in recently around his fourth anniversary on the job, Matthew said he felt the same way about KANAVA’s contribution to his own success, personally and professionally. “It’s a corporate environment,” he said, “but it’s also supportive of individuals.”

At KANAVA, we think those two qualities don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, building supportive work environments is at the core of our business.

Born five years ago, KANAVA has taken its people-centered brand of “capacity-building” -- development speak for improving the performance of individuals and organizations -- to countries as far afield as Ghana, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. Today, we are one of only a few women-owned small businesses with a successful international development portfolio.

But we have also used that track record to help spur economic development in local communities in the United States. With staff in specially designated economic development zones throughout the country, KANAVA is committed to remaining a force for local development in the United States. And thanks to amazing colleagues like Matthew, we know that that commitment is also good for business.

From his new home in Florida, where he continues to work remotely for our Arlington, VA-based company, Matthew is walking a lot more these days. When I asked him how he was feeling, he told me he was grateful for how far he’d come.

“People go through a lot more without any support,” he said. “I was lucky to have good people on my side.”

Thank you, Matthew, for all you do and for being an inspiration to all of us!

Susan is CEO of KANAVA International.

Susan Puska