One Pro’s Advice to New Development Professionals: Be Fearless

By Susan M. Puska

KANAVA is proud to feature the stories of some of our favorite international development practitioners, whose lives and work inspire us to improve our own. Our friend Nancy Glaser, of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies, or Stanford Seed, is one of those people.     

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Nancy Glaser is skyping with me from Nairobi, Kenya, where she is leading a series of management training and business coaching workshops for entrepreneurs and leaders of SMEs based in East Africa. Her words come accented in American English, but this seasoned traveler is clearly at ease in her home-away-from-home. As she shares snippets of her day in the capital city of three million, where year-round temperatures hover within ten degrees of each other, I ask her how she got so far outside her own comfort zone. 

Nairobi, after all, is half a world away from her native California. 

“I started in retail,” she tells me. “It was good work for a woman in those days.” But after a decade selling other people’s products, reaping profits for her employer and modest promotions for women in the industry, Nancy decided to invest in something different. She enrolled in Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

In the summer between her first and second years at Stanford, she landed a grant to live and work in Bangkok, Thailand, where the enthusiasm and dedication of the entrepreneurs she encountered opened her eyes to international work. 

It also convinced her of the power of entrepreneurship. After graduating with her MBA, Nancy enlisted with a local Venture Capital firm investing in “lo-tech” startups with an outsized vision. The year was 1985 and, according to Nancy, women accounted for just over five percent of the VC partnerships.  

One of her first investments was PetSmart—a retailer that now ranks among America’s 50 largest private companies, with 2017 revenues of some $7 billion. 

If her early wins were hard to top, Nancy refused to settle into her newfound success. Instead, working with a career coach (“in the early 1990s”) she felt a pull to return overseas, where the end of the Cold War had ushered in a wave of start-ups across Eastern Europe—precisely the kind of lo-tech innovation Nancy knew how to nurture and grow. 

With little more than a hunch to guide her, she signed up with a newly formed private investment firm and packed her bags for Warsaw, Poland. From there, she was recruited to set up the first apparel design and production incubator in St. Petersburg, Russia. The USAID initiative, she says, used all her skills—design, retail, finance, training. 

But what made the experience worthwhile were the people she encountered. Development practitioners “are a different breed,” she tells me. Whether they were local or expat, young or old, Nancy says they taught her an important lesson—“how to be fearless.”  

After three years in St. Petersburg, during which she earned plaudits from USAID, Nancy moved back to California but would go back and forth to Russia to lead business training seminars. During this time, a friend recommended her for a Peace Corps management post in Central Asia, where she ended up mobilizing in 2011—first to Kazakhstan and, a year later, to Afghanistan. In Kabul, Nancy worked directly for USAID, based on the Bagram Airfield there. 

After moving back to California again in 2013, she reconnected with Stanford and, through its Seed program, has been working with entrepreneurs in places like West Africa and, now, Kenya. 

As our Skype session ends, I ask her what advice she would give to young professionals considering a career in development. “Be fearless,” she says again. “And be resilient.” 

Thank you, Nancy, for all that you do!

Susan Puska