Who We Are: The KANAVA Story

Most people don’t think of international development as an “industry,” but the reality is that, in the Washington, DC area alone, a handful of contractors are implementing hundreds of millions of dollars in health, education, and other aid projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development and other government agencies. These contractors support thousands of employees and their families throughout the United States and worldwide, and the sophisticated systems needed to compliantly manage them make entry into this high-overhead market an uphill struggle. Into this landscape, two enterprising women decided to launch their own international development firm. This is the KANAVA story.  

KANAVA International 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, KANAVA is one of only a few women-owned small businesses with a successful international development portfolio, and the firm has done something even more unique with that track record, using their resources to help spur economic development in local communities in the United States.

KANAVA founder Susan Puska credits her experience as a U.S. Army Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) and military attaché with helping her draw the connection between overseas aid and economic development back home:

Based on my experience as an FAO and military attaché in China between 1988 and 2003, I came to believe that the intense focus on rapid advancement in China and the results they were starting to achieve would ultimately present a severe challenge, opportunity, and threat to the United States, especially if the latter were complacent and divided, failing to embrace and adapt to the strategic challenge of a changing and globalized world. I could see, compared to China, we were already falling behind in our infrastructure and telecommunications across the U.S., for example, and I was concerned about America’s future.

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Seeking to parlay her military experience into promoting globally-linked entrepreneurship in the United States, Susan went on to complete her Master’s in Business Administration at George Mason University after retiring from the Army. It was there that she refined her vision for how KANAVA could help infuse the development industry with innovative ideas, grounded in human-centered products and services, while also contributing to domestic economic security.

A Small Business with a Passion for Innovation

“While the development ecosystem still prefers the large development firms and non-profits, which can ramp up quickly and deliver services and products across the world, small businesses and small non-profits have energy, passion, and flexibility that you might not find in larger organizations,” says Susan. “Smalls are a tremendous source of innovation, and they are increasingly teaming together to form strong partnerships, with and without the larger contractors.”

KANAVA’s Chief Operating Officer Carol Yee knows those contractors well. Having worked for several years with USAID’s largest implementing partner, she has seen first-hand how larger firms can use their considerable resources to invest in expensive technological solutions, helping them manage their immense, worldwide portfolios. But, says Carol, innovation is not just about technology:

Since it is people that use and apply technology, real change comes at the human level -- in their systems and in individual development. If aid providers are to work themselves out of a job, agencies like USAID will have to focus more on the soft skills and systems to support and encourage change, leading countries and organizations to self-sufficiency.

That’s why Carol and Susan decided to develop KANAVA’s signature Impact Strengthening Development (ISD) tool, an easy-to-use, guided self-assessment that takes organizations through the nine building blocks of successful management (you can read more about ISD and where it’s been implemented on our blog here. It’s also why KANAVA is committed to a world in which their services are ultimately no longer needed.  

Working Our Way Out of a Job

“I believe that everyone working in development seeks to change the world for the better,” says Carol. “Our approach to development is informed by a business perspective that seeks to partner with local organizations to assist them in becoming self-sustaining and reduce, even end, the need for foreign assistance.”

In the coming year, KANAVA will be developing a new, more streamlined version of ISD and making it available digitally. In the meantime, Susan and Carol are looking forward to continuing to grow KANAVA’s portfolio and giving back to their own communities, including in Susan’s hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. You can read more about “the Soo” and some of the exciting economic development initiatives taking place there on our blog


KANAVA is proud to be a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) -- a certification that has been verified by the Department of Veterans Affair’s Center for Verification and Evaluation. As a women-owned firm, we bring a rare combination of certifications, offering a competitive advantage to partners bidding on donor-funded projects. 

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