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.  

Born five years ago, 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. 

Leadership Team


Our President and Chief Executive Officer, Susan M. Puska, is a retired U.S. Army Colonel turned entrepreneur with over 27 years of experience as a logistician and China Foreign Area Officer. She has experience in the U.S., China, South Korea, and Germany, managing U.S. Army and joint logistics operations and personnel. Ms. Puska is a noted China expert with experience spanning from 1988 to the present, including five years living and working in China, which allowed her to witness the challenges and benefits of fast paced economic development. Her expertise includes data analytics and research and analysis on complex national security, regional, and socio-economic issues. She also led joint humanitarian logistics support at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, providing care and feeding to over 30,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees, and supported U.S. Pacific Command’s medical humanitarian assistance to Mongolia. As an experienced logistician, she knows the value standardization and best practices bring to making processes more effective and efficient to realize positive impact, while also understanding how to tailor problem solving to specific situations and circumstances. Ms. Puska holds an MBA from George Mason University and an M.A. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan. 


Carol J. Yee, our Chief Operations Officer, brings an equally deep background in international development and finance. Ms. Yee is a recognized operations specialist with over 25 years of international development experience with expertise in assessing and building organizational capacity, and developing pragmatic systems, policies, and procedures based on best practices adapted to local conditions, constrained resources, and needs of the client. She knows first-hand the challenges organizations face at different points of their development and understands how critical sustainable economic development is to stable growth. Ms. Yee has extensive knowledge of the financial, procurement, and administrative structures required, and strong expertise in U.S. government contracting compliance. She possesses extensive field and home office experience, including as Chief of Party in southern Afghanistan in a dynamic threat environment working in close proximity to US military forces. Ms. Yee has managed multi-million dollar projects in the Middle East, Africa, Central Europe, and Asia. Ms. Yee holds an MBA from the Monterey Institute for International Studies and a Master’s Certificate in Government Contracting from the George Washington University.  

In addition to our leadership team, KANAVA employs diverse consultants around the world as well as staff in specially designated economic development zones throughout the United States, supporting local employment and reflecting the firm’s core mission: spurring economic growth at home as well as abroad. 



Amy Butler, Operations Associate -- Based in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Amy has lived and worked throughout the United States as a military spouse. Her travels have allowed her to experience and observe diverse approaches to economic development. Amy is currently planning KANAVA’s participation in an event honoring Vietnam Veterans.  


Tina Thibault, Accounts Manager -- A Michigan native, Tina brings over 20 years' experience in business, education, and computer science and has owned and operated several businesses. She is an active International Rotarian and has worked for a multi-cultural international NGO supporting projects. Tina provides bookkeeping and HR support services to KANAVA and some clients.


Matthew Tyson, IT Specialist -- Matthew provides computer security, support, and administration, develops web applications, and leads the digitization, application, and testing of KANAVA’s Impact Strengthening Development (ISD) Certification program. He specializes in software development and has over twenty years of experience working on both hardware and software issues.



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Samer Badawi, Senior Communications Advisor -- Samer Badawi is a journalist and communications consultant with more than 20 years’ experience, including with international development programs worldwide. His writing and analysis have been featured by CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, The Washington Post, and others. A former Executive Director of a Washington, DC-based NGO, he has led strategic communications efforts for donor-funded programs in the United States and internationally.   


Barbara Fillip, Senior Organizational Development Advisor -- Dr. Barbara Fillip is an organizational development practitioner with 20 years’ experience supporting individual, team, project, and organization-wide learning.  She holds a PhD in International Development, has conducted evaluations of international development projects for the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank, and supported knowledge management efforts at NASA.  She now leads her own woman-owned small consulting business, Fillip Consulting, LLC.


Erran Persley, Senior Economic Development Advisor -- Erran Persley brings 27 years’ experience in international trade and economic development.  He currently serves as the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Advisor for the U.S. Department of Commerce and coordinates the Federal Interagency Investment Working Group (IIWG) on behalf of the Secretary of Commerce. Under former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown, he served as the international trade specialist in charge of the Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) program.