It’s for the heart: Why our annual Innovation Summit is the most valuable week of the year

Village Enterprise staff laughingI once sat down and calculated that there are a collective 15,000 kilometers between our offices in Kenya, Uganda, and California. Each day, we attempt to make those 15,000 kilometers feel closer. On Fridays, Isaac, Anthony, Gerald, Geoffrey, Solomon, Martin, Zita, Stephen, Nathaniel, Caroline, Tobias, and Nancy connect over Skype to discuss challenges and developments in our core program. On a weekly basis, our management teams in Kenya, Uganda, and San Carlos, CA straddle the 10-hour time difference to ensure our team has the vision and support we need. On any given day, our team participates in dozens of calls, across thousands of miles. Dennis in Hoima connects with Stellah in Soroti. Winnie in Soroti has her weekly one-on-one with Dianne in San Carlos. Kathy checks in with the finance team across all field offices. Tadeo joins Violah to call Nafees in Hoima. You get the picture.

For only one week each year we are all in the same room. Because once a year, we hold our Innovation Summit .

My job often requires translating the day-to-day work and experiences of our team into soundbites. For instance, Violah and Peter’s recent expedition in the DRC becomes ‘conducting a feasibility study in Eastern Congo examining potential impact of implementing microenterprise programming in and around protected forest areas.’ And Caro and Nathanial going house to house conducting spot checks translates to ‘mobile technology supporting rigorous monitoring and evaluation of our program.’

But some things are too special, too personal, too hinged on the people in the room, to be condensed. The Innovation Summit is one of those things.

When I originally sat down to write a blog reflecting on the summit, I tried to write about synergies between functional teams. Delete. Try again. I tried to write about using breakout sessions capturing best practices. Delete. Try again. I tried to write about strategic goals, strategic plans, etc. Delete.

There isn’t a way to write about the summit without writing about the people, without writing the individuals who makes working at this organization a profound joy, without writing about how special it is to spend a week learning and laughing together.

So in that vein, here are a few snapshots of my favorite ‘people’ moments from this year’s summit.


img_7785One of the weightiest topics at this year’s summit was examining the process by which we advise our business owners on how they can select their enterprises. It was also one of the first presentations of the summit. And of course, the power went out. As innovations associate, Mildred Wengonzi, launched into her portion of the presentation, the projector switched off and the fans in the room slowed to a stand still.

A moment of silence ensued.

“And so,” continued Mildred, “we sent to business mentors to the field to collect information from business owners about how they select their businesses.” Without skipping a beat, Mildred brilliantly continued her presentation sans the Powerpoint she had doubtless spend hours preparing. Her years working in the field as a business mentor, improvising during torrential rains and hours of being unable to find transport, have prepared her for anything. The show must go on, and Mildred wasn’t going to let a few minutes without power stop us.


About a week before the summit, Uganda Assistant Country Director, Peter Dema, returned from two weeks spent conducting a feasibility study in Eastern Congo. Sleeping in tents deep in the forest, cooking over an open fire, and crossing rivers on motorbikes are just a handful of the adventures he had.

Throughout the summit, the team was eager to hear about Dema’s adventures. So naturally, everyone was thrilled when during the talent show, Dema performed a freestyle rap about his time in the Congo during his team’s rendition of “Where is the Love.”


img_6965During the first day’s morning tea break, we were led in an energizer by David Arach, on of our Innovations Associates. Arach had us gather on the lawn and asked us to form a circle and turn to place our hands on the shoulders of the person next to us. It was the first day, so the team was still warming up to one another. We awkwardly shifted amongst ourselves and timidly placed our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us.

Arach yelled out instructions, “When I say apple, jump forward! When I say banana jump backward!” Soon enough, he had the team jumping back and forth and spinning to face the opposite direction.

As we exclaimed with laughter, stepping on each other’s toes and nearly falling down, the awkwardness of the morning melted away. Unphased by our awkwardness, Arach had forced us to take our first step towards the sense of team, belonging, and love that would color the rest of the week.

There are just a handful of some of my favorite moments. They are joined by board member Pat Brown being blindfolded during our team building, Tobias showing off his smooth moves on the dance floor, Isaac portraying Senior Institutional Giving Director, Caroline, in a skit, and many, many more.

These are the parts of the summit that make it special, the parts that can’t be articulated in outcomes, objectives, or concrete lessons learned. Our presentations and breakout sessions will help us shape the direction of programming in the coming year. And for that alone, the summit is valuable. But next time I’m getting rained on in the field, the power is out all day, or the internet just won’t stay connected, I’m going to think of Arach’s energizer and Dema’s rap. These memories remind me why I’m here — because I love the team that I work with. And for that, the summit is invaluable.

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