Laurah John ‘05 is all of these things and more. She combines hard work with intelligence, heart, and strong communication skills to produce tangible results in service to her country of Saint Lucia. We spoke with Laurah to find out more about her life after graduating from The White Mountain School 10 years ago, her accomplishments and her plans for the future. Check out our interview below!
WMS: Laurah, in 2013 you led the team that won the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum Startup Weekend. This was a 54-hour entrepreneurship challenge where teams were tasked with creating the plan for a feasible, small enterprise designed to meet a local need and designed to be able to grow into a more comprehensive project. Can you describe that project?
Laurah: Well, my team worked to develop a startup enterprise that would initiate resource recovery for upcycling recyclable and difficult-to-recycle materials to produce new products that are better in quality and of greater environmental and economic value. We decided to use a regular plastic bag and create a small crotchet-like basket, literally shredding it to then recompose it. The idea was to target hotels in Saint Lucia since they are big producers of waste, collect these materials like plastic and upcycle them into products that we could then sell back to the hotels.
At the end of the challenge, our projects were evaluated based on the criteria of customer validation; the strength of the business plan; execution methodology; funding; and the practicing of lean startup through the development of a minimal viable product (MVP). To be completely honest, I was not thinking about winning this competition; I just wanted to present something concrete, viable and realistic at the end of it all. It was an intense, adrenaline pumping, sleep-deprived weekend, but in the end my team came out victorious!!
The concept for the project was really born out of my Master’s research, which explored the feasibility of establishing a resource recovery programme in an urban poor community in Saint Lucia. Ultimately, my goal was to address some of the key deprivations faced by the urban poor through sustainable solid waste management. For me, inefficient and inadequate solid waste management in Saint Lucia was, and continues to be, a very tangible problem that needed to be addressed. In addition to its negative impact on the environment, the hazards posed have very real and direct consequences for people, particularly the poor, located in crowded, unplanned communities. This is not only an environmental issue but one of social equity as well.
WMS: And what happened next? Were you able to see some of you ideas put into action in Saint Lucia?
Laurah: Well, as the team leader, I won an all expense paid trip to the US to meet with potential investors and entrepreneurs! I am getting ready to take that trip in March, 2015. When I arrived back home, there were a few of articles written about my success in Paris, which led to a number of PR opportunities. I was featured in two separate local TV broadcasts on young leaders. I was selected and featured in the 2015 calendar of our National Back, which celebrates the accomplishments of Saint Lucians in all sectors (academic/professional/sport etc.). I was also asked to deliver the key-note address at the 28th Graduation Ceremony of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (a great honour usually reserved for the more seasoned and accomplished professionals in the nation and region!). I am and continue to be extremely grateful for these opportunities as they have provided me with a platform to reach out and share my experiences and ideas with a much wider audience.
However, I have to admit that all of this attention has felt a bit premature. And in many ways I feel undeserving, because, to answer your second question, it has been a slow journey trying to put my ideas into action in Saint Lucia. There are a number of reasons why things did not kick off immediately upon my return home at the end of 2013, but the most significant was the overwhelming fear and feeling like I had no idea what to do next. How was I going to establish this business? Would it even work? I did not even have a background in business!
That fear of failure kept me paralyzed for quite some time, and it was not until the feeling of regret (if I did not try) outweighed the fear of failure that I finally started working on this project. So far I have incorporated the company; I am putting together my business plan, while making strategic partnerships as I look to secure the necessary financial and in-kind support. It really does feel truly satisfying to have the courage to trust in myself and to be living my dream. It is still a work in progress and everything may not be perfect, but I am happily taking my time to craft this vision into reality.
WMS: That reminds me of a quote I read in a newspaper article about you and your experience at the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum Startup Weekend. In that article you gave the following advice to young people,
Focus on discovering your passion and allow that to lead you when you are deciding on your education and career path. Be courageous! Be bold! Recognize that there will be many challenges but your ability to overcome them is what will give you the advantage and the perseverance to push beyond those barriers.
It seems to me that you are trying to live the advice you give. So I’m wondering, what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself heading in the next 5 years? In what ways are you going to continue to be bold and courageous?
Laurah: Those are some very good questions! I do try my best to live by that advice…but it is definitely challenging and it takes a lot of courage.
In the next five years I hope that I am still following my passion, whether that be through the growth and expansion of my business or some other project that is to be seen! I will continue to be bold and courageous by living a life that is honest and true to myself, advocating for the things I believe in such as the principles of social equity and sustainability, and actively contributing to the progress of my country.
WMS: Your passion for social development has brought you around the world to focus on issues of social equity and sustainability. You have worked for the Government of Saint Lucia within the Ministry of Social Transformation, Local Government and Community Empowerment for a few years now and are currently the Project Coordinator for Social Safety Net Reform. Tell us a little bit about your career path after WMS.
Laurah: After leaving the White Mountain School, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in Social Development, and I got my first opportunity to work in this field during my undergrad years. For three months in 2008, I interned with the East Africa Law Society in Tanzania, spear-heading a research project to investigate gender equity within the East African legal profession. It was an incredibly enriching experience, which challenged my own preconceived notions of gender and social inequality within a developing country context. My next experience came while I pursued my Master’s and I worked full-time as a Caregiver at an emergency foster home in British Columbia, Canada. Being a front-line worker in Social Work exposed me to a plethora of social issues being faced by Canada’s Aboriginal children who are disproportionately represented in the foster care system. These experiences gave me an opportunity to observe and analyze issues of social inequity within and from several different contexts and lenses. They provided me with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work that needs to be done.
After completing my Master’s in 2012, I was unemployed and searching for a job in social development. I looked to the Government of Saint Lucia because it afforded opportunities to work in my field. Employing a somewhat unconventional approach, I emailed my cover letter and curriculum vitae to the Permanent Secretaries (PS) of three Ministries. A month and a half later, I got a call from the PS of Social Transformation asking if I was still unemployed and interested in a position at the Ministry that I was quite overqualified for. I went in that afternoon for an interview and I started the next day. One year later, I was promoted and offered the position of Project Coordinator for the Social Safety Net Reform.
I have never had a specific job in mind that I wanted to pursue, I simply know what I am passionate about and I have always allowed that to guide me. Right now I consider my job with the Ministry and my work in starting my own business as manifestations of this passion, and I am incredibly grateful because I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
WMS: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your work on the Social Safety Net Reform project?
Laurah: Before I answer that question, I should probably provide a bit of context about the Social Safety Net Reform. This is a mammoth project that consists of approximately ten sub-components that will likely span the next five years. The Government is reforming the entire system responsible for providing support to the poor and vulnerable populations in Saint Lucia. From an institutional perspective this requires putting in place the necessary policies, legislation and tools to ensure that these people are protected and accurately targeted. It requires reforming programmes to ensure the capacity to provide benefits/services and also ensure that the poor have access to them.
The most significant challenge is the inadequate technical, human resources within the Ministry to efficiently and effectively execute this Reform. The country is experiencing a particularly constrained fiscal climate and so in many ways we have been forced to operate with minimal resources. And while scarcity may promote innovation and creativity in ensuring what needs to get done, is done; it is nevertheless a tricky balance to prevent burnout and disenchantment among staff.
WMS: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Laurah: First off, I am just excited to be part of a Reform that has the potential to have such a positive impact on the lives of some of the island’s most vulnerable populations. The job itself has given me an opportunity to be a part of the policy development process while also implementing the activities that stem from and embody these very policies. As such, I have interfaced with persons at all levels, from the policy/law makers to the managers who ensure the programmes work, to the frontline workers who administer the services/benefits, to the beneficiaries who access the services and benefits. I have learned so much at every level and this diversity has ultimately been one of the best parts of the job.
WMS: Following WMS you attended Bishop’s University, Canada, where you earned a B.A. in Sociology and Political Studies. After that you earned your Master’s in Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University. Did your time at WMS impact your graduate and undergraduate studies at all and your professional work since then?
Laurah: My time at the White Mountain School has everything to do with what I studied and my career choices to date, but that’s a story I would like to share at Graduation….so stay tuned?
(Editor’s note: Laurah will be WMS’s 129th Commencement Speaker on May 30, 2015!)