This is a transcript of the Spur of the Moment episode “Providing water for people globally with Eleanor Allen.” It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
Eleanor Allen: There’s so many things you can be in life, and there’s so many different paths you can choose. There’s not one right or one wrong, but when you choose a path, just go all in and make it happen. It’s been really rewarding for me.
Jocelyn Hittle: Welcome to Spur of the Moment, the podcast of Colorado State University spur campus in Denver, Colorado.
Eleanor Allen: So getting women engaged in changing their communities and having men understand these challenges that women have that are different than their own. And having men be allies is something that really resonates with me. And that’s always been my personal purpose is improving the quality of life for people on the planet and absolutely was the right thing for me to do.
Jocelyn Hittle: On this podcast, we talk with experts in food, water, and health, and learn about their current work and their career journeys. Today I’m joined by Eleanor Allen, CEO of Water for People. Eleanor is a water expert dedicated to helping billions of people access safe, sustainable water and sanitation services needed to save lives, stay healthy, find jobs and thrive. Welcome Eleanor.
Eleanor Allen: Thank you Jocelyn.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great to have you here today.
Eleanor Allen: Great to be here.
Jocelyn Hittle: So could we start with Water for People? Can you tell us a little bit about the organization and its mission?
Eleanor Allen: Sure. As you mentioned a little bit about Water for People, our main objective is to get water to people. And we work in Latin America, Africa, and India, and our work is focused on mostly rural areas, but also peri urban slums to put in initial water infrastructure. So we’re serving vulnerable communities that have never had water services. So they’re walking to a creek or a well somewhere to get their water. And we’re bringing that water closer. We put in water distribution systems often to the household, which is our ultimate goal. And even in Malawi, which is our lowest income country, people want household water. So we work on water and then we’re in areas that don’t have sewer systems and will likely never have sewer systems. So the sanitation side is about making access to nicer toilets. These are generally pit latrines or toilets with a septic tank that are more affordable and place, nice place to go versus having nowhere to go or not a very nice place to go. And then we also help incubate businesses to either empty those pits or, and transport the sludge to treatment and reuse.
Jocelyn Hittle: Okay, so I’d love to unpack a little bit some of what you just described. I think here in the US, we typically take water coming to a house for granted.
Eleanor Allen: Absolutely.
Jocelyn Hittle: So let’s start with that. There are many places where people do not have running water to their homes. Can you give us some examples of how you go about changing that and getting water to people where they need it most?
Eleanor Allen: A recent example, I just took a trip after two years to our Rwanda and Uganda programs. So I visited many different districts where I work. So we work, we, we master plan a whole district, which is like a county. And these programs take 5, 8, 10 years depending how many people live there, which in Africa is hundreds of thousands. So we’ll look at who has services, who has no services and who has services that are not very good. Well, our goal is to get everyone to a high level of service. So in Rwanda, for example, we work in four different districts, two we’ve just completed. So everyone now has a high level of service. One will complete in a couple year, years. One, we started last year, actually had a five and one. We just started when I was there, we just met the mayor and said,” Hey, we’re gonna start a new program here,” which was a very exciting moment.
Jocelyn Hittle: Oh, I can imagine.
Eleanor Allen: I’ve never been in the room when the mayor’s told like, “Hey, we’re gonna get everyone in your district water.” And it was so emotional and incredible. So what that looks like is picture Denver County, we’ll go everywhere and we’ll figure out who has what, and then we’ll, we’ll start with the most vulnerable. And we’ll generally ask the mayor and the district leadership, where should we start? And then we’ll build infrastructure and get the services to the homes . And it’s, these are community systems. So a district might have hundreds of systems. And then once we start an area we’ll work along through, across the geography until everyone has services. And yeah, it’s amazing how lives can change when people, generally women and girls, are not spending the time walking for water so they can work, they can go to school, they’re healthier. The water sources are the same water they’ve always used, it’s just protected. And, and sometimes if it’s contaminated with often biological fecal contamination from animals or other humans, we’ll treat it as well so it’s safe to drink.
Jocelyn Hittle: Incredible. So you mentioned a couple things I wanna highlight. One is that you can impact hundreds of thousands of people over the course of one of these projects when you’re serving one of these districts. And also that it can take kind of a long time. Can you talk a little bit more about what that’s like to be working on such a long term project? And I’m sure there’s some amount of impatience, both from other people in the district who are waiting for you to get there and also for you to, to be able to move faster. Can you talk a little bit about the patience and why it takes so long and, and you grapple with that sense of impatience maybe internally or externally?
Eleanor Allen: Definitely sense of impatience, especially because people are watching once we start building, you know, that brings attention when the construction starts. Really the main constraint is funding and the, the ability to secure the funding to move forward. So example in Rwanda, a district program is around 20, $30 million to do all the infrastructure. So Water for People, we raise about half that. And in, in the case of Rwanda is our best co-finance country. The government pays for about half so varies between 40 and 60%. But that means that the more we raise and the more co-finance we can get, the faster we can move. So in our initial districts, it took longer because we didn’t have the momentum, the track record, the reputation, I suppose. The later districts we’ve done, we’ve moved faster. Yeah. It’s really about the agility and speed of funding is the faster we can go.
Jocelyn Hittle: Let’s also talk a little bit about the sanitation side of things. What is it like in the circumstances where you’re putting in sanitation and, and that what that collective space looks like?
Eleanor Allen: If you picture going camping in Colorado and there’s like state park or forest service campsites have a pit latrine. So that is like the most general way to picture what we’re doing. So actually these are pretty nice latrines in Colorado, and we’re a pretty cool climate. So when you move to a warmer climate, not so well ventilated, it gets a lot stinkier, more flies, more ability to have contact between the human waste and the humans, and that brings disease. So we try to minimize the contact, minimize the odor and the flies and figure out ways to make that a better experience. So that looks like generally a concrete slab. And then in Africa, they’re mostly squat toilets, so it’s not something you generally sit on, you squat. So like a key hole shape. Like you gotta aim pretty well, but what we really work on is getting something super simple is what’s been really taking off is it’s called a SaTo pan. It’s basically a plastic insert in that keyhole that has a flat valve. So you can, like it shuts when there’s no weight on it. And if you pee on it, it opens and it’s like a little door and then it shuts. And so that’s a barrier to flies and odor. And it’s like five bucks. These are retrofit across existing toilets, latrines, but then newer ones can have it actually built in. So that changes the experience instantly. And then if you have more money, you can afford nicer ceramic toilets, then you start tiling. And all the things that we know about out what we have here, and then in our Latin America work, it it’s full bathrooms. Like the toilets look exactly like we have here, they’re, they’re flush toilets. They go into a septic tank. Even if there’s not a sewer connection, the septic tank will be emptied or depending where you are in the world is what your toilet is a different style. But the whole idea is to have nice experience. So people want toilets, they wanna have them part of their homes versus not having anything.
Jocelyn Hittle: Sure. Yeah. It does seem sort of like an awkward topic to discuss, but so important, important for public health, important for quality of life, important for equity. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about access to water, both for both drinking water, cooking water, but also for hygiene, I think is something that came a little more top of mind for people during the pandemic, as we were all thinking about hand washing and hygiene and all of the things around disease transmission that were a little bit more present for people. Can you say a little bit about how that played out for you all?
Eleanor Allen: It was a silver lining of COVID for us, the whole focus on hygiene and the hand washing really brought our work more mainstream when it was sometimes hard to get on the airwaves for water sanitation hygiene we were, and it ended up being a really good time for us as far as educating the general public about the importance of hygiene. And also our work is deemed essential service, the construction of the water systems and sanitation systems. So we continued working, building. Now, we couldn’t do a lot of our education work. We do a lot of community education entrepreneur education for the sanitation business startups. A lot of those things we couldn’t do for a couple years, but now we’re back to doing those as well.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah. That’s in many ways not surprising that that integration of the health and the water piece came together when really there was no other choice but to address things in a more holistic way. As you may know, the spur campus has a focus on food, water, and health.
Eleanor Allen: I do, yes.
Jocelyn Hittle: And the, the connection between those things. So I love specific stories about how that plays out in the real world when people are trying to solve problems in real time with each other, that one health, one water, right? Thinking about how these systems integrate with one another is really important. And really the skills that you need is to be able to make those connections and bring, bring those different voices to the table. We talked a little bit about providing drinking water. We talked about sanitation, but you also do this education and entrepreneurship piece. So can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Eleanor Allen: Yeah. So I’ll talk two parts of education. One is the hygiene specifically in schools. I haven’t mentioned that, but that’s a big part of what we do. And a huge part of the sustainability of our work is having kids in schools first have good water and toilets at schools. So they go to school. I went to a school that Uganda had just opened schools. They were the longest closer of schools in the world. I don’t know if you read this in papers like two years schools were closed in Uganda. So when I was there, they were just opening up and having a nice toilet block at the school increased enrollment by 30%. So amazing. Just having a toilet at school. What makes it a nicer place to go?
Eleanor Allen: And then on the entrepreneur side, it’s quite interesting. So it’s about attracting entrepreneurial minded people from whatever other profession they’re in into the sanitation market. This is about bringing masons who might build homes or might build other concrete structures into building toilets so that if you build a pit toilet, there are concrete rings to protect it from groundwater. And then there’s the concrete slab. And the super structure can, can be anything. Wood, concrete, anything. People, depending where you are in the world, that designs change. We have a whole education program about educating masons into toilet building. And then there’s the pit emptiers, which is the most lucrative part of this whole thing. As you can imagine, it’s pretty nasty, but we help businesses get started, provide the personal protective equipment. It’s like the suits, the gloves, barrels, because we often will be helping entrepreneurs get to the places where there are no roads. So a vacuum truck can’t come in and empty someone’s pit. These are places that are slums so you have to walk there. And the traditional way is someone, the poop pirates come in in the middle of the the night and scoop it out and dump the waste. Or when it rains, they open a brick and it all washes out. So we wanna stop the contamination, have proper pit emptying into barrels. The barrels get taken on a truck to the treatment plant. And this is working really well and we’re, we’ve been working with entrepreneurs in Kampala and Blandtyre and Kigali to really help address the non-sewered portions of low income areas, which by the way, is, you know, hundreds of thousands of people and the sewer system’s built in the central business district. They’ll never get to those slums. It’s impossible to put a sewer in now.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah, that, that’s fascinating because I think we do think, oh, we just need to extend a service, that this being the long term solution wouldn’t strike people as logical in, I mean, people who are used to infrastructure services in the US being just extended to more rural areas, right. Or, you know, things being pretty similar in a rural area versus the city when it comes to water and sanitation in a lot of ways. It’s interesting to think about context specific approaches. So you must change how you approach these similar problems in different places with different solutions. You know, you mentioned that the, the building that goes around a toilet, for example, might be different depending on where you are. How else do you modify how you approach things.
Eleanor Allen: Very different, depending on where in the world. So one nice thing about our work at Water for People, our portfolio, we have India, Latin America, and Africa, all very different ways to address the same thing in the global water sanitation crisis. So just thinking about toilet sanitation in general, in Latin America, a lot of investment was put into small towns in the ’80s, ’90s. World Bank, . Lots of bank funded development to build wastewater treatment plants that either weren’t connected or were connected, but not, it was never thought through the life cycle costs, like you actually have to collect sewer rates to maintain the plant. So they’re all these abandoned plants. So one thing we’ve been working on in Latin America is we sort of come from the really rural areas towards the small towns is getting those plants rehabilitated. So our work is to do a feasibility study with our engineers in country. And then we also have support from volunteer engineers from US and Canada that help as well, what it’ll take to rehabilitate it and then work with the city and to find the funds to get those plants up and running. That’s very interesting, specific to Latin America.
Eleanor Allen: Now Africa doesn’t have wastewater treatment plants. So we’re really working on what I just described in the non-sewer sanitation, but even in a city like Kampala, you know, it’s only about 7% actually sewered. And then have, you know, maybe another 20% of big septic tanks like hotels, businesses. Wealthier people have septic tanks. And then the rest is just pits. And that’s probably the way it’s gonna be. So figuring out how to make that system so all that waste gets to the treatment plant. There are two in Kampala now and two planned, but our work is helping bridge the gap between the informal settlements, getting that sludge and having the treatment plants adapted to accept the latrine sludge instead of just sewage. It’s a lot thicker. It comes in barrels versus a, a like a vacuum truck, all these things were not thought about.
Eleanor Allen: And then you go to India. India’s moving really fast with the government investing in infrastructure. So if you’ve been following Indian water sanitation, which I do, but most people don’t, there was a big push from 2014 to 2019 to end open defecation and invest in sanitation called the Swachh Bharat program. And now it’s on called the Jal Jeevan mission or Swachh Bharat mission. Jal Jeevan mission is about 150 household water connections to get everyone household connections for water. So we work both on sanitation and water about supporting that infrastructure. So what’s not part of this government investment is the, the overall operation maintenance of those systems. It’s one thing to have that infrastructure, but we don’t want it to be abandoned like it is in many parts of the world. Like those treatment plants in Latin America, I just described. So we, we adapt to the niche that’s about training government workers how to operate and maintain, how to set the rates, how to collect the rates, how to keep the systems running once government invests in the infrastructure.
Jocelyn Hittle: Fascinating and really diverse. And so it brings me to a different question, which is, can you tell us a little bit about your team? What are the skills that are required to actually pull this off and in all these different contexts you just described?
Eleanor Allen: Yeah. So we, in our, the nine operating countries, we, we work in our team, members are all local, so they live there, they’re from there. And generally we have 10 to 20 members on the team. Now Rwanda up to 40 ’cause we have a lot of work and India’s 150. So those are our two big countries. But on that team, you’ll find engineers working on the infrastructure, overseeing the master planning, the, the building, the construction. And then we have public health experts working a lot on the community education, health and hygiene, and working with community health workers. We have entrepreneurial business developers in the sense that help the sanitation entrepreneurs build their business plans, support their business, get them, like basically we’re an incubator for those small businesses. And then we have, you know, the, we have a country director, we have a finance team and we have communications, marketing, monitoring evaluation is a huge part of what we do. So we do, we are very data heavy and we, we do monitor the effectiveness of our work and the sustainability. So collecting the data, analyzing the data, we do that all country by country using a global monitoring system. It’s different for water and sanitation. So those are generally the skills we have on our teams. Oh, and then water resources management’s another one. And then we are now moving into water and climate and carbon. So moving into more of water resources plus other climate elements because all of our countries are experiencing extreme weather events. So it affects the resiliency and sustainability of the infrastructure and the water sources.
Jocelyn Hittle: So with you leading all of these various teams, you also have a, a core team here in Denver. What does a day in the life look like for you? And how, I mean, I’m guessing there is no day in the life. So maybe you can tell us what a week in the life looks like, or some of the big buckets of work that you you do.
Eleanor Allen: Yeah, so I’ll start with the global leadership team. So my direct reports, I have finance admin, which are chief administrative officer. She covers IT, HR, internal audit risk, communications offices. So all that, then chief growth officer, it’s all our fundraising. And then I have the country director for India, regional director of Africa and the regional director of Latin America and our chief operations officer who’s looking over the global programs, which is specifically on a team that’s about strategic accountability and adaptation, really delivering our strategy, and then one on influencing. And this is a newer area for us, influencing change in government work, really to provide the system, you know, so we, we can fade away. I mean, this is we’re really helping government get the water and sanitation systems in place and make them continue to run for generations to come. So that’s our influencing team. Policies, regulations, training government workers to set up water and sanitation offices. So that’s my team. So they’re all global. So my days start early because early morning is late at night for India, or I’m working late at night for their morning, depending on when our meetings are. We do both. And then Africa right now with the time change is about 10 hours, it’s perfectly awkward for Denver and Latin America’s a little easier. It’s only, you know, sometimes where, depending which country, if you’re central or south, it’s either at the same time or a couple different hours difference. Yeah. So those are some, that’s a little flavor of things that top of mind today.
Jocelyn Hittle: A little bit of everything, I think that’s really common for a role such as yours, right? You, you need to be sort of you, you’re managing a team who have core competencies and those are, and you’re, and you’re sort of juggling all the supporting.
Eleanor Allen: Supporting them.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yes, and supporting them supporting is actually the better word. Thank you. What would people find surprising about your job? If, if there were someone who said set their sites on CEO of Water for People, what would be a surprising part of what you do?
Eleanor Allen: Well, several things. Perhaps it’s hard to know since I’m living it, that I do try to have personal relationships with all our employees. I mean, we’re still less than 300 people and I, a lot of new people have come on during COVID. Even so I do make an effort to try to get to know them. So I have, I think this afternoon, I have a one on one meeting with new employee just to get to know them, to try to make the time, especially in times of Zoom, when it’s hard to have personal connections. And also just trying to figure out my value add to like a grant proposal for example. Some things I know, something worth adding to some things, I’m just in the way. So knowing how to step in or step out to add value is also really hard to know because there’s no playbook, it’s just experience and intuition. And then a trusting team, that’s like, okay, we don’t need you here. You go do something else, Eleanor. You’re not helping us, or we really need you here. We really want you for five minutes and then you can go. But really having that trust on my team to help, to make the best use of my time, because it is everyday challenge, like where is best use my time today and how can I best serve the organization and move us forward word and stretch us, but not stretch us too much, not stress people out too much, but still not become complacent in figuring out that, that sort of culture and, you know, pace of the organization. And that’s all subjective.
Jocelyn Hittle: I, I think that’s a great point and maybe would be surprising to someone who is, maybe let’s say I’m a young person and I’m thinking about a CEO role and you think, okay, well that role is very clear, but it isn’t. And it’s, it’s true about a lot of leadership positions that there’s a lot of subjectivity. There’s a lot of decision making that happens every day about what the right thing for you to do or not do is. So I think you articulated that really well, particularly around the, when is it important for you to step in and trust your team. Yeah.
Eleanor Allen: But it’s really about having a great team. You can’t lead alone, it’s all the interdependence of everyone on the team that makes the team success and therefore the organization a success.
Jocelyn Hittle: So let’s talk a little bit about your path to this position. So you have been CEO of Water for People for how long now?
Eleanor Allen: Almost seven years.
Jocelyn Hittle: Seven years, but you had a path to that role and a path within it as well. So maybe we can take a step back and tell us a little bit about your journey, how you got to where you are.
Eleanor Allen: Yeah. In some ways traditional and then became non-traditional. So the traditional part was being a consulting engineer. I went, got an undergraduate in civil engineering and environmental science, and I loved the environment, gravitated to civil because I could do things outside and then really fell in love with water and worked many years in water resources. And then I was a Peace Corps volunteer and had some amazing experiences understanding the effect of water on public health. And there’s a, did a TED talk on this, but one really pivotal moment for me was when someone I love dearly, a, a child died from waterborne disease, just from diarrhea in like three days. And I was like, oh my gosh, this is totally preventable death. And I’d never been close to someone that young who had died and just felt this, this need to help use my skills in, in the water quality area. So then I gravitated to waste water treatment and water quality and more on the public health side versus water resources. And then I worked many years doing water waste, water treatment plant designs, and then that, that morphed into overseeing big contracts and then program management. So a, a really big contract with dozens of projects under it.
Eleanor Allen: From there, I moved to leading people and business development and leading regional operations and leading global operations. So my last job in consulting was global water. So that was leading global business of 3000 professionals that were in water resources, water, waste water municipal treatment, which was my technical area, then distribution and collection, all the buried infrastructure and industrial treatment. And then that was all I ever wanted to do was lead a global water business. I love the global work. It’s just part of always been part of me who, since, since I grew up, my mother was from the Netherlands. So we always had this very interesting bicultural family, all kinds of visitors. And I always was curious about other places in the world. So I brought that into my career as best I could as an engineer, and was very fortunate to be able to live and work many places around the world. But then I got to that position, I was like, wow, this is awesome. I’m running global water business and I’m completely removed from any feeling of impact. So I was not on projects anymore. Not working with clients directly, not feeling like I was actually doing the things I love the most. So I was like, what do I do with the rest of my life. I still got 20 more years to work. And I saw the ad for Water for People. I was back in Denver, had moved many times and I always knew Water for People because it was founded by one of the employees from the company I worked for and thought, oh my gosh, maybe I’ll try something totally different. Maybe I’ll leave consulting and go to nonprofit and still do water. I’m just gonna go for it. I applied to the position. My husband’s like, oh my gosh, you’re having a midlife crisis. You are a consultant. That’s all, you know. And what are you doing? I was like, I just, I’m just gonna go for this. So I got the job, clearly. So yeah, so I did this pivot from consulting to nonprofit, which wasn’t that common. And it was totally the right thing for me at that time. And again, it was just an opportunistic moment where that opportunity was open at the time I was trying to figure out what to do and the door opened and I walked through it and never looked back. It’s been amazing.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah.
Eleanor Allen: And learned so much about, about doing really mission driven work. I realized there’s so many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I didn’t know, like about working in a nonprofit, what it’s, it’s hard, it’s definitely the hardest job I’ve ever had. The fundraising’s very difficult. So many more stakeholders, all kinds of unsolicited opinions about, you know, just, yeah, it’s just really different. But what I was looking for, I definitely got, which was being close to the work, feeling impact, really changing entire communities and improving the quality of life. And that’s always been my personal purpose is improving the quality of life for people in the planet and absolutely was the right thing for me to do at that point in my life and Water for People is an incredible organization. And I’m honored that I’ve had this opportunity.
Jocelyn Hittle: I know one of the things that’s really important to you in the water work, I’m guessing both internationally and in the states when, when you’ve done work here as well is sort of the connection between water and, and women. So I know that’s important. Can you say more about what that connection is and how the work you do has impact.
Eleanor Allen: Yeah, this is definitely something that I’m passionate about. So in consulting, I was always, you know, sort of subconsciously, but then consciously trying to keep my colleagues in the profession, ’cause as we started having babies and getting middle, middle career, a lot of women left the profession of engineering and there weren’t that many to start with. Right? So it was like, what is going on here? And you know, it was hard and there were, and there still are not that many women, especially in upper management. I became quite aware of what was happening and trying to just support each other and you know, help each other succeed in, in an environment that wasn’t always that supportive of like all the things we were having in life. And so, yeah, we’ve talked a lot about the women walking for water, girls walking for water, not being able to go to school, not being able to work. That is huge. And that is, you know, I see it every time I go to visit one of our programs, but another part that people probably don’t think about much that is super compelling to me is getting women’s voice and leadership in their communities. I mean, women know so much more about their water sources and so much more desire to have nice places to go to the bathroom. Because if you don’t have a nice toilet for a guy, I mean, they’re like, it’s not that big a deal. I’m just saying they they’re more adaptable to the environment.
Jocelyn Hittle: There’s more flexibility. And.
Eleanor Allen: So women will hold it all day. They’ll go out at night. It’s not safe. There’s high levels of rape, especially for girls and women that are, that don’t have a safe and dignified toilet to go to. And that’s a huge problem. And then girls who get their period and don’t have bathrooms at schools, they just drop out or they miss a month, a week a month. I mean, that’s huge. So getting women engaged in changing their communities and having men understand these challenges that women have that are different than their own and having men be allies, is something that really resonates with me. And then when we come in and we start forming for the first time, a water office, a water sanitation office and getting women into those roles of leadership, it’s huge empowerment for them to be able to voice things they often already know, but I’ve never been asked to lead. so lead a water committee or become a plumber or run a sanitation business. And they’re amazing, right? And they’re giving them those opportunities to become part of this nascent sector that has just been created in a lot of the parts of the world we work in. I grew up in the sector in the US and it’s a mature sector of water and wastewater sector, but where we’re working, we’re helping create it and getting women an equal seat at the table and parity and voice. So we don’t have to talk about gender inequality. It’s just having women there from the beginning is one of the most amazing things. And I love that and I’m really proud of the work we do to, you know, make that happen, get women into the classes we offer, get women and encourage them to run for president of the water committee, whatever it is. It’s really one of my favorite things.
Jocelyn Hittle: Can we talk a little bit also just to, to, to take it back more to the sort of personal journey realm, let’s talk about the bike ride.
Eleanor Allen: Oh.
Jocelyn Hittle: So I know that you, I mean, it feels recent because we’ve lost two years to the pandemic, but I, it, it was actually four years ago. Now you did this cross country bike ride. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that was about?
Eleanor Allen: First of all, it was a race.
Jocelyn Hittle: I’m sorry. Let me rephrase. About four years ago, you did this cross country race, this bike race. Can you tell us about that experience?
Eleanor Allen: It was three, ’19 ’20, ’21, ’22, three years ago, 2019 Race Across America. So that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We were a team of four and had a crew of 12 supporting us. So it’s a relay race from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, and it’s a very famous race for those who know ultra cycling, which I didn’t know, I’ve always been a cyclist, but I sort of came into this little micro world through this race, ’cause I was asked to be part of the team, and we did it in seven days and it was like just so hard. I can’t even, I like PTSD thinking about it, but.
Jocelyn Hittle: I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked..
Eleanor Allen: No, no. In like a good way. So it, I mean it worked out, we did it, it was the most incredible bonding, unifying thing ever for a whole week. All we did with the, you know, 12 plus four of us racing is just.
Jocelyn Hittle: sleep cycle.
Eleanor Allen: Yeah. That’s it. And then by the end of the week hallucinate and like don’t remember where I was, what day like, okay. I want, my only job is to ride my bike until someone tells me to stop, so incredible.
Jocelyn Hittle: I’d like to go back to the, your Peace Corps experience for a minute because it sounds to me like you did some, you were in the working world and then you chose to do a Peace Corps.
Eleanor Allen: Yes.
Jocelyn Hittle: Mission. I set the right word. Then you joined the Peace Corps and that’s two years, right? And can we talk a little bit about that in part, because I think the, the Peace Corps is often or international experiences at some point really can help shape the direction of people’s lives and careers. And also just a side note that the Peace Corps idea came from CSU. There is this, this history, this historic link between Colorado State University and the Peace Corps. So it’s always fun in particular to, to hear stories of how the Peace Corps has shaped people’s lives. So can you talk a little bit more about your Peace Corps experience? Why it was you did it maybe at a, not as typical as people do it, you know, straight outta college. So can you talk a little bit more about your Peace Corps decision?
Eleanor Allen: First I’ll say it absolutely changed my life and I would never be sitting here talking to you about these things had I not done the Peace Corps? So I’m 100% sure of that. Interestingly, growing up in this eclectic sort of multicultural household, I was a stamp collector and I collected stamps. And I remember getting the Peace Corps stamp. I think it was like 1974. So I was young and my mom explained the whole Peace Corps thing for me with Kennedy and how it started. And I was like, I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna do that someday. So I always didn’t really know what it was, but I always had in my mind that I was gonna do that. So when I finished college, I went to the Peace Corps table and got my little application. And at that time I had a boyfriend and he’s like, oh, that’s interesting. I have no interest in that. And really you’re gonna go like, just take off. And I kinda like you, maybe we should do a little adventure together. So he convinced me to not send in my application. I was in Boston to pick any place in the US to live and we would live together, see if we still liked each other. So I was like, oh, that’s pretty cool. Okay. Let’s move to Seattle. He’s like, oh, I wasn’t expecting that. Okay. So we packed up his truck, moved to Seattle and lived together for a while, ended up getting married, still my husband today. And so I sort of gave up that Peace Corps idea ’cause he was pretty cool and he’s still amazing. And my, my partner forever in adventure. And then one day David came home and he said, and he had two yellow envelopes. And he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about all these years, this scares me so much. But I think, I think we should apply to do the Peace Corps.” I was like, “What, really? Well, you know, I’ll go tomorrow, but do you want, are you doing this for you or for me?” He’s like, “No, I, this is so scary. I’m doing this for me ’cause I think I just need to do this.” So we applied and that’s why we have this sort of lag ’cause we’ve both been two years working. So we got in and we celebrated our first anniversary like in the middle of nowhere, having a box of Captain Crunch that we savored, that was why we, why I didn’t go right outta college. But in hindsight it was good because we actually, ironically the age, ripe old age of 24, we were sort of the old volunteers, but there was also a tranche and I don’t know if this is still the case, but most people are right outta college. Then there’s some that are later in life. So we still say sometimes we might go back and do Peace Corps because you actually do know something versus when you’re 20 something. But for us it was an incredible experience. And he actually changed his entire life. He was in finance, he became a teacher. He became, you know, completely convinced that education is the key out of poverty, which, you know, there’s so much truth to that. So I still stayed on my water path as we’ve discussed, but really for us, not only was it an incredible experience. We are in the Dominican Republic. We’re still in touch with our, our family there. And I’ve been back many times, but really set me, like living poor and understanding how most of the world lives every day is such a grounding and humbling experience and still sticks with me. Just, just really core to my, you know, the way I’ve lived my life and tried to understand that and realize the, how fortunate I am, but how I can contribute back. And then after Peace Corps, we lived in Puerto Rico for five years. We lived in Brazil. We just, and you know, for took every opportunity we could to live outside the US and have this very strong connection to Latin America. And then through my other jobs, as I mentioned, we worked or I worked all over the world, so I didn’t actually live in other places, but worked Middle East and Europe. I did live in Europe and in high school and between high school and college, that’s a whole nother story, but then also really got to understand Asia, Australia, Middle East, Europe, UK through the engineering business.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah.
Eleanor Allen: And I think for me I’ve been a risk taker, just always, I don’t know, it’s just kind of part of me. And then I’ve had this long term partner since actually we’re high school sweethearts. So also more to that story, but he’s more of a realist and he has been grounded a little bit, but it usually comes, I have some crazy idea and then he has to digest it for a while and then we figure out, you know, okay, how are we gonna do this? And I have this strong intuition when some of these doors have opened that like, it doesn’t really make sense, but I really wanna walk through that door. And I’ve had these pivots like that we talked about here that it is really following my heart. And that’s, you know what I would say to people who are younger in their career, just follow your heart and know what, what excites you and what drives you and you’ll figure out a way to be successful. Yeah, it, there’s so many things you can be in life and there’s so many different paths you can choose. There’s not one right or one wrong, but when you choose a path, just go all in and you know, make it happen. And, and that’s what has been really rewarding for me.
Jocelyn Hittle: So speaking of pivots, you are making a pivot soon and leaving Water for People.
Eleanor Allen: Yes.
Jocelyn Hittle: I don’t know if you can tell us where you’re headed and if not, no problem, but maybe you can talk a little bit about your decision to leave and, and what door you see is open in front of you right now.
Eleanor Allen: Yeah. So I’ve been, as we’ve discussed, coming up on seven years and I, I realize that Water for People’s in an incredible place and I’m feeling like this is the time that it’s ready for a new leader. I do believe that leadership should change. And I also believe that I don’t wanna leave a mess for anyone. So it sort of came upon me last summer, like, okay, things are going really, really well. I’m super proud of the time I’ve had at Water for People. And the leadership is very strong now. And this is probably a good time for me to slip away and let someone else lead. ‘Cause we have new strategy. We’ll, we’ll be delivering that strategy. And my skills are really in developing strategy and vision. And, and then, you know, right leader at the right time now someone just to make it happen. So I did announce last, last September 30th, end of our fiscal year that I was going to be stepping aside with no plan for my future. This is a very un-Eleanor like I plan everything and I just had this sort of feeling and maybe it’s ’cause I’m getting old, like something will happen and another door will open, right? So I, I didn’t have a job, first time. I’ve only switched jobs, you know, three times in my life or so, but I’ve always had a plan, had a job to go to. No job. And then it’s been a couple months just sort of seeing where life took me, who called me, you know, what looked interesting, applying to jobs here and there, calling people up and through this process, I came upon an amazing opportunity and I did get the job. So I will be running an organization called B Lab Global and B Lab is the organization that owns the standards and verification for companies that wanna be certified as a B corp. So it’s a global organization. There are global partners all around the world. It’s really exciting because I am trying to find something that brings together my sides of business and nonprofit. And because I’ve created this sort of profile that’s not traditional, there are not that many things out there, but this is, this is the one that I found that was really exciting to me and really brought together all my skills. So B Lab is a nonprofit, but we work with businesses. So right now there are 40, 4500 businesses around the world that have gone through the certification process to be certified as a B corp. And that takes into account all the different stakeholders in the business. So how is the business run with respect to employees, the communities, the environment. I’d also, B Lab was also working on changing the legal frameworks to allow businesses to be sustainable. So shifting the economy to be stakeholder capitalism versus shareholder capitalism, instead of just making shareholders rich, it’s about taking care of people on the planet, which resonates with my personal purpose.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah, that sounds like go a great fit and weaves together skills from various chapters.
Eleanor Allen: Yes.
Jocelyn Hittle: And you know, it’s always interesting to hear kind of the specialist versus generalist and in some ways, well, and you’re both, right. You have this deep experience, but also have pulled from all of these different areas in, in, in the work you’ve been doing particularly, you know, the last seven years. So that seems like a really wonderful fit. So congratulations.
Eleanor Allen: Thank you.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah, so as we wrap up, just a couple last questions for you, one is how can people find either you or, or Water for People or both, social media websites, that sort of thing if they wanna learn more?
Eleanor Allen: Yeah. So our website is WaterforPeople.org and spelled the whole thing. So F-O-R, for people. We have a Facebook page that’s very active. We have Twitter, we have LinkedIn. Our, our team is amazing at sharing our stories and our impact. So I encourage you to follow us for Eleanor. For me, I have, you know, you can find me on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, not so much. And you know, definitely would encourage you if Water for People is something that’s of interest to you, you know, happy to answer any questions you have about what we do.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great. Well, thank you so much. We’ll be sure to link to that and thanks for your generous offer of more information and connection to our.
Eleanor Allen: Absolutely. Happy to share.
Jocelyn Hittle: Now I’m, I’m gonna wrap up with our Spur of the Moment question. So this question builds on the fact that you’ve lived in many different places and please don’t consider this like choosing a favorite child. But if there were one cuisine from a place that you have lived, if you, if you had to pick one that you could, you could only eat Dominican food, you could only eat Nigerian food, whatever it is, which one would you choose?
Eleanor Allen: I love food and I’m a foodie. So this is hard Spur of the Moment question, but I will, I will go to the place that we didn’t talk about, I will go to Europe and my host family When I lived in Belgium, my host mother was an incredible cook. And one of the favorite foods she made me was chocolate mousse and not just me, made for the family, right. So I’m a chocolate fanatic. And like I have dreams about her chocolate.
Jocelyn Hittle: Well, I can only imagine Belgian chocolate mousse was pretty good.
Eleanor Allen: It was amazing.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah.
Eleanor Allen: Yep. I, I, that, that answer makes a lot of sense to me.
Jocelyn Hittle: Eleanor, thank you so much for being with us again today and we wish you the best of luck in your next chapter.
Eleanor Allen: Thank you, Jocelyn. This has been my pleasure.
Jocelyn Hittle: Thanks so much.
Jocelyn Hittle: The Spur of the Moment podcast is produced by Peach Islander Productions. And our theme music is by Ketza. Please visit the show notes for links mentioned during today’s episode. We hope you’ll join us in two weeks for the next Spur of the Moment episode. Until then, be well.