You aren’t living life if you aren’t pursuing what you really want to do. This is a cliche, over-done motivational saying, one that any inspirational figure could throw out there to only go through one ear and out the other to his or her listeners. But when you consider a woman who dedicated her studies to become a rocket scientist (seriously, a rocket scientist), only to quit her job a year into the field to pursue greater interests in helping people in a 3rd world country, that phrase becomes something meaningful.
Meet Kate Clopeck, the former Associate Engineer at Aerojet and now Executive Director for Saha Global. Kate graduate with a Bachelor’s in the science from the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering. She worked for Aerojet, an American rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer.
“I worked there for about one year before I found myself miserable.”
Even with a prestigious job that offered a steady paycheck, Kate knew she had other dreams to pursue in life. That’s when she decided to go back to school in 2007 for her Master’s degree. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009, where she focused her studies on the sustained use of water treatment technologies in Northern Region Ghana.
Her new career path may have never materialized if it weren’t for sheer luck.
“It was totally random. I was supposed to go on a trip for spring break with my friends (during undergrad at UVA), but the trip fell through, so I tagged along with another friend on an alternative spring break trip to Nicaragua, and it was really eye-opening for me. I had never left the US before, so it was really incredible to see how people could live with so much less than than we (Americans) did.”
Already equipped with engineering skills from her undergraduate studies, Kate saw an opportunity where she could truly make a difference in this world. She described her skills as “pre-med to med school”, and that she would be lost working for a company like NASA, but still had enough knowledge to be able to help the third world with life’s most important recourse: water.
Northern Ghana is a 3rd world area that is nearly impossible to find water sources that are not contaminated. Well water is scarce, and the open water sources are polluted with human and livestock waste. Drinking this water without cleaning it can cause severe cases of diarrhea, as well as many other diseases. These diseases kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war.
“Health issues were the hardest thing for me to witness,” she explained. “Because I’m American, people would turn to me and ask for help with any ailment they had, whether it was them not being able to see for the past week, to snake bites, to children being sick. I’m not a doctor, and I wouldn’t know what to say and it made me really sad not being able to help.”
But Kate knew she could help in another way. In 2008, she and her colleague Vanessa Green co-founded Saha Global, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing access to clean water and electricity to rural communities. Their business approach is quite simple. Their team hires volunteers to come to these rural areas and teaches them through a 4-day orientation how to show the local community to start up and maintain a system to clean the polluted water. These volunteers, 297 trained to date, then go to the towns and show women, who were elected by their communities, how to clean the water and what supplies were needed to maintain the business. Saha Global currently has empowered 191 women entrepreneurs who have launched 78 clean water businesses in the Northern Ghana region. These water sources help over 40,000 people living there.
Kate’s efforts are no short of inspirational. Not only has she provided long-term plans for clean water to communities, she has established a small source of income for the families of these appointed Ghanaian women. This money is enough to not only continue to purchase the chemicals and supplies needed to maintain the business, but also allows these families to buy necessities for things like farming.
Kate spends half of her time throughout the year in Ghana, and the other half back at home in Boston.
“I always had a harder time adjusting to coming back home. The reverse culture shock left me over-stimulated, and like when I would go to the grocery store and their are so many options for food. Life here is just so much faster. It left me missing the slow pace during my time in Ghana. But now that reverse culture shock has me appreciating what I have when I come back home, as before it left me feeling so guilty.”
It’s clear Kate has learned to appreciate her time in both worlds now, but when it comes to work, she still gets bored with your typical office-related duties. Boston is home, but dealing with the financial and logistical aspects of her organization here leave her missing Ghana. She wants to make a difference. She wants to truly change the world.
Link to Saha Global: http://sahaglobal.org