Today, GoAbroad features an interview with Richard Webb. Richard is the Founder and President of ProWorld, a volunteer and study abroad organization focused on sustainable development which started more than a decade ago in South America.
Rich I have known you for at least a decade and you are without question ‘The Most Interesting Man” in International Education. You are a former professional soccer/futbol player, you play the trumpet and you started a really cool project in ProWorld. Do you have any other secret talents?
The first secret is that I am not very good at the trumpet! Otherwise, while I don’t do it much these days, I used to really enjoy carving soap. Unlike wood, you can sit down, start, and end up with something in an hour or so. It’s a nice quick fix of focus and creativity which helps those impatient/instant gratification types like me..
I would like to order a Venus de Milo in a Irish Springs bar, can you do that?
You were recently recognized with one of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy “Citizen Diplomat of the Year” Awards. You and Robert Redford both received the award this year. Do you have to be handsome to get this award?
Ha, you know that was funny because ‘Bob’ didn’t turn up to receive his award, and I’m pretty sure half of the largely female audience was pretty disappointed. The other award winners were some really interesting and accomplished folks and so we all enjoyed ourselves a great deal….besides…handsome is as handsome does, as my Mum used to say.
Seriously speaking, you started a stove project in Peru, which has received some international recognition. I worked on a stove project in Nepal 20 years ago and we weren’t so successful. We were focused on the health impact, while ProWorld seems to be focused on the economic benefit, the environmental benefit and demonstrating the health benefit. Is that accurate? What makes your stove project so successful?
There have been different types of alternative stove models out in the market for decades. You are right to point out that ProWorld has attacked it a little differently than some others. First, we realized that our model was going to be designed by years of testing and input from the actual families and women cooking every day – not in a laboratory in the U.S. somewhere. Second, we realized that the most urgent challenge is to change behavior among the families, so they are willing to adopt the new technology and stove.
We realized that the potential health benefits alone were not going to sway them. If you think about it, humans are notoriously bad about making behavioral changes in order to gain health benefits that may not be seen for years to come. So, we focused instead on how the new stove could save them money every day. And that has had a powerful impact in helping us overcome the adoption hurdle with many of the communities we work in. In fact, we continued our focus on the power of economic incentives when we began measuring the carbon reductions resulting from our stoves a few years go. We have been generating carbon credits with each stove installation, and have begun to self-finance our stove project.
ProWorld is part of Intrax, one of the oldest international education organizations. How does being part of a larger organization help you achieve your goals?
At first, the decision to join a larger company like Intrax was not an easy one. I had not really thought of it before, and was somewhat skeptical. However, as my business partner and I reflected upon a future partnership with a larger company, we began to think about all the ways our ProWorld mission would be supported within a larger company. We realized that our mission and Intrax’s mission were actually quite similar and that the HR, IT, and Marketing tools at Intrax’s disposal would allow us to increase and improve our impact for our volunteers and communities in the field. Ultimately, it was a pretty straight-forward decision to join forces.
Your signature is on the currency in Peru. How did you pull that off?
My father, whose name I share, was the President of the Central Bank of Peru for a number of years. As a result, our name was very clearly written on all the bills in Peru for some time. I’m not sure it ever impressed the ten-year-old girls in my school quite as much as I had hoped it might!
Your semester study abroad programs are amazing. The combination of service learning, and a broad variety of courses in area studies highlight the term. Why should someone attend a ProWorld study abroad program?
Sometimes I find it hard to explain the ProWorld semester experience because it is pretty unusual. When you boil it down, you can say that we aspire to provide very engaged, hands-on theoretical and practical educational experiences on our programs. This is possible through the framework of our ongoing community based projects, which provides a powerful foundation for learning and immersion to take place. I think of it as volunteer and social enterprise experiences linked to high quality academic courses.
Every international organization claims to be offsetting carbon these days. How does ProWorld do it and what makes it legitimate?
In 2007 we began working with third-party registration and certification entities to design and register our stove project as a carbon-offsetting project. Those organizations have protocols that require ongoing testing and review to insure passable levels of compliance with certain quality targets. In fact, our stove project was ultimately registered as a Gold Standard project under the UN guidelines for quality carbon offsetting.
We were actually leading the way in Peru in this area and as the word got out, we advised the first lady of Peru on her stove efforts as well. Today, there is a very robust stove carbon offsetting market in Peru and we are proud to have been at the front end of that process.
ProWorld has expanded to Asia and Africa in the past few years. How do the projects compare to your Latin American offerings?
We like to think the general nature of a ProWorld experience is similar no matter where our participants are. However, each country has a different climate, culture, and specific development needs. As a result, even within a given project portfolio, like health, we see a variety of project types. So, for example, while we may be doing a lot of public health and education around diabetes in Belize, we might be focusing on health campaigns associated
with identifying HPV cases in women to prevent cervical cancer in Peru. So, while the general engagement with the project is similar, the nature of the work varies greatly with each country.
I love the ticker on your site. How do we know you guys planted a million trees? Do you do the actually counting?
We do count, as our project teams on site are very proud of the increasing impact of their work. What does get tricky is choosing which projects we will measure and share, when the number of different types of things we are doing is so broad. That is why we started measuring overall company investment in country, projects, and staff, along with actual volunteer hours logged.
How many of your volunteers come from GoAbroad.com? Be honest…
We do get lots of students and volunteers from GoAbroad.com. We were literally launched by our features on GoAbroad.com a decade ago, but now we balance our web presence with our word of mouth and university relationships – plus all of our alumni. So, while you are still helpful, we’ve definitely diversified.
Do you have to be a student to participate in a ProWorld program?
Great question –and the answer is, you don’t. While the bulk of our participants are in their college years, we accept volunteers of all ages and have had volunteers of all ages participate. We’ve even had families come on our trips.
What’s the next big thing for ProWorld?
With the added support from Intrax we will be opening up a number of new offices in the coming year, so stay tuned as we start sharing some great new projects for you all to join!
Thanks! I will be waiting for my custom sculpted bar of soap!
Explore all of your ProWorld program options on GoAbroad.com!