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7 things you don’t know about Rotaract

Decoding the secrets of their success

1. Rotaractors are experts in their fields

The mediator: Joan Nairuba 26, a member of the Rotaract Club of Kololo, Uganda, and a lawyer specializing in mediation

I work at a commercial law firm, but I do more mediation than litigation. My law firm advocates for the use of alternative dispute resolution, and in Uganda, it’s also a requirement by law that parties undergo mediation. There are many cases where there’s lots of screaming. Part of the job is that you have to let both parties make some noise at first.

Joan Nairuba: “I know I’ll always be working in mediation, because people will never stop getting into disputes.”

Then you begin to use the tools of mediation. The first thing you must do is explain to both parties that they have to meet each other halfway. They have to understand, from the start, that both sides will have to lose something to get somewhere.

The next thing you have to do is explain what happens if the mediation doesn’t work. We have a huge backlog of legal cases in Uganda, anywhere from five to 10 years, so if people can’t work together, they are going to have to wait a long time and pay a lot of money to their lawyers and to the court.

Then you ask each side to come up with a representative. This is very important, because when it’s a big group of people on each side, nobody wants to back down. It’s a lot easier to deal with individuals than with a group.

This is what I had to do with my most difficult case. It was a dispute about a local marketplace. A group of investors wanted to build a structure to house the market, and the local residents didn’t want it.

It was a tough case because it was a land issue, and land is sacred in Uganda. It’s something people kill for. So the only way to resolve this was to get two individuals who were committed to the process. You have to be patient, especially when the parties get impatient.

For me, there’s an extra challenge. I’m a young woman, and I may walk into a room where it’s all older men. So how do you get past that? The way you do it is you make clear that you understand the facts of the case and the legal issues, perhaps better than they do. You say, “I may look young, but I have the experience.”

There’s also a lot of suspicion based on tribal affiliation, so we have to reassure the parties right at the beginning that we are getting nothing from this process – no land, no money. We just want to help them come to a solution.

I’m in my second year of practice, so I have my whole career before me. I’m interested in working in the energy sector someday. But I know I’ll always be working in mediation, because people will never stop getting into disputes. This is just how life is, in Uganda and everywhere else.

The deal maker: Michael Stone,30, a member of the Rotaract Club of Birmingham, Alabama, and a vice president at Porter White & Co., an investment bank

When people find out I’m an investment banker, most of them think that I pick stocks. Even my father-in-law will ask me if he should buy some random stock. I have to tell folks that investment bankers don’t actually pick stocks. But it can be hard to explain my job, because I do a lot of different things.

Michael Stone: “It’s fun to work on a project when you know you’re not just raising capital but serving a public good.”  

I raise capital to help businesses grow. I help evaluate potential deals and find investors to fund them. I work on mergers and acquisitions. And I provide long-term financial advice to municipal institutions, like the local airport and civic center and the university system.

I get the opportunity to learn something new every day. A couple of years ago, we provided financial advice to a waste-to-energy facility in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have any experience in that sector, but I had to learn enough to help them design a feasibility model for a new facility. The goal was to take food waste from restaurants that would otherwise go into a landfill and convert that waste into methane gas that could run an engine, or get cleaned up and fed into a pipeline. The byproduct of this process was nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

It’s fun to work on a project like that, because you know you’re not just raising capital but serving a public good. At the same time, it was kind of funny, because my wife’s cousin lived in that same city, and when he talked about visiting various restaurants and breweries, even though I’d never been to any of them, I knew the exact methane content of their waste streams.

A couple of years ago, I raised money for an Arizona tech company that found a way to print semiconductors that generated light. We think of lighting as an old technology, but this firm had figured out a way to literally print lights. That was my first big deal, and we helped them raise more than $11 million.

I also recently helped a client sell a galvanized metal facility. I’d never even been in a galvanized metal facility! So I had this crash course. But that’s the way I like it, because I get bored very easily.

It probably helps that I work in Birmingham. If I was at a big firm in New York City, I might be stuck crunching numbers, rather than getting to pitch clients. Plus, the Birmingham scene seems to be growing for startups.

Some of what I do is trying to figure out what the next wave of activity is going to be in the culture. Recently, I’ve started looking into the educational tech sector, and I’m now talking with a client who wants to use technology to provide affordable education. It’s incredibly exciting for me when I can see from my research that there’s a genuine need in the market, and then a client comes walking through the door who fills that need.

The diplomat: Egle Lauzonyte, 27, the president of the Rotaract Club of Chicago and the director of public diplomacy and cultural affairs for the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania in Chicago

When you tell people you work for the consulate, they often think you mean the embassy. But the embassy is in Washington, D.C., and the work done there is more political, dealing with Congress and the White House. The work we do in the consulate here in Chicago is more about cultural outreach and economics.

Egle Lauzonyte: “You can do great things when you bring so many people together.”  

The consulate issues passports and visas and other sorts of paperwork. But the work I do is about engaging with the local community. That’s a big deal in Chicago, because we have the biggest population of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania. It’s hard to say the exact number, because so many people identify as Lithuanian even if they were born in the United States. They attend Lithuanian schools, they speak the language and sing the songs. We like to count them as Lithuanian.

My work is very busy. In one recent week, we had two big celebrations. The first was a parade, where we had 100 people, all in traditional costumes, with a huge Lithuanian flag. Then we had another event that was devoted to Lithuanian Jewish culture, with a musical concert.

We consider this a vital part of public diplomacy. As a country, Lithuania doesn’t have a lot of natural resources, so our biggest resource is ourselves, our people. Whenever a world-class musician or an artist or an intellectual comes to the United States from Lithuania, we try to set up local events.

I also work with local businesses to attract investors. People don’t always realize that the Russians left Lithuania in 1991, and we have been an independent country for 27 years. In that time, we have joined NATO and become a member of the European Union.

We do outreach with the intellectual community as well. It’s important for us to talk about what’s relevant today. Right now, for instance, one of the big issues that affects the United States and Lithuania and all of Europe, really, is Russian propaganda. So we’re working with local think tanks on this issue, in particular with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

One of the things I love the most about Lithuanian culture is that we have great festivities. Lithuanians especially love to dance. Ever since I came here, I’ve been doing traditional Lithuanian dance. You can’t believe how many people do this! We have a national expo where there are thousands of dancers, and thousands more watching. It’s a huge party. And for me, it’s like public diplomacy, because you see how you can do great things when you bring so many people together.

The transformer: Nichole Haynes, 23, a member of the Rotaract Club of Georgetown Central, Guyana, and an economist at Guyana’s Ministry of Business

When I started this job, I was 21. The first project I undertook was to make it easier to do business in Guyana. That has resulted in several collaborations and support from external bodies such as the World Bank. I’m very proud of that.

Nichole Haynes: “I appreciate that I get to be so directly involved in transforming our economy and in making the lives of the citizens of Guyana easier.”  

Guyana is located in South America. We are not a country in Africa, as some think. We are a very small country – the population is approximately 740,000 – and we are largely agricultural. We have recently been classed as upper middle income.

Guyana has discovered oil, and the government hopes to use the returns for infrastructure and education. So we are excited about that. It means that there is a lot of attention on the department in which I work.

My work is largely structured around policy development. I work directly with the minister of business to assess critical factors influencing the business environment. One project that we’ve been working on is improving transparency and access to information within Guyana – information on how to start your business, how to register the forms you need, how to access your forms online. It’s a small step, but it’s a big step for Guyana. We are moving into the digital age.

Access to electricity is one of the biggest constraints to doing business in Guyana. We want to go green, so we are about to pursue hydropower and solar. Oil is another opportunity for us to reduce our energy costs. Access to credit is another issue, especially for small businesses. We have introduced a credit bureau, and at the Ministry of Business, we are leading the development of a secure system to allow assets such as cattle to be used as collateral for borrowing. In addition, we  provide grants to small businesses that are in keeping with the intentions of Guyana going green and supporting a sustainable economy.

I appreciate that I get to be so directly involved in transforming our economy and in making the lives of the citizens of Guyana easier. Anyone in the public sector needs to put their country first. You must be invested in making your country better, especially if you are directly involved in policymaking. Guyana has solutions. It has natural resources; it has talented people. I want to play a part in organizing those players and those resources for Guyana’s real development – that’s why I do this. You see the potential, and you want to help.

2. They think beyond their clubs

Holding life-size frames, people pose for Instagram photos as part of Rotaract Brazil's Diversidade! project.

In 2014, Brazil weathered a contentious presidential election that divided the country politically along geographic lines. That split led to a discussion between two young Brazilians, Janeson Vidal de Oliveira, of the Rotaract Club of Pau dos Ferros, and Vanderson Valci Soares, of the Rotaract Club Manchester of Joinville.

“Janeson and I were talking about Brazil’s greatest need as a country at that moment,” recalls Soares. “We were at the height of the presidential campaign, and I being from the south and he being from the north, we were experiencing a great divergence of opinion. The north advocated one candidate, while the south advocated another, but not in a civil and polite way. The atmosphere was tense, and we often saw personal offenses against people and regions that disagreed with one another. We understood that this was an ideal opportunity to work on diversity as a cultural issue.”

To accomplish their goal, Soares and Vidal turned to Rotaract Brasil’s multidistrict information organization (MDIO), a network that connects Rotaract clubs nationwide. That organizational structure is not unique to Brazil. There are 23 Rotaract MDIOs spread across parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. They expedite communication across district boundaries and effectively lend themselves to the exchange of ideas and collective action.

The campaign presented a chance for Rotaract to carry the flag of tolerance and respect for those who are different from us.

Rotaract Club of Pau dos Ferros

As it happened, Vidal and Soares led Rotaract Brasil as president and vice president, respectively, from 2015 to 2016. With input from the country’s Rotaractors – Brazil has more than 750 Rotaract clubs – they settled on a theme for their year in office: Diversidade! O Brasil inteiro cabe aqui (literally, “Diversity! All Brazil fits here”). Through a variety of posters, pamphlets, and activities, which varied from district to district, the MDIO campaign targeted online hate crimes.

 “Clubs were encouraged to give talks at schools, universities, and other institutions,” explains Vidal. “In addition, we demonstrated our commitment to promoting peace on a local and global level and ensuring equal opportunities to all people despite their differences.”

 “It was a challenge to present the pre-judice and problems experienced by people of different religions or with disabilities, by Afro-Brazilians, by transsexual people, or because of the simple fact of being a woman,” says Daiana Suélen Brites Cicarelli, of the Rotaract Club of São Manuel. (Like Vidal and Soares, Cicarelli is now a Rotarian.)

In the end, Vidal estimates the Rotaract campaign connected with about 300,000 Brazilians. “The fact that Brazil is so large and Rotaract exists from one end of the country to the other” made the MDIO an ideal way to take on hate crimes, says Soares. “The campaign presented a chance for Rotaract to carry the flag of tolerance and respect for those who are different from us.”

3. They are redefining what it means to be a Rotarian

Though we might think of the progression from Rotaract to Rotary as linear, Rotaractors are in fact embracing dual membership. When the 2016 Council on Legislation voted to open up membership rules, many Rotaractors saw an opportunity to participate in Rotaract and Rotary clubs at the same time.

Muhammad Talha Mushtaq, a member of the Rotaract Club of Jhang Saddar as well as the Rotary Club of Jhang Metropolitan, Pakistan, leapt at the chance to participate at both levels. 

Muhammad Talha Mushtaq's Rotaract club delivered backpacks filled with school supplies to children.

“Dual membership allows me to be a bridge,” Mushtaq says. “Each week in my Rotary club, I get to listen to speakers on a variety of topics, learn about what is going on in my community – and carry all that back to my Rotaract club. I share ideas with my fellow Rotaractors and encourage them to get more involved. Likewise, I have become the face of Rotaract to my Rotary club, communicating to them the issues that are important to Rotaractors. 

 “I decided to serve as my Rotary club’s membership chair next year, because there are many Rotaractors who are willing to join Rotary but need guidance. My Rotary club invited six Rotaractors to become dual members.”

César Bertini Camargo, a member of the Rotary Club of São Paulo-Vila Mariana, Brazil, and the Rotaract Club of São Paulo-Vila Mariana, says he and other dual members bring fresh ideas from Rotaract to Rotary. “Rotary could learn from Rotaract, and actually it’s already learning, how to engage more in local causes and have more interesting and fun meetings in order to be more attractive to potential members,” he says. “Rotaract is great at bringing youth volunteers together to engage in local projects. By encouraging Rotaractors to become Rotarians, Rotary is bringing these characteristics to the organization as a whole.”

Camargo is so passionate about this synergy that he wants to make sure participants in Rotary’s other youth programs aren’t left out: “We should be more in touch with Youth Exchange and RYLA. We should bring more alumni from these programs to Rotaract, just as Rotary is bringing Rotaractors to Rotary with the dual membership.”

Fernando Pinto Nercelles, a member of the Rotaract Club of Vitacura and the Rotary Club of Huelén, Chile, also sees benefits for clubs at both levels: “Dual membership in Rotaract and Rotary allows us to build more dynamic clubs that have a broader perspective, feature more debate and more ideas, and do more and better service in more communities.”

4. They excel at recruiting

Rotary clubs are always looking to expand their ranks. Here’s how Rotaractors get the job done.

5. They embrace the opportunity to learn

Rotaractors are eager to understand different perspectives and to experience new things. And almost all of them talk about gaining new skills through Rotaract. 

Justin Hadjilambris

 “When you are young, you tend to have less of a voice at work. Rotaract gives you a chance to be a leader and express your interests and your creativity, and to solve problems,” says Justin Hadjilambris, of the Rotaract Club of Nicosia, Cyprus. Amanda Firkins, of the Rotaract Club of Hawkesbury, Australia, agrees: “Rotaract provided the space for me to use my organizational skills. I’ve learned how to plan and execute events. And while I’m still developing my people skills and project management skills, I can confidently put my hand up and know that I’m capable.”

In addition to leadership, Rotaract offers instruction in life skills that universities don’t teach. “I entered Rotaract when I was 18,” says Lucky Dalena, of the Rotaract Club of Conegliano-Vittorio Veneto, Italy. “I learned everything from writing effective emails and managing a bank account to organizing big events to being a leader in both good and bad situations.” 

In addition to leadership, Rotaract offers instruction in life skills that universities don’t teach. “I entered Rotaract when I was 18,” says Lucky Dalena, of the Rotaract Club of Conegliano-Vittorio Veneto, Italy. “I learned everything from writing effective emails and managing a bank account to organizing big events to being a leader in both good and bad situations.” 

Many Rotaractors point to learning to speak in public as an essential part of their Rotaract experience. JM Cuales, of the Rotaract Club of Manila and the Rotary Club of Manila Magic, Philippines, says his Rotaract experience helped him develop his social skills: “I was an introverted individual, but through Rotaract I learned how to be an extroverted introvert. I learned how to communicate well with people and interact with them. Rotaract has given me the education and training to go outside my comfort zone.” 

And like Rotarians, Rotaractors find that membership has led to friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. Although Willow Pedersen, of the Rotaract Club of Virginia Tech, Virginia, has never traveled outside the United States, Rotaract has connected her to the world. “At the Rotary Convention in Atlanta, I met people from Uganda, the United Kingdom, and India. I had a great conversation with my new friend from South Korea using Google Translate.

 “Being able to understand each other using our iPhones,” Pedersen adds, “is an example of how we can use technology to build peace.”

6. They find creative solutions

The Rotaract Club of the Caduceus in Mumbai has 32 members. Yet when a service project demands attention, the club can muster hundreds of volunteers from across Mumbai and five other major Indian cities. It’s a good example of how Rotaractors maximize their numbers through the strategic use of technology.

“We maintain a very wide network,” explains Vidhi Dave, the 21-year-old president of the Caduceus club, which is made up of medical students and interns. (The caduceus – a staff entwined by two snakes and capped by a pair of wings – is a symbol of the medical profession.) “Every year, we find a representative from each of the [region’s] medical colleges. These reps have their own email and WhatsApp groups. We communicate all of our upcoming project information to them, and they pass it on to their colleges.”

Four of the club’s health care initiatives have earned Rotaract Outstanding Project Awards. One of those awards recognized the club’s collaboration with India’s Department of Public Health, the Indian state of Maharashtra, UNICEF, Harvard University, and others to design a real-time disease surveillance tool for use on the Android tablet. It’s called the Jana Swasthya project, which in Hindi means “public health and welfare.”

Project participants tested the tool during Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that draws millions of people to various rivers in India for religious bathing rituals. “From an epidemiological point of view, this could be a disaster,” says club member Ghanshyam Yadav. Historians have linked Kumbh Mela to the spread of cholera during the 19th century.

At the 2015 Kumbh Mela, which attracted millions of people to the city of Nashik, the Indian government set up health clinics to screen and treat pilgrims. “We trained doctors at those clinics to use the tool to record each patient’s ID, age, gender, medical complaints, and a provisional diagnosis,” Yadav says. Ultimately, project volunteers tabulated the results from 35,000 patient visits.

The Rotaract Club of the Caduceus in Mumbai offers time-strapped medical students opportunities to bond and learn.

By entering the data directly into the tablet, rather than first collecting it on paper, the Department of Public Health created a real-time database and surveillance system. Using that information, officials could track, for example, a spike in diarrhea cases – initiating an inspection of the local waterworks to look for the source of the outbreak.

In 2015, Rotary recognized the Caduceus club for its success in treating malnourished children. Surprisingly, many of the treated children were already participating in the government’s free midday meal program at school. “Because kids were getting the midday meal, they weren’t getting breakfast at home,” explains Yadav. “The family thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to get food at school.’ ”

Club members named the project the Breakfast Revolution, and they organized health screenings at area schools that recorded each child’s height, weight, and baseline body mass index. Malnourished children received fortified supercookies and soy milk for breakfast when they arrived at school.

The Caduceus club initially organized 75 health camps, and each camp screened hundreds of children. The club staffed the camps with doctors and medical students from its digital network. To pay for the supercookies and soy milk, the club organized a fundraiser with its sponsor club, the Rotary Club of Bombay Central. Working their connections, Caduceus members organized the Comedy Cereal, a night of standup comedy featuring five top Indian comics, who each performed pro bono. The event attracted 750 donors and raised $20,000.

 “We used the fundraiser money to pay for the first order of cookies,” Dave says. “But we knew the amount we had ordered would not suffice, so we immediately started hunting for NGOs to sponsor the project.”

The club established a research committee tasked with finding sponsors. “We found phone numbers to NGOs using everything from Google to word of mouth,” says Dave. The committee compiled a list of contacts into a spreadsheet, and club members called and emailed each organization on the list. Eventually, they secured a partnership with the Mumbai-based Decimal Foundation to pay for more supercookies.

Several months later, Caduceus volunteers screened the children again and saw significant improvements in their health. Teachers reported that the students were also performing better in school. The project continues today and has expanded to treat malnourished children at orphanages and people with tuberculosis. “The Breakfast Revolution has changed the lives of so many people,” Dave says.

In addition to the opportunity to participate in its projects, Caduceus offers time-strapped medical students opportunities to bond and learn. “We organize treks for a cause,” Dave says, explaining that the club schedules several hikes per year that include a medical-related discussion. “Every Tuesday and Thursday, we post rare cases to our WhatsApp group and discuss them,” Dave says. Because club members and people on their networks are studying in different medical fields, it makes for a lively online consultation.

 “Most medical students can’t commit to being a Rotaract member due to their schedule,” Dave adds. So the club focuses on the students in its network with one-off volunteer opportunities, as well as information about events and discussion groups that contribute to their professional development.

Even with the demands of graduate school on her immediate horizon, Dave, a physiotherapy student, plans to remain in Rotaract – and eventually she hopes to join a Rotary club. She asks: “What could be better than being a part of the same tree, just changing the branch?”

7. They know what they want

More Rotaract coverage

  • 50 years of Rotaractors. Read story.
  • Woman goes from Interact to Rotaract to Rotary. Read story.
  • Rotaractors work on projects in East Africa. Read story.

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