Meet PKG: Rebecca Obounou, Assistant Dean of Social Innovation
Published October 28, 2019 by Devon Capizzi
Rebecca Obounou joined the PKG Center in April of 2019. As the annual IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge –a program Obounou would soon operate–reached its crescendo, she took on her new role as the Assistant Dean of Social Innovation. The title is one Obounou wears well, coming to PKG with a background in entrepreneurship, as well […]
Rebecca Obounou joined the PKG Center in April of 2019. As the annual IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge –a program Obounou would soon operate–reached its crescendo, she took on her new role as the Assistant Dean of Social Innovation. The title is one Obounou wears well, coming to PKG with a background in entrepreneurship, as well as a host of exciting renovations in mind for IDEAS 2020. From her background, both personal and professional, it’s unsurprising to find Obounou finds her place in an environment that marries community and innovation.
“I was actually born right down the road from MIT,” Obounou says. “I’m from Cambridge. I’m first generation Hatian-American, and my parents had me in Central Square.” Obounou spent the first years of her childhood in Massachusetts, starting school, and moving to the suburbs with her family. “We had a short stint living in Randolph in middle school, but my parents wanted to return to Haiti,” she says. “And so, we went from that lifestyle [in Massachusetts], in public schools, living as lower-working class folks, to living in rural Haiti and suddenly becoming privileged in our new neighborhood in rural Haiti. Our neighbors had far less than we did.”
In Haiti as a child, Obounou was struck by how rapidly her life changed, but also by the beauty of her new home. “I had heard a lot of negative things about Haiti growing up ,” Obounou explains. “And a lot of people did flee difficult circumstances, but that wasn’t what I found there. It was just so beautiful.” Obounou found herself in an environment at once new and familiar. She had grown up with Hatian parents, but when she got to Haiti herself, her understanding was illuminated by personal experience. “I fell in love with it,” she says, simply. “And I had the great pleasure of watching my mom be a social innovator and social entrepreneur before I even knew what those words meant.”
The home Obounou’s family moved into was settled in the woods and had historically been used as a medical clinic. First, by a doctor who had been a missionary in the area, and then for U.N. soldiers who also operated a clinic. Obounou’s mother, who had been trained as a nurse, decided to make use of it as well, opening Rosie’s Clinic to support the community and family alike. “Her name was Rose,” Obounou explains. “And she used to see hundreds of people in a single day. The largest number of people she saw was upwards of 400 people.” Obounou counts this as a formative influence on her, as she grew up and bore witness to the tangible effects of her mother’s work.
“I was very much inspired by what she did,” Obounou says. “There were a lot of other charities and things that I could look at in the area, but I found that a lot of them—I didn’t see them changing the conditions of people’s lives. Whereas, my mom’s venture was definitely a for-purpose, for-good venture.” People were healthier in the community, they were taken care of by the clinic, it made a direct impact on their lives and their wellbeing. As Obounou got older, she decided she wanted to have a similar effect in whatever work she did.
“I tell this story because my experience living in Haiti and my observations there completely changed my life and what I thought I would do,” Obounou says. Eventually, she would go on to pursue a business degree back in Massachusetts and ultimately an MBA. “I went to Bentley College—now University—and afterward I was looking for ways to go back home [to Haiti] and start a business.” Obounou wanted to find a way to invigorate the community and make a long-standing impact on their lives. To do so, she decided the best way she could help was to transfer the skills and knowledge she had acquired in her degree work to better serve local business owners in rural Haiti.
“I started my organization—CHES Inc.—and I’ve been keeping that going for the past eleven years, kind of bootstrapping it, while having to hold down a job, pay back student loans, and make a living,” Obounou says of her personal venture. All the while, running CHES Inc. and supporting local business owners in Haiti with workshops and shared business modules, Obounou landed at Babson College before joining PKG and MIT. “Towards the end of my MBA, Babson recruited me for a position that had a lot to do with building student engagement and energy on campus, and also launching new programs,” Obounou says. “And then, I was about to unsubscribe from an email last December, and instead I saw this odd title—PKG Center at MIT—and I thought huh, this is kind of everything I do.”
By February, Obounou became a part of the PKG staff, entering the Center at the height of IDEAS and jumping on board just in time to make it through the final rounds and showcase. “I learned a lot. It was great. I met so many different people,” Obounou says of her inaugural, whirlwind IDEAS competition. “So, now, from what I learned and what I saw, with interesting and exciting partnerships and with what I can bring to the table too, we are really excited to redesign and co-design this new model of what IDEAS will look like this upcoming year.”
Obounou is excited to see IDEAS – through its full rotation in the 2019-2020 academic year. Her favorite song is one that is close to her heart: “Chanjman (Change).”
“For the tenth anniversary of my organization, we actually released a song. I feel like this song is our anthem, and also my personal anthem. It’s on YouTube and we got some local artists to work on it… the lyrics: Change depends on us. The message is empowering and inspiring. I could listen to it all day, everyday and never get tired of it.”