Service trip set Schreyer senior on a new career path

Kate Ortbal, a senior in the Schreyer Honors College, will be graduating in May with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. The interdisciplinary degree enabled Ortbal to bring together academic programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering to focus on her interest in social entrepreneurship. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When it comes to social change, Kate Ortbal doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, whether that’s in the dry clay of a rural village in Honduras or in the depths of computer databases at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

The Schreyer Honors College senior has brought that same dig-in-and-get-it-done approach to her academic pursuits. Ortbal chose not to study in an established program in just one of Penn State’s academic colleges but instead brought together areas in two colleges -- Engineering and Agricultural Sciences -- to focus on social entrepreneurship.

“Being in Schreyer has played a big role in this,” she said. “Because I’m in the SHC, people who have helped me along the way have had faith in my dedication and commitment to what I’m trying to do.”

Ortbal got the idea after attending a conference at Yale about social entrepreneurship, a concept that most often takes the form of for-profit groups pushing for social improvements.

“The main goal of social entrepreneurship is to create social value, but there’s also an emphasis on profitability and scalability,” she said. “I loved this model and couldn’t find a major at Penn State that focused on it, so I knew that if I wanted to be able to do exactly what I wanted, I would have to make my own curriculum.”

Many of her classes initially fell within the Community, Environment, and Development (CED) major in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where she learned about international development, then she transitioned into the College of Engineering where she became involved in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) certificate program. She has also taken classes within the business, economics and geography departments toward earning a Bachelor of Philosophy degree this spring.“It’s really incredible to have completely designed my own education,” Ortbal said. “I knew what I wanted to learn, but this gave me a opportunity to meet the people who could make that happen.”

However, it wasn’t until she went to a rural community in Honduras over spring break of her sophomore year that she knew what she wanted her focus to be.

“I went to Honduras as a student interested in business, management or marketing,” Ortbal said. “I came back interested in pushing social missions, and in that way, it really did change the path of what I was doing in school.”

The trip to Honduras was her first to a developing country, and her goal was to work on building water systems in a community. Together with her Global Water Brigades team, she worked directly with local community members to figure out what kinds of water systems would work best for them.

“For Honduras, we figured out that it’s often an issue of water quality and access, not availability,” Ortbal said. “It’s mountainous and there are many fresh water sources, but water flows freely and isn’t piped into villages in an organized way, and by the time it gets to the village, it’s not clean.”

Knowing the situation in the community, the team identified water sources, dug trenches and laid pipes that would take water into the community. Then, they installed taps in the community that would allow citizens to access the water.

In the process, Ortbal learned a lot about how to identify a community’s needs and use her own resources to help others.

“I realized how privileged I really am, personally and academically, being able to go to a place like Penn State,” she said. “I started thinking about how I could leverage some of that privilege in order to create social value and contribute to improve the lives of other people.”

Last year, Ortbal was the president of Penn State’s Global Water Brigades chapter. Over the 2012 winter break, she organized a trip to Africa and took 20 students from State College to Ghana, where the group installed rainwater collectors.

In contrast to her trip to Honduras, in which she was only doing manual labor, the trip to Ghana required Ortbal to take on a lot of organizational responsibilities, too.

Ortbal had to coordinate the relationships between and among Global Brigades, Global Water Brigades, Penn State, the university’s travel department, student health services and the U.S. Embassy. She also had to make sure everyone got their visas, didn’t get sick, and actually made it onto the plane both to Africa and back to State College.

“The mission was great, and being on the ground was great, but the managerial thing was its own challenge,” she said. “Everything seems easy until it’s your job, whether your job is to be a student participating in this kind of experience or if your job is to be an organizer coordinating an event of this scale.

"It was a great experience to be able to see it from both sides.”

Last summer, Ortbal got a taste of the same kind of organizational challenges, but this time it was in a professional setting.

She interned at Ashoka Innovators for the Public, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., whose website provides a platform for entrepreneurs to share information about their products.

“Think of it like Facebook for social startups,” she said.

In her role, Ortbal worked on the product team to figure out the best way to display startups’ information on Ashoka’s website to encourage people-to-people connections.

“It was an incredible internship, and I couldn’t have done it without Schreyer,” Ortbal said. “It was their grant that allowed me to take the internship in the first place.”

For her honors thesis, Ortbal focused on the importance of effective products and business processes, looking specifically at why social ventures in developing countries fail and how that could be changed. Her goal is to come up with an empathy-based tool that helps new social entrepreneurs identify their stakeholders, determine their venture’s touch-points, and create innovative market-penetration strategies.

“The tool will function like a customer journey map -- it looks at a stakeholder’s experience not just in the process of purchasing a product, but before they get it and after, essentially to see how they interact with it and what value it offers them,” Ortbal said. “The goal is to be able to map how people interact with a product and figure out how to make it work best for them.”

After graduating, Ortbal will be working with the HESE program to expand its existing affordable greenhouse venture to Sierra Leone. She will be relocating to Makeni, Sierra Leone, for 13 months starting in June and will be working with HESE’s partner, World Hope International, to get the greenhouse venture up and running.

“I truly believe that businesses don’t just have to be confined to creating economic value, but that they can create social value, too,” she said. “The most important thing to me is to be in a position where I can help do that.”

Long term, Ortbal has a clear idea of what her dream job would look like: running her own innovation consultancy that would help NGOs or companies implement efficient and effective social solutions.

“I get really excited when I think about the moment when ‘more’ -- more sales, more production or more profit -- can be replaced with ‘better’ -- better products, better lives or better livelihoods,” she said. “I’m really just trying to get people behind that.” 

Last Updated April 28, 2014