Determined, smart and kind-hearted, meet Kaitlin Tait, the woman who has made it her mission to change the lives of people around the world. In her twenties Kaitlin and her husband, Aaron founded Spark International (now ygap), a non-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to enabling local leaders with great ideas for change within some of the world’s most poverty stricken communities. More recently, Kaitlin has dedicated her time to a new program yher which looks to empowering women. Here we spent the afternoon with Kaitlin, Aaron and their beautiful son Finn at their Byron Bay home to chat about their inspiring journey and what they are up to now.
Photography by Bridget Wood.
How did your journey begin and what inspired you to start Spark International (now ygap)?
Kaitlin: I grew up in California and studied psychology at university but partway through that degree I became really passionate about poverty and education. I spent time building houses in Mexico, working at a school on a Native American reservation in Arizona, and was involved in lobbying our university cafés to only sell Fair Trade coffee. I met Aaron in Spain in 2004 and we both shared a passion to make a difference in the world, and we were starting to explore what that might look like.
What we thought was a fun summer fling ended with emotional goodbyes and two years later I moved to Sydney from the US. We both were doing post graduate study in International Development and Education and when we finished our studies, we decided to book a one-way flight to Kenya.
We spent just under two years volunteering and working in Kenya and Tanzania and it was through those experiences that we realised that outsiders like us could never really drive sustainable change for these communities. It had to come from people in the community who understood the challenges far better than we ever could. So we started Spark International (now ygap) to find and back local leaders with great ideas for their communities and provide the funding and support they needed to put those ideas into action and grow their impact. We’ve now worked with over 400 social entrepreneurs across Africa, Asia Pacific and Australia who have improved the lives of over 600,000 people living in poverty through access to quality education, healthcare, jobs and better living conditions.
Why do you think you both work so well together?
Aaron: While we have the same passion to make a difference in the lives of some of the world’s poorest people, we have really different skills and ways of working. Kaitlin is an incredible leader and manager who can mobilise teams of people across the world to achieve great things and get the job done. Without her genius, we wouldn’t have been part of impacting anywhere near the number of people we have.
Kaitlin: I think because we have always been driven by the same things. We definitely have a different style of working and it was tough in the early days to figure out where each of our strengths were (and to put the boundaries in place we needed to live and work together!) but we always shared an equal passion for the change we were trying to create. The organisation has now grown to the point where we barely work together at all. It’s a real treat when we get to facilitate one of our programs together again!
Kaitlin, your focus now is predominately on yher, can you tell us a bit more about the program?
Kaitlin: We started yher because we began to see that there were unique challenges facing the female entrepreneurs we worked with. They struggled to access capital, they were carrying the bulk of the family/household responsibilities, and in many countries, faced clear discrimination. It was also born out of my own experience building an organisation and dealing with imposter syndrome, low confidence and anxiety - an experience I realised many other women I worked with shared.
We now find and support female entrepreneurs in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands who are running businesses that exist to improve their communities. Alongside a proven curriculum to help them strengthen and grow their business, we provide a space for them to discuss the challenges they face and share strategies for overcoming them. We know that many programs like ours are difficult for mothers to attend and so we make sure that having children doesn’t stop them from participating (Finn joined me in Bangladesh and Fiji last year!). We also provide funding to help them test new ideas and grow.
We hope that as a result, we begin to see more women running successful social businesses, that they have access to increased capital and better tailored support, and that they become the role models for the next generation of female change makers.
What inspires you to continue the work you are doing?
Aaron: Several things. First of all, there are still more than a billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day, which means that today, they will be hungry, or not have a light to turn on, or not have the blessing of a good hospital or school near them. So there is a lot of work to be done. Secondly, we spent years of our lives living in slums and villages in Africa, so amongst the many, we have very close friends who make up this massive number. And thirdly, and perhaps a little selfishly, the best moments of our year are working with the incredible local entrepreneurs we back. They are fiercely intelligent, have huge personalities and stories and are just awesome. So who wouldn’t want to hang out with them!
Kaitlin: The individual stories of the impact our entrepreneurs are having - we get to work alongside amazing people who have come up with innovative solutions to make our world better. Here are just a few examples:
1. An SMS service for expectant mothers in Kenya reducing infant and maternal mortality.
2. A mobile ultrasound service for rural Ugandan women, providing early identification of pregnancy complications.
3. A cooking class and catering company employing newly arrived migrants and refugees in Australia.
4. A micro-insurance company providing emergency loans to Kenyan families.
5. A low cost, high-quality school in the South African townships getting results that rival students in the UK.
6. An education company establishing a low cost, solar-run multi-media classrooms in rural Bangladesh.
Now with a child of your own, how do you balance work and family life?
Kaitlin: As any parent knows, it’s a constant juggle. Aaron also travels a lot and we don’t have family around so I've had to work hard to stay sane! I think the key has been just giving myself a break - letting go of the perfectionism. I try to be really present with Finn and then really present at work but I still often feel like I’m not doing enough! Having a little one around is great for perspective though and it does help me let go and focus on what’s important. I’ve also been trying to get better at carving out some solo time for myself because I know it’s crucial for my wellbeing.
Looking to the future, what are your goals?
Kaitlin: yher is growing fast! We’ve got big plans over the coming years to improve the program and reach more women in the communities where they are least supported. And personally, the work-family balance continues! We hope to be able to give Finn a little sibling soon and I’m also keen to challenge myself in new ways professionally so my role within yher may morph and change over the years but I’m super excited about where we’re headed!