Member Profile: Oly Bracho, Women for Women International
Member Profile: Oly Bracho, Women for Women International
Our Member Profile blog series features Humentum members talking about their work and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. This month we feature Women for Women International’s Vice President of Finance and IT, Oly Bracho (at right). Based in Washington, DC, Oly has been with Women for Women International for three years. Here she talks about her role, the importance of having fun on the job, and how she defines operational excellence.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the organization, your background, and your path to this position.
A: Women for Women International is an organization that works with the most marginalized women who have survived war and conflict. Operating in some of the toughest places to be a woman, we have dedicated our work to supporting the most marginalized and socially excluded women. Through our one-year program, women learn basic business skills and a vocational skill with earning power in their local markets. They begin to save and receive support to establish cooperatives, associations, or village savings and loan associations (VSLAs). They help each other find solutions to common challenges. Women learn how to manage their health, including reproductive health, stress management, and the importance of good hygiene and nutrition for their families. They are connected with local healthcare providers. Women learn their fundamental rights and those recognized in their countries, and are encouraged to educate other women. They learn the importance of civic participation, voting, and negotiation. Our year-long program provides women with opportunities to build support networks, share experiences, learn critical skills, and gain access to new resources.
I’ve always been attracted to working with organizations that have a mission, that give something back to society. I am from Venezuela. I came here to study economics, and I have a Master’s in Administration, specializing in finance. I began my career in the for-profit sector but I switched rapidly to the non-profit sector, and I loved it. I have been doing this kind of work for over 23 years. I started from the beginning as a bookkeeper. Now I have risen to be the equivalent of the CFO for my organization.
Most of my professional non-profit life has been in global organizations working in conservation. Women for Women International is my first non-profit venture in development and it is very exciting. When I came onboard there were many opportunities to strengthen, and in some cases, completely rebuild portions of the organization. It has taken a lot of work, commitment, data gathering and analysis, knowledge of best practices, flexibility, and balancing. We, the leadership team with staff and board, developed a strategic plan last year with very specific goals, and it is working. We are doing well, and we have gone above and beyond what we thought we could do. Our programs are starting to get more resources than before—although the need is so much greater than our resources. In response to the ongoing crisis in Syria, we opened a new office in the Kurdistan region of Iraq this year. We are supporting Iraqi, Syrian, and Yezidi women who have been forced to flee their homes because of war and conflict. This work is so important and very rewarding.
Tell us a little bit about your current job responsibilities.
I work with the leadership team, board members, staff, and sometimes with donors to ensure that the institution is financially resilient. My team handles, manages, and controls everything to do with financial resources—accounting, internal controls, cash management, budgeting, and reporting. We’re the stewards of the monetary resources for the organization. We work very closely with country programs, the global board of directors, and the senior leadership team to enable all with knowledge specific to our finances to move the institution forward. This is one of my main jobs, and I would say 90 percent of my time is spent in this critical role. Getting our systems in good order has taken a lot of thinking, monitoring, reporting, and changing. I sprinkle in a touch of conservatism, but at the same time, being creative and risk tolerant to get us where we need to be.
Another aspect of my position is focused on IT and the management of this team. At this point, our efforts have concentrated on upgrading and maintaining the systems infrastructure and we’d like to move towards the next level. We need to think more strategically about systems and how we use technology to be more efficient. That’s one of our priorities. We started two years ago with a new CRM; this year we started implementing a new budgeting and reporting tool, BI360, and we procured a new accounting tool to be rolled out next year. As you can imagine, this change is huge. As an organization, we are over 250 people and we work in places that aren’t easy to work in. We want to empower our people with data, we want to use the cloud—but what does that mean? We went that route (moving to the cloud), and we have seen major gains in efficiencies, but also major challenges. Sometimes people in our conflict-affected country offices can’t access what they need because they don’t have consistent access to electricity. You can never 100 percent plan for everything. It’s a balancing of how do we handle a lot of the contingencies and still get the job done. That’s one of our major challenges—how do we keep up the pace of improvement, because we really need it, and how do we reconcile that with the capacity to facilitate in a way that people don’t get burned out. Sometimes we say, “We’re building the airplane while we’re actually flying it.”
How do you respond to these challenges?
We respond to these challenges in different ways. With my team and my team leaders, we make sure we all know what the priorities are. My team also knows that they can always come to me, so if they’re having problems, I can help them.
Second, we communicate with the rest of the staff to make sure that we enable others to continue with their plans. If we have conflicts in priorities, we come up with a plan, we give options so that people can move forward because we recognize that we’re all juggling many things at one time.
The third, honestly, is that I just try to have as much fun as I can with the team. We try to take time, sit together, joke, and laugh. That eases the anxieties. We have bi-weekly meetings and in those meetings, there is usually some component of fun so we can decompress. One of the most motivating parts about my job is my team. They are amazing.
How do you foster professional growth and development among your staff?
First and foremost, professional development is the key to success. It’s one of my top priorities. One way that I do this is that I try to be a role model. For example, I share reading that I’ve been doing, or I participate in free webinars myself and I’ll invite my team to participate. If an auditor is hosting a webinar, I might say to my team, “Hey, let’s go participate.” There really are a lot of free opportunities that you can sign up for. Even with Humentum, you offer a lot of options, and I wish I had more time so I could do more!
In addition, each of us gets some money for professional growth, and I encourage staff to take the class that will help them nurture a skill or gain a new skill. Most importantly, I keep an eye on them and have an open dialogue so that they can grow in their roles via projects. Depending upon what they want and the opportunities that I see, I enable that person to take on new responsibilities, even if it is beyond their job description. I try to do that as much as I can. That’s the great thing about a medium-size NGO—there are plenty of projects to help people to grow. There is plenty of work to do.
How do you define operational excellence at Women for Women International?
Operational excellence, at least the way we’re defining it, has phases. Phase one, for me, is that we are working well together from all angles and that people feel empowered—they have the data, knowledge, and tools to be effective and efficient. At the stage that we are at, we need to focus on operational excellence in technology in the coming two years. This means that we need to implement in an appropriate and timely way all the key systems that will facilitate the routines of everyone in the organization to gain efficiencies and free up time for better team work, better analytical thinking, and better data sharing. Achieving that will take us another two to three years, bringing us from where we are now to where we want to be.
What do you perceive as the value of Humentum membership for you and your team?
I really appreciate the network. That’s the prime benefit. It’s a place where you can meet a lot of colleagues that have similar experiences. You can then call on them with your challenges. I’ve met many people that way who I can rely on.
The second one is the Member Community. There are many resources there; you can look for them, and find the answers you need. And if you can’t find them, then you can pose a question on the discussion boards and someone will answer. That for me is super valuable. I also like very much how Humentum’s community is organized by functions—by finance, by HR, by cross-cutting operations—and the forums (roundtables and Humentum’s senior leader convening) so that the network keeps growing and where you enable people to talk together. We can’t easily find that anywhere else.