Making Waves in the Charity Sector to End Global Malnutrition

Nicki Connell MBE, Nutrition Technical Director

  • Like many of us, Nicki is struggling with working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic. She’s having to get creative with how she runs her face-to-face meetings and lots of her projects have been put on hold. But when Nicki’s work projects are delayed, it’s a big problem. It could result in thousands of children becoming malnourished.

Nicki is the Nutrition Technical Director for The Eleanor Crook Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to ending malnutrition around the world.

“We are funding a project in Tanzania, which involves groups of mothers and fathers meeting together and talking about critical health topics to help them support their children to grow well; obviously they can’t meet together in groups anymore, so they’ve had to stop the research” she says. “Outside of our direct projects, the biggest challenge we’re seeing now is the level of COVID across Africa is really unknown. They’re not doing widespread testing, so they’re not finding the cases. And even if they find them, many contexts will not have the resources to treat it properly.

“Because of the social distancing and travel restrictions that are being put in place, people can’t plant their harvest or get to market. As a result there is a huge food crisis looming across the whole of Africa, which will cause levels of malnutrition to vastly increase. There are 50 million children with malnutrition in the world at the moment, and we expect there to be an increase of between 10-50% over the next year. We’re trying to raise awareness about this new reality and the impact on malnutrition, to ensure the funding is mobilised to address this increased need before child deaths sky rocket.”

As well as raising awareness of the current imposing threats from COVID-19, Nicki spends her time talking to UN agencies, like UNICEF and WHO, to support them to coordinate across the nutrition sector and facilitate better malnutrition treatment services for children on the ground.

Although Nicki now spends most of her time coordinating projects from her desk, she says her favourite part of the job is working out in the field. “[I love] going to clinics located in the middle of nowhere and working with the staff, helping them understand how to treat children with malnutrition. You think you’re really remote when you’re three days away from anywhere, but that’s their reality. They stay there day in and day out and keep these kids alive.

“I don’t get to do it so much anymore, but in my current job I love going into the field and meeting different people. I’ve always been pretty hands-on; this is the first job I’ve had that has been less so – it’s more about creating impact and opportunities at the global level, and then translating that down to the country level, reaching those staff in the middle of nowhere.”

She says she has a different perspective now that she’s on the other side of the fence, providing funding to organisations rather than chasing funding. “As the custodian of the funding, you’re trying to make sure you’re giving the money to the right people…  There’s a lot of inefficiencies and wasted money in how nutrition services are typically set up, so we’re trying to revolutionise it. We’re a relatively small player in a huge public health space… but that makes us flexible, we don’t have the red tape to navigate or ties with government institutions so we can try to be a bit more disruptive and push for change in ways that others can’t.”

Working in the field

Nicki’s first job in the charity sector was as a Nutrition Program Manager in Bangladesh. She spent a year helping to run malnutrition treatment programs for refugees from Myanmar and supporting new mothers to breastfeed their children.

She then progressed to a series of jobs with other charities. “The next job was in Pakistan; I was there responding to flooding, which meant Pakistan had a lot of internally displaced people, so we were providing the same malnutrition treatment services there. I then went on to South Sudan and worked as a Nutrition Coordinator. I was based in the capital and travelled around to different field sites to train staff, coordinate with the government in South Sudan and ultimately make sure that the right services were being provided in the clinics.”

Nicki working with Save the Children

Her longest position was almost five years with Save the Children. “It involved being deployed to and supporting emergency response scenarios. So, I would wait for the phone to ring and be prepared to jump on a plane in 24 hours – so I always had a bag packed. Or sometimes I would travel to emergency contexts and take over from staff to give them a break, or gap fill when there was a vacancy in the nutrition team in country. I did start to develop a love/hate relationship with my suitcase!”

Nicki’s career has taken her all over the world. And in the process of saving children’s lives, she sometimes has to risk her own. “The reality is that the work I do is in places that are lawless or at best not typically law abiding. You have to undertake hostile environment awareness training. You learn what to do if you’re kidnapped, shot at, if the car you’re in is stolen… It’s part and parcel of the job. You have to make a decision that you feel comfortable enough to travel to different contexts, which are often war zones or conflict settings.

“There are different risks depending on where you go as a white woman. For example, in Pakistan – there’s a risk of kidnap, and in Yemen the risk is higher still. People assume that your family is wealthy enough that there would be a ransom paid if you were kidnapped.  

The most dangerous situation I found myself in was in Yemen in 2017, after the most recent war had started. There was bombing going on and gunshots could be heard in the streets. Our guest house had shatterproof glass and an underground bunker for when the bombs started dropping. We were there during the world’s biggest cholera outbreak, and I was really ill, to the point where I was wondering if I had cholera. I was thinking about this in the bathroom and bombing started so I was faced with the choice: do I run for the bunker or stay in the bathroom? It was ok – I didn’t go to the bunker, the closest bomb was dropped a block away from where we were. And it wasn’t cholera. But it was a hairy situation!  

From Ranch-hand to MBE

Thankfully, these situations are rare, and Nicki enjoys the work she does. Despite the risk of kidnap, Yemen is Nicki’s favourite place where she worked. “It is such a beautiful country and there is an amazing heritage. The Yemeni people are lovely – most are surprised to learn they are a very generous, quiet and humble people, given what is portrayed in the media. It is really interesting working there, but it has changed a lot since there has been a new outbreak of war; lots of the architecture has been flattened. But it’s still a really interesting setting that was rewarding to work in.”

Her other favourite place is Argentina, which is where she spent a year working on a cattle ranch as a horse-riding guide, while she decided on her career path. “It was a really fun place to work. I would take the tourists out on horseback and make sure their wine glass was topped up. Then I met someone who worked in nutrition. I had graduated from Bath University with a degree in Natural Sciences, and I thought nutrition would be good way to build on that,” she says. “I wanted to do something where I felt like I was making a difference… I was never going to choose something with an easy path, that’s not my style!”  

Nicki is obviously well-suited to this work, as she’s helped so many people already, and her dedication has been recognized with an MBE for Services to Emergency Nutrition. I’m in an atypical career. It’s not about aiming to progress up the career ladder; I’m not speaking at events or publishing books. I guess the highlight has been my MBE, but that makes me cringe a bit! I don’t feel I’ve done anything special, and there are so many others doing more than me” she says modestly.

“I didn’t expect to be recognized with this award. I made peace with accepting it through ensuring I accept it on behalf of everyone I work with. I try to use it as opportunity to raise awareness of the he amount of work still needed to reach a world where malnutrition no longer exists.”

Nicki at work in Yemen

Seeking out opportunities in the charity sector

Charity is a very competitive sector. “Surprisingly, it is hard to get very far without a master’s degree in this sector,” says Nicki. “It’s very competitive.”

As well as completing her own master’s degree in nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she raised money to help a friend named Chaplain in South Sudan do his master’s degree at Leeds University. “He graduated with a distinction – and was able to go back to South Sudan and impart and utilise his newfound knowledge. He was a refugee back in the 80s when the war was happening – he now supports a huge family. He’s done great things over the years, and is a truly inspirational person. We now fund a project he is the lead on in Uganda. He did the hard work, pitching up in the UK and managing to study, and in English which is not his first language.

She says that fortunately, she personally hasn’t experienced any gender-based prejudice in her industry. In fact, while the older people in nutrition work tend to be men, there are a lot of younger women coming through into the sector these days. The bigger discriminatory issue is actually colour. “As a white woman in the sector, I have been exposed to an unfair amount of opportunities over national staff, or women of colour, or even men of colour.

“You hear stories even of men of colour applying for jobs and getting nowhere, but when the name on the CV is changed to Brown, the interviews start getting offered. That’s the level of prejudice there is… even though it’s usually better to have people working in their own countries, because they know the context, the language, the culture… and where there are less security threats to them because they don’t stand out. It’s really unacceptable and is something we all need to make huge concerted efforts to improve, and immediately.”

That’s why she sees the importance of helping people like Chaplain, who is now running a charity in Uganda called The Refugees Resilience Initiative. Even if he faces prejudice climbing the corporate ladder, it hasn’t stopped him from setting up his own charitable organisation to help others, which at the end of the day is so hugely important.

Nicki is continuing to do great work helping those suffering with malnutrition around the world. And as she mentioned, her job is only going to get harder as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at the Eleanor Crook Foundation website to find out more about the work they do.

Quick-fire questions

Are you a morning lark or a night owl?    Morning

Active holiday or relaxing holiday?    Active

What are you watching on Netflix right now?     Ozark

Go-to karaoke song?  I hate karaoke! I was singing Foals songs around the house earlier though

Biggest weakness?    Perfection

What’s your favourite season?     Spring

Most used app on your phone?    BBC app

Favourite meal/cuisine?    Roast pork

Favourite weekend activity?     Horse riding or long walk

Who’s your favourite female icon?     Judi Dench

Soaring to Success: From the Airforce to Global VP for Workforce Solutions

Sam Smith, Global VP, Life Sciences & Healthcare, KellyOCG

  • Sam Smith has had a varied career, from working as an engineer with the RAF, to supporting Welsh railway workers and now she is a VP in the Life Sciences division at KellyOCG, a global provider of workforce strategy, solutions, and operations. She’s bold, brave and ambitious, everything a strong female lead should be.

“I always wanted to join the air force; there was never any other path for me, I made that decision at a very young age… I was in the air training cadets and that really carved a path to get to where I wanted to be. Being in the mechanical side, we were fondly called riggers or fitters, you’re there to keep the rotors turning, the aircraft in good condition and in the air. It was exciting. We worked with pilots and a real variety of professionals, we felt valued as part of a team and I really enjoyed it, in fact I loved it.”

Her next role came about by chance after unexpectedly leaving the RAF. She actually applied for a job with Jaguar Land Rover in their stores department, but ended up working for the recruitment agency who were filling the role. “I didn’t know that recruiting agencies existed. I thought to get a job you went to the job centre or the newspapers.”

When she got to the agency, the manager spent 10 minutes telling her why she wouldn’t get the job and why he shouldn’t put Sam forward. “I decided to put him right. I said if you put me forward for the job, which I think I’m overqualified for, I’ll get the job, you’ll get paid and we’ll never have to speak to each other again!

“So, I convinced him to put me forward, went to the interview, and got offered to job. But I had to go back to the agency to sign the paperwork. This guy said, “Don’t work with them, come work with me, you’ll be really good at this!” And I started the following week – it was light industrial, supporting a supermarket warehouse distribution centre. It was a fortuitous, lucky incident, chaos at times but the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Now Sam leads the Global Life Science and Healthcare practice at KellyOCG and is responsible for $3.4 billion in spend under the management portfolio. “ We’ve really connected with customers whose primary purpose to improve patient outcomes. When you work in that space every day, you see the sense of purpose and passion in those organizations which has an ongoing impact into my teams, into the talent that we engage. Life science and healthcare companies’ sole purpose is to prolong life, improve lives, give people pain-free lives, dignity, mobility and independence. It’s such a privilege to work in that area of the business.”

Living the highlight of her career

Day-to-day, Sam crams lots into her working hours – mainly looking after her global teams. “I would be a complete liar if I told you I was up at 4am juicing kale before yoga and running a half marathon. That’s not my life. My life is full of graft… [I have] team members all over, the majority in North America (the company HQ is in Michigan), which affords me a wonderful gap in the day where I can think. I take advantage of those mornings. Even on occasion I get into a routine with my Pelaton.” 

Sam is clearly passionate about her work, and her team, and she has obviously found her niche at KellyOCG. She says that there is a unique, combined sense of purpose to what she’s doing now, both in terms of the fulfilling work she’s doing and the feeling of acceptance. “I feel genuinely blessed to be working with a very diverse and inclusive organization.

“KellyOCG is a really cool place to work. We’re not the biggest and don’t pretend that we are, but we have a unique sense of who we are. That gives me a sense of joy about where I work. I’ve been lucky to win awards, well, I’ve worked bloody hard to win awards and worked hard to be recognized with performance and with team members. But the sense of team that I have built with this Life Science team is a massive highlight. They’re phenomenal.

“When you have a combined sense of purpose and build in a commitment to kindness, it changes the dynamic of how you work with people. You and they feel invested in the outcome of what you’re doing, so it changes the mood. You can get through challenging times in a different way. I don’t mean friendship, but a connected sense of purpose – everyone is on the same page. You don’t have to be friends to respect each other. And that’s he differentiator for what we’re doing here in this team”

Video by KellyOCG:

Comradery, brothers and resilience

From the beginning of her career, Sam has always worked in male-dominated environments. In the air force, she was the only female there for quite some time, before she was joined by a female on the electronics side, and then one more in the administration part of the squadron.

“It was odd, but I ended up having 80 brothers, and about 19 uncles, and a few grandads. It was very much a family environment. If you don’t mind getting stuck in and proving yourself, you’re accepted. I was fortunate that my humour and sporting nature helped me integrate in that male environment quite quickly. I’m still friends with many of these guys. Some of them have been to my weddings – I’ve had two, and they’ve been to both – so some of them are lifelong friends.”

Sam has witnessed discrimination and a variety of behaviours that with the passage of time fall into the category of inappropriate. With many men on the ground in heavy construction, on the railways or elsewhere the talk would certainly cross boundaries that have been firmly marked out. Back then Sam just put up with it and took it with a pinch of salt but wonders how she may react to the same language, behaviours and scenarios today. Differently for sure.

Nobody puts Sam in the corner

“There’s an age-old issue that assertive, confident women continue to be classified in different way… We’ve got to get to a point where we eradicate that type of gender flip of narrative that impacts women. Do women go to work feeling as confident as men do? Probably not. There are some people like me who flip the bird and think, I’m rocking it. There’s no guy who’s going to put me in a corner or label me aggressive when I’m just being assertive.

“You have to look at the data; look at the number of women in senior leadership and board roles. In the boards of FTSE 2000 organizations, the data doesn’t lie. There is clearly a problem, a measurable issue of women not moving forward. She’s right. In the largest 500 companies in America, there are more CEOs named David than there are women CEOs.

“I’m really lucky that I work for what I consider to be one of the most inclusive and diverse organizations in the world. And that’s my experience as a gay female. In my early career, I wasn’t able to be myself or talk about my homelife. Then you become a liar because you’re not telling the truth. I do think that women feel that they have to be somebody different and can’t be their whole selves all the time because that is seen to fall short or fall into the bracket of being over confident.”

While she feels included and accepted for who she is at KellyOCG, that hasn’t always been the case for Sam. She appreciates that in today’s society, sexuality has become much more of an open conversation, but there are still areas where gay people face homophobia. She recalls that it wasn’t that long ago that two women on a London bus were subjected to homophobic comments and physically attacked, just for showing affection towards each other in public.

“To say its better is true, but it’s not a place of real comfort. In my career I’ve worked with and for homophobic people, who have made it clear it is better for me not to disclose my home life, but then took great joy in watching me try not to lie.” It’s quite upsetting listening to her recount how these colleagues would back her into a corner. Thank goodness she doesn’t have to put up with that anymore. “I’m now in a company that acknowledges my son and my wife. You only have to meet me and it’s pretty obvious which side of the rainbow I fall on.”

The rainbow is used as the gay pride flag to represent the diversity of people within the LGBTQ+ community. But to many, the rainbow is also a symbol of hope. Rainbows appear when the storm has passed, and the sun is shining. This seems appropriate for Sam now, who can happily bask in her success that she has worked so very hard to achieve.

Quick-fire questions

  • Cats or Dogs?    Dogs
  • Would you rather read fiction or non-fiction?     Non-fiction
  • Most recent film you watched?     Notting Hill
  • What’s your signature dish to cook?    Roast beef
  • Drink of choice?      Gin and tonic
  • Most used app on your phone?     Outlook / news app / twitter
  • Would you rather go on a relaxing or active holiday?      Relaxing
  • Where do you do your best thinking?      In the shower
  • Biggest weakness?      Guilt
  • Favourite female icon?      Rosalyn Franklin – pioneer from science perspective but overlooked. She came up with one of the most phenomenal elements of modern sci, but people attributed work to the men around her. Discovering DNA, but the work went to Watson and Krik.