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To Africa With Love: BC Alum Pays It Forward

January 02, 2017

Photo of Maria Skuratovskaya

In 2008, in the wake of the global economic crisis, Maria Skuratovskaya ’97 journeyed to Tanzania to seek comfort and inspiration in the rugged peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Russian-born portfolio manager at the World Bank had watched as the value of mortgage-backed securities, the high-yield asset class that was at the center of the collapse, fell precipitously and investors gradually began to avoid risk. Now, as she scaled Africa’s highest mountain, her thoughts turned to getting her feet on the ground professionally.

“The whole time I was at the World Bank, I wanted to go out and do something on the ground,” she said. “It’s fine to know that the returns you’re generating will go to help a poor farmer in central Africa, but you don’t get to see that or feel it. You spend all your time talking to Wall Street bankers.”

When she returned from her climb, Skuratovskaya went on a safari, where she met Gasper Naftal Mbise, a Tanzanian man on a mission. “We were sitting around the campfire one evening and pouring out our souls to one another,” she recalled. “He talked about all of the things that were going on in his village and how he wanted to open a school.”

Skuratovskaya didn’t expect to hear from the man again, but eight months later he emailed her to ask if she could help him get the project off the ground. “At that point, I wasn’t willing to give him money, but I told him, ‘If you’re serious, you should look into how other schools in the country are run and go to the minister of education and find out what steps you need to take.’” To her surprise, he followed her advice and came back with a business proposal.

Through her contacts at the World Bank, Skuratovskaya tried to find an NGO to take on the project, but there were no buyers. Meanwhile, she had hit a ceiling in her job. “The World Bank was reducing risk, and there were fewer interesting things to do as a portfolio manager.”

With the support and encouragement of her friends, Skuratovskaya left the World Bank in 2010 to pursue a new career. “I wanted something that was challenging and interesting, with a lot of flexibility and room to learn.” She was drawn to the Pacific Northwest, with its natural beauty, friendly people, and social and environmental consciousness. Her search led her to Juneau, Alaska, and a job managing investments for the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., which is charged with growing the state’s royalties from federal mining of its natural resources. For Skuratovskaya, the position offered a new lease on life—and it allowed her to begin planning for a school project in Tanzania.

Paying It Forward

Skuratovskaya’s financial acumen and her passion for helping others can be traced back to her time at Bridgewater College, which offered her a full academic scholarship following her senior year at St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock, Va. To a young girl who had grown up in a Moscow suburb known for producing rockets to protect Russia from invading German forces during World War II, the opportunity to earn a free college degree in the U.S. was a dream come true.

At Bridgewater, Skuratovskaya majored in business administration. “I came in interested in journalism, but my freshman year I took a microeconomics class, and I just loved it. I loved the concepts and the math involved and the social aspect of it.” Her mother encouraged her to follow her passion for economics into finance.

Skuratovskaya was also involved in clubs and organizations at Bridgewater, including the Economist Club and the International Club, where she met students who, to this day, remain some of her closest friends. She also performed in school plays and worked at the College radio station.

Professionally, she enjoyed good relationships with her professors, who recommended her for a series of internships. “So I got the flavor of different aspects of what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.”

By the time she entered graduate school at American University in Washington, D.C., Skuratovskaya had developed an interest in investments. She took an internship almost immediately with a consulting firm that worked with the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a position that introduced her to international trade. That led to a summer internship, and later a full-time job, with Freddie Mac, a leader in mortgage-backed securities and bonds sold to investors. “I fell in love with that asset class. It was fascinating.”

She soon began dreaming of being able to apply the system to developing countries outside the U.S., including her native Russia. On a whim, she applied for a position at the World Bank. “At the time, organizations were looking to add asset classes like mortgage-backed securities to their portfolio, and there weren’t enough analysts and traders to go around. Somehow my name made its way to the right manager [at the World Bank]. I interviewed with them and was offered a job as an analyst.” She eventually was offered a position as a portfolio manager, and from there she moved on to other asset classes such as international currencies and derivatives.

After graduate school, Skuratovskaya took advantage of an offer available to American University graduates to audit any of its classes for free. She immersed herself in developmental economics, microfinance and NGO management to determine if there was a place for her in the nonprofit world.

The Ikirwa School Project

Photo of Maria with a family from the Ikirwa School Project In her last six months at the World Bank, Skuratovskaya made two trips to Tanzania to lay the groundwork for a private, English-language primary school in the village of Midawe. During the first trip in 2011, she and Gasper visited private schools in the region to get a feel for how they operated. That summer they established a nonprofit trust. Gasper owned a plot of land that had been in his family for generations, and Skuratovskaya had some money socked away. “We pooled our resources and retained a local architect, commissioned the building and watched it go up.”

From the start, the Ikirwa School Project faced challenges. Instruction in the primary public schools in Tanzania had long been in the country’s native tongue, Swahili, but secondary schooling was in English. Only about 10 percent of students progressed to secondary school because of the language exam requirement. In the 1990s, the government removed one of the barriers to education by allowing private industry to develop English-language schools.

The Ikirwa School opened its doors in January 2012. The school seeks to inspire children along Meru’s southern slope to learn, explore and contribute to the world around them. Skuratovskaya says the project is a tribute to all of the wonderful teachers and organizations—including Bridgewater— that gave her the courage and tools she needed to reach for the sky.

For Skuratovskaya, the most rewarding part is “being able to create an environment for children that they crave, that they need and that they can’t get anywhere else. For many of them, it’s the only place where they can be kids.” She believes education is fundamental and has the power to transform lives, just as it did hers. “Even if we only educate one child who goes on to become a minister, it will have a positive effect on future generations. It will be like dropping a stone in the water and creating ripples of change.”

Skuratovskaya has never thought of herself as a leader. “Leaders are those inspirational people that write books and get picked as role models. I’m just trying to do something that needs to be done.”

She considers herself “a reluctant risk taker who has learned to be more comfortable with risk by going slow and covering my back at every step,” and “a practical, persistent visionary” who believes in “breaking up the road plan to getting where you want to go and focusing on small, achievable tasks.”

“Every time you accomplish something,” she said, “is a reason to celebrate, motivate your team and press on until sooner or later you get to where you want to be.”

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