Through their busy years of child-rearing and careers in Silicon Valley, Rick and Wendy Walleigh of Los Altos nurtured a vague notion that, some day, some way, they would find the time to "give back."
They didn't have a particular project in mind. But at a point in his 50s, Rick realized he could afford to exit the for-profit world and spend his time as he pleased.
"We'd been fortunate in our lives -- not fabulously rich, billionaires or anything like that. But we were OK financially," he said.
He began poking around for a new undertaking that would satisfy his and his wife's yearning to contribute to society -- and to have an adventure. He started with brief volunteer stints in Nepal and Peru. He followed the exercises for a "life-changing job hunt" in the book "What Color is Your Parachute?" He read more than 20 books on international economic development and, tapping networks from his student days at MIT and Harvard Business School, interviewed more than 80 people with experience in the field.
The Walleighs' recently self-published book, "From Silicon Valley to Swaziland," recounts the results of that quest: 18 months of living in Africa and working through a nonprofit agency to help build small businesses and youth entrepreneurship.
Looking back on their six months in Swaziland and an additional year of working in Kenya, the couple wrote, "Maybe we had made changes in Africa, but certainly Africa had changed us."
With 76 million baby boomers in the retirement pipeline, the Walleighs hope their experience might encourage others to consider redeploying their career skills for social good, either at home or abroad.
"It could be for pay or no pay -- just using your skill set to make the world a better place," Rick said.
Back in 2005, as Rick was scouting possible overseas destinations, Wendy -- who was still working -- laid down her non-negotiables: There had to be flush toilets and hot showers, and no flying bullets; and the name of the country could not end with "stan."
"She had always wanted to try living in another country but had mostly been thinking about locales like London, Paris or Hong Kong," Rick said of his wife. "Living in a developing country hadn't really crossed her mind, but she was brave and willing to try a new adventure."
The pair hesitated to commit to the Peace Corps, leery about lack of full control over their placement as well as the two-year time commitment.
"We'd never done anything like this before, but we figured we could survive anything for six months," Rick said.
His research had led him to TechnoServe, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes "business solutions to poverty" through projects funded by government development agencies, foundations and, in some cases, corporations.
Days after sending their resumes to TechnoServe's volunteer program, the Walleighs heard back from the agency's country director in Swaziland asking, "How soon can you start?" They scrambled and, within a month, were on a plane.
"We just packed our bags and moved to Africa without a very clear idea of where we were going or exactly what we would be doing," Rick wrote. "We did limit our initial commitment to less than six months, just in case ... "
In Swaziland's capital city of Mbabane, the Walleighs' $50-a-day stipend as volunteer "consultants" covered their basic living expenses, though they paid for their own car rental. The accommodations felt like a small vacation cabin in a California state park, they said. The kitchen stove required a match to light the bottled gas, and there was no dishwasher. But there was a clothes washer and dryer.
Wendy, who had a tech marketing and sales background as well as extensive experience with Junior Achievement of Silicon Valley, was placed on a project to train and encourage young Swazis to become entrepreneurs by introducing them to the business world and the skills needed to create a business.
With his background in technology management and consulting, Rick was assigned to work with individual entrepreneurs who needed help creating or expanding their businesses.
The Walleighs' book recounts in detail Rick's often frustrating efforts to help entrepreneurs create value in industries as varied as bottled water, cornbread snacks, roll-up blinds made from thatch, pressure-treated wood for utility poles, pig farming and organic cotton-growing.
"After working with Swazi businesses for just a short time, I came to a conclusion, not surprising in retrospect," Rick wrote. "Economic development is hard and can proceed very slowly. Any entrepreneur in the United States knows how difficult it can be to start a new business, and that's within a highly developed business ecology. In Africa, it's much harder."
Wendy eventually succeeded in establishing a Junior Achievement affiliate in Swaziland to join with chapters in South Africa and other major African countries.
After six months in Swaziland, the Walleighs jumped at an opportunity to extend their African stay for an additional year in Nairobi. There, Rick worked to support TechnoServe's new country directors in Kenya and Uganda, and Wendy worked on a small-business growth program, a business-plan competition and a program for young women in business.
In addition to Swaziland and Kenya, the couple's work for TechnoServe took them to Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa and beyond.
Returning to their home in Los Altos in 2007 felt "very familiar but at the same time abnormal," the Walleighs wrote. "After a while in the United States, Africa often seemed like a magical dream, but we knew it wasn't and that the wonderful experiences we had there would influence us for the rest of our lives."
The Walleighs have made a half-dozen trips back to Africa to maintain ties. Rick continues as a senior advisor to TechnoServe, and Wendy resumed her work with Junior Achievement in Silicon Valley. In the end, wrote Rick, "We didn't change the world, but we were able to help some people and feel good inside about what we'd done."
For prospective retirees contemplating their own adventure, they advise, take the chance and use professional skills in a new way. " ... You'd be amazed at how valuable your skills can be to people who don't have them," whether in basic business, technology, health care, construction, teaching or just how to solve problems and get things done, they wrote.
"Do something that will excite you," they wrote. "It's a new time in your life. Don't be constrained by the old rules that limited you during your primary career. You can be flexible. You can experiment and try different things. If you've always had a wild dream in the back of your mind, now is the time to go for it."
Contributing Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.