She Left Her Successful Law Career in New York City to Make a Global Impact in the Efforts to Eradicate Poverty. An Exclusive Interview With Unbound (nonprofit) Chief Strategy Officer & General Counsel, Ashley Hufft
Q: For those in our audience not familiar with Unbound, can you share what the organization is and what you do?
AH: Unbound is an international nonprofit organization based in Kansas City. Our mission is to walk with the poor and marginalized of the world. The primary platform through which we achieve our mission is one-to-one sponsorship between a sponsor and a child or elderly person living in poverty in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Sponsorship offers an opportunity to partner with a family on their path out of poverty and through the exchange of letters and photos relationships are created that bridge economic, geographic, and social boundaries. Our sponsored beneficiaries receive monthly direct cash transfers into their families’ bank accounts, giving them a boost in their basic income and empowering them with the ability to direct the money to meet their determined needs and goals.
Q: What drew you to pursue a career in international development and join Unbound specifically?
AH: Throughout my childhood, empowered by my parents, I have always had a curiosity about the world and other cultures. My dad, who was a doctor, was passionate about studying other religions. We traveled a lot as a family. In college, I majored in anthropology and archaeology where I took this desire to learn about other cultures, past and present, to a deeper level. Fast forward many years, while practicing mergers & acquisitions law on Wall Street I was presented with an opportunity to work on foreign direct investment in Kenya. I took a sabbatical from my law firm, moved to Kenya, and found my life’s passion working in international development. Unbound allows me to continue that work while also raising my son near family in Kansas City.
Q: What is something unique about Unbound that our audience may find surprising?
AH: At Unbound we don’t have just one program, we have over 270,000 personalized programs for our sponsored beneficiaries. Our sponsorship model is an individual and self-directed program that empowers families to decide their own path out of poverty. Families living in poverty often lack choices and Unbound believes choice is one of the most impactful and sustainable ways for families to lift themselves out of poverty. Unbound sponsored families work with our local project teams to set goals and determine how to use the monthly direct cash transfers to meet their needs and goals.
Q: Can you share a memorable moment or experience from one of your non-profit projects?
AH: I worked for many years on a large-scale development project across 13 countries in Africa called the Millennium Villages Project. One location where we worked was western Uganda, in mountainous area covered by thick forest. On my first visit to the location, I was struck by the density of the population living very high up the mountain, without access to clean water. Over several days, I watched as a single file line of dozens of small children, as young as 4 or 5 years old, carried jerry cans of dirty water uphill, through the forest, to their homes from a small river at the base of the mountain. They spent hours a day doing this instead of going to school. Two years later, I went back to the village for my second visit. Our team, with engineering from scientists at an American university, pipes donated from an American company, funding secured from several donors and labor provided by the local villagers, had built a dam at the river, a well with chemical treatments for the water, and a very sophisticated pipe system to bring water up to the village on the mountain. No longer were kids dangerously trekking up and down the mountain. They were now in school. Families were growing an abundance of crops for the first time. Clean water was preventing illnesses. It was literally lifesaving.
Q: How can someone get involved with Unbound and make an impact?
AH: The first and most impactful way is to become a sponsor! We have approximately 20,000 children and elderly people on our wait list. You can go to our website at Unbound.org and select a region, age, and gender of a potential sponsored friend. If monthly sponsorship is not for you, you can also donate to one of Unbound’s specialty funds, such as scholarships or critical needs. We also offer volunteer opportunities at our Kansas City headquarters, or you can travel with Unbound on an international awareness trip to see the life-changing work firsthand. Finally, you can follow us on social media or sign up for our e-newsletter.
Q: For those unable to travel or participate in an awareness trip, how can they gain a better understanding of how Unbound helps the poor and marginalized?
AH: Our website, Unbound.org, offers insight to our life transforming programs around the world along with numerous personal stories of families overcoming poverty. Additionally, if you are a sponsor, we can organize a virtual visit for you and your sponsored friend. Unbound also offers periodic webinars called “In the Loop” that feature an in-depth look at one of our project countries. You can sign up for our e-newsletter or follow us on social media to learn when webinars or other information is available.
Q: What is one word of advice you can offer to young women who want to reach your level of success?
AH: Find a great mentor early on in your career. Someone who can give you advice, be a sounding board and be your constant advocate.
Q: Can you tell our audience one of your most memorable moments of your career?
AH: I was really proud to have made partner at my law firm, Alston & Bird, while working in New York City. Although I left the “big law firm” practice shortly after to pursue my passion for international development work, it was an achievement of which I am proud. There was a lot of hard work, and some very long days (and nights) that went into it. I also had some wonderful mentors at my law firm that guided, encouraged, and shaped me as a professional along the way.
Q: At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known?
AH: To pay more attention to technological developments. You do not need to be a software engineer but being very proficient in a range of technological tools, and keeping your eye on the latest technology developments, will prove very beneficial.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
AH: My mother. She is the most kind, generous and selfless person I have ever known. I strive to be like her every day, as a mother, a friend, and a colleague.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue their dream and start a business?
AH: Read and learn as much as possible, including leadership. Find good examples of other businesses and successful businesspeople/entrepreneurs and study their successes, as well as their failures. Get to know and understand all areas of a business – people, legal, finance, operations, and products. And don’t be afraid to start small, or to fail. Much can be learned from the experiences you will have along your journey.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
AH: I always have three things in mind when I think back to my younger self: 1. Do not be afraid to speak up – your opinion matters. 2. Advocate for yourself, including on pay and the need for flexibility in your schedule to manage your family. 3. Be an ally to other women at work, as I believe sticking together will pay off in the long run.
Q: After high school, where did you feel your career path would take you?
AH: My dream job has been to be an Ambassador, so I thought I would go into the foreign service. I suppose there is still time!
Q: Can you tell us how you manage your work life balance?
AH: Without a doubt, it is a constant struggle. To start, I think it is always to be mindful and very intentional about the need for self-care. Then, find time to exercise, read, write, be with family and friends, or do whatever it is you enjoy and that allows you to “unplug” from work and stay healthy. I’m passionate about travel so I have always made sure to use my vacation time – don’t shy away from using those vacation days!
Five Things About Ashley Hufft
1. If you could share a meal with any four individuals, living or dead, who would they be?
Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey
2. What’s the most amazing adventure you’ve ever been on?
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda. It was other-worldly. I planned for only one day, but when I finished the first, I stayed to do it again for two more days.
3. What’s your favorite international food?
Ethiopian – I love all the spices and the communal way of sharing a large platter of food with friends and family. More importantly, my son is Ethiopian, so I enjoy sharing this part of his identity with him.
4. What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve done?
Took a sabbatical from my law firm practice in New York right after making partner and moved to Africa.
5. What would your perfect Saturday be like?
Slow morning reading and sipping a good coffee, a long bike ride or hike with my son, afternoon movie and dinner. I like to go to sleep early even on weekends!