When Dr. Helzi Noponen was a visiting professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs from 2005 to 2008, she was a mentor to three women who took her courses in International Community Development. None of the graduate school students were in her program simultaneously. All of them, however, were deeply impacted by her human-centered approach.
“She was amazing,” says Katrina Mitchell. “She could whip out a great industrial economics study in a peer- reviewed journal. She also could sit with a woman under a tree in India and have a conversation about how that woman makes decisions about whether to go into a poultry business or continue weaving.” Noponen developed a methodology that used pictures as a way to keep records, communicate, and learn.
“It gave women an opportunity to record what was happening in their life, reflect on it meaningfully, create a new vision of life, write down a plan, and take action on it — all with simple marks and images,” Mitchell says.
Each of the three graduate students tried to convince Noponen about moving her work beyond academia, but she was reluctant. “We all approached Helzi at different times to say, ‘These ideas that you have — the world needs this,’” says Anna Martin. “She was just an academician through and through.”
Martin and Mitchell had become friends while working with Noponen in India on separate projects. “We have a good time playing with ideas together,” Martin said. “If I want to take something deeper, or if I need to spread it from a different frame, Katrina is someone that can take it a quarter turn off.”
After their time in India, they collaborated while working as individual consultants. After Noponen’s death in 2012, Mitchell asked Noponen’s family for permission to continue her mentor’s work. The family gave her their blessing, along with Noponen’s computer.
Mitchell recalled, “We were building on her legacy, and still, Anna and I were not quite sure what to do.”
Enter Sara Thompson, who had returned to the U.S. from aid work in Haiti. She reached out to Noponen, and learned her mentor had passed. Througha memorial website, Thompson connected to Mitchell and Martin.
“Sara is just bold,” Martin said. “She was the catalyst we were missing to bring things to full fruition.”
After the three women intersected, they co-founded Picture Impact. They locked down intellectual property and developed prototypes, thanks to mentoring they received as semifinalists in the Minnesota Cup, an entrepreneurial program at the University of Minnesota. They headed to Washington D.C. to sell their idea and quickly landed their first contract.
Today, the consulting firm is making inroads in a male- dominated world of international relief. They have worked with big organizations like Catholic Relief Services and UNICEF, and are ready to expand their staff.
Systems Change Through Visuals
“In the biggest sense, the work that we do is oriented towards systems change and programmatic change,” says Mitchell. “Organizations that implement USAID-funded projects might come to us and say, ‘We are trying to change behavior in this way,’ or ‘We are trying to understand why people aren’t using these materials,’ or ‘Why have we been delivering a program for 50 years and seen no change?”
“Our work is designing learning tools and frameworks so they can navigate in a new way,” Mitchell said.
With a human-centered approach, Picture Impact offers an alternative to top-down management styles that are typical in relief efforts. It works with funders, relief organizations, and local partners in Haiti, Southern, and Eastern regions of Africa, and English-speaking countries in West Africa.
“Our first contract was in Nigeria,” said Martin. “We created a picture-based diary that is very closely tied to Helzi’s work. The idea was to diversify the livelihoods of small-holder farmers. The picture-based book was about goal setting, assets, and building a business.”
The project was successful not only in what they set out to do — helping women who work in agriculture to grow their businesses — but it also had the effect of increasing enrollment in schools for the village children where they were working.
The startup work for Picture Impact has not been easy. Sometimes the leaders have accepted contracts that were not ideal in order to get their foot in the door. At other times, they have walked away, like when a timeline was cut in half yet the budget remained the same.
When they experience sexism at a meeting, they have a phrase: “I was just OWG’d,” explains Martin — meaning “Older White Guyed.”
Being an all-female team can sometimes be perceived as a risk. At the same time, Martin says, “It makes us distinctive, and ultimately makes us an attractor.”