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Barry Thomas, MBA ’68

by Kathleen O’Toole

When his twin children were finishing college, Barry Thomas, MBA ’68, left his management job in the paper industry for the adventure of business development in Russia. It was exciting but he found that he “wanted do something of a more direct service to society.” Thanks to lifetime health coverage, savings, and a frugal lifestyle, he decided he could afford to adopt more altruistic goals and work in the nonprofit sector.

Yet making the switch is not simple, he cautions other MBAs who dream of it. “I used to be a hospice volunteer and was president of a board that created a full service home health organization, but when it came time that I wanted to focus my attention on hospice outside of financial management of it, I found that in most states, I had to have a license and master’s degree.”

Thomas enrolled in a conflict resolution program and earned his master’s online from Antioch University in 2003. In the process he met Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, then foreign minister and now prime minister of East Timor, a society that clearly needed conflict resolution after living through a brutally violent 24-year occupation by Indonesia that ended in 1999. “In East Timor, I haven’t met anyone who has not experienced rape, torture, or murder in his/her immediate family,” Thomas says.

He began working on conflict resolution but increasingly was drawn into business development. “The UN and other aid organizations concentrate on human rights, gender, health care, and building the rule of law to the neglect of economic development,” he says. “Meanwhile, an overwhelming percentage of East Timor’s youth are unemployed or underemployed, and it is getting worse every day,” he said this summer, following an outbreak of violence in May.

In a society with few formal organizations beyond clan and village, Thomas looks for any group that might take leadership in producing economic value. Could a martial arts club become a road maintenance contractor or could a women’s group develop bamboo as a construction material? How could a village community concerned about childhood nutrition organize to grow, process, and add value to sunflowers or peanuts so they have a surplus to utilize or trade?

Thomas says that “peace, justice, and economic development” depend on building local organizations. “Execution is the challenge, and I am reminded daily about that matrix in the MBA strategy class that says even a not-so-good strategy can work if the execution is good, but if you have bad execution, even the best strategy will fail.”

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