First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jenny Namur Karp: Thankfully, we are all healthy and doing well. I have two girls in virtual elementary school, and it’s been a learning curve for all of us to be at home together doing work and school, but it’s also been great to have extra time with each other.
Susanna Nemes: My kids are a bit older, so I’m happy to have them all back home from college and elsewhere. The house is crowded with family and pets, just the way I like it.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Social Solutions International.
Jenny Namur Karp: After graduate school, I went to work for Danya International, a health communications company based in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was the Director of Public Health and my Social Solutions’ co-founder, Dr Susanna Nemes, was the Vice President of the Tobacco, Drugs, and Alcohol Research group. Eventually, our groups merged, and we worked together closely, mostly on grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and State Department. It was a great place to learn about government contracting, how to write proposals, bring in business, and manage staff. Still, the opportunities for women to obtain executive leadership positions were limited.
Furthermore, because we were not involved in making the decisions about the terms of the type of work we could bid on, we could not always respond to opportunities that we considered important. One day I walked into Susie’s office, and she said, “I’m going to start my own company, do you want to come with me?” And the rest, as they say, is herstory.
How does Social Solutions International innovate?
Susanna Nemes: We recently finished some work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), implementing state-of-the-art monitoring, evaluation, and learning methodologies and practices to improve the Agency’s overall development outcomes. Using skilled process facilitation, advising, coaching, mentoring, and tool development, we applied areas of specialized expertise to create sustainable solutions for the people that USAID’s programs serve. Monitoring, evaluation, and learning is an important tool in international development work, providing the necessary data to guide strategic planning, to design and implement programs and projects, and to allocate resources in the most efficient and impactful ways.
Also, through our Institutional Support and Strengthening services, we provide an optimized system of recruiting and building highly qualified workforces that help clients fulfil their missions. We specialize in improving systems, strategies, and compliance for our clients domestically and internationally, where laws and expectations vary widely.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Jenny Namur Karp: We are in the public and global health industry, so the virus has directly impacted our work. Our clients are development and health agencies facing difficult decisions about how to prioritize aid response and budget allocation across all projects in the midst of a global pandemic.
We are proud to have staff on the USAID Crisis Response Team, a group facilitating high-level coordination and leadership for the agency’s response to COVID-19 and related policy issues. We are also doing work in the Pacific Islands on COVID-19 response and recovery.
It’s a fascinating time in our industry when all players are developing strategies to tackle Covid and other health problems at home and abroad.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Susanna Nemes: One of the benefits of the pandemic is that it forces us to act quickly while keeping the health and safety of our employees the first priority. We closed our offices early on and have kept them closed. Thankfully, one of our founding principles is supporting flexibility in the workplace. We have provided telework and flexibility in schedules since the company started, so we had a head start on working remotely compared to many other companies. We have built on that this year and are proud of how our employees have successfully navigated the transition.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, and how do you project yourself and Social Solutions International in the future?
Jenny Namur Karp: It is not lost on us that we are facing the kind of public health crises that is the focus of our daily work. Our mission is to improve the health of communities around the world, so we put our expertise to work starting at our own company. The health and safety of our employees is our priority, so we assigned committees to communicate Covid updates regularly and to remind employees of our internal support programs, including private counselling. Our GLUE team is the Group that Loves to Unite Everyone, and they live up to their name, organizing a variety of activities to keep us healthy and connected, including virtual mindfulness sessions led by our Chief Strategy Officer, live streaming workouts, games, and contests.
Early on in the pandemic, Jenny and I realized that all of the African wax fabric we’d collected on business trips over the years would be a great material to make masks for our employees. It helped us to cope with the uncertainty around us to find a personal way to give back.
As for the future, we know that strong and resilient health systems are essential for achieving sustained positive health outcomes, and we will continue to provide our technical expertise, institutional support, capacity building, and research to provide a lasting impact on Covid and many other public and global health priorities.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Susanna Nemes: The work we do is often so substantial that it is spread around to many companies. Our competitors are often are partners, and most of us see great value in working together.
Your final thoughts?
Jenny Namur Karp: We are optimistic that COVID’s disruption will help to spur a transformation that has already begun across global health into a more accessible, efficient, data- and technology-driven system. We are in the midst of this work and proud to celebrate 15 years of making an impact in 2020.
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