September 15, 2002 - Mercury News: Peace Corps a haven for dot-com refugees

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Peace Corps a haven for dot-com refugees

Read and comment on this story from the Mercury News about veterans of the dot-com bubble who are abandoning the Bay Area for places as far afield as Haiti, Honduras and Ghana in the Peace Corps at:

Peace Corps a haven for dot-com refugees*

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Peace Corps a haven for dot-com refugees

By Joelle Tessler
Mercury News

With an economic rebound nowhere in sight, some veterans of the dot-com bubble are abandoning the Bay Area for places as far afield as Haiti, Honduras and Ghana.

Their road to the Next Big Thing is the same one taken by a previous generation of idealistic young Americans: the Peace Corps.

For some, the decision to serve is a rejection of the excesses of the Internet boom, a search for something more meaningful and profound. For others, it's a personal response to last year's terrorist attacks, an attempt to build bridges to the developing world.

No matter what the reason, the Peace Corps is seeing a significant increase in applicants in the Bay Area -- many of them tech sector refugees. The Peace Corps received 379 applications from Bay Area residents for the 2002 fiscal year, ending this month. That's up nearly 12 percent from 339 applications in the 2000 fiscal year. Nationwide, applications this fiscal year are at 8,843, up 6 percent from 8,355 in fiscal 2000.

``Some of the applicants may be out of work and some may not, but these are people in transition,'' said Dennis McMahon, public affairs specialist in the Peace Corps' San Francisco office. ``So they are in a good place in their lives to do something like this.''

Tracey Lake is typical of the new Bay Area recruits: educated, idealistic and at a turning point. Lake, who holds an MBA from the University of Virginia, moved here from Philadelphia in late 1999 to head up marketing and sales for The Serious Collector, an online marketplace for art.

Nearly three years later, the company, which she co-founded with a business school classmate, is dead and Lake is out $100,000. Now, at age 40, she is making plans to rent out her house in Oakland, put her belongings in storage and sell her car. Lake will spend the next two years helping local officials in Honduras manage everything from garbage collection and sanitation to taxation and budgeting.

Simplifying life

``I so much want to simplify my life,'' Lake said. ``When we pulled the plug on the company, it was very difficult for me. This was one of those great experiences in the school of life. I think of it as tuition and I have no regrets. But I'm tired of everything being at the inflated level it is.''

Peace Corps recruiters nationwide have noticed a jump in applications since President Bush called on Americans to volunteer in his State of the Union Address in January. But in the Bay Area, inquiries began to pick up back in spring 2001, coinciding with the dot-com collapse.

Applicants are searching for something more than just an escape from a grim job market, though. ``This is usually not the first time that they have thought about Peace Corps,'' noted Mona Nyandoro, a regional recruiter. During the boom years of the '90s, however, many jumped straight into the work world because the job opportunities were there. Now, the downturn has given them the flexibility to reclaim some of their youthful idealism -- and do something more meaningful with their lives.

For Jessica Hsu, who arrived in Haiti in March, joining the Peace Corps was a chance to escape all that was wrong with the dot-coms. Hsu, 27, spent 2 1/2 years at i-traffic, an online advertising firm bought by in 1999. By the time she left her job as a project manager in the creative department in i-traffic's San Francisco office in early 2001, Hsu had become disillusioned with the industry.

``I was very turned off from the world of dot-coms,'' she said. ``You had 23-year-olds making over six figures and there were three to four parties a night with open bars and tchotchkes galore. It was excessive. What we did seemed insignificant. I wanted to do something I felt passionate about.''

The Peace Corps covers housing, living and medical expenses for volunteers and provides a modest stipend. Still, it is a world away from the comforts of corporate America.

Today Hsu is living in Belladere, a town about 60 miles -- and a 4 1/2-hour drive -- from Port-au-Prince. Her current accommodations lack running water, a phone and reliable electricity. Hsu is working with a women's group on small business projects. She hopes to help the group market organic peanut butter.

The Peace Corps has been targeting disaffected tech workers such as Hsu, running ads in alternative newspapers and on the sides of buses with messages such as ``Upgrade your memories, download the world'' and ``Dot-com dot gone? Now it's time to network with the real world.''

Creativity, flexibility

McMahon explained that the organization is looking for applicants who can innovate and be flexible -- skills many dot-commers learned on the job. ``They are coming from a unique work setting, where creativity and the ability to think outside the box are at a premium,'' he said. ``We need creativity to think of new solutions to age-old problems.''

McMahon said that while the Peace Corps is best known for its low-tech work -- teaching farming methods or setting up schools -- it also seeks applicants with business experience, computer skills and other technical expertise.

Chris Pemberton, who at one time ran an Internet consulting firm, used his Peace Corps stint in the Kyrgyz Republic to help a local handicrafts cooperative set up shop online. Pemberton taught the group how to build a Web-based catalog -- at -- to display the wool rugs, wall hangings, slippers and other products made by its members. He then helped the cooperative sell the products through, an online handicraft store.

``The community learned how the Internet can be used for economic development,'' said Pemberton, 29, who returned to the United States in late 2000 and is now finishing an MBA at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Although many countries request Peace Corps volunteers with technical expertise, Nyandoro cautioned that applicants should be prepared to use their skills in more rudimentary ways than they do back home -- to set up a computer lab, help a small businesses digitize its files or simply teach people how to use the Internet, for instance.

Carl Strolle, who lives in San Francisco's Sunset district, wants to build on his experience to bring modern technology to an unwired part of the world. Strolle, 34, spent six years doing desktop publishing and Web site development for IDG, publisher of magazines such as Computerworld, before joining a friend's start-up in fall 1999. That start-up,, an online photo site, eventually merged with a Florida company and Strolle left in April.

Today, he is applying to the Peace Corps. Strolle hopes to go to West Africa, probably next summer. Among the projects that interest him: helping non-profit groups update their computer systems, working with a business to set up a Web site and teaching computer classes.

``Even if I'm just teaching people how to browse the Web, that's good enough,'' Strolle said. ``I don't need to be knee-deep in code.''

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