From the international trenches to executive director, MBA alum is building a better world

Sebastian Africano crouched down among trees in a Central American rural community

Sebastian Africano, ’17, was making $250 per month as an intern in Honduras for the nonprofit Trees, Water and People in 2005.

He spent the majority of his time in homes: kitchens with dirt floors and wood-burning stoves, lacking electricity and plumbing. Now, he facilitates international sustainability work as Executive Director for the same organization that hired him nearly 20 years ago.

Sebastian Africano sits by a wood-burning oven inside a small Central American homeHe traveled to Central America, the Caribbean and East Africa to facilitate clean cookstove projects, bringing together funding, manpower and local community organizations to achieve the task.

His tenure at Fort Collins-based nonprofit Trees, Water and People (TWP) began as a six-month contract building and launching a clean cookstove program in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and became four years of global boots-on-the-ground work.

“It was a hands-on, full-speed crash course on everything having to do with international development,” Africano said. “That opened my world to traveling for a very niche sector – clean cooking.”

In 2009, Africano and his wife moved to the Front Range to join TWP as full-time employees.

“Doing field research on the stove program, meeting other TWP partners in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and then working for other nonprofits globally put me in different contexts, helped me develop perspective, and gave me the opportunity to work at the neighborhood – barrio – level,” he shared. “But I also had time in board rooms looking for funding, speaking to donors, microcredit agencies and government entities. Together, it gave me a really broad range of experiences that I could parlay into a more full-time role here.”

After moving to Fort Collins to assume his full-time position, Africano spent three years focused on marketing and program management before transitioning to become the director of international programs in 2012. That was the year TWP won a significant U.S. State Department grant to help Central Americans transition to clean cooking and renewable energy. When the grant expired in 2015, TWP found itself with a gap in funding. Africano was already considering MBA programs and had worked with CSU for years in various capacities, so he shifted gears. TWP could find someone to replace him overseeing daily operations, and Africano would return to the classroom.

Sebastian Africano studies on his laptop in his living room with his daughter peeking at the screenThe position allowed him to help raise his new daughter during the day, focus on his studies at night and spend more time with his family. He soon found he brought an unusual perspective to his peers: he was the only “nonprofit guy” in his professional evening MBA cohort at Colorado State University.

“I had to really put my experience into terms that the conventional business world would understand,” Africano explained. “I put everything I was doing at my job through those systems of understanding; I tried to make them fit or understand what pieces I was missing. It really helped me gain perspective on how the business side of a nonprofit worked.”

The business of nonprofit

The MBA program made Africano rethink and reorganize TWP’s structure. It allowed him to tinker with new ideas through assignments that he often refers back to in his work today. From strategic workforce planning and business model innovation to accounting and fundraising, Sebastian brought new ideas to the organization and let them develop organically within its space.

“The biggest surprises in the MBA for me were the qualitative courses on organizational behavior, workforce planning and organizational psychology. It was fascinating to me because that was my next challenge,” Africano said.Sebastian Africano, Executive Director, Trees, Water and People

Sebastian became TWP’s Executive Director the same year he completed his MBA.

“How do you manage an organization with multiple staff people that have different aspirations and priorities? They’re at different stages in their careers, they’re operating in a very difficult environment,” he said. “Everyone’s struggling to make ends meet, and also want to contribute to the mission, and also have the right amount of work that interests them, and be challenged just enough and grow. I hadn’t given those things a second thought before, because I had been a lone wolf for 15 years.”

TWP has almost doubled its revenue since Sebastian became the Executive Director in 2017 and began implementing MBA-inspired ideas. The organization has a committed, long-term workforce whose wages have risen to keep pace with local cost of living. In addition, it has launched a social enterprise lending practice and two for-profit subsidiaries: a travel agency and stove company.

Africano has successfully expanded TWP’s potential to serve as a vehicle for improving the world – through people, planet and profit.

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for five years running, and the Impact MBA, recognized by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.