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Change of plans adds up to fellowship

9/12/2013

By KALEY CONNER

kconner@dailynews.net

Last year, former Hays resident Justus Kilian left his career in high finance to pursue a different path.

Come November, that path will lead him to Uganda, where he will help farmers market their sesame crops and work to expand agriculture operations. Kilian, a 2001 graduate of Hays High School, is one of only 12 participants selected worldwide for the Acumen Global Fellows program. Approximately 1,500 people applied for the fellowship, which works to create social change by setting up successful business models to help the poor.

"This really, for all of us, is an opportunity to transition out of maybe a different job in the corporate world and focus more on entrepreneurship and this kind of intersection of markets and social impact," Kilian said.

He and the other fellows will begin two months of training in New York next week, and he will leave for Gulu, Uganda, in November. He will be responsible for buying, repacking and logistics of local crops with Gulu Agricultural Development Co. for a year.

He's hoping his rural Kansas upbringing will give him a solid foundation for his new mission in Africa. His grandfather was a farmer in Russell County, and the farm still is in the family.

"I'll know people I can reach out to, to get a deeper and thoughtful answer to maybe a challenging question," he said. "That certainly will be valuable."

Kilian, the son of former Hays residents Randall and Terry Kilian, earned a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Kansas, then went on to earn a master's at the University of Chicago. He also holds chartered financial analyst credentials.

He climbed the corporate ladder and was working as a senior financial analyst with Merrill Lynch in Chicago when the Great Recession of 2008 hit the markets. From that point, Kilian began rethinking his career ambitions, he said.

"At the end of 2008, I was seeing some of the destruction and pain that the financial markets had caused. ... It just didn't set well with me," he said. "At that point, I started questioning what it was we were doing, and were there better opportunities to use the skills and opportunities I'd been given in life in a better, more effective and meaningful way."

During his time at Merrill Lynch, he had an opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations, and his eyes were opened to a different style of economic development.

"As opposed to just handing out charitable contributions ... these thought leaders in the sector were looking at making investments in businesses that were helping build an ecosystem around the poor, providing food, water, shelter, clothing," he said.

He began working more with these organizations in his free time, and even traveled to Ghana with a microfinance organization that was working to improve education in the area.

His passion for the work continued to grow, and that's when he decided to quit his corporate job and begin preparing his resume to apply for the global fellowship program. He led a consulting team in New Delhi addressing topics such as rural health care and education.

After a long eight-month interview process with Acumen, he was told he had been accepted into the program.

Kilian is enthusiastic about his new career, which allows him to blend his financial career and desire to help others with his lifelong passion for travel. He has visited 50 countries since finishing high school and is excited for the chance to see a different region of Africa.

"It's become a deep passion and something I have a lot of respect for," he said. "You see how other people live in the world, and it really opens your eyes to just the abundance and so many benefits we have here in the United States."