Donna Wiederkehr is the chief marketing officer of Dentsu Aegis Network Americas, where she helped secure $6 billion of business in the last two years (including a massive $3 billion account, GM). But outside of the office, her heart remains with a country whose entire GDP looks like her company’s revenue: Rwanda, where Wiederkehr has come to sponsor 28 orphan children.
We caught up with Wiederkehr–known as “Rwanda Donna” around her office–to ask her about her family’s interest in aviation, her sudden calling to Rwanda, and how she feels her charity work has made her better at business.
Your interest in travel and marketing have the same origin.
My father was one of the first 10 hot air balloonists in the United States. He quit his job to become a full-time balloonist doing promotional work, so I grew up talking with marketing people. By the time I was 14, I was flying balloons solo. I could fly a balloon before I could drive a car, and by 18 I was doing my own promotional contracts.
What did you learn about marketing from your ballooning days?
You saw the challenges. You could be in one market and have a very successful promotional window–people would come see the balloon, you’d have media interviews. Then in the next market, the winds are really bad, or there are storms and you can’t fly.
As your career progressed, you continued to travel a lot.
My sister is a captain for United, and for the last 20 years or so, we’ve all been traveling and having great adventures with our family. Every year, my parents would say, where do you want to go? We’ve been to Bali, Fiji, New Zealand, Israel, all over Europe, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Egypt. The first time I went to Rwanda was in April of 2006.
Going to Rwanda was a turning point for you. What’s the story there?
It’s a faith story. In January of ’06, I literally got this calling, this thing in my head. You hear people having these things, but it never happened to me. I called my parents in January and said, “Hey, do you want to go?” But we usually don’t go on our trips till October or November. In March, I got this “What are you still doing here?” sort of feeling, just a feeling. It was very clear to me I needed to get to Africa to work with kids.
Eventually you connected with Chantal Mbanda, founder of New Hope Homes, which gives a home to Rwandan orphans.
I connected with her and she said, “What are your intentions?” I said, “My intention is to help. I can do anything but cook.” I left in a week and a half, boom, out the door. When I arrived, I met Chantal, and she had four or five kids at that point. These kids were just wonderful. Nobody around me spoke English, there was no running water or electricity. In the last two or three days of the trip, a mother arrived, dying of AIDS, bringing three kids. That was the moment I said, “Yeah, this is real. I’m in.” When you have that kind of moment, when you see that this woman is depending on us to have her kids survive and thrive . . . I realized, “I can do this. I can genuinely make a difference.”
Rwanda became your passion, but then you joined Dentsu Aegis as chief marketing officer. How did that come about?
I had consulted with this group for a year, and we won a lot of business. They kept asking me to stay, but I said, “My life’s work is Rwanda.” Nigel Morris, the CEO of the region, came to me one day and said, “I really want you to join. My question for you is what do you need for Rwanda?” I said, “I go three times a year. I need at least eight weeks, or six.” He said, “You got it, and we can help you with some of the other things. Not cash, but expertise, we can help you build a website,” and at that point I was like, my work and my life’s work have become one. Who gets that kind of gift? There are times when it’s really hard to say, “I’m gonna go to Rwanda now,” because it’s a critical moment–but they really respect it.
How has working in Rwanda transformed the way you look at how you make and use your money?
If I’m sitting late in a meeting working long hours on a big pitch and people are going, “Oh my God, what are we doing this for?” I know why I’m doing it. I can look at a photo of my kids, and I know exactly why. I look at everything differently now. When I see something costs twelve hundred dollars, I think, That would pay for school for one of our kids.
You chose not to have a family of your own, in the traditional way.
It’s interesting. I had the opportunity to get married three times and passed. It got to a point I went, “Wow, at this point I can’t believe I don’t have kids.” But this is how it was supposed to work out. I have 28 kids. I can tell you everything about them, how they’re doing in school. They are honestly my family.
It sounds like you feel your charity work in Rwanda has made you more successful at your job.
It has given me creativity. There’s also something about simplification that I’ve really applied to our team. I was climbing a mountain one day with our kids when I came across a little kid with a plastic bottled turned on its side, with wheels made from caps. I looked at that and said, “It’s so simple!” But a toy is a toy to a kid. It could have been a $10,000 toy from some place, but he had gotten to the essence of it. Sitting with my team now, I’ll be like, “How do we simplify that? How do we get down to the essence of the story?” As a result, the company is winning more business, and I think I’m a better marketer. I’m also full of more joy, and if your core being is filled with joy, you’re just a better person to be around.
This interview has been condensed and edited.