Essay winner inspired by Ghana native making a difference
ST. PAUL -- Worthington native Lance DeGroot is in the midst of his final year in the Masters in Business Administration (MBA) program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and, while it seems he is destined for a career in business, it turns out he's a pretty good writer as well.
DeGroot, the son of Greg and Cindy DeGroot of Worthington, learned earlier this week his essay won a WCCO-sponsored state-wide contest that challenged people to write about someone in their life who is making a difference. He wrote about Kate Herzog, a native of Ghana, instructor in St. Thomas' MBA program and a woman working to make a difference for the people of Ghana cast off as useless because of physical disabilities.
This summer, DeGroot worked for Kate in an unpaid internship, during which he researched grant opportunities for Kate's business, House of Talents.
The business collaborates with artisans from Ghana who make everything from jewelry and soaps to hand bags and baskets.
"Right now, Kate is paying the artisans that are making her products up front, so they have the money to buy the materials to make the soap and baskets and things," he said. "She's living paycheck to paycheck. Things are actually going pretty well for her -- she's taking so many orders that we've been looking for grants that can help."
In the process of doing his research, DeGroot learned about the essay contest and $500 prize for first place. He sat down and immediately went to work telling Kate's story.
"Kate is definitely making a huge difference -- she's helping all these people in Ghana to have jobs and have a steady cash flow so they can send their kids to school and eat. If Kate wasn't doing this, these people wouldn't have jobs."
The men and women have been cast off by Ghana society because they may have physical impairments such as blindness or deafness, but DeGroot said his mentor is able to look beyond those issues.
"She sees everyone has a talent, and they're actually very good at what they do," DeGroot said. The items are marketed through high-end retail shops in the Twin Cities, and are known for their high quality.
The $500 prize will be given to Kate to help keep the artisans supplied with materials needed to fill orders here in Minnesota. Proceeds are then sent back to the artisans in Ghana to help them improve their way of life.
"(Kate) is really focused on education," he said. She wants part of the proceeds to be used to send children to school in her native country -- especially the young girls.
"If they don't go to school, they're basically sold off for prostitution," said DeGroot. "(An education) is their only way out."
Kate credits education as her ticket to a better life. When she was 10 or 11, she learned to read thanks to a "generous gift of books" given her by an American traveling through the Ghana village as an anthropology student.
"She'd certainly not be where she's at today if that guy hadn't done that simple gesture," DeGroot said.
Now it's Kate's turn to give back. She visits her homeland a few times a year to personally meet with the artisans who make products for House of Talents. She does a character test of sorts on potential new artisans, and anyone who works with the business is assisted in setting up a bank account. Kate refuses to send cash as payment, as it creates a danger for the artisans to have cash.
"If she sends them cash, they get robbed," DeGroot explained.
DeGroot said his summer internship was a good opportunity to learn from Kate's "inspiring story." Though his internship is now officially over, he anticipates he will still help out as needed -- along with about 20 other volunteers.
"We believe she could really use the help," he said. "If you have the opportunity, why not help?"
Though DeGroot's internship received no monetary compensation, he joked that he was "kind of paid" in soaps.
"They are the best soaps I've ever used in my life," he said with a laugh. The soaps are available for purchase on the House of Talents website.
"I don't think with a paid internship this summer I could have learned as much as I did working with Kate," DeGroot added. "I think I made a pretty good decision by not having a paid internship."
As part of his internship, DeGroot also provided Kate with a listing of reputable grant opportunities. It's now up to her to look into those.
As for DeGroot, he isn't sure yet what will happen after he graduates at the end of next summer. One thing is for sure, the traits he learned from Kate will likely impact his own business sense.
"It's inspiring to see someone care so much about helping other people," he said. "I wouldn't have started working for Kate if I didn't believe in what she was doing. If I'm going to be running a business, I want to be doing it for the right way -- no get rich quick kind of thing."
DeGroot will be interviewed by WCCO-TV on Monday afternoon, and anticipates the story will air either Monday or Tuesday on the Twin Cities news station. As for Kate, her story and the products available through House of Talents can be viewed online at www.houseoftalents.com.