And then he really surprised her….
They were on a bus in Russia. Matt was doing an internship between his junior and senior years at UIS, and Heather, who had recently graduated, had come with other UIS students on a trip sponsored by the Christian Student Fellowship, a student organization at UIS.
Matt took a seat next to Heather and got right to the point: “We need to talk about US happening,” he said, ” and I don’t mean US as a fleeting thing.”
Heather wasn’t completely surprised. She and Matt had worked together at UIS the previous year as friends only, but she was aware that something had changed between them here in Russia.
Before she could respond, however, Matt hit her with this:
“And just so you know—I’m going to live in Myanmar after I graduate.”
“I had never heard of Myanmar,” Heather Wallace says now of the southeast Asian country, laughing a little. “I had no idea where Myanmar was or even what it was.”
Trailblazers at UIS
In truth, both Heather and Matt had already shown they were willing to launch into the unknown.
In 2001, given the choice of any public university in Illinois, Heather chose to join the first-ever freshman class at UIS.
“There were only about 100 of us first-year students,” she says, “and it sounded like fun.”
Matt enrolled at UIS the next year.
As part of the Capital Scholars Honor Program, Heather and Matt completed an innovative liberal arts curriculum designed to develop critical thinking, problem solving and leadership skills.
It was a program Matt would come to appreciate during his and Heather’s adventurous life after graduation.
Support from Springfield residents for UIS
While at UIS, both Matt and Heather received the CAP Honors Founders Scholarship and CAP Scholar Honors Scholarship as undergraduates. Each of his four years, Matt also received the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Capital Scholars Scholarship, available to students with high academic merit.
The generous scholarship was available to Matt because of the generosity of Springfield residents. Excited about having a four-year public university in Springfield—especially one associated with the University of Illinois, they donated money for the scholarship and named it in honor of Naomi B. Lynn, Chancellor of UIS at the time.
A switch in emphasis for Matt from state politics to international policy studies
Matt says he came to UIS because of an interest in politics, but he became disillusioned by what was happening in state politics at the time and started taking classes that focused on international politics instead. As he did classwork on Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, he became deeply interested in poverty alleviation.
That’s when Myanmar [formerly called Burma] caught his attention.
“No one was talking about Myanmar,” he says. “It’s a hard country to get to and hard to get work in, but it had far and away the worst context for poverty at the time. That’s what made me want to go there.”
Matt and Heather married in 2006. Then, even though Matt’s parents have lived within the same county their entire life, Matt struck out with Heather into what was for them the almost-completely unknown country of Myanmar.
At first they both taught English, a common entrée for many expats working overseas.
Before long, Matt began consulting with local companies on their supply-chain management and marketing. It didn’t phase him that he didn’t have much of a background in business.
“Compared to the people in Myanmar,” he says, “I had a lot more capacity to learn about how a business could lower costs and raise profits and deciding what products would work well.”
Poverty alleviation efforts begin
Best of all, the consulting gave him an idea of how he could work on alleviating the poverty he saw around him.
By 2010, Matt and friend Ryan Russell had plans in place for a business called Opportunities NOW, which would include an entrepreneurship school and a source of loans for graduates.
“We were especially interested in helping young people between the ages of 17 and 30,” Matt says. “In Myanmar, people in their 20s are called the lost or forgotten generation because they have no opportunity to get jobs. Their schools have been a wreck, and there’s no real sense of them having any kind of value for society. We wanted to give them a voice.”
During the next two years, Matt and Heather returned to the States so Matt could earn his master’s degree in International Commerce from the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy. His partner, Ryan, spent the time raising capital for the business.
Opportunities NOW Myanmar
In 2012, Opportunities Now launched. “In the first year, we started eight to ten businesses,” Matt says.
Now, 3-1/2 years later, the company has launched 75 businesses in all, with 40 of those started in the past year alone.
Most of the new businesses—85-90%—are still running.
“Our success rates are astronomical and unusual,” Matt says, “partly because we have a good system that helps us choose where to invest, but also because for each business we invest only about $500 to $2,000, leading to only two or three jobs. With the low-risk low-margin businesses come higher success rates.”
At first, Matt spent time getting effective business systems in place. He also trained staff and worked one-on-one with the new entrepreneurs.
With a current staff of 18 and a manager who does his previous work, Matt spends most of his time now on strategic thinking, especially with regard to the direction the company will take as it grows. Soon, he says, the company hopes to invest up to $5,000 to $10,000 per business, leading to many more jobs.
To learn more, visit the Opportunities Now website. You can also watch this video and let Matt explain more about the goals of Opportunities Now.
The difference UIS made for Matt and Heather
Both Matt and Heather give credit for their bold thinking to Todd and Gretchen Magruder, leaders in the Christian Student Fellowship: “They gave us a sense that nothing was too big to get involved in.”
Matt also praises the UIS Capital Scholars Honor Program for his and Heather’s ability to acquire the new skills and knowledge they have needed for their work in Myanmar.
Neither is doing work directly related to their majors. With a political science degree, Matt is doing business. With a communication degree, Heather is teaching their two sons.
But an ability to learn is one of the many advantages that a liberal arts curriculum such as the CAP Honors program offers students.
“The CAP program was really heavy into interdisciplinary learning,” Matt says. “That has been huge for us. To realize that you work in systems that include economics, politics, and society and that all of it is involved in the work we are doing toward poverty alleviation—that has benefited us immensely. I definitely credit our profs and in fact the whole program for giving us that outlook.”
We welcome your gifts in any size to the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Capital Scholars Fund.