Steven Atamian Class of '04
Man the Brigades
Two years ago during the height of the recession, Steven Atamian ’04 did the unthinkable: He left his job in corporate America. The foolhardy act of a restless young man? Not at all. He had simply decided to give his time and energy entirely to Global Brigades , the nonprofit organization he co-founded a few years earlier.
It was not exactly what Atamian, a Fresno, Calif., native, had in mind when he entered the USC Marshall School of Business as an undergraduate. At that time, he had regarded himself as an entrepreneur-in-training. But one extracurricular course - professor David Andrus’ peace and conflict studies class - changed his life. “He made me start questioning everything, from the systemic issues of poverty to societal influences to alternative economies,” says Atamian. The result was a second bachelor’s degree in international relations.
Both degrees came in handy when he connected with a group of Marquette (Wis.) University students doing medical relief work in Honduras. Atamian made it his mission to help turn what was then an informal team of dedicated volunteers into a bona fide organization. To that end, he built a website for students interested in replicating the Marquette model. The first two schools to jump on board were USC and the University of Michigan.
“USC ignited the organization,” says Atamian, who is the group’s president and chief empowerment officer. “USC brought down more than 120 students to do medical relief work and really carried us through that first year. This allowed us to have enough margin to hire [Central American director and co-founder] Quique Rodriguez, and start laying the foundation for what everything would become.”
The resulting Global Brigades has grown into the world’s largest student-led sustainable develop-ment organization, overseeing nine other brigades dedicated to meeting community needs such as water sanitation, sustainable architecture and microfinance.
While Global Brigades, Inc. (USA), is headquartered in Fresno, the organization has seven separate entities based in different countries: Honduras, Panama, Ghana, Canada, Switzerland, the U.K. and Ireland. The heart of the organization, though, is the college chapters, boasting close to 5,000 participants on about 125 campuses. Focused on a single discipline, each club is an autonomous unit run by students who raise their own funds and plan their own trips.
A typical United States group travels to Honduras or Panama one to three times a year for one to two weeks. (Next academic year, they will start going to Ghana.) Fifteen to 30 volunteers from the brigade work with local professionals to help address both short- and long-term concerns. Atamian explains: “Our model is such that it’s dependent on these groups of students from different disciplines coming to the same villages over and over again, continually doing that follow-up and pushing things forward.”
Atamian’s own work experience and, in particular, his USC Marshall degree, have been a plus for the organization. “We are a nonprofit with a social-cause mission, but we run like a business,” he says.
And Atamian’s personal plans? “I just want to be where I feel like I’m going to be able to make the best social impact.” For the foreseeable future, that’s Global Brigades. “I’m focusing on mostly new initiatives and business-growing initiatives,” he says. “I see myself busy over the next 20, 30 years.”