Amy Stokes is one of those rare people who knew from a young age — in her case seven — what she wanted to do with her life. Then she methodically set about getting an education and work experience that would get her there. Stokes’ uncommon drive pushed her to create an innovative non-profit that neatly combines her passion with helping children in sub-Saharan Africa and her business and finance background.

That organization, Infinite Family, introduces e-mentoring — an Internet-driven, modern take on old fashioned pen pals — to a generation of young people in Johannesburg, South Africa who lost adult family members and friends to the country’s HIV-AIDS epidemic. The group’s work in long-distance learning and mentoring began in 2006 and connects hundreds of African ‘Net Buddies’ with adult pals in more than 12 nations. The model is being considered for adoption by a number of organizations and Infinite Family is planning to expand elsewhere in South Africa.

The organization is driven by a sprite of a woman whose fascination with Africa went unrequited for decades. But first came years when Stokes deeply embedded herself in different aspects of business, she says, “so I could understand how business works and take those lessons into economic development,” a term of art she didn’t even know existed. “Everything I’ve done along the way somehow has been preparing me for what I do right now.”

Three Valuable Lessons

That included a summer job working in a shoe factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, spraying adhesive on pieces of leather for heels. She took the job for the money but the experience provided the ancillary lesson of seeing what becomes of people whose lives “were going nowhere because they hadn’t been pushed to stay in school,” she says. “It was another point of reference for me that was very poignant.”

Stokes majored in economics and French, with a concentration in international commerce. Her first job out of school was with Andersen Consulting. As is her wont, Stokes devised a plan to learn as much as possible about how businesses ran. “I was in that community almost as an anthropologist,” she says. “I needed to understand it so that in the future I could use it like I wanted to.”

She gave herself three years to absorb the information, and says she gained three valuable lessons in that period:

How to learn fast. “You are staffed on different clients in widely different industries and could be on a case two weeks, two months or a year,” she says. “You have to get up to speed very quickly. You are the expert.”

Communicating through visuals. “PowerPoint was just brand new. I learned a lot about how you create something to be left behind as a working document. How intellectual capital is spread around.”

Operating in an environment that doesn’t want you there. “It was not welcoming for women and very difficult,” she says. “There were no partners that were female in that office. My direct partner in charge of my career didn’t believe that women had a role talking to clients. So I would never get the kind of opportunities to distinguish myself. I was not given an opportunity to own the work that I did. There was no place for emotions. I learned to be a chameleon. When I walked in the door in the morning that ice façade, that professional façade went on. That’s really helped me in a lot of ways now as I work in different cultures and different communities.”

Epiphany in Africa

Stokes went on to a job establishing banks in underserved communities. But Africa still nagged at her, as did the never-dormant idea of using market forces to do good. That all came together when Stokes and her husband, Chris, began discussing adoption. Stokes’ two siblings were adopted and she always knew she wanted to do so in her own family. And, after having two biological children, Amy and Chris began to study adoption, with, again, a plan: Where in the world were the most children needing families, and the shortest line of potential parents to adopt them?

That led the couple to Africa in 2003, when South Africa had just opened its doors to adoption. After filling out extensive paperwork, they were given little more than a week’s notice that they could pick up their son. Finally, after dreaming of the continent for years, Stokes boarded a plane for Africa. They found orphans left without parents or adults by the HIV-AIDS epidemic or grinding poverty.

“I had an epiphany moment on day three,” Stokes says. “At that time children were not surviving if they were born infected. I was looking at group homes, what we would call an orphanage. The kids in the orphanage were the lucky ones. They got consistent medical care, three meals a day, and staff that wanted to be there to help. There were millions of kids who were not going to be that lucky.

“I knew that I would be changing the business or development side of my work to figure out how to use technology to bring the incredible resources that we have in the rest of the world that is not affected by HIV-AIDS, or is affected differently. I thought about how can we send love and attention, how can we connect with all the kids who are not going to grow up with enough adults to guide them?”

Learning To Trust

Webcams had just hit the market and Stokes knew that she wanted to harness the technology in whatever was already incubating in her mind. She knew that with regular face-to-face interactions with adult mentors, the South African orphans could learn to trust. Stokes threw herself into creating the video mentor program and called on her business lessons to guide her.

“This is where how to learn fast comes in,” she notes. “I had not worked internationally. I had not been involved with either the AIDS issue or the orphan crisis, which are two entirely different worlds. Africa operated very differently than any of the markets I had looked at. I started to do a lot of research to understand what the potential was for doing something like this. I wrote a concept paper. I converted research into language that could be financed.”

Stokes went back to Africa in 2005 to meet with heads of orphanages and afterschool programs to ask them about their work and explored the idea of video mentoring. It was a new and untested program, especially in a region where access to computers was limited.

“I didn’t know what this was going to be or look like,” Stokes says. “The only thing I knew, was that in the course of all those other jobs I had learned how to solve problems, I had learned how to ask questions get information and how to learn what I didn’t know and go to the next step.”

Infinite Family is now established in four video labs, partnering with existing afterschool programs or NGOs. The group extensively screens both the young people and the prospective mentors so that the pair can be matched according to interests and passions. The group is currently developing structured curricula, focusing on the five primary areas that the mentors are working on: Communication skills, academics, life skills, technology, and career preparation. Mentors undergo rigorous training and come from all walks of life.

After five-and-a-half years, the program has created incredible bonds. “Our mentors carry the kids pictures around in their wallets, they Photoshop them into their family pictures,” Stokes says. “We shut down most of the sites when the kids have vacation. Our mentors cannot stand it. Christmas break is usually five weeks, and the mentors cannot stand not knowing what’s going on in these kids’ lives. The bonds are deep.”

In addition to the video chats, the children in the program have access to the entire Infinite Family web platform. The portal allows emails, blogs, live chats and interactive forums. All mentors and mentees have the capacity to talk to each other, and Net Buddies have access to an alert button that lets mentors know that something has come up and they want to talk between scheduled chats.

The rapid advancement of web-based technology will continue to change the program — Stokes noted that Skype wasn’t available when Infinite Family launched. Two pilot programs are underway with Save the Children in Bolivia and the Philippines, she says. The model can be used in alternative applications, connecting farmers to farmers, teachers to teachers.

“We see this as an incredibly scalable model that could grow very, very quickly with the right partners involved,” Stokes says. “We went into this knowing that if we got it right we would want to apply it in ways that we couldn’t dream of when we started. And we would want to apply it in ways that would help us finance taking it to the toughest places. This is just the beginning. We know the next dozen steps. What we’ve done is pretty amazing, but it’s just the beginning.”