Alum Lilian Tan: Bringing light to millions

Meet a Grant Thornton alum who is using her experience to make a difference.
Lilian and rhino
Lilian Tan, a Malaysian-born, Texas-raised Grant Thornton alum, was torn between her business mindset and her interest in social impact.

It surfaced in her schooling, as she volunteered with local not-for-profits, studied emerging markets and considered a PhD in economic development. Ultimately, her practical nature prevailed, and she entered the business world.

But it wasn’t enough. She wanted her work to have a socially conscious focus, so she moved to New York City to pursue an MBA to find out how to combine business with social impact.

Enter Grant Thornton After graduating, Lilian spent four years (2014 to 2018) with Grant Thornton’s Not-for-Profit practice, one of the largest in the country. Starting as senior consultant on the Advisory Services side and eventually serving as a manager, Lilian worked with mission-driven nonprofits like the National Marrow Donor Program, Save the Children and Rotary International. She focused on process improvement, organizational redesign/restructure, strategic planning and project management.

Grant Thornton gave her that balance of social impact and business she craved — and renewed that spark from 10 years prior.

Em“powering” Ugandans Throwing herself into the deep end of the pool of socially conscious endeavors, Lilian accepted a job in Kampala, Uganda, as country expansion manager at Fenix International, where she worked from April 2018 to September 2019.

Two Ladys
This for-profit organization designs, manufactures and provides small solar energy systems to low-income households, fewer than 50% of which have access to traditional means of grid electricity. With additional locations in Zambia and The Ivory Coast, Lillian’s job was to assess markets and determine where the next strongest customer base might be.

Fenix International’s basic solar home system kits consist of at least a battery, a small (approximately 12”x12”) solar panel, two to five LED lights and phone charging cables.

For customers who can afford it, kits with small radios, fans or even TVs are also available. The kit can’t power a typical American home, but it gives rural villagers enough light for children doing homework at night and the ability to charge their phones without the dangerous fumes of kerosene, coal, candles and firewood, or the high cost of batteries.

Lighting the way to economic success The organization doesn’t stop with solar power. It also provides empowering economic options that even nonprofits that provide similar systems for free do not.

First, Fenix International allows customers to either pay for the system outright or take on an affordable financing plan with flexible payments as low as $0.15 a day for three years. This payment plan allows buyers, many of whom are subsistence agriculture farmers, to work around the highs and lows of income. Their payment behavior is then captured in a type of credit score. Because 70-80% of customers don’t have access to a bank, they pay through mobile money, a banking system that digitizes their money to an account via their phones.

Lady charcoal-efficient cookstove
Second, good credit behavior helps buyers “climb the energy ladder,” as Lilian put it, earning a credit score that incrementally entitles them to access more benefits such as a larger solar kit to power more devices, e.g., televisions, cash loans for children’s school fees and charcoal-efficient cookstoves.

Third, buyers grow in confidence and self-reliance by working for something rather than receiving a handout. Some are able to start businesses through this program. Pictured here, this woman, whose strong repayment behavior qualified her to buy a charcoal-efficient cookstove on credit, epitomizes the pride buyers have when they pay off their system.

Fourth, Fenix International stimulates economic impact in the markets it serves by hiring local sales agents and providing them with professional development, commissions, training and promotion opportunities that include stipends to invest in their teams.

Through these initiatives, the organization has reached 450,000 homes and impacted over 2 million people across Africa.

Grant Thornton sign on a Kampala office building
Right at home An experienced traveler to emerging markets, Lilian didn’t take long to adjust to the Ugandan culture.

“I loved it!” she said. “I was prepared for some chaos, like bad roads and traffic, long lines at government offices and spotty WiFi, but what struck me the most were all the little things. For one, Ugandans are so pleasant. It’s a friendly culture, the pace of life is laid back, and the weather stays in the 60s to 80s.”

In contrast, she didn’t miss the constant frenzy, phones and meetings of her stateside days (and the incessant honking in NYC).

But if she had felt homesick, she got a familiar taste of home when she passed the big purple Grant Thornton sign on a Kampala office building every day on her way to work.

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