Fostering Hope: Alumna Entrepreneur Shares Path to International Venture

Jill Graby Shuck '93 leads a baking demonstration during the official launch of a baking program in Kenya. Led by a faith-based nonprofit, the program help adult students gain confidence and agency through community and by learning a marketable skill.

Jill Graby Shuck '93 leads a baking demonstration during the official launch of a baking program in Kenya. Led by a faith-based nonprofit, the program help adult students gain confidence and community as they learn a marketable skill.

Jill Graby Shuck '93 on skill-building, stepping up

Jill Graby Shuck ’93 wasn’t looking for a new career to come knocking, but when it arrived—suddenly and unexpectedly, while traveling abroad—she had tailor-made skills and experiences in place to make the big leap.

As a high-schooler, Shuck studied abroad in Germany, and at Dickinson, she majored in German and sociology and earned a teaching certificate. Combining her passions for teaching and the German language, she founded a club for fellow Dickinson German-language students during her junior year. Club members taught German-language lessons in local schools.

“That was an important lesson for me,” she says, “because it taught me, in a low-stakes environment, that I could try something new, and I could succeed in it. And that laid the foundation, I think, for bigger risks down the road.”

Building experiences and skills

After graduation, Shuck earned a reading specialist M.A. at the University of Virginia and taught for several years until she and husband Michael '90 started a family. A job as executive assistant at her church provided a family-friendly schedule and a chance to grow her administrative skills and prepare for what was ahead.

Planning and presenting church events, Shuck received rave reviews for the baked goods she provided to lend a homey touch. One year, as her boss asked her to write out her professional and personal goals as part of her annual review, she made a plan: to start a home-baking business. And by the next annual review, she’d launched the Country Cookie and sold her goods at a farmers market in her home state, Maryland.

Also important: Shuck and her family sponsored children in Africa, and Shuck took a series of mission trips to Kenya. It was during one of those church trips that she recognized an opportunity to bring together her talents and experience in service of the common good.

The courage to step up

During one of her mission trips to Kenya, Shuck visited the Kariobangi Technical Training Institute, a faith-based nonprofit run by Missions of Hope International that provides training and resources for Kenyans to launch their own handicraft businesses—a venture that provides marketable skills while also fostering hope, faith and self-esteem. Speaking with program leaders a few days later, she learned that the organization hoped to add a bakery curriculum to the program.

The timing was good—Shuck’s children were no longer small, and she had ample experience in startups, teaching and baking. Gathering her courage, Shuck offered to support the program development.

Back in the U.S., Shuck wrote up the proposal for the two-year baking program and fundraised the seed money, returning to Kenya a few months later to do additional research. Working with the on-site director, she assisted with the curriculum design, researched the local market and tested Nairobi-friendly recipes. These included baked goods that incorporated expensive ingredients, like butter, which could be marketed to ex-pats, as well as treats substituting more cost-effective ingredients.

The program launched last February, and Shuck flew back to Kenya to attend the ceremony. Shuck has committed to travel to the school in Kenya, COVID-19 conditions permitting, several times annually to teach new recipes, offer in-person encouragement, check on progress and continue to plan for the growth of the program, with hopes of expanding it to serve other areas in Kenya.

Fostering hope

Proceeds from her cookie business support the program—and that business is booming. Shuck enjoys sharing with customers and colleagues about the ways that they are helping to support a better life for Kenyans.

The first cohort of students for the in-demand program is now enrolled, and while operations halted for a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students are now selling the baked goods they’re creating.

Shuck saw the power of the program at work last year, while speaking with a young enrollee. “She asked to speak with me after class and told me, ‘I have lived in the slums my whole life, and for the first time, I have hope,’” Shuck recalls.

Open and patient

Asked to identify how she made her successful career shifts, Shuck says writing down and revisiting yearly goals is key. Her communications skills, her teaching and administrative background also helped tremendously. But perhaps the biggest factor is her open and can-do mindset, nourished by her faith, and her desire to continually seek out new ways to grow.  

“It’s important to be both open to the unexpected and to be patient,” she says, “and to have the courage to take the leap, even when you don’t know where it might lead. Just remember that something you’re doing now can prepare you to do something you can’t even imagine yet, some time down the road.”


Published December 4, 2020