If you've ever wondered what my backstory was… [About Cat]

I’m speaking on Thursday at the Business Innovation Factory. They posted my bio months ago, but I was feeling too shy to put it up. It’s a good read, I suppose, though it’s always strange to hear/read yourself described by others. I’ll be talking about disaster resilience and green technology. I’ll post the video on the blog assuming I don’t cry, run off the stage or vomit (you SNL watchers will get the reference ;).

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while and wanted to know more about me, here’s my deal [as interpreted by Maureen Tuthill who did the interview for BIF]:

Cat Laine
Cat Laine, Deputy Director, AIDG

Born in the Bronx, New York, Cat Lainé spent most of her childhood in Southern California, where she says the weather is beautiful and the people are friendly. But she’s back on the East Coast now. She likes it better because it’s “gritty.”

Lainé doesn’t shy away from the underside of life, a personality trait that led to her decision to leave academia, where she was studying infectious disease epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. A self-described “autodidact,” she prefers to be in the field, analyzing problems and creating solutions from the ground up.

She was always scientifically minded. As a kid she “devoured” her Rand McNally science books, Omni magazine, and her older brother’s biology text. Because her father was a medical doctor, her family had nudged her in the direction of medicine. Her father was also a political exile from the Duvalier dictatorship that ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986. He died when she was very young, but she absorbed enough of his experiences to comprehend the fragility of human rights in a chaotic world, and to see her own future in a clearer light.

“I knew that politics wasn’t the thing I was going to do, but that helping people was,” she says.

A graduate course in infectious disease opened Lainé’s eyes to some of the starkest needs of the world. Here, she learned that much of the steep decline in infectious disease mortality since 1900 was due not to antibiotics or vaccines, which surfaced in the forties and fifties, but to improved housing and infrastructure that created more sanitary living conditions and reliable supplies of clean water. Lainé began to find her niche.

As Deputy Director of Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), Lainé has worked to bring renewable electricity and solar hot water to families and agricultural workers in Guatemalan villages, and dry composting latrines to women in the Cap-Haitien marketplace in Haiti. Simple infrastructure projects like these have a dramatic effect on quality of life.

With AIDG, Lainé attempts to stretch the goals of a traditional NGO by throwing savvy “business acumen” into the mix. She brings her own scientific background to the table when the group spearheads a new project, but she also knows the value of a good old-fashioned sales pitch. This sometimes involves convincing a husband in Guatemala to buy a more efficient wood-burning kitchen stove so that his wife and children will inhale less indoor smoke on a daily basis. Bringing new technology to such communities is a matter of gaining trust, according to Lainé, and demonstrating a need for the product—the same challenges faced by large corporations looking to tap into emerging international markets.

“You have to make a really strong case for someone to buy your product,” she says. “It’s difficult to serve people who don’t make a lot of money. They want a really fast return on investment.”

Lainé calls herself a “jack-of-all-trades.” She has learned to approach problems from multiple angles—from the fields of science, business, art, or mathematical modeling—all in an effort to solve some of the most complex problems in the world. She seeks out like-minded individuals, and notes that most AIDG donors are “regular people” who see themselves making a difference in the lives of others. She says we are “on the forefront of social entrepreneurship,” a growing movement that she admits is “a bit trendy, but incredibly powerful.” AIDG’s website will eventually provide information for designs and specs for performance for its projects. There are no business secrets here—if AIDG produces an efficient biodigester or a windmill for under $100 (a current venture with Engineers Without Borders), then it will gladly tell the world.

Lainé’s penchant to seek out the “gritty” side of life keeps her constantly in a fluid space. She passed on the Harvard Ph.D. because it wasn’t preparing her for the unpredictable needs of the world, such as having to evacuate a country in the middle of an infrastructure project.

“Your dedication to the cause is what gets you through those moments,” she says. “What you can’t learn is passion. If you have that, it will get you so much farther than a degree.”