Erick van der Laat, Western Union & Ella Peinovich, Soko: Leading a Start-Up into a New Stage of Growth

Ashoka’s Executive in Residence program fosters high-impact collaborations between corporations and Ashoka Fellows, the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. Corporate executives work on-site with social entrepreneurs around the world to tackle a challenge that is critical to the Fellow’s ability to scale their impact.  In return, the executives bring back lessons learned about new innovations, emerging markets, and leadership techniques that can contribute to their company’s strategic goals. The following story chronicles the experience of an executive at Western Union and Ashoka Fellow Ella Peinovich, a social entrepreneur working in Kenya.


Erick van der Laat, Vice President of Accounting for Western Union Costa Rica, believes, “There is this big quota of responsibility that we all have, the workforce in the marketplace. Regardless of station, we have a responsibility to help make the world a better place.” Because of this belief, and his stellar leadership skills and learning agility, he was chosen to participate in the Executive in Residence program, an established program in partnership with Ashoka. After a rigorous matching process, Erick chose to work with Ella Peinovich, Founder of Soko.

Soko is a social enterprise that improves the lives of artisans in Kenya by providing access to resources that connect them to global markets. Soko has helped hundreds of artisans take control of their own futures.  In order to scale her organization and its impact, Ella sought Erick’s input on how to handle advanced accounting and financial management practices.


“At the very beginning I was very afraid of not being able to help,” Erick said. “I knew there was going to be this expectation in Soko that they [bring in a] VP at Western Union, and that he is going to fix the world for us. I was just thinking, ‘Gosh, these guys are expecting Stephen Hawking, and it’s going to be just me.’”

That fear didn’t last long. Ella and her team were impressed by Erick’s skill as soon as he arrived. “What we got from Erick’s visit went far beyond our initial expectation,” Ella said. “And as Erick got more comfortable, it seems he even surprised himself, saying his experience was, “[a] good reality check for me to acknowledge what a long way I’ve come over the last 18-20 years of my career. There is someone on the other side of the world who is running a successful company that wants to hear what I have to share. That was very powerful to me.”

This peer-to-peer exchange is what makes Executive in Residence placements so successful. Both the executive and the social entrepreneur are exposed each other’s complementary expertise. Erick noted, “I think that Ella is a great professional. It was like talking to an executive from another company. I could find no difference between her capabilities and the capabilities of others that I have seen in the past 14 years.”

The sentiment is mutual. “Erick is genuine, authentic, humble,” Ella commented. “He had an ability to connect to me as a CEO and the management team, but also with the artisans. He had an openness and willingness to learn…[and he] set high expectations in a way that felt attainable. He got us excited about our business.”


By the end of the two-week residency at Soko, Erick had worked with Ella and her team to create a variety of tools. “He provided HR materials, templates for team strategy planning, and organizational principles that assisted me to structure meaningful planning conversations with my team,” Ella said. “He shared knowledge about how to manage this period of change within the organization as we grow from a start-up to a growth stage company.”

Equally, the Executive in Residence placement continues to influence Erick’s life today. After working with Ella, Erick says that he learned a great deal about leadership. “The trait that I brought back is Ella’s execution,” Erick said. “Typically, when working in Western Union, you have a good idea, you discuss it, and then you need to socialize it, and then you put the business case together and get the write-up. You’re overcomplicating things. With Ella, it was great to see how a good idea could be put into execution no more than 24 hours later.” Empowered with a new sense of efficiency, Erick has become a better leader. As Vice President, Erick realized, “I have the power of changing things myself. The only people creating bureaucracy are leaders like me. As a leader, my role is to remove obstacles for my team.”

Erick and Ella envision a long future ahead, continuing to collaborate to ensure Soko reaches its full potential as a successful social enterprise. Erick affirmed, “I see a lot of value in Soko’s business model. If I am able to share something that makes Soko a stronger company, they are going to be able to help break more and more cycles of poverty. And if I could assist, at least in 1% in that journey, I would be very satisfied.”

For more information about the Executive in Residence program, visit Ashoka’s web site here, or contact us at [email protected].