About Us

What is First Step Initiative?

We are a Minnesota-based nonprofit operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We provide small grants to women’s collectives enabling them to start or expand their own small businesses and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Our Vision

We dream of a world where no mother has to choose which child to feed. In our new world, mothers – previously without the means to break the cycle of poverty and oppression in which they live – are seen, heard and empowered to make their futures, and those of their families and communities, better.

Our Mission

We seek to provide grants to support small groups of women in Lubumbashi, DR Congo, who will use the money to put their business dreams into action. The funding is intended to enable them to start new businesses or enhance existing ones, and lead to sustainable livelihoods for a broad group of merry-go-round members. We deliberately serve impoverished individuals with drive and dreams who are not served by other lending or grantmaking organizations.

Our Founder

Chingwell First Step Initiative founder Chingwell Mutombu currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she works as a Social Entrepreneur generating resources to support local and global initiatives focused on women’s empowerment, youth workforce development and indigenous land recovery. Her role includes building long-term relationships and forming strategic partnerships with donors. Her background includes experience leading fundraising campaigns and advising international organizations and businesses seeking to invest in sub-Saharan Africa as the managing director of High Impact Consulting Services. She served as the executive director of FSI before moving to her current position on the board. She was a Philanthropy Fellow at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. Chingwell holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Seton Hall University and a Bachelor’s from Luther College.

Read more about Chingwell’s story >

Our Team

First Step Initiative is based in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Edina, Minnesota in the United States. Our team consists of a Board of Directors and a part-time Operations Manager in Minnesota, and program staff in the DR Congo.

Meet Our Staff


Doris, Nancy and Bea – our team in the DR Congo

Doris, Nancy and Bea are our program team in the Congo. Their last names are withheld for safety reasons. They work directly with our clients, receiving grant proposals, making funding recommendations to our Board and supporting and monitoring projects in progress. Doris and Bea have been with First Step Initiative since 2008. Nancy joined us in 2016.

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Andrea Roeger is our Minnesota-based Operations Manager. She joined First Step Initiative on a part-time, contract basis in 2014.

Board of Directors

Our Board of Directors is made up of volunteers who serve without compensation. The board sets the direction of the organization and initiates action in support of First Step Initiative’s mission, goals, and programs. Our Board Members:

fsi-ellen-wolanerEllen Wolaner (Board Chair of FSI) is a management consultant. She has also held leadership roles in Finance and IT at a number of Twin Cities companies, most recently at Carlson Wagonlit Travel. Ellen has extensive international experience in Europe and North Africa, and speaks French fluently. Ellen holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School and a BS in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University.
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 Scott Rehovsky is Vice Chair of FSI. He is a realtor with Edina Realty for over 16 years, specializing in residential real estate. Prior to that, he owned and ran an events business, Larkspur, in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, as well as an Alpaca and Organic Flower Farm. Currently, he is Board Chair of the Southern Theater. He has also worked with numerous non-profits in the past, including Clare Housing and the Minnesota Opera.
fsi-jim-rippleJim Ripple, CPA, Treasurer, works at Olsen Thielen as an audit manager. He was previously in finance at United Healthcare. In addition, he was a founding board member of Eagle Ridge Academy and also served on the finance committee for the Edina School District. Jim has a BA from the University of Minnesota.
fsi-pat-gaarderPat Gaarder recently retired after a long, public service career at the Minnesota Historical Society. Much of her experience was in human resources, providing her with deep experience in strategic planning, program administration and problem resolution. Her life-long commitment to social equity brought her to First Step Initiative and its work with the women of Lubumbashi. Pat holds a MA in women’s history from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA from Macalester College.
fsi-becky-jasperBecky Jasper, a former Peace Corps volunteer, served in the DRC (then known as Zaire) during 1989-1991 developing sustainable funding projects at a hospital in Mushenge. Today she is Director of International Purchasing at Entrust Datacard. In her spare time she volunteers with nonprofits including Pro Player Foundation who has raised over a million dollars to find cure for MS and is still active, and spent 10 years on the board of Peace Corps Friends of the DR Congo.
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 Violette Mpagazihe, M.B.A., joined the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in 2011 as a Grants Specialist for the Dislocated Worker and Trade Adjustment Assistance Program. Now, in the Economic Development Division, she is the Coordinator for the Minnesota Angel Tax Credit Program. Prior to joining DEED, she worked for IBM in Rochester, MN for five years as a Financial Analyst and was a member of the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association (IMAA) board of Directors and its finance committee. She earned a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Economics from Carleton College in Northfield, MN and a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) from Hamline University, MN.Violette is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is fluent in four languages including English, French, Lingala and Swahili.
Christi BurdickChristi Burdick-Travis is the Director of Executive Education at the University of St. Thomas. Prior to St. Thomas, Christi worked in leadership roles in strategy, negotiations and merchandising for large corporations including Target, the Gap, and Apple. Christi earned her MBA from the University of California, Berkeley. While at UC Berkeley Christi developed and executed a communication plan for the Haas Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC).