World Solutions

Market-based answers to poverty.

by Phyl Newbeck

resonance_lead1218In 2005, husband and wife Steve Schmida and Nazgul Abdrazakova launched Synergy Strategies Group, now called Resonance. The Burlington company’s goal is to find market-based solutions to the challenges of poverty.

Steve Schmida describes himself as a “long-term optimist.” That outlook serves him well since he and his wife, Nazgul Abdrazakova, run a business that specializes in helping to make the world a better place. Schmida is the founder and chief innovation officer of Resonance, a Burlington-based company with a simple mission statement for some very complex work: “Igniting opportunity. Advancing global good.”

Born in Atlanta, Schmida moved around a lot as a child thanks to his father’s being a naval officer turned business executive. His mother sold real estate before returning to college for a degree in criminal justice and subsequently worked as a county prison law librarian.

After some time in the Philadelphia area, Schmida’s family moved to Amherst, New Hampshire, where he attended high school. “I first came to Vermont on a church trip when I was 15,” he recalls. “I did a road bike ride on Route 7 from St. Albans to Williamstown, Massachusetts, and I just loved the state.”

At the University of Richmond, Schmida majored in Russian studies. “I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War,” he says, “and my interest in that extended to Russian culture and literature.” In 1992, he interned with Richard Swett, the first Democrat to represent New Hampshire in the House of Representatives in almost eight decades. The summer of ’93, he spent in St. Petersburg, Russia, and entered the Moscow State Linguistics University the fall of 1994.

After graduation he was hired by the National Democratic Institution, which he describes as the international wing of the Democratic party. Sent to Kyrgyzstan to set up a program, his three-month stay extended to two years. “I was 22 and was sent out on my own with $25,000 strapped to my waist, and a few laptops and printers,” he recalls.

While there, he fell in love with the country and one of its natives. At a Halloween party at the U.S. Embassy in 1996, he met Abdrazakova, who was working for the World Bank.

Abdrazakova did her undergraduate work at Kyrgyz National University and studied abroad at the University of Colorado and Charles University in Prague. She and Schmida married in 1998.

After a brief return in late summer ’97 to D.C., Schmida left for Kazakhstan in January ’99 to work with the Eurasia Foundation. Three years later he was sent to Russia, and while there he earned his master’s in international affairs and finance from the Tufts Fletcher School.

While Schmida had enjoyed his time with the National Democratic Institute, he preferred the foundation work. “They were building entrepreneurship, independent media, and local government,” he says. “I really enjoyed that because it was nice to work on things where you could feel real progress. We started what are now called public/private partnerships.”

Needing a lifestyle change, in 2004 Schmida and Abdrazakova moved from Moscow to Essex. He started his company in January of the following year. Abdrazakova worked with him on a part-time basis starting in 2007, but as their children grew, she increased her hours and became CEO in 2010. Originally called Synergy Strategies Group, SSG for short, they changed the name to Resonance last winter.

The company works overseas with a goal of finding market-based solutions to address the challenges of poverty. Not surprisingly, Resonance’s initial work was based on networks Schmida had established in Russia, but he wanted to branch out and offered more competitive rates to clients if they were willing to do projects in Africa or Asia. Now, roughly two-thirds of the company’s work is based in those two areas with only a few projects in Eastern Europe.

Resonance has two client bases: governmental and commercial. The governmental work is done through the United States Agency for International Development, the State Department, and other agencies. Those projects are initiated through a public procurement procedure that requires at least two years’ preparation and tend to last for three to five years. In contrast, commercial entities seek out the company for help with projects that are generally three to six months long.

“We are immensely proud of the projects we have seen with some concrete changes on the ground,” Schmida says, using as an example their work with fisheries in the Philippines to help coastal communities develop market-based approaches for sustainable fishing.

The fisheries project was a collaboration with a number of organizations including Tetra Tech, which is also based in Burlington. Tetra Tech’s president, Tom Reilly, moved back to Vermont five years ago, and his organization has been collaborating with Resonance ever since.

“We work in the same field,” he says. “We are allies because we are both Vermont companies and share the same approach and values, but we are also competitors.”

Reilly notes that often, when both organizations bid on a government contract, the one that is chosen hires the other as a subcontractor. “They did a fantastic job on the fisheries project. It was an example of their innovative work, which we find so valuable.”

At the corporate office in Burlington, Resonance employs just over 30 staffers, with an equal number in Washington, D.C. In addition to small satellite locations in Seattle and Manila, Philippines, the company has over 20 consultants around the globe who provide local perspectives.

“We’ve doubled in size every 24 months for the last five years,” Schmida says. “We want to keep growing because we see the demand and the way the world is changing, so what we do is becoming more and more relevant.”

After its establishment in Essex, the company moved twice, to locations in downtown Burlington, before finding its current spot at the Chace Mill in 2014. Schmida credits Twin State Computer Systems for its IT work and the Small Business Administration in Montpelier for its help in the company’s growth.

One person who is not surprised by that growth is Matt Dunne, a former Vermont state senator and representative, who hired Resonance roughly five years ago when he worked for Google. “It was a much smaller company then,” Dunne recalls, “but we needed assistance in building a facility in Chile and they were fantastic on a variety of levels.

“They understood South America and the conditions in place, but they didn’t rest on their laurels, and made sure we were engaging with someone from the region who could understand the nuances. They did a great job of listening to our approach, and they put together a strategy that we iterated over time.”

Dunne was impressed that Schmida and his crew were not afraid to correct Google when they felt its strategy wasn’t going to be effective. “That’s the best kind of partner for that kind of initiative,” Dunne says. “It was a small program by their standards, and it’s been exciting to see their growth over time.”

Asked about a current project, Schmida points to work in Southeast Asia where Resonance is helping build partnerships involving industry, government, and civil society to reduce and eventually eliminate human slavery in seafood supply chains. “I’m quite proud of some of the work that is coming together. It can have a huge impact on human rights for vulnerable groups,” he says.

Schmida and Abdrazakova live in Essex with their children, ages 16 and 17. They are avid skiers and enjoy hiking. One thing they like sharing with their children is their love of travel. Schmida has traveled to 65 countries and worked in 45, but he is happy he doesn’t have to travel quite as much for work as he used to. In 2007 he took 14 trips; this year he is down to three. One of those trips, however, included London, Ghana, the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia.

Schmida enjoys working in Africa because he sees so much potential in the continent, and he says he loves the Philippines for both the people and the scenery.

“We are a team,” he says of the couple’s partnership. “I’m the idea guy and I work with new clients, but Nazgul runs the company. She makes sure we can deliver and execute. Working as a husband/wife team isn’t easy, but it’s a work in progress and we’re doing our best.”

Schmida admits they can’t help but take their work home with them. “Our kids probably view the company as a third child,” he says, “but they see how passionate and committed we are and how we want to make the world a better place.”

Despite all the world’s problems, Schmida thinks more things are going right than wrong. “We’ve gone 75 years without a worldwide war,” he notes. “The global middle class is half the world’s population, and marginalized groups have a much greater voice than ever. We might see the end of extreme poverty in 20 years.” The two things that worry him the most are climate change and overpopulation, but the self-confessed long-term optimist is still hopeful.

“It’s easy to get fixated on the outcome of a single election,” he says, “and not take a step back and realize the world really is a better place today.” •

Edited 12/10/2018. Our apologies to the continent of Africa for only giving it “country” status. We've corrected the error. And our thanks to an eagle-eyed reader.