Staff Spotlight: Willy Oppenheim

Founder and Director


Willy is an educator, and educational researcher, and the Founder and Director of Omprakash - a non-profit working to make international volunteering and internships more ethical, affordable, and educational. He currently teaches at the University of Washington and in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest as a faculty member at NOLS, and continues to lead Omprakash and its newest initiative, Omprakash EdGE, which is an online pre-departure volunteer training program intended to help students enrich their international learning and impact.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

I founded Omprakash in 2004 at age 18 in response to a basic problem I had observed as a high school student seeking opportunities to volunteer abroad: the challenge of building direct, authentic relationships with locally-led social impact organizations around the world.

I was frustrated by the proliferation of expensive, highly structured, chaperoned group tours, and I wanted to make it easier for people to connect directly with organizations without needing to pay an exorbitant fee to a middleman.

I've grown a lot since then, as has my critical understanding of the 'voluntourism' industry and the ways in which Omprakash can work to make positive change within this space. When I think back on myself at age 18, I recognize a lot of naivety, romanticism, and irreverence - but also feel as though my early concerns still ring true today!

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

Anytime one of our students says that their experience with Omprakash has caused them to think about the world in new ways, this makes my heart flutter a little bit.

Often times, students who go through our EdGE pre-departure training course report that their perspectives about the world have undergone dramatic transformation - and that's before they even leave home!

We pride ourselves in really pushing students to question the status quo and to try to understand the deeper roots of the social issues they confront while volunteering or interning abroad, so it is always really rewarding to see that happening in a million different ways.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

Omprakash doesn't really offer 'programs' per se, at least not in the pre-packaged 'buy your trip here' kind of way.

Instead, we enable individuals to connect directly with our grassroots social impact partners in 40+ countries around the world, and to autonomously make plans for how they can work with these partners in a way that is mutually beneficial.

I am lucky to say that I have visited many of our partners around the world, and this is a huge gift! I suppose that if I had unlimited time and mobility right now, I would like to go work with some of our Partners in South Africa so that I could learn from their past (and present) experiences with combating pervasive bigotry in their society and government. As a citizen of the USA I think those experiences are extremely relevant and instructive for the problems we face today.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

We pride ourselves on our efforts to make global engagement more ethical, affordable, and educational. These are not just buzzwords for us - they strike at the heart of our entire model.

In short: opportunities with Omprakash involve more authentic human-to-human relationships and more rigorous learning and reflection than opportunities with most other organizations, and are often are 5-10x more affordable. We are very proud of this!

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

Having fun, being nimble, and being relentlessly suspicious of the impulse to 'just give customers what they want.' That might be a good strategy for selling hotcakes, but it's not a good strategy for creating robust opportunities for learning and impact!