Ralf Etienne spent his teenage years building an entertainment empire in Haiti.
He was just 16 when he launched his first magazine, and within four years, that grew into a national magazine, a newspaper, a radio show and a production company.
But at 20 years old, everything changed for the young businessman.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Etienne was in a four-story concrete building when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti. He was left hanging upside down for eight hours in the collapsed building.
“That’s when I realized I wasn’t as powerful as I thought I was. I was dying, and there was nothing I could do about it, and I’m not taking anything I did with me,” he said. “I decided if I survive this, I’m going to shut down everything, and I’m going to figure out how I live a life to serve people and bring glory to God.”
Etienne would eventually lose his left leg, but in recovery, he gained a new mindset of utilizing his business acumen to help the people of Haiti. He did this by collecting 40,000 eyeglasses for Haitians, helping install roofs on more than 700 homes following Hurricane Matthew and building a children’s center for Coteaux.
Eager to make an even more significant impact, Etienne made his way to UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School two years ago to earn his MBA. The Tar Heel will graduate this weekend and take his mission to the next level.
Before the earthquake, Etienne says he was chasing money and fame, and he was acquiring it quickly. But as he waited for help underneath that concrete building, the success felt empty. He knew it was time to move on, and inspiration on what to do next wasn’t far off.
After his eight agonizing hours hanging upside down, Etienne was rescued, placed in a wheelbarrow and pushed for a day to the closest hospital. It was another week before he was seen by a doctor.
Doctors from other countries began to arrive in Haiti to provide additional care, and they sparked Etienne’s interest in medical school. After coming to the United States to receive a prosthetic leg, he decided to attend college in the U.S. to pursue medical school. He moved to New York City but was commuting three hours by bus to a community college in New Jersey. Stretched financially, he spent most of the year crashing on friends’ couches but kept his grades up to help him land a scholarship to Anderson College in Indiana.
More established in the United States at Anderson College, Etienne began to make good on the promise to find ways to serve others.
Etienne made regular trips home to Haiti despite struggling to support himself financially through college. On one of those trips, he noticed a solvable issue in his community.
“I realized there was no eye doctor. I thought I had to do something about this,” he said. “On the way back, on the plane, I’m Googling ‘eyeglasses’ and ‘eye care.’ Within a week, I went back to my church to tell them about the project.”
His idea was to take advantage of the eyeglasses that Americans threw away when they received a new prescription or upgraded. Etienne would then clean and repair those glasses and ship them to Haiti for residents. Haitians, he said, would walk nearly seven hours to pick up a pair.
The enterprise, which grew to include partnerships with optometrists who would travel to Haiti, collected more than 40,000 pairs of glasses and screened 6,000 patients through mobile clinics in two years.
Etienne realized that his business skills were his way of giving back, and after graduating from Anderson College in 2016, he returned to Haiti to serve as a director of a charity. But within a few months of being back in Port Salut, Hurricane Matthew hit and destroyed a large portion of his community.
Etienne raised $10,000 for relief efforts within 24 hours of the storm. He then left the charity to launch Rebuilding Haiti — a nonprofit designed to support and rebuild Haitian communities.
“I wanted to empower people,” he said. “My calling is to use my business skills to empower people.”
While homes were being rebuilt using mud and recycled lumber, roofing needed to be imported to Haiti and was far more costly. Etienne and Rebuilding Haiti told the community that they’d install the roofs if residents could rebuild their homes. The organization added roofs to more than 700 homes in the aftermath of the storm while also providing 100,000 meals, installing water purification systems and helping rebuild schools and churches.
Though Etienne was proud of the work he was able to do for the adults in the community, he wanted to begin solving challenges for the next generation. He worked to build a children’s center that has served hundreds of children in Coteaux by providing regular meals, tutoring and trade skill courses.
“The children are the future. They’re the chief dreamers, and their dreams were broken,” he said. “That’s when I decided that I was going to take everything I saved to build this center.”
Through Rebuilding Haiti and the children’s center, Etienne’s profile began to rise in Haiti. He worked with politicians to advocate for stronger policies between Haiti and the United States government. He also realized he needed more skills to make a larger impact.
“I realized that I needed an MBA,” Etienne said. “The MBA was going to provide me the skills and credentials I need to measure up to these opportunities.”
A tool for good
When he decided he wanted to go back to school, coming to UNC-Chapel Hill felt like a no-brainer, Etienne said.
He studied investment banking at Carolina with aspirations of building an impact investment fund that could provide microloans for businesses in some of the world’s poorest countries. With support and mentorship from faculty members at UNC Kenan-Flagler, he landed an internship with Bank of America’s investment banking program in New York City last summer.
Through his experiences at UNC Kenan-Flagler and Bank of America, he began to see a new way to make an impact. Instead of working on the ground in communities, he could provide the necessary financial support for those already performing the work and serve as an advocate for those efforts in the financial world.
He’ll now have an opportunity to put that idea into action when he joins Bank of America in New York City as an investment banker after graduation. With his MBA and new position, Etienne plans to continue building a legacy of helping others.
“I don’t have to go back to Haiti. I don’t have to create an impact investment fund,” he said. “I have a shot at Wall Street. I have a shot at the pinnacle of corporate America. Most people don’t have that shot. I have it. I can take that shot, and I can be very successful, and then I can give back. I can influence. That’s how I can make a bigger impact. I’m going to be a force for good.”