Lori Pappas developed a knack for automating offices. In 1976, Olivetti hired Pappas as one of its first female sales reps. By 1980, the now-divorced single mother was supporting her kids selling Sperry Univac mainframes to manufacturers.

She launched her own software company in 1983 -- JobBoss Software -- serving small manufacturers and machine shops. The company made the Inc. 500 list of fast-growing private companies in 1991.

Pappas was named the Minnesota High Tech Association's Entrepreneur of the Year among small enterprises in 1998. A year later, Pappas, then 50, sold her 100-plus employee business for $18.4 million in cash and stock to a British company. She netted several million from the transaction.

"The business had defined me," Pappas, 62, recalled. "I was burned out and wanted to do something else."

She bought a $1 million house on Seattle's Puget Sound, took up golf, fancy dinner parties and exotic travel. On the outside, she appeared successful and happy. Inside she was "disconnected and empty."

She had lost her purpose.

During several trips to Africa, she became fascinated by the indigenous people of Namibia, Angola, Niger and Ethiopia. The tribal people lived in huts and struggled to find food and water amid crop-killing droughts.

"Yet, they experience true joy with each other and their community," Pappas observed. One day in 2006, a young girl in Niger with flies in her eyes and sores on her face approached Pappas to ask for a water bottle.

Pappas had found her next purpose. "This time it was to help others," recalled Pappas.

Once again the driven executive, Pappas spent more than $300,000 researching, interviewing experts and studying development aid in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2008 she launched nonprofit Global Team for Local Initiatives (www.gtli.us).

"I realized that I could use my business and networking skills to help indigenous people help themselves to a healthier, better life," Pappas said. "I needed to get the flies off the face of that girl."

Today, the Puget Sound house is for sale and Pappas has moved to Northfield, Minn., closer to her children and grandchildren. She struck a strategic relationship with retired Navy Adm. William Fallon. He introduced her to influential leaders at development agencies such as CARE and Save the Children.

Her Global Team, which employs 25 Ethiopians, is focused on a tribe of 15,000 pastoralists called the Hamar in the southwest corner of Ethiopia. The tribe is surrounded by political instability, drought, disease and malnutrition. A male-dominated culture shunned female equality and basic hygiene. The encroaching desert and closed borders mean the Hamar can no longer herd livestock as they once did.

Papas, with the eventual, grudging approval of male chiefs whom she cultivated over months, is working through a cadre of emerging female leaders on issues of literacy, human rights for women and girls, clean water, hygiene and sanitation, small-scale agriculture, a jewelry business and a Hamar-based trading system.

She spends about eight months each year in Ethiopia and four months in the United States fundraising and planning.

Living in extreme conditions, eating little and enjoying a rare shower with just a "trickle of water," Pappas said, are rewarded by small progress, such as seeing women with a growing voice in village councils, earning money and leading education and health classes.

Rewarded with joy

"Joy comes when I apply the skills and confidence I gained during my career to the tangled issues of helping people help themselves in this remote land," she said.

Pappas, who doesn't take a salary, also has benefited from several U.S. AID grants. She uses incentives, such as chickens for families who agree to use new pit latrines away from the new wells and crops. Dysentery and related diseases are starting to decline. Women are able to spend more time raising small crops, learning, and less time walking miles to polluted wells for water.

"Before Lori came, we were worse off than the baboons in the jungle," a Hamar woman told a Global Team publication. "We were sold into marriage, had no rights, no voice and forced to do all the work. Just a commodity to be used."

Fallon, a big supporter, believes U.S. national security is partly rooted in our ability to help people in developing countries achieve a better life. Other Pappas supporters include a couple of dozen Rotary Clubs and a growing network of individual admirers.

Martha Paas, an economics professor, and Faress Bhuiyan, a developmental economist at Carleton College, have enlisted other faculty to help develop curriculum on the Hamar and grass-roots development. Bhuiyan and Carleton student interns are researching Global Team's work, including extended site visits next year to study the model and results.

"Lori is a numbers person and quite capable, and she began collecting data early on," Paas said. "Our students can use the data.''

In his book "The Power of Purpose," management consultant Richard Leider says once the basic necessities are covered, each of us needs a purpose -- whether making a better product or aiding the least among us. Purpose also trumps wealth in achieving a satisfying, healthy life, Leider said.

Pappas is far happier than the day she became a millionaire.

"I'm trying to change development work," Pappas said. "I'm trying to prove that what we're doing with one small tribe can have an impact. I'd just like more mothers and babies to live."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com