Sunday, August 7, 2011

East Africa Day 76 (Thurs July 28): Acumen Fund Nairobi Event!

I don't recall how I first learned about Acumen Fund, but I first got involved with the community by attending the San Francisco Book Club for "The Blue Sweater" in early 2010. Since then, I've met people through Acumen who have really inspired me, and have encouraged me to follow my dreams.

I particularly feel like I owe a lot to Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of Acumen and author of "The Blue Sweater". About a year ago, I stumbled upon a video of Jacqueline talking about how some people are entrepreneurs, and some are builders, and that there's nothing wrong with being a builder. I then admitted to myself that I am a builder, and embraced it right there and then, watching that video on my laptop in the kitchen, likely while making vegan pancakes:) I've referenced this video so many times in conversation, since then. If you want to fast-forward to the part where she talks about builders, then you'll want to speed ahead to 19:30 minutes into this video.



Even though she's one of my biggest heroes, and inspired me to come to East Africa this summer, I had never seen her in person - until tonight!

Through the Acumen Community, I got to know Suraj Sudhakar, a 2009 Acumen Fellow and the East Africa Fellows Manager, who works out of the Nairobi Acumen office. Suraj invited me to the Launch Event for the Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows Program, and the release of the East Africa Edition of "The Blue Sweater". The event, which took place tonight at a hotel in Nairobi, marked an important milestone for Acumen Fund – the inauguration of a new program that will build new leadership in the fight against global poverty. More info about the milestone here.

Tonight's event was held at the very same hotel in Nairobi where Jacqueline began her Africa journey twenty-five years ago. She mentioned that during her keynote address, but said that the decor has changed so many times over the past twenty-five years - she wasn't sure if her first Kenya meeting was in that room, or a different one in the hotel. It was so amazing, to be sitting in that room listening to her talk about that day twenty-five years ago, which is definitely a memorable scene in the book, "The Blue Sweater". Wow - what an amazing night:)

The event began with a casual reception, during which I got to meet one of the East Africa Fellows, a friend of the Fellow, and some other guests. I also got to meet Suraj for the first time, in person.

We then took our seats in the nearby ballroom for the start of the program. Anne Mitaru welcomed everyone, and introduced Sara Mitaru. Sara and her band performed a song that Sara said had been performed by a friend of hers in Nigeria. The chorus went "We are the future, we are part of this." It was beautiful and very moving. Here's Ty Bello singing the song - "The Future." I prefer Sara's version, but couldn't find a video of Sara performing the song:)



This was followed by remarks by Biju Mohandas, Acumen's East Africa Director. He quoted Emerson - "Vision without execution is hallucination" - and said that Acumen hopes to build the execution with the new East Africa Fellows Program. Acumen is teaching hard and soft skills, including empathy and an understanding of the world that we live in, and is encouraging Fellows to connect with that. This, he said puts Acumen on the path towards a higher level of execution. Biju was followed by Suraj. The whole evening was well documented by a professional-looking crew. I hope that a video of Suraj's speech surfaces eventually, because it was so good! Suraj talked about his days as an Acumen Fellow, when he was working with Iko Toilets in Kenya. He spent days sitting inside of the public toilets, counting the number of customers who paid to use the Iko Toilets. While there, he finished reading "The Blue Sweater" and began sharing the book with other people. He has found that the book is a conversation starter - across racial lines and sectors, and that it inspires people to act. He started Blue Sweater Book Clubs in Kenya, which then led to TEDxKibera, and then another TEDx. This somehow led to recruitment for African Leadership Academy in Kibera. Suraj included a video from an astronaut, recorded from space. The astronaut brought "The Blue Sweater" into space with him, and talked about how if we could all see the planet from his perspective, then we would all cross barriers and do more to get along.

Suraj's speech was followed by Janet Njoroge, who officially launched the East Africa edition of the book. She said that "if you read the book and it does not change you, then it's not the book - it's you." We learned that the book would be priced at 500 ksh, could be purchased that night, autographed by Jacqueline, and that proceeds would go to the East Africa Fellows Program. (You know right there that I decided I had to buy a copy of the EAST AFRICA book:) For the launch of the book, gift-wrapped copies of the book were handed out on stage to several Acumen friends, who opened the books in front of us, with Jacqueline also on stage. This was the official moment when the book was launched. Another musical performance by Sara Mitaru followed this celebration. She and her band sang another beautiful, powerful song with the chorus "I shall not waiver, I shall not faint, I shall stand until the justice is done." (You can probably tell by this point that I was taking copious notes all evening:)

After the performance, the CEO of KCB Bank Group spoke - Martin Odour-Otieno. KCB is a big bank in Kenya, and has partnered with Acumen for the East Africa Fellows Program. A summary of his remarks appears here in this news story. He mentioned that KCB helped select the nineteen current East Africa Fellows, all under the age of thirty-five, out of a pool of 538 applications. The KCB presentation was followed by the presentation of the East Africa Fellows. The Fellows stood in a row, towards the back of the stage, and one by one took the podium to introduce themselves. It was fun to hear their stories in less than two minutes each! I was really impressed with their programs but also their stories. One Fellow said that she was a successful attorney in London, but left to return to Kenya to be a leader in her community. At least two of the Fellows come from Kampala, Uganda. (If you have been reading my blog all summer then you'll know that I LOVE Uganda, so you can imagine that I loved this:)

After the intro of the Fellows came Jacqueline's keynote address!! Again, I hope that this shows up on video sometime ... can't find it online, yet.



She gave three reasons for the founding of the East Africa Fellows Program. Innovative, moral leaders need to be brought to the table in Africa and around the globe. Acumen has committed partners in East Africa. Now is the time - there is so much growth in the region. Patient capital must be combined with leadership training that includes moral imagination. Jacqueline went on to give advice to the Fellows, who she said she had spent the previous days with, discussing the readings that Acumen also assigns to its Global Fellows as part of their training in NYC. She said that adjustments will always need to be made - sometimes the model will need to be tweaked, sometimes it won't work because you didn't listen closely enough. She advised the fellows to brush themselves off, and work with the other East Africa Fellows. To live with the questions instead of needing to find the answers. She advised them to "try to be the questions themselves". The part of her speech that resonated with me the most was when she said that you should "live the questions now" and that eventually you might "life yourself into the answers." As my East Africa comes to a close, I am feeling self-directed pressure to come up with a solution, something I can do to address the inequities I've learned about this summer. Then I remember that Jacqueline reminded us that she first came to Africa twenty-five years ago. I have been here for three months. There is no rush. She also quoted Rumi - "Dance, when you're broken open. Dance, if you've torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you're perfectly free" and reminded the Fellows to dance. She also advised the Fellows to pay attention because everyone has something to teach you.

There was another reception following the event. I met members of The Blue Sweater Book Club in Kibera, one of the winners of The Blue Sweater Challenge who has a home furnishings business, and Dorcas who works in the Acumen Nairobi office. I then purchased my copy of "The Blue Sweater" and approached Jacqueline, who was standing in the front of the ballroom, greeting guests. During her speech she'd said that she knew almost everyone in the room, and wished she could acknowledge everyone. So I imagine that there were a lot of people there, who wanted to say hello to her! I felt really lucky to catch Jacqueline and Suraj when they had a few minutes. Suraj thanked me for the work that I've done with the San Francisco Chapter (not really that much!) and reminded Jacqueline that she'd Tweeted about me. It was a great introduction:) Someone who works with her had previously mentioned that she can relate to anyone. It felt that way, meeting her - she is really easy to talk with. I felt so lucky that I got a few minutes to speak with her. She autographed my book for me - I didn't read the inscription until I got home - wow!



And I got to take a photo with her. What a great night!



I also got a photo with Suraj, who made all of this possible - the Fellows Program, and my invitation! This will definitely go down as one of the highlights of my summer:)

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