Author: Damon Kitney
Cross-posted from The Weekend Australian
The woman now recognised by Forbes as one of the world’s most influential female social entrepreneurs and by Newsweek magazine as one of top 125 women of impact globally, came from a privileged upbringing in the US city of Tampa, Florida. But the day she graduated from the prestigious Vanderbilt University in political science and international development, she packed her bags for Africa. Her adventure turned into disaster.
“When I first moved to Rwanda I was 21 and didn’t have a job. I spent two years building a not for profit organisation with a Rwandan couple who ended up embezzling about $US100,000 and using it to fund an anti-government newspaper,’’ she tells The Weekend Australian.
“It led into a big court case and became a matter of national security. I fell flat on my face; it was a horrific failure in a very painful, personal, public way.’’
Her story is all too common in the world of social entrepreneurship, the practice of pursuing innovative solutions to society’s greatest problems.
“Normally when you get burned in a different culture in that context, it is easier to say I’m going home to get an easy job and live close to home. We as a community need to be prepared to acknowledge and reflect upon those types of failures and learn from them,’’ she says.
“I learnt that if I really wanted to have an impact in Rwanda and have an impact in the region, I needed to do a much better job at designing something that was really an alignment with the strategic priorities of the country and the region. To listen better and to build things in response to what was really needed. It sounds so simple but it is amazing how rare that happens in development.’’
Instead of abandoning Africa, Dearborn Hughes and her husband Dave Hughes began working with business and civil society leaders to analyse the training needs of the Rwandan private sector.
They founded the Akilah Institute for Women, a college with campuses in Rwanda and Burundi that connects young women to economic opportunity.
Today it counts former president of the World Bank Robert Zoellick, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Segal Family Foundation and Bill Marriott of Marriott International among its backers.
But its largest individual owner is the Byron Bay-based L & R Uechtritz Foundation, a charitable fund established in 2008 by former JB Hifi chief executive Richard Uechtritz and managed by Macquarie.
Akilah has a partnership with the Bryon Bay Rotary Club, with funding coming from the L & R Uechtritz Foundation. “They have been a key factor in helping us scale over the past few years. They contacted us, came out to visit us,’’ Dearborn Hughes says.
“They have been great in trying to raise the bar for international giving for Australian family foundations. They have been pretty vocal in supporting their belief for education in Africa.’’
Uechtritz has previously spoken of his desire to contribute to social causes in a more active way than simply financially.
“It doesn’t take any time to contribute financially, but we want to do more than that; we want to lend our intellect and physically become involved in something,” he has said.
“Whether that’s involved in simple projects like bringing fresh water to a community or a village to save women trekking for hours each day to fetch drinking water, or building a school or a hospital, all these basic things that we can enrich our own lives by contributing to.”
Dearborn Hughes says Akilah’s first two graduating classes boast a career placement rate of 90 per cent and the group has secured the support of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and first lady Jeannette.
Marriott International, one of Akilah’s 60 employment partners, plans to open its first hotel in sub-Saharan Africa in Kigali, Rwanda this year.
Fame has clearly not gone to Dearborn Hughes’s head. Two years she was named byForbes as one of the top five social entrepreneurs in the world. But it means little.
“It is so easy for us as humans to let our egos take over. And unfortunately a lot of organisations have fallen victim to that problem,’’ she says.
“At the end of the day those awards and those lists, they don’t matter. They fuel our ego and they give us a platform to talk about our issues but it doesn’t matter. The important question is how do we hold one another accountable for the real work we are doing?’’ Dearborn Hughes says more social entrepreneurs need to be prepared to talk openly about their bad experiences so others can learn and be inspired by stories of beating the odds.
“What we don’t talk about is how hard it is and the really painful moments. We don’t talk about the incredible sacrifices and how much failure there is to learn from and grow and improve from.
“I think if we are going to be effective as a community as social entrepreneurs, we have to be willing to talk about failure. These are not easy problems to solve that we can just throw money at and fix.
“If we are going to create this generation of social entrepreneurs and funders, we have to have the ability to sustain this intense investment of energy over the long run.’’ She says another crucial aspect of Akilah is the empowerment of female entrepreneurs, especially in developing economies. In Australia, a group called Scale Investors was launched in 2013 to equip wealthy women with the education and deal-flow opportunities to invest in high-growth, female-led businesses.
It is chaired by Susan Oliver, a former director of Transurban, Just Group and Programmed Group, and its directors include Stockland director Carol Schwartz and Ernst & Young Melbourne managing partner Annette Kimmitt.
The group, which is run by Laura McKenzie, is based on the highly successful Golden Seeds firm in the US, one of the largest angel groups in the country.
Last month it provided seed funding to CloudPeeps, an invite-only marketplace connecting businesses with freelance social media and community professionals, co-founded by Melburnian and serial entrepreneur Kate Kendall.
“While we ended up raising from New York and San Francisco angels as well, I was particularly excited about bringing our deal to Australia for Scale. Laura and the team have shown such commitment and support to female founders here, and I was impressed by the group’s speed, sophistication and global approach,’’ Kate Kendall says.
It was Scale’s third investment after backing mobile internet technology firm Paloma Mobile and Queensland visual search technology company See-Out.
Dearborn Hughes met Laura McKenzie during a visit to Australia last year for the Nexus Australian Youth Summit in Melbourne.
The American says investing in women is more than just a gender issue. “It is about the tangible specific monetary gains that can happen, especially in emerging economies, if women are brought into education and the professional workforce,’’ she says.
“In the ten years I have been in Africa I have seen this shift from it being perceived as a human rights issue. Now it is solidly within the economic development sphere. Then you get the ear of global leaders and policy makers who didn’t really think about it before.
“It was a secondary ‘nice to have’. Now it is an unequivocal must have for any emerging economy — what is our policy on investing in women and making sure the potential economic gains are translated into educational policies?’’