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Nadworny: Young African Leaders Initiative

This July, I’ve been teaching 25 African entrepreneurs at Dartmouth College. They’re in the U.S. as part of The Mandela Washington Fellows Program. That’s the centerpiece of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI for short), a State Department-led program that works to provide opportunities to "spur growth, strengthen democratic systems and enhance peace and security."

This is the second year of the program. More than 30,000 Africans apply for the fellowship but only 500 are accepted to study at 20 different American colleges and universities for 6 weeks of leadership training and mentoring in business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement and public administration. The focus at Dartmouth is design, innovation and entrepreneurship.

The members of my group are between 25 and 35, and hail from 17 different African countries. And they’re one of the most impressive groups of people I’ve ever met. They include doctors and engineers, teachers and community leaders, journalists and renewable energy developers. Our 4-week time together involves teaching and guiding these talented individuals through a class called “design-driven entrepreneurship” where we dig into innovative business creation through a human-centered design process.

One of the best parts of the program is that the African fellows get to meet and visit with some of the most innovative entrepreneurs in our region - like Hinda Miller who created the sports bra, David Blittersdorf of AllEarth Renewables, and Paul Budnitz of Ello. They spent a morning with Michael Jager of Solidarity doing a workshop on brand strategy. And they’ve visited innovative businesses including Timberland, King Arthur Flour, Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry’s.

In addition, they’ve immersed themselves in the Upper Valley community through homestays with people in the area. They’ve also engaged in community service by volunteering at places like The Haven, a homeless shelter and food pantry, and Willing Hands, a garden and food production-distribution service for those in need.

What strikes me most about these African entrepreneurs is their grace and generosity, their sense of thankfulness and commitment to helping others, and to making a difference. They can’t wait to get home and teach others what they’ve learned. Their enthusiasm is in such striking contrast to our Western cynicism that I find myself wishing we might act more like them.

I’m convinced that what they’ve learned here will have a great impact on their communities at home. And I also know they’ll leave a lasting imprint on those of us here in Vermont and New Hampshire who’ve had the honor of spending time with them.