What drives someone to want to help others? A childhood memory? A chance encounter? For these individuals, they saw disadvantaged youths who needed help, so they acted. Some of their endeavors are succeeding, and others are struggling. Still, they continue to push the boundaries of what seems doable in hopes of empowering the next generation.
By Donna Coco
ome to Amma Sefa-Dedeh Lartey, MBA’09, is Ghana. Ask Lartey about her childhood, though, and she’ll tell you that she did not experience a typical Ghanaian upbringing. With two professors for parents, she and her two siblings grew up on the campus of the University of Ghana in the capital of Accra. The tight-knit community she lived in, which included families from around the world, shared the same well-maintained school and church and playground. Being young and sheltered, Lartey knew little about life in other parts of her country.
Then she attended an all-girls boarding school known for its excellence in education. Several hours west of Accra, the high school was located in a small village on the outskirts of a city. Life at boarding school opened Lartey’s eyes to new aspects of herself and Ghana. She learned of her penchant for entrepreneurship, applying to manage the school’s student-run shop, landing the job, and then figuring out how to take the shop in new directions. The job also brought her on frequent trips into the local village, where she would meet with suppliers and buy items for the store. During these trips, Lartey saw close-up how some Ghanaians live—in run-down buildings, some with electricity and water, others without.
At that time, Lartey’s father had taken a sabbatical from the university to set up an NGO in the same region as her school. He worked to bring water to a small village that had none and also to train locals in pineapple farming, which was new to the area, helping to create jobs. When possible, Lartey would lend a hand to her father. Again, she was able to see the struggles that some Ghanaians experienced day to day. She also saw the positive impact of her father’s work. “The farm was part community owned, and farmers could come and learn whenever they wanted. A couple of villages participated. Even today, when you drive through that part of Ghana, the pineapple farms are still there. It’s incredible,” she says.
When Lartey began thinking of her future, her thoughts centered around building a business for positive change. “I also learned one big lesson,” she says. “You can’t cause change from inside without leadership. If you ask people, ‘Are you interested in change,’ they are going to say yes and want your help. But to make it happen, you need someone who can be a leader and become your partner.”
This lesson translates directly to Lartey’s work today. Home is Accra, where she is the Africa regional director for the nonprofit Reach for Change. Operating in nine countries, including Ghana and five other African nations, Reach for Change identifies and partners with social entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas for programs and businesses that will improve the well-being or education of children. The ideas must be scalable and financially sustainable, and they must lead to system change, says Lartey. Reach for Change provides these entrepreneurs with tools and advice to grow their organizations.
Amma Sefa-Dedeh Lartey, MBA’09 Photo: Nana Kofi Acquah
One Ghanaian entrepreneur created a network of mobile street libraries for rural areas. “It’s been amazing to see him grow the network,” she says. “He’s gone from touching 100 children to reaching many thousands of kids, all done in the space of two years.” Two Congolese women set up a network of schools in hospitals so that children who are hospitalized long term can still have access to education. A Chadian created an easy-to-make cereal for babies aimed at preventing malnutrition.
Last year more than 3,000 entrepreneurs across Africa applied to the program, says Lartey. Although only several dozen are chosen in the end, she believes the application process helps many of the hopefuls think through their ideas. Depending on how far applicants advance in the process, they also may attend workshops and meetings, which connect these aspiring entrepreneurs with other like-minded people. “They come and think and plan together. Even if they don’t win, they’ve made connections and begun to spark ideas,” says Lartey. “We are building a movement of change agents.”
When asked why she has chosen to focus her professional life on assisting children, Lartey’s initial reply sounds cliche: “Children are the future,” she says. But then she continues. What affects children affects everyone, says Lartey. The children she meets want to learn and crave a better life. When Lartey talks with them, she feels their sense of hope and sees their potential. “I see children who have to take care of themselves, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to feed myself. I stood on the back of my parents who made it possible for me to become who I am. I’m meeting children who work and pay their own fees for school, children who want to learn. Those children shouldn’t be hungry,” she says. “They can be so amazing—and yet so many children struggle.”
Lartey’s job has its challenges. As regional director, a large part of her job is to secure partners to help finance Reach for Change. Even armed with such an inspirational message, raising funds is never easy. She also travels throughout the six African countries where Reach for Change operates to better understand each program’s needs and help it succeed. “Every country is different,” she says. “Even regions within countries are different. There is a lot of learning and humility and changing things as we go along. Because the reality of what is needed versus what we think is needed is often different.”
She also participates in choosing the entrepreneurs accepted into the program, and, perhaps her least favorite task, informing people when they have not been chosen or will no longer be funded. “They are still people who are very passionate, but for some reason within the year they haven’t been able to move their idea forward in a way we can invest in,” she says. “That’s always hard.”
Some days might be more difficult than others, but Lartey loves her job. “We are in our fourth year, and we are beginning to see some of our entrepreneurs succeed and grow. It’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to build something new and work with like-minded people, young entrepreneurs who don’t see obstacles but see opportunities for change. This is what I do for a living. I would do this for free. And I get paid.”
When Michael Kliska ’16 walked into a classroom at the Framingham Housing Authority this past fall to teach financial education to local high schoolers, only one student had showed up, a freshman named Milana. But Kliska wasn’t surprised.
He and his two partners, Shatiek Gatlin ’16 and Walter Cuje ’16, had formed the first Massachusetts-based branch of Moneythink, a national nonprofit aimed at teaching financial responsibility to low-income students in communities across the country. Founded by college students in 2009, Moneythink trains college volunteers in mentoring skills. Its 21-week curriculum covers such topics as balancing budgets, interviewing for jobs, and managing credit card use. The volunteers then connect with local organizations, whether schools or community centers, to bring the program to high school-aged kids. Moneythink has reached more than 7,300 needy students, and its co-founder, Ted Gonder, was named a Champion of Change by President Barack Obama.
Kliska, the Moneythink Babson president, learned of the program from Gatlin when both were first-years. Kliska already was interested in better ways to teach finance to the uninitiated and was exploring the possibility of creating an app that helps people learn how to invest in the stock market using a model similar to fantasy football. Social enterprises weren’t new to him either. During his high school years, he and his mother founded an organization that collected and distributed unused baseball equipment to leagues in need. So when Kliska checked out the Moneythink website, he was immediately intrigued. “I thought, this is amazing, a great model—what’s the next step?” he says.
The two decided to bring Moneythink to Babson, with Kliska first attending a summer training camp in Chicago where he received advice from experienced mentors on such topics as how to run the chapter and effectively engage with students. Immediately upon returning to Babson in the fall, Kliska and Gatlin brought on Cuje and lined up an adviser, Lisa Thomas, director of faith and service. Thomas, in turn, connected them with the Framingham Housing Authority. “Lisa connected us with Rosemary, who is the director of programming, so within probably two weeks of getting to school we had a meeting with Rosemary,” says Kliska. “We sold her on the concept. The next Friday, we were supposed to come in to give an info session and speak to students.”
Michael Kliska ’16 Photo: Tom Kates
But Kliska, Gatlin, and Cuje missed the session. “We got to my car and it wouldn’t start,” says Kliska. “Then I tried to pull out the key, and my car has an electric lock, so I couldn’t get the key out of the ignition.” They tried to jump the car, but while they got enough of a charge to retrieve the key, the engine still wouldn’t start. Eventually, a friend loaned them his car for the trip. They arrived an hour late. “Rosemary had left, and at this point I was really feeling the burden of letting everyone down,” says Kliska. “Obviously, what had happened was out of our control. But at that moment we weren’t thinking that way.”
The three discovered that a group of Babson students were teaching entrepreneurship to elementary kids in another classroom. Kliska asked to interrupt, and they inquired whether the kids knew any high school students who live in the community, hoping the kids would pass on information about the Moneythink course. “A young kid named Ben actually took us around to all the high school kids’ houses that he knew,” says Kliska. “We would knock on the door, give them the quick pitch, and say we’ll be there tomorrow at noon. We got six tentative commitments.”
The next day, Kliska, Gatlin, and Cuje showed up with high hopes but low expectations to find Milana, sitting by herself. Still, they taught the class. “She was really engaged,” says Kliska, “and extremely intelligent.” During the next few weeks, attendance was sparse, but after adjusting schedules and adding incentives, a group of six students became the class’s core attendees. The number isn’t huge, but Kliska is “completely blown away by their engagement.” He knows the students could easily be somewhere else. “I think they’re super appreciative that we’re offering them services and information that they wouldn’t get otherwise,” he says, “and that’s really the point of Moneythink, providing information to people to make the right decisions. When they go to school the next day, they’ve learned something that none of their classmates has learned. This is something that can make a difference in their lives now.”
Having taught the class for several months now, Kliska sees progress in his core group. “On day one, they didn’t even know the terminology that we were talking about,” he says. “But they’re at the point where they respond to subtle things that we say about finance and have intelligent things to say about it. That’s insanely amazing progress for such a short period of time.”
Babson’s Moneythink chapter has progressed, too, with 11 volunteers and additional classes offered through several partners, including the Needham Housing Authority and the Blue Hill Club of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. Eventually, the group hopes to bring Moneythink to Framingham High School and more Boys & Girls Clubs. And Kliska wants to stick with the Framingham Housing Authority. “Even though we’re going to run out of our 21 lessons with these kids, we’re more than happy to go back,” he says. “Most of these students are freshmen and sophomores, and we want to make sure that they stay on this path, that junior year they’re applying to the colleges that they said they were going to apply to.”
Those students in the Housing Authority have taught Kliska a lesson or two as well. “They’ve broadened my perspective on life,” he says. “Even though our backgrounds are different, they have the same ambitions as us. They have the same dreams. It’s a tougher path for them, but they’re intelligent, and they work really hard and are dedicated to doing really well. It’s an inspiring environment to be in.”
Making It Easy
The reality television show Extreme Makeover Home Edition changed Jennifer Green’s life. Green, MBA’08, knows this sounds corny, but she was about to begin Babson’s two-year MBA program and was pondering what business to embark on as part of her summer prep work when the show caught her attention one evening.
Each episode centers on a needy family chosen to have their less-than-amazing house completely remodeled while they are sent on an all-expenses-paid vacation. In the episode Green was watching, the mom had cancer and had lost all her hair. As part of the show, an organization called Look Good Feel Better gave the mom a makeover, providing her with a beautiful wig, spa services, wardrobe, the works. “After the makeover, they brought her in to see her family, and the husband was crying, the kids were crying, I was crying,” says Green.
But the show spurred more than tears for Green. All sorts of questions started roaming through her mind. She began to wonder about how she could help such an organization reach even more women. “I thought, who would want to help generate cash for organizations like Look Good Feel Better?” says Green. “What about makeup counters? What if women who are buying $197 worth of makeup could just round up to $200 and generate big bucks for this organization? And then you just multiply it across makeup counters across the nation.”
The model could apply to any retailer supporting any nonprofit, thought Green. She developed a business plan, named her organization Generate Change, and won several competitions with her pitch. In the end, however, the endeavor didn’t succeed. “I learned that big corporations have huge strategic reasons around their philanthropy. They have their specific reasons of why they give and who they give to. It was just this incredible Pandora’s box,” says Green. But Green didn’t walk away empty handed. “I also realized what I really want to do is make it easy for people to do something good and impactful. That was my mission.”
After graduating from Babson, Green worked for two years at the nonprofit Building Impact, which brings donation drives and volunteer opportunities to offices and apartment complexes, making participation easier for people. When difficult times came, however, she was laid off. “I was in a CFO-type role and actually said to my boss, look, we might not be able to afford to have me in this layer of management,” says Green.
Hunting for a new job, Green came upon an opening for a program director in the New England offices of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). An international organization based in New York City, NFTE teaches students, mainly high schoolers in low-income communities, about business fundamentals by training teachers who then teach the credited course during regular school hours. By the end of the course, students understand how businesses operate. They also develop business plans and compete with each other, presenting and defending their ideas to peers. Winners can compete in citywide or regional events, leading up to a national competition. Since its inception in 1987, NFTE has reached more than 500,000 students, 14,000 in New England.
Jennifer Green, MBA’08 Photo: Tom Kates
Green couldn’t think of a better fit for her interests and skills. “I could work with students and teachers around entrepreneurship and business ideas,” she says. “It was perfect.” NFTE agreed, hiring her soon after she applied.
As a program director, Green spent most of her time in schools with students and teachers, facilitating professional development for the teachers and growing the program. Today she is the executive director of NFTE New England. She builds and manages the advisory board and raises money from local organizations. Being international, NFTE has corporate sponsors, and Green works with those partners as well. Because each chapter operates in a local context, she also sets the strategic vision for her region.
Green still tries to visit classrooms each month, and she enjoys interacting with the students who attend NFTE competitions and conferences. She has so many success stories to tell, and they aren’t just about kids who go on to college or create successful businesses, although plenty of those stories exist. “It’s not the same story line. Everyone starts from a different place. So for one kid, to get up and present his business, and English is his second language, and he’s so intimidated—that’s huge,” says Green. “The little stories are just as inspiring.”
In its 27th year, NFTE recognizes the demand for entrepreneurship education is large. So now it offers an online module of its course that can be sold to any interested schools. It also offers camps during summer and school breaks for students of all backgrounds. “Our mission will always be to focus first on low-income communities,” says Green. “But we’re also looking at how we can provide entrepreneurship education to all youths.”
At times, Green can’t help but take her work personally. “We work with kids, right? So if you don’t get a grant, that means those 25 kids may not receive an entrepreneurial education that they can leverage for the rest of their lives. That’s a big, big bummer,” she says. “It feels very, very personal. And that’s challenging, because when I stand shoulder to shoulder with my teachers and students, and I see their aspirations, and then the grant doesn’t come through—it’s challenging.”
Ask if she would rather be doing another job, though, and Green will answer with a resounding no. What gets her through is knowing that what she does positively impacts the community and the kids who participate in NFTE. “I’m teaching kids to be their own boss, you know, empowering them,” she says. “When I zoom out of the day to day, I just want to feel good about that.”
Haiti had been on Shaina Silva’s mind even before the 2010 earthquake devastated the country. Silva ’08 grew up in Haiti, not leaving for the U.S. until she was 10. In her memories, she recalls a calm, laid-back energy permeating the people and place, with food full of flavors and deeply connected communities. “I know a child’s view is more innocent,” says Silva.
As Silva grew older, she became more aware of the disparities in the Haitian people’s lives. She realizes life wasn’t perfect when she lived there. Her parents provided a comfortable living for her family, but poverty existed elsewhere on much of the island. Her mother came to the U.S. for Shaina’s birth because the hospitals were better, and her family left Haiti in part due to political unrest. Still, Silva often thought about how one day she would give back to the country for which she felt an affinity. She just didn’t know how.
Then the earthquake struck, and Silva and her friend, Haitian-born artist Patyse Delatour, went to the embassy to help pack supplies destined for those in need. They later discovered, however, that most of the supplies never reached the country. “That effort was pointless,” she says. “Everything we thought we were doing was actually nothing.” The two friends attended conferences on restructuring Haiti, but they became discouraged with the long talks about policies and seeming lack of action. They also noticed that few other young people of Haitian descent were participating. As Silva watched the news, listening to international organizations talk about how they were saving Haiti, she became frustrated. “The media was portraying Haitians as if they were entirely dependent on the rest of the world to survive, like they had no means of sustaining themselves, and there was nothing more than poverty,” she says.
Silva and Delatour decided to go to Haiti. “We needed to see for ourselves what was going on. Touch the ground. Feel the people. Instead of assume,” she says. The Haitian youth, they discovered, were anything but inactive. “They were out supporting their communities, and not in the way the international organizations were talking about. They had creative ways to support their communities,” she says. “One kid built a tent out of all this recycled debris. It was amazing. It could have been a piece of art in a museum. He created it as a shelter for the elderly.”
To find out what the youths needed, the two women asked how they could help. “They said we need support, resources, training. They told us what they needed, and we listened,” says Silva.
Shaina Silva ’08 Photo: Brad Howell
Upon returning to the U.S., the women founded Haiti in Transition, an organization aimed at developing leadership and entrepreneurial potential in Haitian youths. Neither of them could quit their full-time jobs, so they recruited three more friends to help. For more than a year, they worked on their first program. During vacations, they would travel to Haiti and test it with youths, making adjustments as they learned what worked.
Last August, they partnered with a Haitian nonprofit named Prodev and launched the two-week workshop in a community center in the town of Zoranje. Through games, arts and crafts, and other activities, the youths, ranging in age from 12 to 21, learned such skills as how to think critically, believe in themselves, and plan for their futures. Silva thinks the program left an impact on all the participants, but she recalls one young girl in particular. “She was living in a tent with her family. She was one of the youngest in our group, so she thought she didn’t belong. In her family dynamic, she’s doing dishes, doing womanly activities. Leadership didn’t resonate with her. It was not what she was taught,” says Silva. “She had a lot of insecurities, but over time she was discovering her strengths, and that she did have something to offer. She could be a leader, even if it was not condoned at her home. By the end of the program she was leading discussions.”
To help with the program, Silva came up with the idea of inviting volunteers to join them and experience Haiti. Volunteers would lend a hand with the program, but Silva and her cohorts also would take participants on excursions to businesses and local attractions, as well as teach them about Haitian cooking, dance, and the language. And Haiti in Transition could share some of its costs, such as transportation, with the group.
To find volunteers, Silva created an application process and advertised on Facebook. “We wondered if anyone would do this,” she says. “But people applied!” As part of the application, participants wrote about their perception of Haiti. “A lot of people wrote about poverty and despair,” says Silva. Once in Haiti, volunteers also were asked to blog daily. “It was amazing how moved and enlightened they became,” says Silva. “At the end of the trip, they had a completely different view of this country and the people.”
Plans are to run the successful workshop and volunteer program again this summer, and Haiti in Transition has even more ideas. Throughout the year in the U.S., they hold events to involve the young Haitian diaspora with their homeland. Last January in Haiti, they led a program targeting youths who had founded their own community organizations, teaching such topics as project management and social media. However, the program has been put on hold, says Silva, despite good attendance. To act on what they learned, the young Haitians needed funding, and sources are extremely limited. With no answers to this problem and their own limited resources, Silva’s group decided to halt the program for the time being.
Funding is the biggest challenge facing Haiti in Transition, says Silva. One solution might be to convert from a nonprofit to a social enterprise, she says. Instead of searching for grants and donations, they would charge for their programs. Schools have shown interest, she says, but whether the government could afford to pay for such programs is still unclear.
Sorting through the emotions of wanting to do so much, yet only being able to accomplish a small slice, has been difficult, says Silva. “At one point we were like, oh my God, our program is pointless. We can’t take them any further, so why are we doing this,” she says. “We’ve realized that we have to establish ground rules from the beginning. This is short term, and follow-up is something we’re working on. We know we can’t be changing their lives immediately. But we are offering them an opportunity that they didn’t have before.”