*Swiss Re Foundation funds academy and amplifies its impact by encouraging its employees to invest their enormous expertise and time in beneficiaries
*The First Start-Up Academy organised at the University of Ghana was attended by 48 select students across various universities in the country who had demonstrated financial need, academic excellence and an enthusiasm towards entrepreneurship.
Written by Isaac Aboah
There were scores of jubilant clamour in the room and before they could die down, an unexpected cheer of resounding gratification, like that for a favourite player at the end of a football charged up.
That Marie Christin was the favourite of the students is not something I'd say to be true. Each and every student was in a way or another thankful for the composite mentoring and help that they had accumulated from what their beyond expression adulation evoked.
While in the car back to the hotel, Jason thought it might be an influence she had with the girls...most of whom numbed at the commencement of the Academy, now could find their voice. It might have been her likedness, or overall gusto. Whatever it was, she cried...a lot others of the students did too... The feedback forms would not have tears sprained on it, neither would the reports of the mentors from Swiss Re or Aiducation. You would have to be there to know what impact feels like, beyond any mechanical evaluation.
The internet is swamped with incessant information about how to "get around" with new people, how to connect with individuals, and people have built careers around how breaking the boundaries of communication and expression could be a little more niftier...more graceful. Icebreaker games are invented around this grove of natural uneasiness of strangers who have to co-exist and share their lives and to hopefully fill it with a lightness that inspires camaraderie.
When I told Abeiku, the Program Manager of Junior Achievement in Ghana I could handle it, I was not completely lying, but it was my going to be my first attempt of heating up a room full of ice. I wouldn't need too much fire anyway; the room was already hot with vibrant enthusiasm.
That had been one of the initial shocks, a good shock for Cynthia and Alex. Cynthia must have had an expectation because she has been coordinating quite a number of the start-up academies both in Kenya and the Philippines. Experience makes you anticipate. Alex on the other hand had just been working for Aiducation for only a few months and this memory of this start-up academy would be her very first. Both were excited for the contagious spiritedness of the group.
Even after three days of what I imagine was a coarse travelling experience, courtesy of an unfortunate turn of events in Togo, when they arrived, they were duly washed down in the exhaustion of their sleepless nights, but their cheer and enthusiasm was unscathed like baby skin.
What makes people travel oceans to help train underprivileged youth from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in entreprenership skills? I certainly can say it is not always the passion to make change. I have had my fair share of organizing events of such themes, and to get a truly dedicated team of mentors who are humbled in the spirit of guidance and tutelage to give back is not a cliche.
It must say something about teams too, or maybe organizations specifically. In a contemplative evaluation of the week's experience, I am taken aback to a week prior to the event in Abeiku's office juggling comfortably as I sit in front of him, gleaming with smiles to compete the beautiful rays of the sun that splashed through the curtains. He recounted his experience in Kenya, where he was supposed to monitor the program in a bid to help better organize one here in Accra; an investment that now confirmedly after the success of the academy was truly worth it.
He spoke verily about a black American lady who for the first time had travelled to Africa and was sharing her revelations of how the nostalgia of a history she cannot remember but feel, had for the first time caught up with her in a place that was a stranger's but could resonate as home. She too, like MC had cried. He also said some things about the Swiss Re mentors, how willing and committed they were to impact. I now have my own stories and they are no different, only more deeply profound an experience for me.
I have been an on and off intern/volunteer for Junior Achievement for almost a year and I am proud of all that the organisation stands for. Once when I had a conversation with Ato Ulzen Appiah, the founder of the Ghana Think Foundation who from his years of experience collaborating with other NGOs was qualified to make juxtapositions, he said there were few organizations in Ghana with the kind of culture at JA, something I had stressed on as a laudable attribute of the organization. I am quick enough to say same about Swiss Re. Julia and MC were having the same revelations about their own organization. They too had sensed that there was something pleasing about their adventure; credit only due to how one giant gloabl corporation had managed to successfully recruit so many phenomenal humans across the world dedicated to empowering communities without relenting.
Ahmed was the first Swiss Re mentor I picked from the airport. I was late, anticipating it would take him longer to check-out because it usually did. I miscalculated. He was calm and collected, wore shorts, a white shirt and birkenstock sandals. He was arriving from Lagos and he would tell me about meeting his grandmother for the first time in 33 years...without icebreakers. Later that evening, he would tame his Nigerian ego and declare Ghana jollof the supreme conquerer of all other watered down attempts of this culinary brilliance.
Two hours later came Julia and Jason, then Marco, Carl and Marie Christin. That Saturday evening, we'd have dinner, 6 Swiss Re mentors and myself: strangers, even amongst the mentors, seated around a table, penning our lives with such easiness on the heart of new people; Marco discovering all the life he has missed without Tilapia, Carl being uncontrollably witty and filling the silence, Julia's sweetness talking about her grand kids, Ahmed, humbled by the taste of better jollof, MC's giggle, and Jason's New York fast paced affirmation, each's personality like rivers, confluencing into a giant ocean, a family.
Mentors in a huddle session discussion feedback from work sessions and progress of students
What the Swiss Re mentors may not have known is that it was not my particular duty to show them around. Yet, it was a responsibility I felt honoured to have taken. If I was a good "tour guide" to them, that was an accident too. I enjoy my recluse into the silence of poetry. Nature and beauty marvels me definitely but I do not always make time to adore them...I just read, sadly. So, it was my first time too, to the 1957 Art Gallery at Kempinski, the fort, first time
so close to the sea, the Jamestown fishing community, listening to the stories told by a native in a voice I can remember.
Later, that evening, I would pickup Stefan from the airport and he would join us for dinner at Coco Lounge, rush back again for Cynthia and Alex who had finally made it to Ghana!
Our first meeting as a team was held after 9pm. Everyone was ready.
Morning....set! GO! The first day of the Start-up Academy was underway!
One of the most phenomenal things about JA Africa is Elizabeth, its CEO. She is brilliant, charming and eloquent altogether, all the time. She is a quintessence of a female role model, the kind that the ladies in the room needed and she embraced the challenge. Her speech, extempore, was one of the things many of the students would never forget. She called out to the soul of the girls to be rekindled in a culture where they are asked to be comfortable behind the door. I would title her speech "Be Present!" like she had said many times.
JA Africa CEO Elizabeth Bintliff delivery her speech.
Every presentation, was revealing and inspiring. Even from second day that the more demanding building blocks of business were being discussed, it never felt like work. It felt like learning without the school.
“I am in the Business School of Ghana’s premier university yet the knowledge I have gained from this experience, I would never gain from school”, a participant was urged by his gratitude to confess.
There is nothing like experiential learning. Immersiveness, mentorship and guarded guidance is a rare gift for impactful learning. Aiducation's module of the Start-up Academy is engagingly impressive. There is no tutoring without practice, no practice without a team, no team without an individual mentor. I cannot detail a typical mentor session as experienced by either a mentor or a participant because I was neither but I can definitely say a stroll away into the streets, a seat at a corner in the privacy of one of the silent floors, with successful career practitioners talking about limitlessly everything must be special.
48 participants, 7 Swiss Mentors and all of them had had a personal interaction on some level within the five-day stretch, all of them thankful.
Carl Christensen was the leader of the Swiss Re delegation and the first of them scheduled to leave the country. His personal charisma and deep knowledge together with his wittiness had enomored everyone. After the on-site sessions at two business incubators at Worsked and Impact Hub for students to interact with real time entrepreneurs in some of Ghana's most productive co-working spaces, he decided to stay. Whether planned or unintentional, he had skipped going to the hotel to spend more time with the students, had dinner with them and probably left them with some cheek-knuckling jokes.
In our keynote presentation on the first day, multipotentialite entrepreneur and self-starter, Zuri Harris spoke of the "15 minutes" extra in her English organized classes in China. It was customary of Chinese to reward you if they thought they had received more than we had paid for. This was Carl's extra time to the students...he did not have to. He was not getting paid more, but fulfilment can make you thirst for more.
While the adornment of the colourful Kente sashes were a token of appreciation for both the Aiducation and Swiss Re Mentors...the real gratitude was in the unspoken words, the livid silences, the unsolicited pledges to make meaning and impact...
Everyone should have the opportunity to water a flower and see it flourish...true beauty is in growth. We are truly Building People and Building Nations