Friends, Coffee and Networks that Raise us UP

Spark Co-Founder Fiona Hsu

It was December 2009 and Spark co-founder Fiona Hsu’s evenings were filled with holiday parties, dinner with girlfriends and the occasional late night at work.  Fiona’s dear friend Dan Nguyen-Tran who loves her both for her frenetic pace and the passion that she has for women’s rights convinced Fiona to drop whatever she had planned and to come meet his friend, a professor at University of San Francisco, Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg.

Over coffee, Wanjiru shared her story with Fiona.

Wanjiru was born and raised outside of Nairobi.  Her family had fallen on hard times and they were struggling to afford to send her to secondary school.  She had an uncle in Denver who offered to house her and send her to school with his children.  At 14, Wanjiru got on a plane for the first time and traveled to the US to live with a family she’s never met.   Despite the difficulties of the transition, Wanjiru excelled in school.  She received a full scholarship to college and went on to pursue her PhD.

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

During her graduate studies, Wanjiru befriended a woman named Ashley.  Over many coffees, Wanjiru talked to her friend about the status of girls’ education in Kenya.  70% of Kenyan girls cannot afford to attend secondary school. The total annual cost of schooling is $1,000 including tuition, living expenses, and supplies. Kenya’s annual per capita income is only $786 – putting schooling out of reach for many Kenyan girls.  She expressed frustration that to get full support the best and the brightest are often shipped to other countries and they rarely return.  Ashley encouraged Wanjiru to do something about this problem.  Together, they hatched a plan to develop an innovative scholarship program that resourced high-performing, low-income girls with school fees, supplies, board, and professional women mentors so they could stay in Kenya to complete their training.

The program was just an idea and implementation seemed a long way off.  After all, Wanjiru was still in school as were many of her friends and colleagues.  The notion of securing funding for a new program while subsisting on student loans and graduate stipends seemed possible but in the distant future.   During one trip back to Nairobi, Wanjiru met up with another friend, Mueni.  Over coffee, Wanjiru shared her idea about the scholarship program.  Mueni suggested that they should go visit a school to investigate the full cost of an education.

The Young Women of Akili Dada

So they got on the bus and visited a school where they met four of the smartest, spunkiest young women you hope for.  While they were there, they spoke with the principal and learned that it cost approximately $600 to fully fund one girl.  Wanjiru and Mueni got back on the bus and started talking.  They were broke grad students.  And while it didn’t feel as though they had any discretionary income, they did have some money in their bank accounts.  That day, sitting on the bus, they looked at each other and they knew—they could do this.  So, Wanjiru and Mueni got off the bus, walked to an ATM and they took out as much as they could over the course of a couple of days.  Between the two of them, they had $2,000.  This money was precious to them, but they knew it was invaluable for those four girls.  They returned to the school and struck a deal with the four young women and their principle.  Wanjiru and Mueni offered to fund their education and in return the young women pledged to keep their grades up and report on their progress four times a year.  Wanjiru and Mueni also asked that the students to meet regularly with professional women leaders, because to thrive, the students would need more than cash.  They would need support from mentors to grow into their promise.

Wanjiru, Ashley, Mueni and a couple of their friends tithed to keep those young women in school.  They called their program Akili Dada.  Each year for five years, these friends added more girls.  Akili Dada is currently supporting 19 girls in school, 8 alumni and over 40 mentors.  And they are just getting started.  Over the next year, they plan to bring on more students and mentors.  They are also wisely investing in their infrastructure.  They plan to engage in a strategic planning process as well as professionalize their accounting systems and web presence.

Fiona and Spark Co-Founder Maya Garcia Lahham

Last Thursday, 100 Spark members including Fiona, Dan and Wanjiru gathered to raise awareness and resources for the young women of Akili Dada.  We pledged to help Akili Dada to expand its program to 40 girls by 2011.

Dan introduced Fiona to Wanjiru.  Wanjiru introduced the issues to Ashley.  Mueni guided Wanjiru on a path to implementation. Fiona introduced Akili Dada to Spark.  Issues like the state of girls’ education can feel intractable.  There is no question that the problem is monumental.  But igniting solutions don’t have to be.  Sometimes all you need to get started is a friend, a few cups of coffee and a network to raise up your best idea.


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