When Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes graduated from a university in United States in year 2006,she decided to move to Rwanda.She didn’t know anyone there.She didn’t have any job there. The only thing that mattered to her that she wanted to help Rwandans in some way. Rwanda was reeling from the horrific genocide.Elizabeth decided that she wanted to support the Rwandan Women who were struggling to support their families.However most of the women in Rwanda didn’t have education or the requisite skills to acquire good jobs.
With the goal of helping the women in Rwanda,Elizabeth started Rwanda’s first and only -all women’s college called the Akilah institute . The college has celebrated its fifth anniversary and has become one of the best platform for giving opportunities to women who come from difficult and underprivileged backgrounds.We spoke to this inspiring change-maker who has chosen to nurture and help others.
1.Tell us how and why at the young age of 21 you left United States of America to start a new life in Rwanda?
As a college student, I learned about the Rwandan genocide and after graduating, I decided to move to the capital of Kigali. I didn’t have any job plans, or a single friend in the country but I wanted to start a life in Rwanda. It was a country still recovering from the devastating 1994 conflict in which one million innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered. When I arrived in Kigali in 2006, Rwandans were intensely focused on moving forward, passionate about reconciling the perpetrators of the country with their victims, building modern institutions on traditional values, and creating prosperity for all of its citizens. I spent the next two years volunteering with street children, learning the local language, Kinyarwanda, and co-founding a non-profit organization to provide education to orphans. I met countless young women who had survived the genocide and were struggling to provide for their families. They didn’t have the skills or education necessary to find meaningful employment.
- What motivated you to start first women’s college in Rwanda?
My husband and I started the Akilah Institute to prepare young women for leadership roles and professional careers within the fastest growing sectors of the East African economy. Akilah students select a major in Entrepreneurship, Information Systems, or Hospitality Management, and most of our students are the first in their family to attend higher education. We celebrated our fifth anniversary in January and we opened a 2nd campus in the neighboring country of Burundi in 2014. Ninety percent of alumnae find jobs within six months of graduation, where they earn incomes that are five times more than the national average. Ninety-seven women have graduated from Akilah, and in 2015 we will have a total of 550 students on two campuses. Our vision is to open a network of campuses in the region. Additionally, we are launching programs for secondary school students.
- What were the kind of challenges you faced initially and how did you overcome them?
When we opened the Akilah Institute, it was challenging to carry out basic operations. We had no textbooks or computers and only a few thousand dollars in the bank. We didn’t know how we would make payroll the next month, but we steadfastly clung to our vision. We are now in our 6th year of operations and we have grown due to the support of individuals around the world. Our first challenge was to build our academic model. We worked closely with local business, governments, and community leaders to create a system of education that effectively prepares our alumna for regional careers. Many of our students come from rural homes and secondary schools with very basic resources. The majority of students use a computer for the first time when they come to Akilah! Our instructors work tirelessly to help students bridge the knowledge gap and succeed in Akilah’s advanced curriculum. As we scale Akilah’s educational model across East Africa, we’ll need resources to build computer labs, hire the best instructors, and develop diploma programs that effectively address the needs of the fastest growing sectors of local economies.
What has been your biggest learning in the journey of building up Akilah Institute?
Many of our students are genocide survivors and they are dealing with posttraumatic stress. We incorporated a holistic approach to our market-relevant curriculum that prepares students to become leaders and strong, confident young women. My biggest learning experience to date has been realizing the importance of building strong relationships locally in order to thrive. Our curriculum is designed with active participation by the government and private sector to ensure that our students are gaining leadership skills, practical training, and entrepreneurial knowledge. For example, technology is driving East Africa’s transformation from an agricultural to a knowledge-based economy. Akilah’s Information Systems diploma program is a programming-oriented major with an entrepreneurial approach. Students master the use of world-class software in the fields of sales and marketing, business intelligence, and human resource management, and deepen their practical skills at internships with East African companies. Akilah was awarded the Women Enhancing Technology (WeTech) grant, launched at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to help women and girls enter and succeed in technology careers and fuel technological and economic growth.
- Can you please share any specific story of empowerment through Akilah institute?
Ninah was born to a large family of six children. Her family tended a small garden and sold what they planted in order for all six children to go to school. Since graduating from Akilah, she’s been on an upward trajectory at the Serena in Kigali, the only five-star hotel in Rwanda’s capital. Ninah began as a phone operator right out of graduation, where her supervisors saw great potential in her ability to interact with hotel clients. After six months, she was promoted to work at the front desk, greeting and assisting the Serena’s top-notch clientele, including government ministers, business leaders, and heads of state. Her responsibilities continue to grow and she now works both at reception and in management as the supervisor of phone operators. At the front desk, she manages a team of nine and is an esteemed and valued member of staff. After graduating from Akilah Rwanda in 2012, Providence Ingabire was employed full time by Individual Tours, a tour company in Kigali that caters to German and English speaking clients. She worked there for eleven months before moving on to Primate Safaris, one of the largest and oldest tour companies in Rwanda, where Providence saw many opportunities to rise with the pioneering organization. Akilah has more than 60 employment partners in East Africa. Our alumnae work for financial institutions, telecom companies, fashion brands, eco tourism companies, the United Nations, and more.
- What would be your advice to people who work in social sector?
My advice is to work on creating an organization that responds directly to the needs of the local economy. This yields insight into local economic development priorities, and lays the groundwork for real systemic change. This transformation does not happen over night, and leaders in the social sector have to be committed for a marathon, not a sprint.