Elizabeth Davis on Starting an International Organization (March) Transcript by extremetour


									                                 Virtual Speaker Series
                                     “Elizabeth Davis”


© 2012 Extreme Entrepreneurship Education, LLC All Rights Reserved.

[00:00:00 – 01:23:59]

[Michael Simmons] MS: Hello my name is Michael Simmons and I’m the co-founder of the virtual
speaker series. I am extremely excited today to bring you Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, a founder of the
Akilah Institute for Women. Her business started in Rwanda and has really had a huge difference on the
impact of many women’s lives. In 2009 she was the recipient of the Woman of Peace Award and she
graduated college in Tampa, FL in 2006. After volunteering in college in many different places
internationally she moved to Rwanda, she volunteered for organizations. Understood the culture then
started her own non-profit and eventually started the Akilah institute for Woman which we are going to
learn more about.

This is part of the succeeding as an Entrepreneur track, which means we are going to give you specific
tactical information you can use to become more successful expanding internationally. So we are not
going to go as deep into Elizabeth’s story. That is part of the Creating Your Own Job track.

If you have any questions at all, this is an integrative event. If you have any questions text to 917-512-
6189 if you don’t have that already saved in your cell phone go ahead and save that now. And you can go
to our Facebook page as well. Exclusively for the members of the Virtual Speaker Series at
www.facebook.com/groups/speakerseries. We like for you to ask any questions if you don’t have them
answered here, there.

With that, I’m going to welcome our guest, Elizabeth Davis. Are you there?

Elizabeth Davis [ED]: Thank you.

I am here. I’m excited!

MS: Perfect. Well let’s just jump in. Can you give up a broad overview of your story and how you got
started as a social entrepreneur internationally and how you got to where you are today?

ED: Yeah, absolutely. So I grew up in Florida and I went to college in Nashville, TN and moved to
Rwanda in 2006 and spent about 2 years volunteering with a non-profit organization working with street
kids and with youth in Rwanda before deciding that I wanted to set up my own organization. I actually co-
founded the Akilah Institute for Woman, which is a college for woman in the capitol of Rwanda, Kigali. We
are about to have our first graduating class this summer and we have about 40 students who are
graduating with 100% job placement. Having increased their income by 10 to 15 times. So we offer
two-year business diploma for young women, most of them who come from rural areas, from
families who come from agriculture and lived on less than $2 a day.

We give them very practical skills to become businesswomen and entrepreneurs in their
community. Because Rwanda is such a quickly growing community in East Africa, there is an
opportunity for young qualified professions in the region. We are about 2.5 years old but we are
developing a model of affordable higher education that can be scaled around East Africa. We are a
hybrid organization so we also run for-profit enterprises to help fund our scholarship fund. This means
that we are not so reliant on international donors to scale our model.


MS: We are going to make the assumption that someone is in the US and wants to expand his or her
business internationally and want to make a social venture internationally. What are the framework
people should think about when starting a business internationally as opposed to the US?

ED: So from the social enterprise from the non-profit perspective the way we are structured is that we are
registered non-profit (a 501(c) 3) here in the states which we got a couple of years ago and then we are
registered international non-profit in Rwanda. We have to report to the Rwandan government every year
we do an annual report of our finances in Rwanda and then we go through an annual audit in the states
with a governing board of directors here and a Rwandan advisory council in country, which helps us with
curriculum and academies and all of that.

Setting up a for-profit in Rwanda is actually incredibly easy to set up a business there. Rwanda
actually won a big award from the World Bank about reforms that they have implemented to ease
the process of doing business in the country. Setting up a business in Rwanda is easy as setting up a
government institution. With the amount of paperwork you could have it done in an afternoon. It is

essentially easier to set up a business than a non-profit organization. Because we are a hybrid model, we
have both. We are an international not-for-profit we have locally registered businesses.

MS: That’s great. You know when you hear about getting little touches of starting business in China, there
are a lot of restrictions about ownership.

ED: Right.

MS: Are there any considerations like that when starting a business in Rwanda or it is really easy.


ED: You know in terms of actually getting everything registered – getting the paperwork, the tax ID
numbers and all of that – they have really made it very simple. Their goal has made it very simple to do
business in one day. To literally get everything you need in one day. You can even do most of it online
now with the Rwandan government’s website. Getting it registered is easy. Once you get it up and
running, there are of course more challenges in terms of dealing with the tax structure and
importing stuff makes logistics a little more complicated. Getting it registered is easy.

MS: What is the thing where you thought it was going to be easy and it became really hard? What are
some of those things when people should be aware of when doing business internationally?

ED: You know, I think the process of getting an organization registered in Rwanda and East Africa is
pretty simple then all of the reporting that we have to do, the reregistration every year. It is very crowed
with either non-profits or for-profits. It is the same in Africa as it is in the states. You have to invest in a
good lawyer and a good accountant. That is just good business practice. You have to have that
expertise to make sure that you have really done it the right way.


MS: Did you use just a local lawyer and an accountant that you found?

ED: Yeah, we did. We found a great Rwandan lawyer and accountant that have helped up with all of our
initial start-up stuff and now we have a full time Director of Finance who helps with all of the on-going

MS: And how many employees are at the Akilah Institute?

ED: Right now we have sixteen fulltime staff that help run not only the academics but also our student run
businesses as well.

MS: We have a question in the audience from Laura. Did you get pro-bono support for the lawyers or did
you just pay for it?


ED: We had to pay for support from a law firm in the sates that helped register our American non-profit.
The 501(c) 3. That process can take 9 months. It can actually be expensive going forward with that.
Getting all of the IRS filings. So that is always good to find a law firm that will do it pro-bono. Then in
Rwanda we have paid for our services. There have been some lawyers who have given us some small
discounts but we’ve paid and hired lawyers and accountants to help us.

MS: And we have another question from Tiffany. What kind of people do you look to hire. More
specifically she said, what is the split between people in the US and people based in Rwanda.

ED: Right. So all of our team is based in Rwanda. I myself am based in Kigali. We have one person in the
states who is actually my mother. She is a full time volunteer.

MS: That’s Awesome.

ED: Yeah, Mom’s are the best. Especially when you are starting a non-profit. Literally my mom is a full
time volunteer and handles all of our logistics and our government filing and our accounting because
maintaining a non-profit (no one told me this before starting a non-profit) but doing all of the
reporting and the filings is incredibly time consuming. It is incredibly time consuming. It really is.
You need someone to help with the administration of it (especially if you are based somewhere

MS: And can you give us an idea of how much work? If you just give a guess as to how much work it is to
keep all that paperwork to be a non-profit.

ED: Just to give some perspective, our annual budget this year is somewhere around 150,000. We are
not huge in terms of money but we are not a small startup and it’s definitely a full time job for one person
and then we also have…

MS: Really? A full time job just to keep reporting for a 501(c) 3?

ED: Not only the reporting, but the donor letters. We have to send out tax receipts to all of our donors. We
have to do the reporting, the accounting and the logistics of everything the US office does to support the
Rwanda office.

My mom is a full time volunteer, so we have never had to spend the money on hiring US staff but she is a
machine. She does so much.

The rest of our faculty is in Rwanda and to answer that we look for, right now we have a combination of
Rwandan, Ugandan, English, and American and Caribbean staff. We have one who just started here who
is from the Bahamas. It is a really diverse mix of people.


MS: That’s amazing.

I can’t get over the amount of work that has to be done to keep the 501(c) 3. Exactly as you said, you are
a significant organization but you don’t have a hundred or two hundred people working with you so it just
seems crazy that you have to spend so much time doing that. That is good to know.

ED: It is a lot of paperwork. Even now that the IRS has a lot of rules where you actually have to register in
every single state where you raise money. If you host an event or do a big fundraising drive you have to
register to fundraise in that state. That is just one example of going through the registration process takes
a lot of time and requires someone who is very well organized to manage it.

MS: Wow. That’s really good to know. That alone is almost prohibitive. Do you think so for a 501(c) 3?
You obviously did, but it just seems like it would stop a lot of people.

ED: It does. It takes a lot of behind the scenes and a lot of administrative work.

MS: Yep. So, is there corruption at all?

ED: Um, you know Rwanda has really cracked down on corruption the last couple of years. It was won a
bunch of awards from Transparency International for having very low levels of corruption.

They are surrounded by countries like Congo, Burundi and Kenya that have very high levels of

corruption.   That definitely affects the regional business environment and wastes a lot of

Rwanda has been really applauded for their work and eliminating corruption. It is an easy place to work.


MS: How about language? Has that been a challenge at all?

ED: Rwanda actually changed their national language from French to English just a few years ago. It has
always been a French country; the Belgians colonized it. It will take a full generation for that change to
fully occur.

All Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, so most people will speak that and French (and now English as well).

MS: Do you know how to speak any of those languages?


ED: So I studied Kinyarwanda in College and I got pretty okay and then you hit a wall when you get into
the complicated grammar part. I cannot speak it. I could not discuss politics and philosophy with
you but I can get myself around and I can get by in average conversation.

MS: Is that a barrier at all?

ED: Because they made this change to English, people are so eager to learn and practice English.
English is the language for East Africa in terms of the politics so Rwanda definitely feels a lot of
pressure to switch so they can compete in a regional environment.

MS: How about culturally? What are some of the biggest things you’ve had to learn? It could be a funny
example or an awkward example of just overall?

ED: I think that Americans are a lot more open and expressive with their emotions and their thoughts. We
are very direct. We just say it how it is. We are very straightforward for the most part. I think Rwandans
and East Africans tend to be a lot more reserved. They don’t wear their heart on their sleeve as
much as we do. There is a lot more non-verbal communication.

You have to read between the lines and it took me a couple of years living in Rwanda to realize that
nodding you head can mean ‘yes’ and nodding your head can mean ‘no’ and you’re kind of like, “What
are you really saying to me?” It is just a different way of communication.

Culturally that has been the biggest challenge.

MS: Do you have any specific examples?

ED: There are a lot of times when you are in a government office and someone tells you that they can
help you get a paper that you need or a stamp. They will tell you that they will do something but they have
no intention.

MS: Really? They just don’t want to hurt your feelings?

ED: Yeah. It is like a pride thing. They tell you they can do it but they have zero intention of doing it. You
have to read between the lines to figure that out.

Americans take everything at face value. If you say you are going to do it you are going to do it.

MS: Right. So they say they will get you a form and they are just waiting there for a while...

ED: It will just never show up, yeah.


MS: So now, how do you get around that? Do you just have to follow up with them and act like you are
really serious?

ED: Yeah. It’s communicating in a different way. Like I said it is a lot on nonverbal communication
and knowing who they are in the institution and who you need to talk to in order to get stuff done
and going to the higher level government official and going directly to the minister of education for
paperwork that we need rather than trying to get it from the rest of the institutions.

MS: What has been the biggest challenge of running your organization as it specifically relates to it being

ED: There are two sides. I have a foot in both US and Rwanda. I’m running everything on the ground in
Rwanda with our Executive Director who manages our teachers and students and all of that. I’m dealing
with the Rwandan government and institution but I’m also dealing with fundraising in the US and
managing a board of directors in the US. Trying to write grants and get the resources that we need to
operate. So I’ve got this split-brain syndrome in between these two different countries and two
different cultures.

I think from the Rwandan perspective… To be honest sometimes being perceived as an international
organization there is definitely a mentality sometimes about the Americans that are coming in. Just
because they are foreigners they have money to spend. For me it is a difficult dynamic and I think that
perspective has been developed through years and years of the international aid system that isn’t always
the most effective of accountable. That can definitely be challenging as a young white woman working in
that type of environment.

MS: Is it harder being a woman? How do you get around being a woman or being a white American to be
taken seriously when you are trying to make a difference?


ED: Yeah, it is definitely challenging. I’ve been put in some very uncomfortable positions by male
Government Officials, which happens in the states too. It happens anywhere in the world as a young
woman that would probably be illegal in the states.

When you are in a small foreign country that is not your culture and it is very small place, everyone knows
each other; it is a lot harder to be able to speak up about those kinds of things. I’ve had government
officials, or men in Rwanda tell me that before when I was not married, when I was not engaged,
that they could not take me seriously. When I told people that I was engaged they were relieved
because they could finally consider me an adult because I was getting married whereas before they could
not take me seriously.

I think there is a big mindset about young women that is just different than they way that the US is.

MS: How old are people when they get married, generally in Rwanda?

ED: In the rural areas, in the vast majority of Rwanda, very young. They will get married starting at 17, 18.
In the city, I think that is changing. For the small, professional class I would say it is more mid-twenties.
Closer to how it is in the states.


MS: So we talked a little bit about culture and language. What are some of the other big differences
someone should be aware of if they are going international?

ED: I think working in Africa is just very different when working with African government

institutions. It seems to me like you have to rely a lot more on government institutions to get stuff
done than you do in the US.

In the US of course you need your registration, you have to pay your taxes, it is all of those things, but
you can still operate and run a busiest fairly independently. In Africa the private sector and the
government are still very much, almost the same in a lot of ways. They are trying to develop and grow the
private sector but you really have to rely on the government to get stuff done. To get permissions you
have to have authorizations just to make things happen. You really have to build a strong relationship with
the government institutions.

Over the past six years living there, I have invested a lot of time getting to know the government
officials, getting to know the officials, building relationships, building a sense of trust. That is
really valuable.


MS: What is it like, building relationships with a government official vs. building it in the US? I think about
business in the US. Maybe doing favors…building your social capital somewhat. Is it like that or does it
get more personal where you would meet their families and go out to dinner? How is it different than in
the US?

ED: I think that relationships are different in Africa. People in a lot of ways spend more time with people.
I’ve gone to a lot of dinners at Government Official’s houses. Looking at their photo albums and meeting
their children. Just sitting around and having tea and that is really important to people. Americans tend to
be so transactional. “Let’s get this done and let’s do this.”

There it is just a very different pace of life and they really want to know you as an individual and what
makes you tick. So having the patience and genuinely investing in those relationships is critical. It is
impossible to just come in expecting to get things right away and especially as an entrepreneur. If
you are coming in with the United Nations maybe it is different. You really genuinely invest in those

MS: What do you feel like have been the most importing things that you project in gaining creditability. Is
it “I have an organization, I’m really serious, I’m going to be around for a while?” Is it the impact you are
making? Is it your family? What are the biggest ways to gain creditability in the Rwandan culture?


ED: I think for Rwandan’s, they want to work with people who are there to support them and to
support the Rwandan Government’s vision to support their country. Not coming in and telling
them what they need to do. Telling them “here is what we think you need to fix your country.” They want
partners. They want partners to come in and say, “ We see this vision that you have outlined for
developing your country. Rebuilding your economy after the genocide. We want to support you and help
build capacity to achieve those goals.”

I think that is a big reason why we have been really successful in building strong government support –
we have build our educational model in line with the governments economic strategy of where they wan
to build their industry. Looking at where the gaps at in the qualified professionals, looking at where the
gaps are in the workforce. I think that the government respects that and they understand ‘you’re here to
work alongside us and we respect that.’ That makes a big difference.


MS: It seems like a big part at the end of the day is understanding the culture and the norms
before projecting what one has learned or what one’s presuppositions are. What is the best way for
someone to really get in there and learn about the culture if they are going to work internationally? How
long does that process take?

ED: I mean, there is really no shortcut around it. It is getting there, investing time, building relationships,
understanding the culture and seeing how organizations operate. For me personally, I spent two years
volunteering there and living off of my savings from college. Part time jobs and spending a lot of time
understanding people and for me that was the only way to be able to do it. Coming in with a bigger
institution or working for the American Government in Rwanda or working with the Peace Corps, there are
many different ways to do it but I think that in order to really genuinely understand – the only way you can
do it – is to put your boots on the ground so to speak. To invest the time.


MS: When you think about that time investment and how it works, for you to simply go and live day to day
life, do you set up as many meetings as possible? Do you try to shadow people? I don’t know if that is
too awkward, but say “take me to where you live and stay the night with you and really understand it?

ED: Yeah, a couple of different ways. When I was there for the first two years and working in a home for
street kids and working with the youth in Rwanda. It was spending time in their homes, getting to know

their families, their stories and what they had been though. In any African country there is a big difference
between their government policies, and the regular people that live out in the country side that are just
fighting to survive everyday. Those can be two very different worlds sometimes. You have to understand
both of them.

You can’t just come in and operate with the government and work of a policy level without understanding
what is like to just be a normal farmer or a normal person in Rwanda (or anywhere in East Africa.) It was
spending time with the youth and the kids we were working with and when we started a curriculum for
Akilah, we did shadow people.

I spent almost a year working with the private sector. Working with any businessman or woman who
would meet with me. Cold calling people and saying “We are developing this model of business
education, will you go to lunch with me. Will you talk with me about the challenges that you have in your
business? The challenges of finding qualified people? Will you look at our curriculum? It was just being
incredibly aggressive, knocking on a lot of doors, just asking people to provide input and to buy into our
vision of what we were trying to create.

MS: And this is a question from Tiffany: “I’m sure people in Rwanda are more than happy to help you – is
that right? To understand the culture, did people take you under their wing at first?”


ED: Yeah, that is a good question. People is Rwanda, apart from the government, which really has been
incredible, people have really been fantastic. One example is we have a professional mentors program
for all of our students. A student will get paired with a professional mentor. Right now it is all women, but
men are expected too. These woman mentor students and Rwandan woman work in the government,
civil society sector and they spend a lot of time working with our students, mentoring them, making sure
they get the most of their time at Akilah. So that is one example.

They help with curriculum development. We have had a couple of event and fundraisers on our campus
that the big Rwandan supporters will come to. Taking me under their wing, definitely. I was 21 when I
moved to Rwanda and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Through a lot of networking and luck, I
met some really great Rwandans who have been a really great part of my life. They have taken me under
their wing and have been willing to invest in me as a person and help me figure out how to work in a very
different culture and environment.

MS: We have another question from Darrell Dean from Bakersfield, CA: How do you maintain your

current relationship with government officials while still trying to maintain credibility to help you gain the
momentum to persevere?


ED: I think in Rwanda I’m spoiled. The Rwandan government has really made a lot of progress and
streamlined the process of working there. And working in some other East African or central African
countries can be incredibly challenging that we have the luxury in Rwanda of being able to work with
institution that work really well that other east African countries do not have.

We have maintained our good relationships with them by making sure that they always have a
seat at the table. Rwanda has a minister of gender, who is a woman in a cabinet position and is
responsible for insuring equity in the country. She visits our campus regularly, we are always meeting with
her. Meeting with the ministry of education. Even if something’s we start to annoy them because we are
there so much knocking on their door saying “Here is what we did this month and we have 100% job
placement this summer” and just making sure they know they are involved and invested in the model that
we are building.

MS: In the US, I feel like a blueprint for an entrepreneur to be successful is they follow up with someone
over and over and over. They don’t respond, you follow up again. You are really nice each time. It sounds
like you are really persistent as well. Does that work? Does that offend people ever?

ED: No, you have to be so persistent. I used to be really cautious about annoying people and I would be
really timid and if they did not respond to me right away I would think that they were not interested.

I know that one of my mentors and one of my funders told me “Elizabeth, you have to be like the
wallpaper. You have to always be there and just be persistent and people will finally give in and
give you what you want.” I think that sometimes even if you are worried about annoying people,
you have to just be consistent. Especially if you are dealing with senior level government officials –
they are so busy that you have to just continually get in front of them in order to get what you want and
then maybe they finally get so frustrated that they just give up and that works.

MS: What is it like in terms of technology? Are you on the phone? Are you meeting people face to face?
What is the level of email?


ED: The Internet connection is still pretty slow. Luckily I am not in Rwanda right now or we would not be
able to do this. It would not be a good connection at all.

MS: I know you are in Hong Kong right now – what takes you there?

ED: My fiancé is from Hong Kong, so I’m out here for the week visiting his family.

Yeah, the Internet is still really slow in Rwanda. I think people still use email, but it is not how stuff gets
done. People are not good at responding to email. If you want to get anything done, it is all show up at the
office and talk to them in person. It is all still face-to-face.

MS: And do you do cold visit (cold canvasing) when you just show up and hope to meet with them when
their schedule clears up or do you call and set up an appointment?

ED: I’d say in the beginning days I would go to the parking lot of the ministry of education and sit by the
minister’s car until he came out. Now it is a little bit easier to get an appointment set up through phone,
but yeah.


MS: I have personally never gone that far but I admire that you did that. What was it like the first time you
were standing at the car waiting for them and they see you waiting. Were they like “who are you?” or were
they like “Oh, you are persistent. Good job.”

ED: It is really intimidating. Especially when you are young and trying to set up a brand new institution in
their country. When you are not in your home country it is definitely intimidating but I think you just have
to ignore that and stay focused on what you need to get done.

MS: How did that minister take it when they say you sitting at the car? Did they give you their time or were
they like “you’re crazy”?

ED: A little bit of both. They were very open to good ideas – they want to support people who do good


MS: That is really awesome.

Understanding a Raw Generation
MS: Okay – we have a question from Darrel Dean again. Darrel, great questions. Understanding the
hardship of the Rwandan people, has their experience ever created roadblocks to any of your plans?


ED: That is a good one.

Yes. I could answer that on so many different levels. The first thing that I think about is our students and
their experience. Most of our students are genocide survivors. That is not a criterion for coming to Akilah,
but because we accept women who are between the age of 18 and 30 it happens that most on them are
survivors that are in that age range. That were either very young infants or children when the genocide
happened an even those who were young kids, they still have very clear memories. It impacted their
lives in so many ways. Not just losing their families and their homes but it affects them on a daily

We have students now, their fathers are in prison for committing genocide. We have students who…

MS: Oh really? Wow.

ED: So it is still so raw. The pain and the trauma is still so raw and so real that just on a personal level
that is extremely challenging. It is not just setting up a college for young women and teaching them
business and entrepreneurship. It’s doing that on top of a demographic that is suffering from very
high levels of posttraumatic stress. It is just completely different than working with a demographic of
young people here in the US I think.

MS: You mentioned that it is still raw. What does that mean? Is there conflict between those who inflicted
the genocide? Can you see the pain? How does it exhibit itself? It is just subtler?

ED: So the genocide ended in 1994 and there has not been any violence or renewed war in Rwanda
since then. It is normal for people to live side by side in communities with the men who committed
genocide and released from prison.

When the genocide ended there were over 100,000 men who were sent to prison for committing
genocide. Now tens of thousands of them have been released back into the community and they have
returned to the villages where they grew up and where their families have lived for generations. It is
extremely common for people literally living next door to the man who killed their entire family.

I guess that is what I mean by it is still very raw. People are still seeing it everyday and still feeling
the aftermath of it.

MS: I feel like that would never happen in the US where you have to be so close to it and be reminded of
it. How do people deal with that. Have you seen a lot of forgiveness or do they ignore it? Pretend it is not

ED: You know, I think it is little bit of everything. The level of forgiveness and reconciliation is the country
– it is hard to wrap you mind around it. I still can’t fully understand it.

We have student who have lost 30 members of their families. Every single person in her family
was killed. They were the sole survivors. The amount of hatred that you could carry around with
you for the rest of your life, it is almost tempting to want to be so angry. But they are not. They
genuinely want to help rebuild their country and help lift others out of poverty. The spirit of unity and
reconciliation is just mid blowing.


MS: Wow. What are some other examples of how you might see the rawness of it or the posttraumatic?
How does it come out on a daily basis?

ED: I think because this whole generation, so many of them were orphaned during the war and tens of
thousands of women were raped and infected in HIV during the way. So you have these two
demographics of teenagers (both male and female) and then older women who literally carry the
physical scars who literally carry the violence with them every day. It’s not just erasing the
memory and going through some counseling and moving on. It’s dealing with it on a day-to-day
basis. We have a few of our students who are survivors and are currently supporting mom’s or aunts or
other relatives who are trying to get medication for HIV or other illnesses. Like I said, they are dealing with
it on a day-to-day basis and still trying to recover from the aftermath of it.

MS: Being around that is completely different than anything I have every experienced. What do you feel
you have learned about human nature? I’m trying to wrap my mind around how people can commit such
terrible atrocities, especially in their own community and then to be released back in that community. How
does that change your opinion on human nature?

When I first moved to Rwanda it was because I was so fascinated with the genocide. I wanted to

understand how something like that happens. I think my own personal theory of change or my own logic
that I’ve come up with for how something like that can happen – how 1,000,000 people in killed in 100
days – for me I attribute a lot of it to a lack of education. Education – maybe I see everything through that
paradigm, but when the genocide happened it was a mostly illiterate population living in rural
poverty with no access to education or healthcare or resources of any kind.

When a government gets on the radio and tells people that they should kill their neighbor “if you kill your
neighbor, you can take his cow an use it to feed your children. “ It is something that we will never be
able to understand. Never. We will never be able to understand what it is rely like to grow up in
extreme poverty and have to deal with those types of decisions. It is so hard for us to cast
judgment of what it is like to be in those types of situations. For me, I believe that having the
education systems, having the quality of education – that is the most important step in ensuring
that something like this [genocide] does not happen again.

MS: Was there already natural tensions built up and then someone gets on the radio saying these things,
where people may have not understood it. What was the other root causes?

ED: Really, it had been going on for a long time. The Belgians colonized Rwanda after World War 1 and
there are two different ethnicities or tribes or social classes in Rwanda (Hutu and Tutsi) and the Belgians
actually implemented a system of identity cards. So during the genocide they would pull people out at
roadblocks and if your identity card said “Tutsi” you were killed right they’re on the spot.

This had been going on for a long time. It did not just happen over night.


MS: What kind of challenges – this is actually a question from Ellen – What kind of personal challenges
shaped you into who you are today. Why did you choose to impact these young women?

ED: So, personal challenges in Rwanda, the biggest one was during the first two years I was living in
Rwanda I volunteered working with street children. We set up a non-profit in the states to help raise
money and then decided to help build a secondary school and I came back to the US for a couple of
months with my Rwandan colleague and raised a bunch of money that was actually embezzled by my
collogues. Lost everything. The money, the local partners, the organization that I had helped build and
really just fell flat on my face in terms of what I thought I was supposed to be doing in Rwanda.

Everything just totally fell apart. I put so much trust and faith in the people that I was working with there

and I was very young and didn’t really understand the culture and how to get stuff done.

That was incredibly challenging. Figuring out how to be in Rwanda and build an organization and have
everything fall apart. I think that it made me so much more committed to making it succeeds and it
completely changed my vision of the type of organization that I wanted to build that ended up being the
greatest thing that has ever happened to me, it was such a blessing in disguise.

It is very hard and you lose a lot of self-esteem and faith when people that you really trust betray you.
That was incredibly difficult.


MS: You mentioned in a previous interview that it was $100,000 dollars which is an immense amount of
money but in was not your money in the since that you raised it form other people. How did you go
forward with that? Did you literally have to call up each funder and tell them that the money they saved up
and gave to you was not gone?

ED: Yes. When we found out what had happened, I spent a couple of months in Rwanda dealing with a
court case because of what had happened and dealing with the fall out in Rwanda and picking up the
pieces and rebuilding an organization of what would become the Akilah for women. But then I did have to
come back to the US for about two months and meet with our supporters and tell them what happened.
Tell them that the people we were working with were not trustworthy and were not doing what we thought.

MS: What was that like in terms of that? Did they accept? Did they say “she is so inexperienced” or were
they really sympathetic with you?

ED: I would say that 95% of our supporters were willing to continue being involved and are not full
supporters of the Akilah Institute. At least in my experience, I think that the people who have played a
critical part in funding Akilah and getting us off the ground have had a critical part. They believe in our
vision. You always hear that people invest in the passion of the entrepreneur and business model is
important but they want to invest in the individual and a strong team.

I believe that we build a strong group of supporters that really believe in us and they were willing to
continue to support us even through really challenging times.

MS: Awesome. We are a little over half way and overdue for an intermission. Let’s keep the questions
coming. We will be back in a few minutes.

[00:47:00 - 00:49:44] Intermission.

MS: All right. We are back here. I am Michael Simmons and we are here with Elizabeth Dearborn Davis
talking about how you can take an idea you had and spread it internationally. One of the things you’ve
done is you have your business based in one place but you are getting your major support from people in
the US. Have you found that people are really willing to support international endeavors? How do you go
about finding them?

ED: In terms of our fundraising which is definitely an important part of our model, are trying to rely more
on our own for-profit business model. We are still 2.5 years old so we have to rely on individual donors to
provide that support to keep us up and running - to provide scholarships to our students.

In terms of whether people are interested in supporting international products, I think yes and no. The last
couple of years with the economy being so bad in the US, there has definitely been a switch of people
funding local projects and it is completely understandable. There is a lot of need here in the states. On
one hand I see a real resistance to international projects but our supporters are involved with Akilah and
they want to see an impact. They don’t necessarily want to give to the UN or UNICEFF or a big non-profit
where they do not know where their money is going. They want to see a direct impact of their support and
know the differences they are making. I think that promotes a sense of international and global giving.

It has really been a world of mouth process of supporters telling their friends. A lot of people come over to
Rwanda and meet our students and see our campus. It has really just grown organically. We just now
started the process of institutional finding – we just got a grant and are starting to build a track record.
That is an ongoing process.

MS: I’m going to go to a question we have: Due to the release of the vast number of men that took place
in the genocide, it looks like there is another problem that needs a solution like another institute like the
Akilah Institute for Women but for those that were released?


ED: Yes. That is a really good question. There is definitely another problem of this huge influx of men
who have been in prison for many years. In 2008 the government decided to release 40,000 people who
had never even seen a lawyer. They had been in prison in 1994, they had not even seen…

MS: So 17 years.

ED: Yeah. Exactly. The government just said they did not have the capacity to provide lawyers and court
cases so we are just releasing them and letting them go back to their communities. So 40,000 men, many
of them who went into prison when they were 14, 15, and 16 years old. They have no sills, they have no
education so there are a number of vocational programs in the country that are focused of providing skills
in carpentry and mechanics and various technical things to help them get jobs.

In the higher education level where we work because we are a college, men already have more of an
opportunity to go to college than women and so in Rwanda right now only 1/3 of college students are
female. So being a male is a lot easier to have the opportunity to continue education and launch a
professional career path. That is one of the reasons why we decided to focus Akilah on being a female
only school, to provide opportunities to girls because they are at such a disadvantage.

MS: I’m curious for those men coming out of 17 years in prison, what impact has that had? Has crime
gone up? Has the integration been surprisingly successful? Is there a huge unemployment rate with them

ED: You know, the Reconciliation Effort has been incredibly successful and I think a large part of that has
been developing this vision of developing this vision and where the country is going.

People don’t use the words Hutu or Tutsi anymore in public. “We are all Rwandan” is what they say. We
are all rebuilding our country and moving together. There is a very powerful rhetoric in Rwanda that
really unites communities and brings people together. Kind of similar to what South Africa did with
the partied insulation commission trying to bring people together and talk about what happened.

It’s been a similar initiative to help people come together and heal after what happened.



MS: And the question I was going to ask is: What is the best way for a young international organization to
dramatically increase their odds for success?


ED: I think what I was saying before is really investing in relationships with government officials, putting in
the time a living in the country. I’m saying the same thing over and over again but I just realize that more
and more how important that has been and I see a lot of Americans (and other internationals) coming
into Rwanda and wanted to launch different initiatives or set up different organizations or what
things to be done overnight, immediately. It just does not happen that way.

You really do have to spend the time. I think first and foremost is the relationship that you build
with not only government, but with community officials. You have to as much as possible partner
with existing initiatives and come together trying work rather than in an isolated bubble with your
own initiative.

MS: Justin says: Have you seen most of these changes when you have been in the country? I guess he
is going back to the truth and reconciliation.

ED: I have seen a huge amount of change and progress in the 6 years that I have been there. It was
been incredible, to watch them come to terms with the men that killed their families living in their villages.
A lot of people fell like, why are they allowed to live here? They should be in prison for the rest of their

Sometimes the answer is as simple as Rwanda does not have the infrastructure. There is no way they
can build prisons to house those awful men who committed genocide, it is just not possible. So what
alternative do you have? You do the best that you can to rehabilitate people back into their communities.
The progress that I’ve seen just in this short amount of time of six years has been really powerful.

I have to say that I think a lot of that is because to the powerful role of females in the government right
now. As I said earlier 56% of Rwandan’s government is female. There are some very influential, very
powerful women in senior government positions that means that Rwanda has some of the most
progressive laws against gender based violence.              Women being able to inherit property, legal
structures that are prohibited anywhere else in Africa. They have had a big influence in the rest of the

MS: How have you successfully navigated through international policy. That is a question from Shelby.


ED: That means the policies of setting up a new organization and being able to operate - we are still
dealing with that everyday. You constantly have to go to new government institutions and getting new
processes and new letters. I feel like I spend the majority of my time running around in circles have
meetings with every government institution that there is. It is exhausting. It really is. It is a lot of
paperwork and bureaucracy that goes into it. At least in Rwanda they are trying to build the systems that
are straight forward so that you know the permissions that you need and the paperwork that you need to
operate there.

MS: Have you met many young entrepreneurs from the US that are setting up similar businesses to make
a difference and have really moved to the county. I’m just curious if there is any sort of network or
anything like that?

ED: Yeah, yeah. Not as many who are setting up for-profit businesses, which are what Rwanda really,
needs. There is huge opportunity like the hospitality and tourism industry. There is so much opportunity
for people to set up busses there now. Huge demand and growth in the country so I’d day I wish there
were more Americans who were helping build business and were helping build other small and medium

There are other Americans that are working for the government or the embassy and also setting up new
organizations – but mostly non-profit organizations I have to say.

MS: How many approximately would you say you know?

ED: I actually don’t know the population on American’s in Rwanda of the top of my head…

MS: Even just for yourself or the people that you know or keep in touch with in Rwanda.

ED: I know maybe 20 in my immediate circle.

MS: Okay great – that is really cool.

Living there now you mentioned you purchased a house. You want to raise a family there. What is it like

in terms of how you spend time between people who are originally from Rwanda vs. the expat community
living abroad in Rwanda?

ED: More of my community and support network are Rwandan. There are some people who will come in
for maybe a year or two years. A short-term stent after grad school or working for the embassy for a year.
There tends to be really high turnover. I don’t know as many foreigners or expats living in Rwanda any
more just because people come though pretty quickly. So my support community is more Rwandan or
people that live or are based there.


MS: You mentioned people come in and out. Is that because people get burned out? Or because of how
difficult it is?

ED: Like I said, you miss a lot of things from home and it can just be a very hard place to live. Not just
because you miss the grocery store or the movie theater or things like that, but it can just be a lot harder
to get stuff done and being further away from home people do get burned out.

It is challenging and it is a lot harder to make things happen. In the US we can get things done very
quickly on every level. It takes hours to do simple things like going the getting stuff printed and bound for
a proposal in Rwanda. You don’t have the Internet. Here you go to Kinko's and it takes 10 minutes and it
is so easy. Those things can take 3 hours in Rwanda. It is the little things like that all the way up the
bigger challenges living in an African country.

MS: What is the thing you most appreciate about living in Rwanda?

ED: Working with the population that we work with. Working with young Rwandan women that have lost
everything and are so committed to rebuilding their county and getting an education. I truly feel like I work
with some of the most inspiring people on the planet and I feel blessed to work in Rwanda at this point in

MS: And have you lost a lot of relationships in the US just because it is really hard to keep in touch with
people. You are so busy growing your business. Has that been hard at all?

ED: For any entrepreneur anywhere in the world you know that it becomes you’d life and it becomes your
first priority. You have to sacrifice so much. I’ve missed a lot of weddings and a lot of birthdays. I’ve
missed a lot of things with my friends back here in the states. It has bee really hard. It put a lot of strain of

my friendships from high school and college and things like that but I think in order to make something
succeed, especially in Africa – you have to pour yourself into it 110%. You have to and it is totally
all consuming and can be exhausting but it is worth it.

MS: That is awesome. I completely get the challenges, but also the rewards as well. A lot of people don’t
realize either of those as much.

How many hours per week do you work?


ED: A lot. It is definitely 7 days a week and you always have to be available. I tell everyone in my life that
I can’t schedule anything because everything is subject to change. A government minister is available or
a donor is available so I’m working 12-hour days seven days a week, definitely.

MS: How much is that? About 84 hours a week.

We have some good questions coming in here. From Justin: how do you scale Akilah. What are the
biggest challenges you foresee here? Talk about scaling business overall or any international business.

ED: The reason that we decided to focus on a more affordable model of education is because of the lack
of scale of education because so few people and especially woman can pursue higher education. Our
strategy for doing that is standardizing our curriculum and our model (from our financial system, our
school values, our outcomes an assessments and a really intense teacher training program) so that we
are able to ensure quality and methodology of the actual instruction method, which is really important to
us. A large part of why we have had success in placing our students is because of our curriculum and our
teaching methodology. Really encouraging leadership skills and creative thinking and problem solving. It
is a very different educational model than what currently exists in Africa. It is more focused on
memorization and lecturing.

Developing and standing that model is the first and most important piece of it. Building a strong
foundation in Rwanda. We will be opening our second campus in Rwanda in September of 2013 and
offering additional academic majors. So we are offering a two-year business diploma and students can
major in Hospitality Management, Entrepreneurship or Sustainable Agriculture (which we are in the
beginning stage of developing right now). Once we have developed the core of that, we plan to replicate it
to other communities by going into areas where there is a need for higher education or where there is
already an infrastructure set up were we can piggyback and bring in the Akilah model on top of that. Our

long-term goal is that we want to be able to open up five campuses in the next 10 years in East Africa and
not have to be reliant on an expensive university model.

For us, the quality and the curriculum and the outcome are what are important. We can teach
Akilah underneath a tree if we had to. It is not about being in an expensive environment. I guess for
how that applies to the region as a whole, or doing business in Africa, that is what drives a lot of
discussion on international development right now – scalability. How are we developing solutions that are
emulated, low cost and scalable but have the potential to reach vast amounts of people in five years. We
can’t just be thinking about solutions for one community and one situation. The need is so great that there
has to be potential to touch more lives.

MS: What do you see as the ‘X-Factor’ that will cause you to scale? Do you really think it is just day in,
day out scaling?

You mentioning the need is so huge, do you really think you meet that need just growing one school at a
time? Or are you hoping that you are extremely proven and you will get this huge grant that will allow you
to scale.


ED: I hope that we do not have to rely on grant dollars to scale because I think that will take a lot longer
and be a lot more work than really working on monetizing our relationship with the private sector.

I think the key to our success has been involving the private sector in the business community with
developing our model and developing our curriculum so that they are extremely invested in the model. So
that we are designing programs that respond to their needs.

One of the companies that we set up Akilah to fund our operating costs is we set up our own staffing
company. So, companies and businesses in Rwanda pay Akilah a fee for every graduate that they hire.
So that is one way for us to not have to rely on international donors, but being able to monetize that
relationship and value that we are adding to the business community by providing highly qualified, trained
professional. So that is one example.

MS: I feel like a lot of things you are saying may be great to add to any US institution as well. I do not
only apply to…

ED: Yeah, exactly. I think that is one piece of it so that scale is actually driven by demand of the private

sector. Whether that continues to grow in the Hospitality and Tourism industry, or if the demand is in the
Health Sciences industry – we hope Akilah is able to respond to where are the needs in the workforce
now. We are not just churning out graduates that have political science degrees, or sociology degrees
that they are immediately moving into the workforce.

MS: Leading up to this interview I asked you about some different resources your recommend. What are
the top books you’d recommend just on being a top entrepreneur and international?

ED: Okay, I’m trying to remember what I told you before. One book that had a big impact on me that is
not even so much specifically about entrepreneurship, but I read this book called Peak by Chip Conley a
couple of years ago that really affected my thinking. He is a very successful entrepreneur in the hotel
industry but he takes Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and applies it to a business environment.
The way he looks at it is how are we helping our employees, our investors and our clients move through
the levels - all the way up from physical needs to self actualization. That helped me think through not
only how are we students, but how are we building an organizational environment where our faculty will
want to work and helping them reach that level of self actualization though working at Akilah and that is
hugely challenging.

Everyone jokes, your professors tell you in college that the HR Department is the most important part of
the business and no one ever believes that until you are starting a business and you realize how true it is.
Helping your employees and your faculty feel fulfilled in that environment is really challenging and it is an
ongoing battle.


MS: What is the biggest thing you’ve learned about helping people that you work with get to that point of
self actualization?

ED: I don’t think I have an answer. I think I’m still trying to figure that out. It is challenging when you are
building an organizations with people from five different countries and three different continents who work
at Akilah right now Everyone is coming from such a wide range of backgrounds and cultural norms and
expectations and then they are thrown together in this under-resourced and very stressful campus. It is
just a recipe for chaos. I think right now we rely strictly on people’s passions for being a part of a startup
organization that is impacting the lives of young women. We are looking for team members that are so
crazy passionate about education and developing a new model of education, we have to really rely on
that right now.

As a startup non-profit we can basically offer zero in the way of professional development.

MS: So you have two other books that you recommend that have the word “devil” in them. One is Pray
the Devil Back to Hell and the other is Shake Hands with the Devil. Can you talk more about those


ED: Wow. I forgot that is a rally depressing selection. I didn’t realize that.

Yeah, in terms of Rwandan development. A Canadian guy who was the head of the UN during the
genocide wrote Shake Hands with the Devil. It is not really about the genocide, but about the whole
international aid and UN system that allowed the genocide to happen and what that means for the UN
system moving forward.         That had a big impact on my thinking and Rwandan post-genocide
reconstruction is really good. Pray the devil back to hell is about a group of female activists in West Africa
and Liberia and Sierra Lion and what they went though in the Civil War n that region, just talking about
the power of community organizing and women leadership.

That had a big impact on my thinking about the importance of including women. Not on the political level,
but at the economic level as well. What happens in a society when you increase the number of female
owned businesses. I think that has an exponential value in Africa especially in terms of bare impact on
the community. So those are two books I highly recommend for people that are interested in Africa.

MS: And a move you recommend is Earth Made of Glass.


ED: So that came out about 2 years ago and it is about Rwanda and it is about the president of Rwanda
right now, the same president who ended the genocide. It is also about the role of the French government
in the Rwandan Genocide and how small the French government was in the genocide. Not only through
finding and sending in weapons, but sending in militia and providing political support.


MS: Wow. I don’t have enough time to ask you follow up questions on that – but I had no idea about that.

ED: Yeah, really uplifting stuff.

MS: And websites – you mentioned Fast Company and that is more of a mainstream publication that
many people are aware of. The two you mentioned: SocialEdge.org?

ED: So Social Edge is a phenomenal resource for entrepreneurs and specifically social entrepreneurs
and it is managed by this global foundation. It’s got a lot of different entrepreneurs who write and blog
about their experience and lessons learned and a lot of tools in terms of specific tools and templates for
launching social enterprise and deciding do you want to go for profit of non profit? What type of finances
do you need to find, how to build a board - all of those really technical things that we, as entrepreneurs,
need. We need to find examples and resources. So SocialEdge.org has got a lot of great resources for
people who are starting out I this field.


MS: And wrongingrights.blogspot.com?

ED: Yeah. Wronging Rights is a blog about international law and human rights abuses that are not the
most uplifting stuff, but really fascinating. Two human right lawyers in NY who write it – I guess their
attitude is if you work in the world of Hun Rights Laws and International Warfare, if you can’t have a
sense of humor about it then you are not going to last very long. I guess they try and take a comedic spin
on everything that is happening in the world of international human rights laws. It is something I really
enjoy reading.


MS: And what is a question that I should of asked but didn’t in terms of how one can go international.

ED: Something that I wish I would have known a couple of years ago when I was starting out is I wish I
had gotten more advice on building a board. I’ve actually found board development to be one of the most
difficult things that I’ve had to deal with. I think I just went into it think that it was something that you just
kind of throw together and it will work and I didn’t really strategically think through it. Board development
has been really challenging and I think for anyone that is setting up something new (international or not)
getting really good advice, spending a lot of time strategically thinking through board development with
people who have done it before and having people who can guide you though it is really critical because it
is really one of those make or break things that you’ve got to have a really strong board that is totally
behind you but I think young entrepreneurs like us can often times really use strong support form people
who have done it before.

MS: That is fascinating and that is another thing I wish we could go into because you have so much
wisdom there.

But, I have one final question for you. What is the one thing you would like everyone to remember from
today – thinking about expanding internationally?

ED: I feel like we have spent a lot of the conversation talking about the genocide and what happened in
Rwanda I the past. Whenever I talk about Akilah I want people to think about Rwanda and Rwandan
women as being the tipping point of this massive change that is happening in Africa right now and the
opportunity that exists there. It is not just about Joseph Kony and Child Soldiers in Uganda, it is about
rapid economic development and young men and women who are really pushing the envelop and
launching new innovative businesses.

Akilah is one example of an educational platform but there is so much we can do in terms of supporting
young entrepreneurs on the other side of the world whether that is through mentoring or micro loans,
startup funding, whatever. There are so many ways for us to get involved from the states. You don’t have
to be living in Rwanda to play an active role in helping this generation build a vibrant economy. That is
something that I would want people to take away – how many ways there are to get involved on a daily


MS: What would you say are the best ways to make a difference in Africa but does not want to travel
there? You mentioned micro finance. What would you see as the most high impact way of doing that in
addition to giving to the Akilah Institute?

ED: There are many micro fiancé banks for people who are interested that sort of stuff. Providing a loan
through Kiva, there are other organizations that are coming up not that help provide more of a direct link
between mentoring and technical assistance for young entrepreneurs because a lot of these young
people in Africa that are entrepreneurs, they are throwing their lives and everything they have into it and
they do not have the type on education that entrepreneurs in the states get to have and you really need
the technical support. I think seeking out ways and looking for opportunities to really go deeper with
young people even if it just through email and Skype calls. Finding an organization that provides that sort
of technical support and really putting in some time and mentoring will help a huge amount.

MS: Are there any organizations you recommend? Can people be a mentor through Akilah?

ED: Yes, absolutely through Akilah. Especially now that we have stunts graduating. Five of our students
have already started their own businesses. Even before they have graduated. We are always looking for
long distance mentors to do things like time. Once a month do a Skype call, help them think through
some issues, provide strategic input that they simply just do not have access to in Rwanda


MS: That is very exciting.

You are plating seeds. I don’t know if you know about our Empact 100 Award where we recognize young
entrepreneurs in the US and part of that is showcasing the impact that young entrepreneurs make and
also give the young entrepreneurs the opportunity to give back. I know many of them are interested in
international work and I think this could be a very good fit. We should connect afterwards to talk about

ED: Absolutely.

MS: It is already about 7pm over here. I guess that means 7am over there. So time for you to go to bed or
wake up or one of the two. I just want to thank you for being on the call. You have such a unique story
and just the impact you are making the tremendous and people do not even realize that it is possible.

I’m going to give everyone your website – akilahinstitute.org

You can give your money and your time and really make a large difference. How much is a scholarship?

ED: A full scholarship is $3,000 per year and that covers their tuition, their lunch and their textbooks. Any
amount that people give goes into our scholarship fund and anyone who gives over $1000 we connect
them directly with a student though email. All of our students are on Facebook. Any amount that is given
goes into our scholarship fund and makes it possible for these girls to have this experience.


MS: If you want to reach out to Elizabeth directly, you can find her facebook.com/elizabeth.d.davis or on
Twitter @ElizabethDavis.

Elizabeth, thank you so much.

If you have any questions for me personally, you can reach me at Michael@exremee.org. I just want to
thank everyone so much for tuning in and we hope you join us for the next event, we are going to have
Jake Nickell from Threadless – it is a great story.

Good luck on all your ventures.

ED: Thank you so much.

© 2012 Extreme Entrepreneurship Education, LLC All Rights Reserved.


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