The Words of the Gayle Family

The Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance - An interview with its founder - Okecdo Lewis Gayle

Heather Thalheimer
February 2011

Question: Tell me a little bit about your initial vision for Harambe and what started this incredible adventure?

Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance (formerly known as the Harambe Endeavor Alliance) is an alliance of African students and young professionals attending world-class universities, such as Harvard, Oxford, Beijing, Hong Kong, MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics. Our mission is to unleash the potential of Africa's people, pursue the social, political and economic development of our continent and fulfill the dream of our generation.

I guess it all really started from Southern New Hampshire University. While Prince Soko and I were undergraduates there, we were very involved in student life. We worked with Rosa Parks' family and helped create the first nationally endowed Rosa Parks Scholarship in the nation. We also worked with Martin Luther King's family. And then, if you recall, when I became president of Southern New Hampshire University, Prince's mother was staying in South Africa and Prince came to me and said, "My mom's in a community down in South Africa where there's no computers, so what can we do?" And I said, "Well, let's get them computers." I mean, it was just that simple; it really was this amazing opportunity of seeing an idea that you have translated into reality.

I'll never forget -- we worked so hard for the Rosa Parks event on our campus. There was a possibility that there would not be an event. So we were like, "We have to do something." We worked tirelessly for two or three months. We'll never forget the feeling we got when we walked into the auditorium of our campus and we saw all the people there and we saw the image of Rosa Parks on the screen and we saw the flowers. We were so overwhelmed by seeing this idea we had conceived and realized, that we actually had to sit down on the steps to take it all in.

I think anybody who's ever translated an idea into reality, who's had the privilege of seeing something they've conceived materialized, knows how incredibly empowering that experience is. It's somewhat addictive, certainly for anyone who has entrepreneurial aspirations, just realizing that you can actually make a difference, that you can bring something into this world. From that, it was just a series of steps that led us to a number of different things, but it was that very empowering experience of translating an idea into reality that I think is the kernel of Harambe.

I remember that time. It really inspired me that you had that vision and you were so empowered, you and Prince.

Question: Can you describe Harambe and then tell us where this idea came from and what you want to do with it?

Initially, we had both been to conferences across the United States, at the United Nations and other opportunities where we had met other students who were from Africa, like Prince. They all shared what we called a "frustration over generation". You have to imagine if you're a young African and you're being educated here in the United States or in Europe or in Asia, here you are, seeing all these great opportunities, all these people living good lives. Then you see the realities back home. You have to wonder, "Why?" Why is it that in spite of the vast opportunities that are much talked about in Africa, why is it that we can't have this hope? That creates a frustration. It creates this gap between the reality of Africa and the potential of Africa. People just wonder, "Why?" Instinctively they know it's not because of the lack of human intelligence. They know also that it's not because of the lack of resources -- just ask the Chinese, they're all over Africa.

We knew that it could be different. And so it was this notion of possibility that got us to crisscross the country on a tour that took us from Stanford University to Harvard, M.I.T., Yale; we went speaking to all the African organizations and we really just rallied people. I would say, "If you are sick and tired of being sick and tired, and you think that something ought to be done, let's get together and try to make it happen." To the question, "What are we going to do?" I remember distinctly saying, "Well, I have no clue, but I know that if we get together, we'll figure it out." You know, we're supposed to be the bright minds of Africa and if we can't figure it out, no one can.

For me, in particular, what was, then really amazing was the time in which we were living in and the time I was graduating in 2007. This was the time that Ghana was celebrating its 50th anniversary of liberation, so the question of why we were not better off was in everyone's mind. Then Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, of all the places he could have gone, came to Southern New Hampshire University, and tried to upstage me at my graduation (ha-ha) I remember one of the things he said that day, other than "I'm glad Okendo hasn't decided to run for president yet," was "...right now you can take this piece of paper, this degree, and just go in pursuit of the almighty dollar, but if you were to do that, you would suffer from a poverty of ambition. If you really want to fulfill your true potential, you have to hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself." That spurred me to try to do something meaningful with my life.

Initially Harambe was something that was very amorphous: we didn't really know what we were going to do but we knew that if we came together that we could. The results, now going into our fourth year, have been very organic. What we've now realized is each individual who comes to us has extreme potential to help address some of the intractable challenges of Africa.

What we're now seeking to do, understanding that Africa is the youngest region in the world (the estimates are that 1 out of 4 young people on earth will be from Africa), clearly, there is this huge potential. We want to build a platform where young Africans and educated Africans can come and translate their ideas into action, into initiatives on the ground. Whether they're social, political, or business entrepreneurs, our hope is that, increasingly, they will see Harambe as the place to come to get their ideas off the ground.

Our thinking is the more young Africans take this step, the more likely we are to come up with the solutions to the problems to which many of us think there's no possible solution. Innovation, creativity, enthusiasm -- that's the characteristics that this group has and we have utmost faith that if empowered, if given the tools necessary for them to act, that they can help solve the problems.

For the past three years, one of the things that has happened down to the third class of Harambians is we have actually gone ahead and created very innovative projects dealing with agriculture, entrepreneurship in Cameroon, microfinance in Ethiopia, and they just keep coming, and now it's gone from just being something that started in New Hampshire, to now, my goodness, students in Beijing University and Hong Kong University are joining the Alliance and coming up with their own initiatives and solutions. We now have a very competitive process to the point that this year alone for 40 spots, we had over 240 applications from literally around the world.

Question: Wow, that is awesome. I remember well the very first convention. Can you tell us about the conventions you have held?

The way Harambe works is we have our annual symposium, known as the Harambe Brentwood Symposium. It's a four-day gathering that starts at Harvard University and then we move on to Dartmouth, then up to Brentwood. African students who want to attend submit their ideas, projects or initiatives that they would like to get done and we simply help them get their project off the ground by providing them with a network of like-minded peers as well as organizations, individuals and contacts that can help them.

We recently had a high-profile event at the House of Lords (the House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom) at the British Parliament that took place on October 6th, 2010 ( content/press/press.php). Lord Michael Hastings (Lord Michael Hastings of Scarisbrick is head of KPMG's Global Citizenship and Diversity) was our host. We are now actually partnering with major corporations -- IBM, Intel, HSBC -- to create summer grants. As of now, all we can give students is a network of peers and organizations work of peers and organizations and, thanks to our partnership with Ethiopian airlines, there's a 50% discount to go back home. What we're aiming to do now is create a summer grant so that folks can actually go home and focus on their projects during the summer.

So what is happening is the organization is going to grow as more resources are contributed.

Question: I have to take my hat off to you because when I first met you, you were a penniless student at New Hampshire University, but you dug deep and it's amazing that you could generate that sort of social capital and support for this project. Harambe has come, like a perfect storm, as you said, in this moment in time, to generate interest, concern and solutions for Africa. I'm so excited by what you're doing. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did as a penniless social entrepreneur to engage corporate support?

I think one of the reasons I like the term entrepreneur is that an entrepreneur sees a challenge and turns it into an opportunity and tries to figure out with the limited amount of resources at their disposal what he or she can do to address it. And this is part of it. You have a limited amount of resources and you have to reach out and use what you have to try to address this challenge you see ahead of you and that requires from you a lot of creativity.

In the early start-up days, folks like to think you need to have the capital, and an office, and all of that, but in reality, many of us tapped into our parents, our family, our friends, our personal network; we also tapped into the social capital that we had in New Hampshire because we had already worked with the governor and everyone else. For example we were able to convince Dartmouth College to host us for free. We were able to convince Mount Washington Hotel to help us and we were able to convince New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to be one of our first sponsors. This help was not so much actual capital but a social, goodwill network that we had built up while starting the work. You do have to be very creative because in the early stages, you have nothing but challenges, very limited resources and it really is just your idea.

In the beginning you're the only one who sees value in it. I think that success is generated by the right attitude and a positive outlook on the world. When I look back that's really what's carried us. Somehow, for us, the glass was always half full. Even when some partnerships and some people promised they would do things for us and they didn't, we always had to look at it and say, well eventually someday we will be able to partner up. Know that everything is an opportunity for something that you care about.

Question: Tell us why you chose Breton Woods as the site for your annual symposium.

That came from a bit of social capital as well as my appreciation of history. As Student Body President of Southern New Hampshire University I had organized a retreat for the Student Senate. We had chosen Breton Woods. When I was in Breton Woods we all had such a good time. I wrote the hotel a thank you note and the hotel liked it so much they actually posted it on their website, so when I contacted them about Harambe I was able to tell the hotel they needed to give us the hotel for free! I was like, "I'm a good client of yours, as your website indicates." So this is an example of the social capital that you can utilize. This was one connection I had. The other reason we chose Breton Woods is that it is the birth place of the World Bank which has sponsored many of the large international organizations that have had quite an impact on Africa for good or bad. What appealed to us was this idea that a small group of people gathered there to create these Breton Woods groups have, since then, affected the lives of millions. Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has." These words are so powerful to some of our members that they have them as part of their signatures on their e-mails, or as quotes on their business cards.

Question: Could you tell us about one project that exemplifies Harambe? Perhaps you could share about a student who's found a way of investing in Africa.

One example I would like to shed light on is that of Tola Sunmonu and her team of HarambeNigeria. This was probably the first class of Harambians that came together in 2008. Even though this is one of our most successful projects, the president and founder is still right now in her final year at Stanford University pursuing her undergraduate degree. For all those who wonder what a student can do (while they are in undergraduate school), they should learn about this project.

We brought three individuals together in 2008: one from Stanford, one from Harvard, and the other from Columbia University.

They thought about how well the banking system in Nigeria is doing and that it certainly helps move things along, but it is not enough (to help Nigeria move forward). If Nigeria is to move forward, we have got to do something about agriculture. At the time, it was somewhat counter-intuitive to think that agriculture might be the thing that young people ought to be focused on. This is actually still the case, because we realized that many of Nigeria's youth have a very negative perception of agriculture. As a result, many young Nigerians don't think of agri-business or agriculture as even an opportunity or something to consider.

So, this group of three people began to think that they could do something about Nigerian youths' perception of agriculture, draw them towards it, create opportunities for them [to be involved with agriculture], and ensure that the next generation help develop Nigeria's agricultural system. They realized that this was a pretty daunting task, and they needed to plan how it would be carried out. The beauty of this is that this group of people has now created an agricultural business incubator. One of the local universities has students submit projects on how to help local communities and local farmers improve their agricultural techniques. This has been so successful that all the major Nigerian banks have become sponsors of this project and the Ministry of Agriculture from the Nigerian government is now a major supporter. Also, New Guinea held a conference expecting to have 300 people, but ended up having over 500 people. This third class of Harambian and Nigerian fellows was inaugurated in September 2010. What is amazing is that not only has the number of young Nigerians applying to become fellows increased, but the quality of the projects and the impact of what they're doing is amazing.

While I was in London at the House of Lords, all the Nigerians who came were students who had returned to Nigeria that summer and had just arrived back. So they came to the House of Lords saying, "Everywhere we went in Nigeria we kept hearing about 'Harambe-Nigeria, Harambe-Nigeria, Harambe-Nigeria!" It's now everywhere on the radio, and Ms. Sunmonu has become a bit of a celebrity there, really engaging the youth in agriculture. BBC and CNN have even done interviews on this. What's incredible for us is that this same model is now being replicated by other Harambians in Cameroon, Guinea, and elsewhere. Ms. Sunmonu, the president and founder, is now finishing her undergraduate career at Stanford University!

You know what, Ken, I always knew this, but it is now officially confirmed in my mind: you're a genius! This wasn't easy, and I've seen everything you've accomplished. I remember the second year of the Harambe symposium when we didn't have enough money; you actually lost 20 pounds in the course of the week because you were running around trying to get the financial backing to support the symposium. All of your hard work has definitely paid off because you're changing lives in Africa. I'm just so in awe of how God is working through you.

It is so incredibly humbling. It's beautiful having this conversation with you because I remember when this was nothing but a dream and a piece of paper, and we all wondered how it was going to work. I wish you had been with us at the House of Lords the other day, because it finally seemed as if every pound I had lost and every sacrifice we have all made is gradually coming together. What is amazing now is that we used to have to go around telling people who we are and chasing down people for money but, the other day I looked on our website and a person left us a message that said, "Hello, I am the Vice President of Human Resources at Rio Tinto, a very large international company, and we are looking to partner with you"! What's happening now is that our brand is doing a lot of the work for us, and this sort of snowball-effect of people coming to us has begun.

Our next major event is going to be at the beginning of Parliament. Parliament is welcoming Harambe. If you recall the first two symposiums, the funding came only within weeks of the event, but before the third symposium was over, we already had sponsors for next year. What is happening now is that we are already receiving funding for the fifth symposium of 2012! That for me gives me a sense of progress because we have moved a long way from receiving money for the symposium two days before it took place! You remember how tragic that was? This is very humbling.

The most beautiful thing for me is when we see the impact it has had when we take a look around. We see these empowered people: folks who have, because of Harambe, gone through a realization that it was not only a nice thing for them to help others, but a moral obligation. They develop that Harambe fervor to get them through the good days and the bad days.

We're getting people who really understand what Harambe is, and they come here with really good ideas of exactly what they want to do.

One of the members who joined us this year hosted the Harambe event in Ghana. He said, "I am not starting this project until I am accepted into Harambe"! He already had everything he needed, and really didn't need us, but, for him, the symbolism of Harambe was so important that he totally saw it as, "I need Harambe to be able to start". When something like that happens, it just goes into another dimension, and it's a bit scary to me at times because it's a powerful thing. And now here we are!

Question: So, what are you doing in right now?

I'm back home now, and this has sort of become the headquarters. We are now dealing with the repercussions of the event at the House of Lords, and finalizing many of the discussions we had with different corporations. We are also preparing for our next event in Ghana and our first major event in Hong Kong, China. We are also dealing with the increase in applications that are coming in for the next symposium. We are going over ideas for the next event, which are coming out and looking like sophisticated business proposals from people who want to start things.

Harambe is known for its stringent application process. The application is pretty demanding, and only allows people to join who are really serious about it, not because they have nothing else to do. The easiest way you can get African students together is to put on a cultural show with food and music. They will all show up. The challenge we faced was if they would actually come when we said we should have a discussion about doing something for Africa. Anyone who is a part of an African student association will know that that is not an easy thing to do. Yet, not only are students across the United States doing this, but for some reason Canadian schools are on fire too, and students across Europe and around Asia are signing up. Just last week I had universities in South Africa complain, saying, "Why don't you have African universities in the network?" So, we are now getting applications from students based out of Africa itself! I think you described it correctly when you said that our time has indeed come. It just took time for the idea to mature itself.

To me, having Harambe in China investing heavily in Africa is very significant because the relationship between China and Africa is so important. If you can raise a consciousness within China about Africa and about the responsibilities that any business from China has toward Africa, that would be huge.

Yes, and we have been so blessed over there. One of the great things that happened when we moved to China last year is that I can speak some Chinese now. What is amazing about China is that our event is going to be at the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, which is the main building there. Our keynote speaker is a guy who went to high school with the current president of China and is now the head of the China-Africa Business Council. Along with him we have a whole host of CEO's from China's top corporations that are operating in Africa. We also have a pumped up team of African, American, Jewish and all kinds of other people helping with the outreach. The African students in China are absolutely on fire. They all understand what is going on and they all want to be a part of it. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of African student organizations there as of yet. So, Harambe seems to be the only one for the whole of China. People are just catching on very quickly there. I think the one valuable thing that they have to teach Africa is the strategy that these folks have had. I got the chance to talk to people in different countries, and they all have different economic miracles. It was interesting to see the level of strategy they have all employed, because none of this has happened by accident. Now China is fully engaged and I think Harambe is sort of complete.

Question: You have accomplished what most people long for in that you have experienced explosive growth within your organization. Within four years, you have taken an idea at a dining room table to a worldwide organization. How did you manage such explosive growth? How did you not let it consume you, and how do you cope with becoming a worldwide organization?

We are in that process now, and hope that it will be finalized by the next symposium. We're still shedding some of those stardom habits, if you will. My grandma likes to tell me, "God never gives you a challenge that you can't meet". For instance, one of the things that has prohibited finalizing our official registration was finding lawyers. Now, however, we're surrounded by lawyers doing all kinds of things pro bono for us. It is also a lot easier to approach individuals to come and play very specific roles within Harambe because the name itself attracts them. Now we can have a board that runs very specific operations. With this board we can reach out to almost anybody and ask them to be a board member.

The other day, there was this professor at one of the top universities who we wanted to join the board. We wanted him because he understood some of the mix of challenges that are happening on the continent. I got on the phone thinking that I had to put up a fight and convince this person to join.

But I got on the phone and he just said, "Absolutely!" The other day, I also got on the phone with the Tony Bryan Foundation who offered intern positions for any Harambians to work anywhere in their office. Part of this success has been because we cultivated all these relationships and the resources along with them. It hasn't been extremely difficult to manage the [explosive growth] because most of the resources are now there. This situation is similar to the metaphor that if you plant a tree and water it, eventually nature takes its course. That's where we find ourselves. Now that we're global, we actually have a global law firm, which was one of the results of the meeting at the House of Lords.

Question: What do you hope for Harambe in the next five years?

My hope is that it will probably just be a very effective service for highly educated Africans who are serious about being engaged. Just like there are Pell grants for American students, there is a system so that people don't have to completely fend for themselves. I want this to be a program that helps people get off the ground. This is the vision I have in terms of where I see it going. Up to this point, there has been a rapid accumulation of resources and networks, so one of my main concerns is that it will not become a political organization. I don't want people to use this program for their own benefit. I can see that becoming a potential problem because I can already see folks trying to pull it in a lot of different directions. I think it just needs to remain the best effective service that you can get for young Africans.

Question: I appreciate that you want to preserve the integrity of the organization that you helped found. I'm so excited for you and for all the Harambians. Now, what do you want to get your PhD in?

I'm going to get my PhD in Diaspora Studies, more specifically in the economic impact that Diaspora networks can have. This has been researched in places like India and China. When you look at Africa there really is no understanding of these networks.

Question: You've found your course and your passion has made it happen.

I just refuse to give up. I don't know how to give up and I don't know how to quit! What tends to happen when people succeed or become successful is that it all looks so not doable or impossible. It's almost as if a person has to have some sort of supernatural capabilities to do it. For me, it's just the fact that I refuse to give up. Other than that I'm as human as everyone else! I still have my shortcomings. There's nothing that makes me too special. It's just literally this drive.

Yes, I have definitely seen this in you. It's also your gregarious personality that just isn't afraid to call anybody. I think many of us get stopped because we're afraid to make that call or reach out to that person. I really saw your irrepressible enthusiasm to reach out regardless of what the possible outcome might be. You had courage in that sense.

You know, we had this conversation in Southern New Hampshire University even before I became president. I could never forget two days before that symposium and still no money! There we are sitting at your house with Prince, about to die, and then it happens! It was this faith, really, that somehow it was all going to work out. It was the beginning of something good. With all the challenges and opportunities we face, it's good to know we have a team of people who can provide really good advice and be stewards of the vision. Now here we are looking back at it and seeing the impact that it has had, knowing that this is only the beginning. What else could it do? 

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