As I step down from my role as Director of Development at Akili Dada and prepare to venture back into the world of academia and full-time studenthood at the University of California, Berkeley, this overwhelmingly bittersweet moment has compelled me to reflect on and share a bit about my journey with Akili Dada. I would say I’m sad to leave, but luckily we have a saying around here – “Once a Dada, always a Dada” – so I know this is certainly not goodbye. I have every confidence in the creativity, heart, and brains of the two amazing women who will be henceforth carrying the flame and mobilizing resources for Akili Dada, and I’m excited to see where Shea and Nadia help to steer this beautiful ship from here out. As for me, I can only say how grateful I am to Akili Dada and to the women and men who have given this organization its fierce, passionate heart for having truly and utterly rocked my world for the past 5+ years. I would not trade the journey I’ve traveled with them for a single thing, and I can only wish that anyone reading this takes the moral of my story to heart: live what you love.
From an early age, I was exposed to leadership. From girl scouts to church youth group to school clubs, I was always encouraged to excel and organize and lead, and to bring others with me when I did so. I have seen how powerful it can be to have access to opportunities and to be supported in my choices from an early age, and thus it has always been a no brainer to advocate for women in leadership. For this reason, I was thrilled to meet Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Akili Dada’s fearless founder, nearly six years ago in my final year at the University of San Francisco. It was her first time teaching a course at the University. It was my first time taking a course taught by an African woman. And I wager neither of us would have guessed in a million years where that initial encounter would end up leading us, half a decade later.
Wanjiru was first my professor, but quickly became a mentor and friend and has remained so to this day. In a lot of ways, the relationship Wanjiru and I have developed over the years is the embodiment of the spirit of Akili Dada – sisters holding each other up, supporting each other through the good times and the rough, striving to understand and change the things that don’t work in the world, and always, always making way for the ones coming up next.
It has been an honor to work with Akili Dada and to stand so firmly behind our vision of more African women in positions of leadership. The dearth of women leaders is a problem in nearly every country and every industry across the globe, so for me this work is about tackling from all sides a global issue that is holding us back as a human race. What I’ve witnessed working with the young women of Akili Dada is part of the same pandemic I’ve seen in my home country as well: girls don’t become leaders because they either don’t think they can or because the system won’t allow them to. The media, their families, often even their peers relay the destructive message to girls in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they lack the brains, the gumption, the knowledge, and the genes to lead, and that their worth at the end of the day should be measured by their physical appearance.
So for an entity like Akili Dada to step in and start transmitting a very different message from the one girls have received their entire lives can be pivotal, and if we’re lucky, transformational. We tell the young women of Akili Dada that it doesn’t matter where they’ve come from; it only matters where they’re going. We like to say, “We don’t choose you because of what you don’t have. We choose you because of what you do have.” They’ve got the brains, the passion, and the drive. What they need is someone to step into their life, affirm the worth and potential that has been inside them all along – and which many of them have already dared to begin to unlock, despite the odds – and walk alongside them as a mentor and a number one fan. Though their life and their decisions will ultimately be for them to design, I personally believe that these young women are going to change the world.
It has been an incredible journey to have been at the table when we’ve interviewed and selected new high school scholarship recipients and new fellows and to watch these young women grow. The painfully shy high school girls I helped interview a few years ago are now confident young women who are clear in their vision for their future and who understand what it means to lead. They see their life as their own, which is the greatest gift anyone can give a young person. They teach their younger Dadas the lessons they’ve learned over the years, and through this simple and beautiful cycle the sisterhood grows. As a woman who owes everything to the support, encouragement, mentoring, and opportunities I have received throughout my life, it only makes sense to pay it forward to the next generation of girls. I have no doubt in my mind that the young women of Akili Dada will go far. I’ve already seen the impressive heights to which many of them have soared in just the five years I’ve known them. And I look forward to continuing to cheer them on for the duration of whatever journey they choose for themselves.
I recently heard Wanjiru say something that gets at the heart of why I do what I do and why I have chosen to return to school to study public policy and fight for better access, more opportunities, and a healthier future for us all. She said that each of us should hold onto our gifts and our resources lightly. They are not ours. They are just passing through us. In this way, I see clearly that the opportunities I’ve received over the course of my lifetime were never mine to hoard just for my own purposes in life. Those same opportunities belong to every young woman in the world. Why would I keep such a bold and beautiful thing all to myself?