Strong Roots, Supple Branches by Ashley N. Biser, Akili Dada Founding Board Member

By February 12, 2014 No Comments


When I think of Akili Dada’s birth, there is a single day that stands out in my memory. It is not the day that the idea for a scholarship fund first took root in Wanjiru’s mind, based on her experiences as a young African woman. Nor is it the day that she first shared her idea with me, over brunch while we were both PhD students at the University of Minnesota. It is not even the day that she and I walked into the Attorney General’s office in St. Paul to register Akili Dada as a non-profit. No, the day I believe exemplifies Akili Dada’s founding was the day that Wanjiru, Jill Jarvis, and I huddled together in a café and created the image of the baobab tree that has become synonymous with Akili Dada’s name.

This memory stands out because it encapsulates those aspects of Akili Dada I most value: our intense desire to learn, our spirit of collaboration, our audacious hopefulness and the careful forethought that have guided us since our inception. On that day, we had just come from a training workshop for Boards of Directors at the Foundation Center, where we had learned about the dangers of relying too heavily on a single Founder and the importance of strategic planning. We had no staff or money to speak of, but were already planning for how we might grow Akili Dada beyond a scholarship fund and into a leadership incubator that would empower young women to become their very best selves. As we sat together and dreamed Akili Dada’s future, Wanjiru’s innate optimism warred with my cautious nature, and Jill mediated between us. At that table, we listened to each other, shared our concerns, and managed to articulate a vision that still guides Akili Dada’s growth. Only the presence of Mueni Maluki, whose tireless efforts in Nairobi were critical to Akili Dada’s founding, would have made the day more perfect.

As Wanjiru, Jill and I searched for an image that would represent Akili Dada to the world, Jill sketched our baobab tree logo with the young girl reading beneath it. Distinctively African, the baobab tree has strong roots, which we envisioned as the Akili Dada sisterhood—an ever-growing community of women who nourish Akili Dada with their creativity and passion. The branches of the baobab represent our scholars and the many alumnae who have blossomed with Akili Dada’s support.


To me, Wanjiru’s greatest accomplishment has been building this interconnected network of women and giving them the space to grow. Although she may have planted the seed of our little baobab tree, the roots of this organization have grown stronger and deeper with every passing year. In the past ten years, we have grown by continuing to listen and learn from each other—by being willing to change our minds and try out new ideas. We have undergone extensive training in non-profit management, and worked together to create thoughtful plans for our future–plans that are driven by our commitment to empowering young women and guided by our shared values of sisterhood, leadership, transformation, excellence and integrity. None of this would have been possible without Wanjiru’s tireless dedication to Akili Dada and her unique passion for our work. But as Wanjiru notes in her farewell letter, Akili Dada’s ‘herstory’ also includes countless unnamed women and men who have each given their time, skills, energy and passion to this organization. Hailing from Kenya, Uganda, the United States, the Netherlands, South Africa, Liberia, the DRC and many other countries, the Akili Dada sisterhood is a transnational and transformative community. I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of it.

It is through this sisterhood that I have come to know Purity Kagwiria, Akili Dada’s incoming Executive Director. I first met Purity almost three years ago, soon after she had been hired to run our Nairobi office. I was immediately impressed by her obvious rapport with our scholars. Purity was able to simultaneously appreciate the challenges these young women face and yet push them to achieve more than they dreamed possible. Since then, she has been my roommate at strategic planning retreats and an architect of our growing leadership development program. In these varied settings, I have seen Purity grow into a leader who can converse as easily with Bill Clinton as she does with our dadas. I know she will bring all of her passion and dedication to her work as Executive Director, and I am excited to see Akili Dada grow in new and exciting directions under her leadership.

As I think of Wanjiru’s impending exit as Executive Director, the image of the baobab tree has taken on added significance for me. I am reminded that the tree is a living entity, one that is constantly growing and changing, adapting to its environment. Although Wanjiru’s name is deeply and permanently etched into its bark, our baobab tree will not stop growing. But it cannot do so alone. It requires constant nourishment from us, its root system, in order to thrive. I am extraordinarily grateful to everyone who has contributed to Akili Dada’s growth in the past, and I have every confidence that Purity and the rest of the Akili Dada team, guided by our shared values and sense of purpose, will sustain Akili Dada long into the future.

In sisterhood,

Ashley Biser
Founding Board Member
Akili Dada