As a child I always dreamt of being a doctor.
That way I would be someone important and I would help people. It is funny how dreams come true, just in a different way from what you had imagined.
I became a doctor of a different sort — a PhD — and started Akili Dada.
Akili Dada was born out of the desire to repay the good fortune that had fallen my way as a young girl.
I grew up in an average family in Eastlands, Nairobi. My cousin in the US was my pen pal. She showed my letters to my uncle and he decided that I was very bright.
He called my parents and offered me an opportunity to go live with his family, and get my high school education there. That way, it would be easier for me to get a university scholarship.
It wasn’t easy. I would spend up to four hours daily applying for scholarships and 90 per cent of them were rejected. Still, I succeeded in getting full scholarships for my undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD.
If other people had not invested in me, I would not be who I am today, so I felt a strong burden of appreciation and obligation to give back for all I had received.
WEDDING GIFT STARTED IT ALL
When we got married in 2003, my husband and I took all the money people gave us as wedding gifts and used it to pay for the first four scholarships.
Over 60 young women have gone through our programme to date.
The good thing about starting such a project from scratch is that you have no idea about its magnitude or the obstacles that lie ahead.
Akili Dada was not just about giving scholarships. We nurture and empower participants to grow into future leaders.
We work with national schools because these are required by law to admit the top minds from each county in Kenya, but some of the students are among the poorest.
Although they have the marks for admission, a number of them need financial support to stay in these schools. All they can do is show up but they may have no underwear or shoes.
That is where Akili Dada comes in. Currently we work with four schools, Precious Blood, Mary Hill, Kenya High, and Loreto, Limuru. We also support our recipients to get university education.
By last year it had become impossible for me to run Akili Dada on the side while working full-time as a lecturer at the University of San Francisco.
I was working 16-hour days and juggling a young family.
As a family we made the decision to move back to Kenya and focus on Akili Dada.
My husband had already made incredible sacrifices for Akili Dada. Last year he left his job at a Silicon Valley law firm and we packed up and moved.
The sacrifices are so worth it. Since I am the product of someone’s investment, why not do the same for others?
INVESTING IN WOMEN
Moving back to Kenya after almost two decades has been a big adventure.
Juggling so many things sometimes takes a toll on my family and there are moments of overwhelm. But I have a lot of energy and I love what I do.
Fundraising has also not been easy — we rely on donations from well-wishers and the general public.
In addition, my husband and I always donate to Akili Dada from our own resources. But we ensure that when we raise scholarship money we make provision for all the four years the student will be in secondary school so we know we will not disappoint anyone.
One of the girls is at the university I attended for my undergraduate degree — Whitman — and some are currently attending Ivy League schools.
Another one, Martha Chumo, had never touched a computer until she came to our Akili Dada offices for her internship. She taught herself to code and has created a “hacker school”.
Chelsea Clinton blogs about her. Valen has just completed her Law degree at Moi University and is awaiting entry into the Kenya School of Law.
She sits on the Akili Dada board of directors, so along with five other women, she is, in effect my boss.
We believe strongly in young women’s leadership, so we must have products of our programme at the highest level of decision-making.
We provide them with career counselling and encourage them to do what they love and what they are good at.
By the time they graduate, these women of Akili Dada are doing amazing things.