One Entrepreneurship at a Time

Lindsay Ward ’13, Alexandra Cognetti ’13 and Donna Simpson, consultant manager, The University of Scranton Small Business Development Center and the University’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Center (WEC) coordinator, celebrate with students from the Akilah School for Women in Kigali, Rwanda.

The lush green foliage covering the endless mountains is the first thing travelers notice as they leave Rwanda’s Kigali airport. By the time visitors notice the stream of humanity walking with its colorful outfits, heads piled high with baskets of fruit, chicken and the occasional mattress, these travelers realize that they are about to learn more than any book could possibly teach. Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills with a history so horrifying it is painful to visit the museums, was the destination of a recent trip sponsored by The University of Scranton Kania School of Management.

In 1994 nearly one million people perished in a 100 day genocide which pitted the ethnic Hutu and Tutsi against each other. Today, the ethnic labels have been removed, and everyone is known as Rwandan. A short time ago, Rwanda was the focus of the entire University community through a series of lectures, class discussions and events conducted on campus. Several faculty and student groups have since traveled to the country.

On a trip to Rwanda, Michael Mensah, Ph.D., dean of the Kania School of Management, met with Akilah Institute for Women and set the stage for The University of Scranton to provide training to Akilah students. Once an agreement was reached with Akilah, plans were quickly underway to prepare a top rate entrepreneurship and leadership training with a focus on the hospitality industry. Kania School of Management (KSOM) sent the Women’s Entrepreneurship Center (WEC) Coordinator, two KSOM students, serving as WEC interns, and a KSOM professor to Rwanda to provide training to students at the Akilah School for Women.

A Learning Partnership
Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes and husband, Dave Hughes, launched Akilah Institute for Women in 2010 in the capital of Rwanda to meet the needs of both marginalized rural women and the booming private sector. Akilah is a college offering Diploma Programs in Entrepreneurship, Hospitality Management, and Information Systems. The Akilah Institute is a bridge connecting young women to the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, offering an affordable higher education that incorporates two crucial elements: market-relevant curricula and professional development programs that connect graduates directly to the workforce. Akilah is a college that offers a unique model of market-relevant education empowering graduates for success in careers and leadership roles.

In preparation for the Rwandan experience, Scranton students Lindsay Ward ’13 and Alexandra Cognetti ’13 met with Donna Simpson, consultant manager, The University of Scranton Small Business Development Center, and Alan Brumagim, Ph.D., associate professor of management and marketing, to help develop a training strategy for this Women’s Entrepreneurship Center initiative.

The agenda for the week at the Institute included presenting a simulated startup business, facilitating leadership discussions and organizing activities. Sessions on what entrepreneurship is and how a business operates framed the week’s training program. Topics that were presented included budgeting, marketing and customer service skills. Cognetti and Ward led interactive sessions on leadership and communication skills. All sessions included hands-on interaction for the Akilah students. A simulation of an awards luncheon was used to allow the students to put into practice what they learned each day. The activities proved to be well received by the 60 young women who showed their enthusiasm and were fully engaged during the training sessions.

By the week’s end students and advisors had formed new friendships and found that they were as inspired by the participants as were the participants by them. “One of the best parts of our experience at Akilah was the relations we formed with the students,” said Ward. “They have a huge curiosity and thirst for knowledge, as do I being a student, and it was great to relate to all of the girls on that level.” It is important to note that the visit was outside of the normal Akilah school year so students had to make special arrangements for travel from their villages. Many students walked miles to take part in this training.

A Greater University Presence in Rwanda
During their time in Rwanda, the group took part in a roundtable discussion on opportunities available for Rwandan youth facilitated by The University of Scranton’s Sondra Myers, Senior Fellow for International, Civic and Cultural Projects. Rwandan business and community leaders participated in this session. Starting a business and gaining an education were touted as the way for young Rwandans to prosper.

One such young man, Emmanuel Nkuranga, a painter and member of the artists’ cooperative Ivuka Arts in Kigali, Rwanda, is a good example of an entrepreneurial success story. A survivor of the Rwandan genocide, Nkuranga gives back by providing a place for young artists to grow in their craft. The group made a point to visit him and his community of artists. Recently, he served as an artist-in-residence at The University of Scranton.

The Women’s Entrepreneurship Center
The Women’s Entrepreneurship students were well chosen for the task of working with the Akilah students. In accordance with its mandate, the WEC connects students with the broader community in a way that benefits the region economically. The WEC mission is to employ University student interns and pair them with experienced SBDC consultants, who will work together to provide area entrepreneurs with the knowledge, resources and support needed to develop and maintain successful businesses. WEC interns learn the intricacies of entrepreneurship and consulting before working with a client. This training and subsequent consulting is practitioner-oriented rather than solely academic in nature.

“Every person we met had their life deeply affected by the 1994 genocide, but they were still able to smile and love,” noted Cognetti. “Their strength and hope for the future is beautiful and inspirational.”

Seeing Results
The experience not only inspired University students, it has inspired Rwandan participants of the program as well. Akilah student Vestine Ukwishaka recently wrote to share her experience as Rwanda’s representative in the Hansen Summer Institute for Leadership and International Cooperation held in San Diego, California. She won a competition while she was there, and was granted $3,000 to get her business idea off the ground in Rwanda. She wrote, “I would like to thank you very much for the entrepreneurship training you gave us! It has become the key to success in my life.” She has continued to use the WEC as a resource with her business plan as she moves forward.

This international partnership has been a success and is only one component of The University engaging in the greater world. The University of Scranton provides many international opportunities for its students. The University of Scranton is making a difference in the Rwandan future one entrepreneur at a time.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in The University of Scranton’s winter 2013-2014 issue of Ignite magazine. Visit www.scranton.edu/ignite for more information.

Read more about the Rwanda trip at the Scranton Journal.