What’s your big idea?
To provide a new model of education that empowers a new generation of leaders across the world who will solve intractable problems of poverty, disease, violence, and environmental degradation.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
During high school, I became involved in Amnesty International, which allowed me to learn about a population of refugees that lived in Uganda. These refugees come from the warring countries surrounding Uganda, including the DR Congo. I applied for a scholarship from Amnesty to travel to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in western Uganda. After a long process, Amnesty turned me down saying I was “too young” and it was “too dangerous.” At that point, I was determined to go and didn’t let Amnesty’s decision discourage me. The first person I met in Kyangwali was Benson Oliiver, a refugee from the DRC of my age. We became close friends and I was astounded by his his personality and resilience, and more importantly his potential. Before I left Uganda, I wanted more than anything to help Benson and the people of Kyangwali. I asked him what I could do, and he responded by asking only for an education so he could work to solve the problems facing his community and homeland. From these insightful words, Educate! was born.
What problem or issue did you first try to address?
Our goal has always been to use education as a way to bring up a new generation ready to take on the serious challenges facing communities. Inspired by the promise for peace in the DRC I saw in Benson and the other youth in Kyangwali, Educate! began by providing scholarships to Benson and 21 other youth from the settlement. The goal was always to empower the students to become leaders and address not only the serious challenges facing Kyangwali, but eventually the systemic problems of the DRC. Over the next five years, Educate! learned more from our scholarship students, other organizations, and about the education system in Uganda and much of the developing world. We began to examine that widely held assumption that education does prepare the next generation to lead positive change. Based on our findings, we knew starting in 2007 that we needed to create a new model of education which does, in fact, effectively empower the next generation to lead positive change. As a result of the important learning and listening we did, Educate! developed the Educate! Experience, a new model of education consisting of: 1. A two year social entrepreneurship course, 2. Long term mentoring from a highly qualified Ugandan mentor (who also teaches the course), 3. An alumni program for continued mentoring, social change resources, and support, and 4. The actual creation of a business or community initiative. In 2009, Educate! launched the Educate! Experience at 24 partner schools across Uganda and currently works with 830 students.
What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
The results of Educate!’s model of education are a good sign that we are on the right track. Exponential empowerment is key to that model–by investing one person, they are empowered to go into their community and empower many others. I see our model succeeding with our students like Lillian Aero, who started a fair trade social enterprise that employs 36 women affected by HIV/AIDS. Or George William Bakka, who started a microfinance organization called Angel Financial Investments. Angel Financial Investments gives loans to other youth and is therefore microfinance for youth, by youth.
Lillian Aero and George William Bakka are just two beautiful examples of exponential empowerment at its best. Not only has the course of their lives been changed, but they have enabled many others in their communities to do the same. All together, the Educate! Scholars have started 12 businesses and 48 community initiatives that have positively impacted over 17,000 lives. Recently the National Curriculum Development Center(part of the Ministry of Education responsible for curriculum) in conjunction with the UN’s International Labour Organisation asked Educate! to write the social entrepreneurship component of the new national entrepreneurship curriculum. It will be piloted in 2011 and rolled out in 2012 and 2013 to all high schools offering entrepreneurship in Uganda (over 90,000 students). The curriculum will include a practical component in which students actually start a social enterprise in their communities. It is one of the first, if not the first, social entrepreneurship curriculum taught on a national level in the world and we think Uganda can serve as a model for other countries to follow. Ultimately, a new generation with a new type of education based on social entrepreneurship will be the very ones to re-imagine the economic system in various capacities across sectors.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
The original goal of Educate!’s work was inspired by the words of Benson Olivier: If you want to help me, my community, and my country then help me to receive an education. Those words about the power of education remain at the heart of Educate! today.
How did your goals change over time? And what’s your goal today?
The ultimate goals are the same, the methodology of accomplishing those goals has been greatly refined. Learning from our scholarship students, and many other advisors, Educate! recognized that what we did which was so effective for the scholarship students was exactly what was missing from the education system. Thus, Educate! set out to develop a new model of education and work with the government to incorporate that model into the education system itself as a way to bring up an entire new generation of leaders who will have the skills, experience, and confidence needed to become visionary leaders–the next Nelson Mandela’s, Wangari Maathai’s, and Bill Gates of Africa.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Prescott, Arizona. At the age of 11, my family and I moved to beautiful and unusual Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
What occupation did your parents have?
My Father is an excellent writing and English teacher at a community college near Boulder. He believes strongly in the power of the community college system to provide a foundation for his students, especially because there are teachers who are personally invested in the success of the students. My mother is trained as a biochemist, but has spent most of her career doing effective environmental advocacy. In Arizona she worked to keep cattle off vulnerable public lands. In Boulder she leads an increasingly large group of citizens who are successfully transitioning in renewable energies and retiring old coal plants turning Colorado into a national leader in renewables. My mother is an extremely devoted advocate and I have learned much from just observing her work. My father epitomizes a good teacher–someone who has the success of the students at heart. It makes sense that Educate! is in many ways an educational advocacy organization–taking lessons from both my parents.
What college did you go to? Major/minor?
Amherst College, biochemistry.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow? Whom do you seek out for advice?
I deeply admire Gandhi. His full devotion to bringing about peace through a non-violent struggle sets a standard for the change people can create. One of my favorite quotes, which also inspired Gandhi: “They have wisdom who see themselves in all, and all in them.” I also admire Dr. King, he took the principles of non-violence which Gandhi developed and applied them in a new context creating transformative change.
The leaders I look up to the most are a couple of the scholarship students. Joseph Munyambanza is one of the most sincere individuals I have ever met. His heart is with his community and country in such a devoted way I often find myself asking the question when faced with a decision: “What would Joseph do in my shoes?” Benson Wereje, another scholarship student. Never have I met someone with the ability to share a vision and inspire others as he does. It is Benson’s remarkable leadership which has led to the success of COBURWAS in transforming Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, given thousands of people in Uganda and the DRC hope for a better future, and inspired former tribal enemies in the DRC conflict to put down their weapons and join the force for good that COBURWAS represents. My mother is also a role model leader in my life. She greatly inspired my own leadership–always trying to put oneself out of work by empowering others, then trailblazing the next step.
I am fortunate enough to have an amazing group of mentors in Boulder who I turn to for organizational building advice. I also look to Educate!’s president Boris Bulayev for advice on building the systems and processes that will help Educate! to be as efficient and effective as possible. The President of Amherst College helped mentor me into the field of social entrepreneurship and is one of the best fundraisers I know. The founders of organizations with similar missions to Educate!, such as Cornerstone and African Leadership Academy, help guide Educate!. Those organizations and others are a strong testament to the potential of this kind of work.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
I am excited by the pragmatic idealism of our generation. We are the first generation to truly embrace social entrepreneurship–a hybrid of high ideals with a strong drive to effectively and sustainably realize change. One of the greatest challenges our generation needs to address is the structure of the economic system. A blind pursuit of profits only occurs at the exploitation of people and the environment. We need to find a new model of development–one that is based on sustainability. Social entrepreneurship can help serve as a foundation for a new economic order that will drive sustainable development. Educate!’s is working to transform the outcome of the education system–re-imagining what education can do. One of the outcomes of this new education will be a new generation of social entrepreneurs and responsible leaders who will play a role in diverse sectors of society–from banking to health care and education–and in doing so contribute in different capacities to the makeup of a new economic structure–one based on ethonomics and sustainability.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
I would ask President Obama who he holds himself accountable to. Who does he answer to at the end of the day? I ask myself this question to analyze where my own motivations come from. That which we answer to is the source of our motivations. For some this is a higher being, for others a family member or role model, and for others the greater good. I would like to know who and what drives Obama. Then I would make sure to ask him a probing question: Is our education system really the best investment in the next generation–the investment which will provide the greatest returns for the society? It is not uncommon for entire school districts in the U.S. to have a drop-out rate of over 50%. With that kind of statistic, there are fundamental problems with our education system–not problems that require reforming the system, but problems which require a transformation of the system. We need an education that is both matched to the student–enabling him or her to develop their individual talents and passions–and a reflection of what is needed in the society.
What assets or challenges do you have or face because you’re young?
There is a constant need to prove myself–to funders, to our team, to my mentors. I sometimes wish I had years of experience that I could depend on to face and overcome challenges. But that is a level of preparation that takes time to build, so as a result I spend as much time as possible learning from my mentors, reading, and talking to other organizations.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
People would recognize that in order to address the problems of inequality, violence, and environmental degradation tearing apart our world, we need to first transform the education system. If people would recognize this as the first, and most sustainable step to address those greater issues, we would be able to effectively prepare a new generation to create a new model of development.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be …
Teaching, mentoring, reading (probably about Gandhi or biochemistry) in a grove of Aspen trees, and playing tennis!
Anything else we should know?
Through much practice I have developed an impressive ability to catch food in my mouth that is rivaled only by The Blue Man Group.
Follow Eric & Educate! on Twitter @EducateOrg.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.