Acumen Blog

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Why We All Need A ‘Rikki’

Caren Wakoli is an emerging leader in East Africa who has launched a foundation to support the next generation of female leaders for Africa. Caren applied twice for the fellowship and was not accepted, but she did not give up. Her resilience and grit allowed her to persevere, and this year we are proud to have her as an East Africa Fellow. Below she shares her story on why everyone needs a ‘Rikki,’ and failure is never final. 

Life experience has persuaded me that everyone needs a ‘Rikki’ in their lives. A ‘Rikki’ is defined as any person, institution or program that guides you in the pursuit of your life’s purpose, helping you to amplify your impact. By the end of this piece, you will understand the origin of the name Rikki.

Back to my heartbeat – I started Emerging Leaders Foundation (ELF) four years ago with the sole purpose of growing the next generation of women leaders for Africa. ELF identifies young women with great leadership potential, equipping them with skills through training and mentorship to be positive agents of change in society. It is commonly said that conceiving a child is not the problem, the challenge is parenting that child in the right way. Starting an initiative is not as challenging as running it well and achieving the intended results without losing focus or passion. Truthfully, launching ELF was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. At the same time, it has been one of the most difficult journeys I have had to undertake; starting from scratch, groping in the dark with systems and processes, facing the unknown with donors and investors, selling the vision to partners and friends to come on board on a voluntary basis, and balancing between unwavering focus on the big picture and being able to meet my personal needs.

With such weight on one’s shoulders, the best option is to ardently search for a ‘Rikki’ to guide you. I came across a post by Acumen looking for people like me: passionate leaders creating change in their communities. With joy and anticipation, I applied for the 2012 East Africa Fellowship Program. I waited for feedback, but there was none. Not even the ominous, “We regret to inform you that…” But I did not lose hope. I keenly applied again in 2013. This time round, at least there was a “regrets” email that I had not qualified for the fellowship. It was right in my face – I had failed a second time in attaining something I really wanted. As the Italian saying goes, hope is the last thing ever lost; I chose to stay put. In the meantime, I continued doing whatever I could with the little I had to reach out to young women with a passion for leadership. It was tough, but the inner transformation of the young people I was working with gave me much fulfillment. Just the push I needed to soldier on!

This year, I am glad to tell you that I finally made it into the 2014 East Africa Fellowship Program! I made it, I got my first ‘Rikki!’ This was not just a simple win, it was confirmation that I was on the right course. And with this, the Acumen journey began. The sessions are quite intense and eye-opening. They inspire deep introspection. Being an introvert, these are my most definitive moments. The sessions simply open up a whole new world of possibilities to be grabbed at with every nerve in the body, every ounce of courage. Through the insights of facilitators and experiences of the other fellows, learning is inevitable.

Acumen has this web of resources, ideas, and individuals – it doesn’t matter where you are, you will always stay connected. It reminds me of the Liverpool slogan, “you’ll never walk alone!” Once an Acumen fellow, rest assured you’ll never walk alone.

This neatly ties in to how I met the second ‘Rikki,’ who happens to have the name Rikki! In the month of May, I happened to have a scheduled trip to Oslo, Norway to take part in a study for young people involved in political processes. I thought it would be great if in the process, I got the chance to network and build partnerships with individuals and organizations who do similar work that we do at ELF. I didn’t know how to go about this. I asked the East Africa Acumen staff for ideas on how to engage. What followed this query was pure magic.

In a matter of days, I was connected to the Oslo+Acumen Chapter. The woman I met was a beautiful, elegant, and selfless lady named Rikki Tidemand. Within a matter of days, I got a speaking slot at the Partnership for Change conference happening while I was in Olso. Even more exciting was that fact that I was on a panel together with one of the most influential leaders and voices in Africa – Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Leymah Gbowee, to discuss Young Women in Enterprise! I had been incredibly moved by her memoir – Mighty Be Our Powers, which I had read less than six months earlier. I hoped to meet her one day to just honor and listen to her. Little did I know how soon that would happen. What else can you call this, if not a Miracle!

The Partnership for Change conference was an amazing place to be. To say I learned a lot is an understatement; I networked, listened to experiences of others, soaked in wells of wisdom, and got many opportunities to talk about what we do at ELF. Here is where my new friend Rikki played such a key role: she introduced me to many people and encouraged me to talk about my work, the strategies we use, and our impact so far. Whenever I saw her walk my way, I knew the line from her would be something like, “I need you to meet …and talk about your work…” She would even rehearse it with me. And talking I did!

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Like I said earlier, we all need ‘Rikkis’ in our lives to open doors for us. Doors to learning new strategies, doors to see fresh perspectives, doors to connect us to dream-enablers. Humans are not islands. We need each other. Without people, leadership makes no sense! We often miss out on opportunities because of fear, prejudices or uncertainties. There is nothing enlightened about blinking in our own cocoons without peering outside to see what life has to offer. It is useful to approach life with an open heart and mind. Your reason for being is worth much more than the short-term struggles you face.

Failure is never final.

To paraphrase the words of Vince Lombardi, it doesn’t matter how many times you fail, what matters is how many times you get up and still keep moving forward. Separate yourself from the past and focus ahead with renewed vision, strength and insight. Afterall, to eradicate poverty in this world, we need a multi-faceted and multispectral approach. Never give up! Never give in! Never lose hope!


Dispatch from Pakistan: Hope in Place of Fear

There is fear in the streets of Pakistan. I sit in traffic, just a few hundred feet from my hotel where my next meeting is scheduled. I could arrive at my destination in five minutes if I walked, but it is not advised to walk. On the right side of my car, four men pointing automatic weapons stand in the back of a police van. Just in front is a black SUV with four commandos in the back, each with AK-47s, I think, though I’m no expert in guns. Let’s just say they are very big and look very menacing. A few cars to the left is another gun-filled vehicle pushing other cars out of its way, presumably to join the caravan of the armed. Sirens are wailing. [Read More]


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Acumen is proud to announce the selection of our third cohort of Pakistan Fellows. After a competitive application process, we’ve chosen a diverse group of 20 leaders working in provinces across the country. This year’s Fellows are fighting poverty and changing lives across Pakistan through unique initiatives that range from advocating for vulnerable prisoners’ rights, to creating solutions to address low-quality education, to developing branchless banking channels for low-income customers, and more. Read more about each Fellow and their inspiring work below. [Read More]

Lean Data Goes Deeper

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Acumen is proud to announce the selection of our second cohort of India Fellows. After a competitive application process, we’ve chosen a diverse group of 20 leaders working in 13 states. This year’s Fellows are fighting poverty and changing lives across India through unique initiatives that range from providing affordable menstrual hygiene products to marginalized women, to making quality education available to children in conflict zones, to designing innovative sanitation solutions for the urban poor, and more. Read more about each Fellow and their inspiring work below. [Read More]


Fast Company today announced its 2015 ranking of the World’s Most Innovative Companies in Not-For-Profit, honoring leading organizations and rising newcomers that exemplify the best in social and philanthropic innovation. Acumen earned the No. 7 spot on the annual list in recognition for its Lean Data Initiative—a project launched in 2014 to find more efficient, cost-effective ways to measure and evaluate social impact. [Read More]


Acumen is proud to announce the selection of our fourth cohort of East Africa Fellows. After a competitive application process, we’ve chosen a diverse group of 21 leaders from five different countries in the region: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and, for the first time, Ethiopia. This year’s Fellows are fighting poverty and changing lives across East Africa through unique initiatives that range from providing much-needed ambulance services to helping make hygienic sanitation more accessible and affordable to empowering young women to start viable agro-enterprises and more. Read more about each Fellow and their inspiring work below. [Read More]

We Are Each Other’s Destiny

To reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to consider deeply our human interconnectedness and the world we want to build. Each year on this day, I re-read his extraordinary, elegiac “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to remember his commitment to human equality and the price he paid. I read it to remind myself of the power of idealism grounded in pragmatism. I read it to renew my belief in our individual and collective abilities to help bend the moral arc ever more toward justice. [Read More]

Let’s Work Together

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