I joined the Acumen Fund’s San Francisco Chapter in February 2010, after attending the chapter’s Blue Sweater Book Club. A year later, inspired by Jacqueline’s story and the Acumen community, I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and came to Kenya to volunteer and conduct research.
I spent my first month in Kenya at the Daraja Academy of Kenya, one of East Africa’s first free secondary schools for girls. The school’s American co-founders, Jason and Jenni Dougherty welcomed Daraja’s first twenty six students to campus in March 2009. This first class of students will graduate from Daraja in 2013. My volunteer project involves helping the Dougherty’s prepare for the students’ graduation. I am collecting information about Kenya’s education system so that I can create a product that will equalize access to higher education for brilliant young Kenyan women with big dreams but limited means.
Acumen Fund enabled me to arrive at Daraja’s campus with twenty five copies of The Blue Sweater, so that I could run a book club for the students. It was the perfect way to introduce a conversation about self-worth, empowerment, and entrepreneurship with the students.
When I asked Daraja students about their professional aspirations, most named well-known careers in the medical profession. I wanted the students to know that there is more than one way to define success, and more than one way to have an impact on your community. With The Blue Sweater, I had a way to open up this conversation.
In June, ten students, Vice Principal Victoria Mwangi, fellow volunteer Maria Kelly, and I met under a tree in the classroom quad to discuss the book. The students learned the definition of an entrepreneur, using examples from the book as well as the schools founders, the Dougherty’s. We talked about the challenges that these individuals faced while trying to realize their dreams, and the attributes needed to overcome these obstacles.
One of the students, Leila, offered me her reactions to Jacqueline’s story:
Controlling poverty is not an easy thing to do, but Jacqueline dared and she is succeeding. This inspires me because she is erasing the tape in our mind that says ‘we can never do something about poverty.’ I was reminded that success does not come easily. As I have learned, “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” One must struggle and hustle to achieve their mission. No matter what people say, one must not give up. Jacqueline’s method of helping needy people was the greatest way of making a difference in the world. She really inspires me.
I feel like Jacqueline’s story is a story to motivate people out there who are able to change the world. The story gives you courage to work hard in order to achieve your goal. Even though Jacqueline was a banker, she used her career to change the world step-by-step, and this is very important. Most people in work only concentrate on their work and never care what other people, especially the poor, are doing or eating. I also feel that life isn’t supposed to be easy or trouble free.
Jacqueline also saw the possibilities bridging the gap between the poor and the rich, whether it was in achieving her goal, meeting challenges, or overcoming a problem. She also looked back on her life in Africa and it helped her so much. Jacqueline never said, “I will never get through this.” She never gave up, and focused on all the possibilities.
The twenty five copies of The Blue Sweater are now on the Daraja Library shelves. When a student opens the book they’ll find the inscription “For the Ladies of Daraja. We believe in you. Love, Nicole, Jo-Ann, and the Acumen Fund Team.” I hope that the books will help future Daraja students find their own inner worth and purpose – just like the book, and the Daraja students themselves have done for me.
If you’d like to view my Daraja Academy of Kenya Blue Sweater Book Club lesson plans, they’re posted on the Acumen Fund community page here.
Nicole Parisi-Smith is a member of San Francisco for Acumen. Photo by Maria Kelly.