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Self-Starting

Miss the previous update about my work at the Remera Mbogo School? Read it here.

In addition to the therapeutic work I conducted with students orphaned by the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, I also facilitated a program with around 60 of the graduating seniors to teach entrepreneurship lessons and values.

Historically at this secondary school, one of the poorest in Kigali, only 10% of the seniors pass the national exam (like the SAT in the US)—an exam that needs to be passed to be admitted to university. Without a university degree, it is difficult to find jobs that pay well, so most of the students at Remera have fears about not being able to find work to support themselves.

The reason 90% fail? The exam is given in English (a government mandate, as it's the national language), which most students don’t speak because the school, due to financial issues, has not been able to buy the proper textbooks to teach it. Imagine taking an already difficult test in a language you don’t understand!

Taking Initiative

Given the anxiety about not passing the exam, I wanted to try and cultivate some optimism by demonstrating the power of entrepreneurship, yes, of starting your own business, but more the essence of it: working on a dream (in this case, dignified living out of poverty), despite beliefs about its impossibility.

I'm hoping the seniors will, at least, form an understanding that there are always options. That, to me, would be a good outcome from our time together.

Interestingly enough, the Government of Rwanda, under President Paul Kagame’s leadership, is more or less saying the same thing and encourages those unable to find work, to start their own business, and has made credit available to do so.

It’s one thing to read about entrepreneurship in a book, or hear it from the teacher, entirely another to experience the lessons in real life when you’re at the helm.

The idea with this program then is to have the seniors select small development projects to improve the school compound (presented as a legacy they were leaving behind) and let them be responsible for every stage of completing them — from dreaming and designing, to presenting or marketing the idea, to building it — in order to get a visceral experience of what it’s like to realize a dream.

As a quick aside. Above, is a page a student was studying before a term exam, which is filled with various, detailed historical facts. It’s perplexing to me why schools, especially in developing world countries, place such emphasis on memorizing trivia like this that has little practical application.

Vocational and skill-based training makes much more sense, especially as more and more get access to the internet and Google, where historical facts like these are a few clicks or taps away.

LET'S GET STARTED

The first step in the creative or entrepreneurial process is to dream. What inspires you? What moves you? What do you want to do?

So we let the entire senior class, unassisted mostly, dream up improvements to the school compound. After the list was narrowed down and final projects selected (discussed below), we asked for volunteer leaders to assemble teams to work on them.

Each group's first task: create a plan of action and budget for the project (being the next step after dreaming). Just like that these jobs were assigned, with hardly any how to instruction.

My attitude here and throughout was use your commonsense and figure something out. There was no lecture on making the perfect budget in Excel, etc. By giving the leaders and teams an opportunity to try on their own first, that gives them the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn on their own.

My overall hope was for the students to get a feel for project management—that, I was thinking, would give them some degree of confidence to start their own business, or at least confidence to know they could successfully work toward creative alternatives if college is not an option.

There is no difference between big and small. The process the students used to complete their projects, is the same process a NASA scientist would use to build a space station—the hardest part, the part you can’t really teach but you can encourage, is mustering the resolve to act and start something on your own.

If you can do that and challenge your beliefs about impossibility, you’re more than halfway there, even if you are a genocide survivor without a lot of money.

Here are the projects the students worked on and some of the lessons that showed up along the way.

Fencing — EXPECT UNEXPECTED HELP

One of the groups rebuilt a portion of the fence surrounding the school and added fencing to an entirely new area.

A teacher assisted with this project and was able to reduce the budget the students created by close to 200%, by cleverly reusing materials we already had.

One Sunday, this teacher and I decided to do some preliminary work on our own. Within 30 minutes, two people organically grew to five, and five eventually grew to over ten and we made a lot of progress without planning to.

Lesson. Momentum builds after you start something, unexpected benefits come to help you succeed.

Fire Circle — KNOCK ON DOORS

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This was my idea actually, something I was particularly enthusiastic about for some reason. Building a fire circle to be used for socializing, singing, dancing, etc.

After finishing it, we invited some of the students to show up one night to inaugurate the circle. When the time came, nobody was to be found despite receiving a number of affirmative RSVPs. The leader of this project ended up going to each classroom where students were quietly studying to make an announcement about the event.

Going "door-to-door" like this brought in about 50 people for the inauguration, and a few of the teachers. That night I learned why I was so passionate about the project—it was a rare occasion students and teachers were together as equals, and it was clear how much the students appreciated that.

Lesson. Building something interesting is one thing, getting others interested in it is entirely another. Sometimes you have to recruit people one-by-one.

Clothing Lines — Prepare to Fail

All the years the school has been open, it has been without clothing lines for students to hang their laundry out to dry on. Instead, they have been using the traditional method of bushes, trees stumps, and the grass.

We ended up failing on this project. The metal purchased was of poor quality and buckled quickly, which was also due to spacing out the reinforcements incorrectly.

In this case, we had to hire a builder to complete the work.

Lesson. Failure is an instrumental part of being an entrepreneur. Failure is not a failure so long as you learn from it and do it better on the next attempt. Which we did.

Painting — DO MORE WITH LESS

We added some paint to the overwhelmingly monotone main buildings on campus in the likeness of the Rwandan flag, as well as positive terms above all the doors.

If you’ve painted at all then you know if you paint too fast, you end up making a mess and wasting material. Even if you think you’re moving fast and saving time, you end up losing time through all the inevitable corrections and extra clean up.

This was something I kept reinforcing to the group working on this project, since they tended to want to zip through the work.

In addition, two of the project leaders had a live demonstration of bargaining. The painter we hired to paint the terms above the doors (we tried ourselves but failed, it looked bad) reduced his initial price by over 50% after quite a bit of back and forth and pushing for a better price.

Lesson. Do a little bit at a time with great care. If your budget is limited to a certain amount, as ours was, ask your contractors to work with you or help find a solution, especially if the project is community based.

Parallel Bars — WATCH FOR Ripple Effects

Here was yet another example of creative momentum that showed up. Building these makeshift parallel bars was not an official project of the program.

This was a project that students outside of the program completed on their own because of all the activity we were generating. It inspired them.

Lesson. Your action can inspire others in unexpected ways.

Wrapping Up

I wrapped up the program with these lessons—this is what I felt our entire process boiled down to.

Fortune favors the bold — Also known as creative momentum. Follow your dream and doors open, as we saw happen many times throughout our work. This is a law of cause and effect and applies to rich and poor alike.

No excuse not to take action — Though it may seem like it, having insufficient anything (smarts, looks, money, resources, etc.) is not a totally legitimate excuse not to work on your dream. History is replete with successful individuals who transcended extreme limitations.

Details take care of themselves — This is a variant of the first point. Don't let complex details paralyze you from taking action. Work on the heart of your project first and watch how everything else can naturally fall into place.

Above are four of the five project leaders who ended up receiving the greatest benefit from the program, as they were the most engaged and hands on throughout.

My prayer for them is that if they do hit a scary roadblock after finishing school, they feel reasonably empowered and optimistic now to figure out a solution on their own that does not compromise their values or sense of dignity.

(I appreciated the fact that one of these leaders is an orphan who survived the genocide.)