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Never Forget Africa

By Justin Reesor | Mon Apr 11 2016
I first visited Africa in the spring of 2006, soon after graduating from high school. I previously received a small taste of international travel while visiting Europe with my family several years earlier. However, there existed in me a deep, unfulfilled desire to go out and experience the developing world and truly broaden my worldview. At the time, my aunt and uncle were living in Nairobi, so I jumped on an opportunity to live with them temporarily and volunteer at a community center providing recreational activities and services to Somali and Ethiopian refugees. I was instantly struck by the warmness, perseverance and inner beauty of both the refugees and the native Kenyans. This experience made such an impression on me that I vowed it would not be the last time I would visit Africa.
A key component of the curriculum at Eastern Mennonite University (my alma mater) is the cross-cultural program, which requires students to spend a semester overseas to study foreign language, history and culture. EMU wants students to truly experience life as a local through homestays and to help communities in the form of service projects. The fondness I had of Kenya naturally led me to select the trip to South Africa and Lesotho. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the graciousness and determination of the African people. They deserved better employment opportunities, greater access to quality education and the baseline necessities that I had always taken for granted. Somehow, through their troubles, they maintained the ability to see the opportunities that existed in problems, rather than dwell on the insufficiencies. The last entry I recorded in my journal from this trip included three words: “Never forget Africa.” While I felt a sense of guilt in returning home to my privileged life in the U.S., I figured there had to be a way for me to help. The difficult part would be finding out exactly what that was, and what role my education in business and accounting could play in that discovery.
Photo credit: Michael Spory
I enrolled in James Madison University’s evening MBA program in the fall of 2014 while continuing to work full time. I worked at Rosetta Stone since graduating from EMU in 2010 in procurement and business operations roles. I enjoyed my job, but my main motivation for pursuing the MBA was to find a clearer direction on where to ultimately take my career. The most influential component of the program was a class on business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Within this class we studied the concept of firms creating shared value. CSV describes business models, which inherently and by their nature produce social benefit, as opposed to CSR activities, which usually begin and end with a donation to a charitable organization; they are essentially a line item on the income statement. In learning about CSV, I came across the field of impact investing and started investigating further. It very quickly became clear that I wanted to be a part of this field.
When I discovered RENEW, I was instantly intrigued. RENEW carries out a business model that uniquely and directly addresses a crucial financing gap (the “Missing Middle”) in African economies, through private sector investments in small and medium-sized enterprises. The company works with development partners and angel investors to carry out their mission. I could not help but become excited, and I applied for an opening as the contracts and operations manager.
So here I am, not only staying true to my promise to never forget Africa, but also actively working to create lasting economic growth for the benefit of its people.