That one time I went to Ghana…

So I just got home from an amazing week in Ghana… but before I give you the full play by play, I have to go back to a lazy day at the office this summer. On July 16th, this email came into my inbox:

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tldr: write a 300 word essay to be eligible to win a trip to Ghana.

Thankfully, I was pretty bored at work and therefore used that time to write that essay. Not sure I would have spent the time at home to do it if I were busy… here’s what I wrote:

I have always had a passion for improving the learning conditions of young girls. Prior to starting at MIT Sloan, I was the managing director of a non-profit organization, Girls in Tech Minneapolis. The goal was clear: increase the number of girls pursuing technology professions by increasing their access to education and strong female role models. Even though I am no longer involved in Girls in Tech, this topic continues to be something I feel strongly about and will continue with once I earn my MBA. Girls all over the world should have better, equal access to education. It is this passion that drives my desire to learn more about non-profit education abroad.

The increased popularity of cause marketing has also turned my attention to the 1-for-1 model of non-profits. I first heard of TOMS through Hanson’s Take the Walk tour, and have been interested in the model ever since. How can we encourage more affluent people to give to those who do not have the same? By participating in this once-in-a-lifetime learning experience in Ghana, I hope to learn ways to apply this model to future for-purpose driven initiatives.

Lastly, I know this opportunity will teach me so much. Beyond learning about education and non-profit work, I will see a first-hand account of how to start from scratch. Adam Braun created something that is truly changing lives. Through this inspiration, I know I can do the same.

I also love the impact CommonBond is making and would love the opportunity to connect further! I am also a lot of fun to travel with.

A week later I got a 7am phone call from CommonBond in NYC telling me I had been selected. Cue intense excitement.

[My essay was also published on their blog, which you can see here!]


Last Wednesday, I took a flight from BOS to Amsterdam solo. Once there, I met up with Natalie, a representative from Pencils of Promise (PoP); David, Michaela and Ali from CommonBond; and Jason and Eryn, the other winners. Looking back, it’s kind of funny because I wasn’t once concerned about traveling to Africa with 6 complete strangers.

Completely unrelated, here is a photo of an Amsterdam Airport Donut:

Good donut.
Good donut.

The next seven hours were filled with wine and movies… but nothing really worth mentioning here. We landed late on Thursday and went to bed soon after we checked in. Early thoughts? — Ghana is hot.

Friday morning we left Accra for Ho early. There, we were welcomed by a great group of students who had been in a PoP school since 2013. After a performance of a traditional dance and the recitation of a poem, we were each presented with beautiful pieces made personally for each of us. Within minutes, rain started pouring and the students went back to their classrooms. We then got to see the inside of a PoP classroom and to observe students learning. The great thing about PoP is that in addition to building sturdy structures for children to learn in, they continue to support each and every community through teaching training and onsite support.

IMG_1960In Ghana, the teachers are taught tools to support active classroom engagement. And by active, and I mean active. The kids sing, dance, and move around because that’s a part of their culture. Outside of recess, I don’t remember ever having that in elementary school.

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The junior high school was a different story. Currently, PoP only supports elementary education, due in part to their focus on literacy and obvious financial constraints. The junior high structure was over 20 years old and was in pretty bad shape. The mixture of rain and a “faulty roof” clearly impacted students’ learning experiences. Here, they are moving their desks so their books don’t get wet.

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I left this community with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was so inspired to meet such great children. At one point, a handwashing station tipped over and multiple boys jumped up to help put it back up. The students even show up early to sweep the classrooms – there is so much pride in learning. That isn’t something I’ve seen in the United States – children just ready to jump up and help. On the other hand, the conditions are pretty bad. I can understand not being able to learn when something as common as rain interferes.

Next, we went to a site that showed an example of the “before” environments. Can you imagine going to school here? Whether your answer is “yes” or “no”… it gets worse…

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On Saturday, we were honored to attend an inauguration ceremony. After a few speeches and being gifted a goat (literally), we got to see the before and after. Saying it is a stark contrast is an understatement.

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A “classroom” under a tree with just a black board and two benches
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The new PoP built school.

Even more touching was the way the children ran and cheered into the new school once the ribbon was cut. After both getting dance lessons from the kids and teaching them to nae nae, we went back to the hotel to drink some beer and tell some stories.

That night, we really got to know each other. Up until then I wasn’t sure if my style was gelling well, but after a few good stories I had at least a few of them on the dark side.

Sunday… just.. wow. We went to a community near Togo where there must have been over 100 community members on site helping build. With PoP, they provide supplies and skilled labor, but require the community to provide the unskilled labor. It both ensures that the community is committed to bringing in the new school and that it is something they truly want. To see 50 grown men giving up their Sunday to literally make 4000 cement blocks to construct a school… I was just in awe. I think football dominates Sundays in the United States.

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After that we got in a small taste of tourism when we went to a monkey sanctuary. We were told a beautiful story about the history of the land and how monkeys came to be as important as they are. Then we fed them and I nearly lost my shit.

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And all of a sudden, Monday was our last day. We visited a commnity where PoP is piloting e-readers. It was so cool to see a classroom full of students on e-readers in the middle of a village with minimal electricity. They were actually in the middle of a sexual education lesson when we began observing. It felt rather intrusive but also really neat that they are learning about that at a young age.

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I left Ghana with such great respect for both the people in the communities and the impact Pencils of Promise is making. The children and families I met have such a strong desire for education and bettering themselves. They are hardworking and kinder than I see most days. Because of this trip, I know I will be a life long supporter of PoP. Beyond that, I formed great relationships and learned about starting a company from a fantastic CEO. I believe I have an even better appreciation for education and am excited to discover how I can impact the next generation. I have a deep understanding of what some lives and cultures in Ghana look like, and I will continue to reflect on the ways life differs in the United States. I believe this experience has even influenced the way I will raise my own children some day. It was the trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful to have been given this opportunity. I’m pretty much pinching myself right now.


 

Update 10/23/2015: a version of this post was also published on the CommonBond blog.

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Winning the lottery

On a long car ride last weekend, Joe and I began discussing what we’d do if we won the lottery. We both agree that we’d need to continue with the passions we have – neither of us are the type that would be happy lying on a beach for the rest of our lives. Turns out, Joe would keep his current job, which makes me totally happy for him. I had always said I would as well, but realized this last time, I might not. I definitely like the work I’m doing right now, but realize the contributions I could make without having to worry about an income. I love every single thing I am doing with Girls in Tech right now and look…

I began this post on August 14th at about 7:16am. I don’t entirely remember what I was doing back then, or why I didn’t finish it, but I remember it was right after BlogHer. I was just about to dive into the most amazing entertainment + technology idea ever, and I know this for two reasons.

  1. Over the summer I was contacted by a recruiter from EA within video games. I entertained the idea (ha! get it?) and went through the interview process. All my interviews had to be phone based though because of timing and a big sales meeting or something so everyone was out of town. I remember doing one of them from the hotel room in Chicago. You know how sometimes you talk yourself into loving something you didn’t know you did before? It was this experience that propelled my love for the entertainment industry and the connections it has with technology. I ended up not getting/taking the job, but enjoyed the experience nonetheless and am happy with the outcome.
  2. At BlogHer, I met a man. I don’t remember his name, clearly it was a close relationship we formed. I think he liked my dress… and I liked that he had a purple triangle coming out of his well-fitting-suit pocket. It was a dark grey, not black, and I think that goes so well with purple. So we went for a drink. It turned out that he worked for HBO. So, of course, cliché!, I pitched him my TV show idea. The premise was making technology cool by writing a sitcom about how some girl uses tech and is cool too. It would be like what Harry Potter did for wizardry (hah! I get this reference now) or something. After talking to him though, and having my idea completely shot down (well, he acted interested, but he was hitting on me and I can tell the difference), it started to evolve a little more. And that’s where I really got excited.

From there, the idea transformed into me wanting to create some reality show or even just a documentary on how important technology is to the entertainment industry. The ideas I tossed around were like, following Taylor Swift on tour (or maybe Lady Gaga!) or being on the movie set for Jupiter Ascending (because I really was there and was in awe of the technology required to manipulate the content into sci-fi.) highlighting all the technology required to pull those things together. I’ve always felt that breaking down the stereotype of tech being ‘men coding in a basement drinking mountain dew’ is a step towards closing the gender gap. Plus, being the fangirl I am, I knew it would have gotten Katie excited about tech back in the day. [Katie, for those of you who don’t know, is me in a time long ago.] I tweeted my excitement…

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Eventually the idea became a webcast in which I’d start out by interviewing local technology women, and then expand into local entertainment-type things, maybe the news station or something like that, and grow from there. It was the tiered approach. The first video is being filmed next week actually, highlighting a woman working in video games! And that’s all well and good, right?

Well, then I was on my way to a Macalester board meeting (go Mac!) when I heard John Rausch being interviewed on the radio. This name isn’t necessarily supposed to mean anything to you unless you are a crazy cat in the music industry… but he was one of the sound engineers on Taylor Swift’s RED album and is from Minnesota. So… what if I just skipped all those tiers and cold emailed him to see what type of awe-inspiring content we could make to engage girls in technology??

So, that’s what I did. I’ll let you guys know how it goes.