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That Mama: Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, Founder Of Akilah Institute And Davis College

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Social entrepreneurship and motherhood makes for a beautifully imperfect balance.

As a young graduate from the US, Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes landed in war-torn Rwanda and saw an opportunity to help the African nation. Along with her husband, Dave Hughes, she set up the Akilah Institute. With its unique learning model and fee structure, it serves women from low-income communities and has helped produce some of the best-qualified and most capable graduates there. She now has ambitious plans to offer affordable higher education to one-million students in 10 countries in Asia and Africa by 2030 with the launch of Davis College. So how does this incredibly busy mama manage her work and the needs of her three young children? Elizabeth talks to us about her imperfect balance.

Read more: That Papa: Jami Gong, Founder Of TakeOut Comedy

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Tell us how you landed in the field of education in Africa.

I moved to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a week after graduating in Human & Organisational Development from Vanderbilt University in the US in 2006. I didn’t have a job or friends there, but I wanted to understand the country’s culture, history and needs.

To give you a bit of the background – in 1994, Rwanda was ravaged by a genocide where more than a million people were killed in 100 days. When it finally ended, Rwandans struggled to heal without access to clean water, healthcare, infrastructure and functioning government institutions. More than 10 years later, the political leadership in Rwanda laid out a powerful vision to transform a post-conflict community into a knowledge-based economy. It wanted to build new innovative industries in technology, eco-tourism, conservation and business. That was around the time I landed there. I spent the first two years volunteering with various grassroots organisations, providing education to street children and orphans of the genocide.

So where did you meet Dave and how did you set up Akilah?

In 2008, Dave moved to Kigali to volunteer with the organisation where I was working. We met countless young women and genocide survivors who were struggling to rebuild their communities. At that time, only 1% of Rwandans went to university and less than 30% of them were women. Most women worked in subsistence agriculture and lived on less than $2 (USD) per day.

The Rwandan government knew the biggest challenge to develop the innovative economy it wanted was the lack of human capital. Dave and I felt we could build a bridge between the education system and future careers that could be offered in Rwanda. That’s how we planned and designed Akilah.

family life that mama elizabeth dearborn hughes children

Tell us about the early years and the challenges you faced.

I was 24 years old when we opened the first Akilah campus in 2010. We had only 50 students and two classrooms with no computers or textbooks, but we were committed to helping young women from low-income communities gain the skills and knowledge to succeed in their careers. The first few years were unbelievably stressful, with never more than three months of cash in the bank! Our advantage was our naivety and freedom from ingrained beliefs about how education “should” be done.

Today, we have accredited diplomas in business, entrepreneurship, hospitality & tourism management, and information systems. We have designed a blended model (which combines online educational materials with traditional classroom methods) and we train the faculty in competency-based education. Most importantly, we have created an empowering and nurturing campus culture that celebrates creativity, entrepreneurship and servant leadership.

Your passion for Akilah is obvious. Which achievements are you most proud of?

88% of our graduates launch their careers within six months of graduation, and they earn 12x the average national income. 80% of these young women are the first in their family to attend higher education. Most of them go on to pay for a younger sibling’s schooling – the ripple effect of education. Akilah has also just been named as one of six recipients of the 2019 WISE Awards from the Qatar Foundation for projects addressing global educational challenges.

Rwanda has proven the sceptics wrong. It’s now a hub of technology and innovation and is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, and it’s Akilah graduates that are powering it. They work in digital finance, conservation, mobile phone manufacturing and drone delivery – jobs that didn’t even exist in Rwanda several years ago.

When did you move to Hong Kong?

Dave and I co-founded Akilah as good friends and roommates. He moved back to Hong Kong in 2009 while I remained in Rwanda to open the campus. Soon after, I told Dave that I needed to talk to him about something important and I flew out to Hong Kong. It was my first trip to Asia. When I arrived, I told him that I was in love with him. He was completely shocked! His response was – “I love you as a friend.” So my first impression of Hong Kong was rejection! I left the city in tears! A few months later, he showed up and said he had been an idiot and was in love with me too.

Our daughter, Lorraine, was born in Hong Kong and then we took her back to Rwanda when she was five weeks old. We returned to Hong Kong when she was two. We love Hong Kong and don’t plan to leave. It is home.

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How have you and Dave divided roles and responsibilities amongst yourselves?

Although we co-founded Akilah and now Davis College, Dave also runs his own investment and real estate business, Jade Water Investment Group. Our skill-sets and personalities are so different. I’m impatient with a short attention span and I aggressively push myself and my team to do more. Dave is much more thoughtful and analytical. While I love public speaking and bragging about Akilah to anyone who will listen, Dave is the most humble person I know.

I was in Rwanda this summer to welcome our incoming class and they asked my advice for balancing entrepreneurship and family. I told them my best career advice is to choose a partner who steadfastly supports your passion and goals.

family life that mama elizabeth dearborn hughes davis college

How did Davis College come about? What are its future plans?

Akilah will remain a unique centre for female leaders in Rwanda within the new Davis College campus. Davis College Rwanda, which will open in 2020, is for young men and young women who prefer to study in a co-ed environment. By 2024, our Rwanda campus will be financially self-sufficient through tuition revenue, reducing our dependence on donors. Yet, our commitment to affordability remains constant. Students can also pay their tuition with the support of an income-share agreement, that allows students to finance higher education by fixing repayment to income levels after graduation.

In 2020, we will also open in Uganda, Malawi and Hong Kong. By 2050, there will be nearly 200-million young people who need access to higher education. Population growth, rapid urbanisation, artificial intelligence and environmental degradation present unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The current institutions and higher education systems are not designed to meet this demand. That’s where we see Davis College playing an important role. We have a bold vision to open 10 campuses with one million students in Africa and Asia by 2030.

How have your parents influenced your work?

I grew up in Tampa, Florida and am the eldest of four girls. My parents, Beth and Cody Davis, embodied unconditional love and encouraged us in any endeavour or passion. When I decided to move to Rwanda, they completely supported my decision even though it wasn’t their first choice for my future. Akilah wouldn’t exist without them.

My dad passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2017. It was the hardest thing that my family has ever experienced. Everyone grieves in different ways. The way that I’m grieving is to pour my sadness and my energy into creating a legacy for my dad by naming Davis College after him.

family life that mama elizabeth dearborn hughes kids

How do you keep your children grounded and not growing up in an expat bubble in Hong Kong?

I try to integrate my kids as much as possible into my work so they understand that their privileged life is an exception rather than the norm. I recently took Lorraine to our Decennial Gala so she could spend time with our alumnae and staff. They also spend a lot of time in Rwanda with our students. But, more importantly, it’s our dinner conversations and bedtime reading that shape them. We regularly talk about inspiring activists, issues like plastic pollution and climate change. I believe in exposing them to serious and heavy issues from a young age. When Lorraine was three, her teacher expressed concern. She was colouring her doll with red paint and telling the other kids that it was Malala Yousafzai and that she had been shot by the Taliban. So, there is the possibility that this strategy will result in the need for intensive therapy when they are older, but I’m sticking with it!

Do your kids understand and accept the importance of your work?

Perhaps, this story says it all. Recently, my 4-year-old asked me if I love her as much as I love Akilah. I naturally told her that I loved her more than anything in the world. More questions followed.
“Then why do you work so much and spend more time on Akilah than with us.”
“Because we are so blessed, and we have a responsibility to create opportunities for others. Because doing work I’m passionate about makes me a happy and fulfilled person, and a better mother. And, Tamsyn, because I want to show you, your brother & sister that even though it’s exhausting, women can have meaningful careers AND awesome kids like you.
“Ok mama, that’s cool.”

family life that mama elizabeth dearborn hughes young kids

What are your favourite activities with your kids?

My favourite activity is taking the three of them to Clearwater Bay Beach for a picnic and a swim. Growing up in Florida, my dad always said, “saltwater fixes everything!” Broken heart or finger – just jump in the ocean and you’ll feel better. We laughed at him, but it’s true! Research shows that spending time in nature, whether that’s the ocean or a forest, has innumerable benefits. We do that every weekend that I’m in town.

You’ve talked about accepting “an imperfect balance” of work and personal life. Please do explain.

I find it very annoying when people assume that I must feel guilty being away from my kids. Why do we expect mothers to atone for their ambition by adding guilt to an already imperfect balance? In fact, I don’t feel guilty! They are raised by a loving community of grandparents, cousins, godparents, aunts, nanny and, of course, an incredible father. I cherish every moment with them and when I leave, I’m fully present with my fulfilling work.

family life that mama elizabeth dearborn hughes daughters

After a long day, how do you unwind?

Hiking in Clearwater Bay is my favourite way to unwind. I do my best thinking when I can go for a solo hike. A yoga class is the other thing that makes me deeply happy and helps me to unwind during a busy week.

What would be your advice to entrepreneurs in Hong Kong?

  1. Never discount yourself. Whether it’s your age, gender, ethnicity, or lack of experience – the part of you that feels discounted can be your greatest asset. That same part will give you creative and unconventional ways to lead.
  2. Understand the importance of listening to your own voice amidst the noise. I learned this lesson from my parents.

Even now, people have told me not to bother with Davis College and to stick to educating women in Rwanda, only with Akilah. In other words: stay in your lane, Elizabeth! Though I’m scared of failure, what would be worse is the regret if I didn’t do what I think is needed to help solve the global higher education crisis. So my advice to all entrepreneurs, including myself, is that when you feel overwhelmed by the noise rushing at you from all directions, trust your own inner voice.

Read more: That Mama: Alison Euler, Founder Of Alison’s Letterland And Baby Buddies

Thanks to the talented Verónica Sanchis for all the beautiful images above!

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