Northwestern hosting 25 young African leaders as part of Obama initiative

Olivia Exstrum, Assistant Summer Editor

Representatives from more than 20 African countries are at Northwestern for six weeks this summer as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a program created by the Obama administration that looks to identify future leaders and strengthen U.S. relationships with African countries.

The fellows include journalists, entrepreneurs and business owners in their mid-20s to mid-30s. The program is running from June 16 to July 25.

“On one level, it’s a traditional assistance program, where the idea is to take young African entrepreneurs and identify people who are likely to be leaders in the future,” said political science Prof. Will Reno, director of NU’s Program of African Studies. “On another level, it’s politically good for the U.S. because it introduces these people who are going to be influential in different aspects of American culture and business.”

NU, along with 19 other American universities including Yale University and Dartmouth College, are hosting 25 fellows. 500 people are participating in the program, after being chosen from an applicant pool of more than 50,000. Participants can be in three tracks — business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership and public management.

Universities were chosen to participate in the program by the U.S. Department of State. After being selected, NU worked closely with the State Department to decide on the program’s syllabus, said Kate Klein, associate director of the Program of African Studies.

NU was chosen to be a Business and Entrepreneurship Institute for the program. The Program of African Studies is working with the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Center for Leadership. During the program, fellows are participating in entrepreneurial simulations and are creating business models, said Mike Marasco, director of the Farley Center and creator of the curriculum.

“A lot of the work is involved in them trying to validate hypotheses associated with a business model that they believe could potentially work and have impact in their home countries,” Marasco said. “A lot of them are working on ideas along those lines, that are focused on issues of their own countries and the African continent.”

In addition to taking classes on entrepreneurship, fellows are visiting Chicago businesses, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Google, McDonald’s, Opportunity International and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Klein said.

“They go to these businesses and many other places to look into what Chicago businesses are looking like, what startups we have and what kind of established businesses we have,” Klein said.

Fellows also participate in community service, such as working on community gardens, mentoring young people and assisting in charity races.

After the program ends in July, all participants will meet in Washington, D.C. at the Presidential Summit for Washington Fellows with President Barack Obama and other national and world leaders.

At the summit, fellows and representatives from the host universities will give what Klein called “lightning TED talks.”

“They’ll address certain themes and questions that have been given to them about government, leadership and the future direction of Africa,” she said.

Klein said the solutions the fellows present during their talks will then be presented the following week at the United States-Africa Leaders Summit, in which many African leaders will be in attendance.

Reno said one of the purposes of the program is to strengthen relations and communication between the U.S. and African countries.

“I think that in the long run, as these people become more influential, they’ll know people in the U.S. and have a positive attitude toward the U.S.,” he said. “International relations is not just government to government. People in these societies have their own connections.”

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