Erna Grasz: Opening Doors to Opportunities

Erna Grasz was interviewed for Exeleon Magazine.

Erna Grasz with East African students

Sometimes, the right knock on the door at the right time matters the most. There is no dearth of talent and brilliance, but one frequently lacks the opportunity. Without a proper chance, fading away into oblivion is all too common. A dedicated leader like Erna Grasz, the Co-founder and CEO of Asante Africa Foundation, came to know about this the hard way, through her experience.

Erna has made this knowledge her stepping stone. This inspired her to find a platform that would celebrate talent. Erna chose education as her means to do so, one which is known for its ability to usher in equality.

Her persistent nature empowered her to create Asante Africa Foundation with two other great human beings, Emmy from Tanzania and Hellen from Kenya. Since her graduating days in electrical engineering, Erna Grasz has known what it takes to thrive and she incorporated that resiliency in taking this organization forward.

Adapt. Adopt. Achieve. 

Erna and her colleagues started their journey with the intent to reduce poverty. The idea was noble and grand, and they found out that education is the way that could serve the purpose. For that, they had to chalk out plans based on their experiences.

They believed that young people are the greatest untapped resource in the world and everyone has a role to play in opening doors, connecting dots, and creating new opportunities. The process they followed then is still valid and evident in their other projects.

Erna Grasz with student

The first step is “to clear the fog.” Erna Grasz believes this has a huge impact on teams and individuals. This is to allow them to gear up with the information and then develop options to make a move simpler and effective.

Erna believes in adaptability to cope up with diverse struggles. She also favors authenticity as that helps her in forming bonds with her colleagues and strive for a common goal. When it comes to demographic challenges, she is open to adopting local ways of working. In their early days, she was nudged into adopting this style by her friend Emmy. Now, Erna looks at it as ‘the inside-out solution.’

She personally experienced and knew that, “If the solutions are not coming from within the community, the skills are not being developed and it will not survive long term.” The success she has achieved so far is the outcome of “perceiving challenges as opportunities and empowering others to join the journey.”


From a Struggler to an Inspirer- Anne Muli

After working for many years in diverse fields with people hailing from different ethnic origins, Erna chose a little girl from Kenya, Anne Muli, as her inspiration. The first time Erna met Anne, she was in the 8th grade and was selling roasted corn with her father in a rural town of Kenya.

Erna admired Anne’s determination to study. She was not just selling corns to earn livelihood with her family but for her school fees as well. She knew in her heart that Anne deserved better. She deserved an opportunity to be on the same pedestal with others of her age belonging to the affluent class.

Anne was provided a scholarship through Asante Africa Foundation. Today, Anne has graduated from University. She helped her father in building a home and sponsored the studies of her younger sisters. And she did not stop there. She is now an inspiration for many young girls and teaches them how to become an entrepreneur to earn their own livelihoods.

It was “her belief in herself, and her ability to remain humble while lifting those around her” that moved Erna Grasz beyond words.


What Helmed the Helmsman? 

In Erna’s words, “change” has been the only constant for her. Since the early phase of her career, this intent to change has driven her ahead. And, she has not given up on any chance to improve broken or ineffective systems and to create something that has not been achieved before. This she branded as the ‘new normal.’

In many ways, her efforts helped in setting up new perspectives. She nurtured them out of chaotic conditions. This gave her the name “organizer of chaos.”

This intent to change things led her to found Asante Africa Foundation, where Erna Grasz saw herself as an accelerant who will pave ways for change in the lives of talented and potentially forgotten children. She plays a dual role as a risk-taker and a risk-mitigator. As the former, she knows the only way forward is little steps that will help in profiting incrementally. As the latter, her job is to keep her team focused on the real purpose of educating children, strengthening youth’s resilience, building life skills and cultivating the next generation of changemakers today.


Why Asante? What is the Asante Africa Foundation?

Erna always believed in the untapped opportunities of the African continent. She and her co-founders felt that it is time to honor the goodness of the African continent for all the brilliance, talent, and resources it provided. Their gratitude is reflected in the name of their foundation ‘Asante,’ which in Swahili means ‘with great gratitude’.

It was their way of saying, “Thank You, Africa.”

The primary goal of the Asante Africa Foundation is to create a structure that “educates, enables, and empowers youth to recognize their talents and skills and to help develop their confidence so that they can go and do great things.” Erna Grasz and her colleagues believe in cultivating “life-long learners and critical thinkers” who are ready to put their creativity to find effective solutions for crises their families and communities face on a regular basis.

The outlook Erna and her colleagues share are pretty practical. They know the reality on the ground and they have chalked out plans for their learners. That is why Asante Africa Foundation’s graduates are trained and prepared to adapt to emerging opportunities, resource constraints, and technology advances.

It has opened leadership opportunities during the trying time of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Local teens are taking up charges to present facts and real information via radio programs, designing affordable face masks, and distributing hand washing soap. Their constant vigilance is also making sure the orphans and elders are getting food for the week.

In Erna’s words, “We have built a skilled, geographically-distributed organization while planting 600,000 seeds along the way.” She hopes that they will emerge as “young changemakers in East Africa.”


Charged by the Unknown

In Erna’s opinion, it is the unknown that provides her the energy. Hurdles are not new since she started as a ‘misfit’ in a male-dominated electrical engineering field. But now she believes in creating an ambience that allows ‘misfits’ to thrive together. Her words impact and reverberate when she says, “If I can’t fit the traditional mold, I will have to shape my own mold.”

The ‘pay-it-forward’ model is gaining acceptance globally and it has creating educated, empowered youth to tackle the challenge of developing the most precious resource on earth, the human resource.

With the Asante Africa Foundation, Erna Grasz is making an impact. The coming decade will see Asante Africa Foundation youth “cultivating their own impact, utilizing their skills, and expanding their knowledge.”

Read original Exeleon Magazine Digital Version.

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