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Erna Grasz On “Perspectives On Prosperity” For The “Real Leaders” Podcast 

Feb 1 2020

Erna Grasz, co-founder of Asante Africa Foundation, offers her insight on leadership and philanthropy in this inspiring podcast created in November 2020. Erna takes great pride in having co-developed an organization that works cooperatively with partners in East Africa to offer educational opportunities. “Education is the way up and way out of poverty,” Erna states as she continues to expand Asante Africa to better the lives of more and more East African young people.

Understanding Educational Obstacles

Erna personally understands women’s challenges in acquiring education and succeeding in the workplace. In her teen years, Erna knew she had big dreams, but did not know how to see them come true.  Academic mentors guided her towards opportunities that would open doors for her. Erna was granted a scholarship specifically for women and has earned degrees in Electrical Engineering and Engineering Management. She has achieved success at renowned Silicon Valley companies including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.    

 

Finding Her Way To Asante Africa

A tour of East Africa led Erna to the two African women, Emmy and Hellen, who would become her co-founders in Asante Africa. Together, they formulated a vision for education in East Africa that offers students the opportunity to choose their own dreams. Asante Africa now has approximately forty-five staff members who are driven by educating and empowering young people. The goal is that students who get out of highschool will have the skills to help themselves take on, and even create, jobs in their communities.

 

The Effects of Bad Charity

Growing up with limited resources, Erna’s family would often receive well-intentioned, but unhelpful assistance. Erna would ask her mother, “Why don’t people just ask us what we need? Instead of assuming?” This experience led Erna to create an organization that doesn’t assume, instead solutions come from the ground and are led locally. Erna shared another invaluable lesson from her youth: “Growing up very poor, my mom indoctrinated in us that we were brilliant, we were smart, we had skills, and it’s our responsibility to lift other people up coming along behind us and that that was irrelevant of how rich or poor you are.” The wisdom instilled in Erna by her mother inspired Asante Africa’s key philosophy, Pay it Forward.

“The whole culture and mentality of paying it forward was infused in us from a very very early age and so that’s a critical part of what our organization is today. All of our young people Pay it Forward, all of our teachers Pay it Forward, all of our staff Pay it Forward, everyone has talents that can be shared. So that’s another guiding principle of who we are.” — Erna Grasz

Assumptions About East Africa       

Through her relationships with her colleagues, staff, and students in East Africa, Erna has learned what the real East Africa is.  So many people that Erna knows there exude brilliance, creativity, and entrepreneurship and they don’t need to be “saved or fixed,” all they need are opportunities.  Erna explains that western mindset often inhibits innovation in East Africa where there are the necessary resources to succeed, but those resources aren’t equally available to everyone.

“Brilliance and talent are universally distributed, opportunity is not” — Bill Clinton, 2013

Off The Paved-road Communities

Many Asante Africa students are members of nomadic communities living in mud huts and traveling on dirt roads.  Sixty-two percent of the population in Africa is between ages fifteen and twenty-nine — a youth bulge — resulting in rural poverty and lack of awareness and knowledge about available opportunities. 

Academic Ecosystems 

Building academic learning is more than a desk, according to Erna, it’s caring mentors, it’s safety, it’s regular meals, and it’s ultimately empowering students to understand their true worth and talent.  An “ecosystem” of the Asante Africa team, alongside parents, educators, and community leaders is “paramount” with everyone doing their part and when East African communities take ownership of Asante Africa’s programs, it demonstrates that the organization is successful.

 

Tuko Pamoja “We Are Together”

“What is fascinating about this year is that we are all learning about ourselves as leaders in the moment of crisis,” states Erna who defines leadership as setting a path and guiding the team along that path.  Every participant in an organization is a leader with a different role to play that is vital to the success of that organization and for that reason, Asante Africa has adopted the Swahili phrase “tuko pamoja,” meaning “we are together” to guide their way in achieving their goals.

 

A Real Leader

Each person can paint their own canvas for what they think leadership should look like in their world, Erna says.  She credits her mentors, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, for their definition of leadership as “‘The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.’”  

 

Written by: Shauna White