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It started with a Message via Facebook

Exactly one week ago (Friday April 1, 2016), I had the opportunity to speak with a group of sophomore students from Brookline High School in Massachusetts. Just in case you are thinking I was in the U.S. last week, I wasn’t! I wish I was though given the hardships “on ground” here at the moment. How did this connection with Brookline High School happen? I’m glad you asked J. A few weeks back, I had logged in to Facebook and much to my surprise discovered a number of messages that had been filtered. Some dating back to as long as 2014! Most were very complimentary and I felt terrible that I had just discovered the messages. I quickly began the process of acknowledging each message and responding to the various senders. Among the messages, was one from Quinn Peters. And here’s what she wrote.

“It may be a bit strange to reach out over Facebook, but here goes. My name is Quinn Peters and I'm a sophomore in high school. I saw your TED talk and was very inspired by your story of taking an invasive and detrimental plant and making it into a vital resource for a community. I go to Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts where I take a class called global leadership. In my class we are currently learning about socially responsible investing and corporate responsibility but throughout the year our teacher has emphasized that sometimes we will encounter a problem that doesn't have a solution and will need to design one and implement it. I think that's exactly what you've done and I hope to be able to one day do as well. I saw that you were awarded a Cartier Women's Initiative Award which is very impressive, and once again, inspiring as a young woman. Personally, I am very interested in women's health rights and I will be attending the Women Deliver conference in May in Copenhagen, Denmark with a group from my high school to pursue my interests. We are the first and only high school group to attend. I would love to learn more about your experience starting your community initiative and business, what inspired you, and how you run your business now. If you're interested, my class would love to Skype with you, so let me know. My email is ....................... Thank you, Quinn Peters”

I was quite impressed with this message from a sophomore (rough equivalent of SS1 in the Nigerian Secondary School context) and guessed Quinn was probably 15 or 16. A class on Global Leadership and learning about Socially Responsible Investing in High School? I marveled that starting right from high school (secondary school), students are being taught what it takes to become a global leader. I responded to Quinn’s message and we agreed on a date and time. The conversation actually took place with me in my office in Ibadan and the students in their school classroom in Brookline. We utilized technology, Skype, in this instance to bridge the distance and time! To say that I was thoroughly impressed with Quinn and her classmates from Brookline would be an understatement.

As I sat on the “hot seat” fielding questions from the students, it started to add up for me. I have been to a number of global events in my journey as a Social Entrepreneur (SOCENT) and I have often been struck by the sheer number of young Americans who are out and about doing social good – identifying problems and providing beneficial solutions across the globe in marginalized communities – in far flung places across Africa, Latin America etc. And, I have on occasion regretted not having started my journey as a SOCENT much earlier in life. But as the saying often goes ”better late than never”.

What did I learn from my interaction with Brookline High School students?

Global leaders are not created overnight. Rather, they are made over a period time as shown by what is being done at Brookline High School. Brookline High School, for your information, is a public school not a private school! In the High School Rankings published by U.S. News, Brookline High School ranks #22 in the State of Massachusetts and #404 across the Nation. They have a Gold designation in the ranking and it isn’t hard to understand why.

The role of good Teachers cannot be understated. Mr. Ben Kahri, Quinn’s teacher, played a pivotal role in my short interaction with the class. It is interesting to note what Quinn said he had been telling them. Throughout the year he had emphasized that sometimes they will encounter problems that don't have a solution and will need to design one and implement it. And so when Quinn happened upon my short TED Talk it resonated with what her teacher had been teaching her class all year. During the Skype call, Quinn’s teacher was there in the background as his students drove the conversation with me. I was amazed at the depth of questions from these Sophomore students. And in looking up the statistics for Brookline, I found they have ~1,800 students and 155 teachers. That roughly translates to 12: 1 student teacher ratio give or take a few. Contrast that with the numbers we have in some of our public high schools here in Nigeria and you’ll cringe!    

First impressions count. Quinn’s Facebook messages were polite, well thought out and well written. She made it easy for me to respond to her request. Unlike some other messages I receive from some university graduates today which are filled with abbreviations, numerous typos and dis-jointed thought processes. People unable to distinguish between the appropriateness of when and when not to use SMS (text) language. I typically shelve such messages because there is nothing to respond to.

Use Technology and Information to leap ahead. In today’s world, our choices of technology and information are enormous. How are we managing and deploying both to our advantage? You’ll admit that Quinn and her class used them all to their advantage and to further their knowledge. They used the internet view the TED Talks and conduct further research on who I was, used Facebook to reach out to me and Skype for the conference call etc. I was amused when during the course of the conversation, one of the students took me up by asking if I could comment on Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah”. She had read about different Nigerian cultures and class in the book and was wondering if I could affirm whether it was real. I smiled and told her I had bought a copy of “Americanah” but hadn’t read it yet. But that notwithstanding I told her a bit of what we have here in Nigeria. I have been challenged and plan on reading “Americanah” this weekend!

It isn’t ALL about making money. Over the years, I have been astonished at the number of “well” meaning Nigerian friends and acquaintances who ask “so what are you doing?” And when I tell them, the immediate reaction is “ohhh, that sounds nice but are you making any money?”. Surprisingly, I never got asked this question when I had a Corporate career. Ayaya……..I dare not tell these same folks that when I quit my job at ExxonMobil, I “left money on the table” in the form of stock options that hadn’t vested! I am cool with my career choice because stock options couldn’t possibly buy my SOCENT experience to date nor the joy of being able to impact lives and the environment this way. The Nigerian mindset of looking for the next money spinner is one that needs to be tamed. None of the questions I was asked by the Brookline students revolved around whether or not I was making money. The questions were more about the process and impact. And that’s where I would say these young students “have nailed it”. For by focusing on process and impact, they have taken away what it takes to come up with solutions that end up having impact in their world. And that’s what people will remember the most and not all the money you’ve made. Sadly, more often than not, in this part of the world where I am, we demonstrate to our kids that it is ALL about money. And then we look around helpless and frustrated with the monster we’ve created in Nigeria by making money “a be all and end all”. With young and old alike going to corrupt and despicable lengths to acquire this money. Maya Angelou was on to something priceless when she said “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don't make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off you.”

And here’s what Quinn had to write after the Skype call with her class……….

“Thank you again so much for speaking with my class. You have a very powerful and inspiring story and it was a privilege to hear it. My class debriefed after our skype call and everyone was very impressed with your work and learned something positive that they will be able to apply to not only school but also life and our future careers, so thank you so much.”

I look forward to reading about these bright and promising future Global Leaders from Brookline High School in the not too distant future. I say to Quinn, the sky is your limit!

Lastly on a VERY personal note, I want to say to my dearly departed sister, Omada (October 25, 1969 – February 21, 2016), that your memory is BLESSED. Immediately, the Skype call ended last week, I instinctively wanted to call you and tell you all about it. But you are no longer here in person. Thanks for listening in from above. I knew you were here in spirit through it all. Your memory is indeed BLESSED.

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