Written by Hanna Lee

A few weeks ago, at a dive bar in Lower Manhattan, Elizabeth Davis stepped on a small stage to discuss her passion. Davis immediately enamored the crowded room as she spoke about the Akilah Institute, a college she started for young women in Kigali, Rwanda. Now as CEO of Akilah, Davis oversees the nonprofit’s mission to empower young women affected by the 1994 Rwanda genocide.  During the crises, more than a million people were killed in the genocide. After the conflict ended, more than 70% of the population was female.

Davis learned about the Rwandan genocide’s atrocities as a student at Vanderbilt University. After graduation in 2006, she decided she wanted to move to the country and serve. Davis volunteered for two years with grassroots projects for street children and then started a nonprofit organization in the United States to support these initiatives.  During her first two years volunteering in Rwanda, Davis spent a lot of time working with businesses and government officials to see where the opportunities were for young women to start successful jobs.

In 2008, Davis decided she wanted to open a college for young women after understanding how many of them lacked the opportunity to pursue their education and thrive through sustaining careers. Akilah opened its doors in 2010. “I literally started all of this by reaching out to friends and family for support,” recalls Davis. “It’s amazing what a huge impact we can have with relatively small amounts of funding and input.”

Currently, the Akilah Institute for Women is finishing it’s second academic school year and preparing a move to a new 90-acre campus donated by the Rwandan government in 2013.  Akilah offers a Diploma in Hospitality Management and a degree in Business Management & Entrepreneurship is under developed. In addition to technical courses, all the students in Akilah are paired with a mentor to work with during their time at the Institute.

Davis was in New York City as a part of a nation-wide fundraising tour for the school called “Akilah’s Metropolitan Safari”.  Two Akilah students accompanied Davis across the country to share their stories and how the Akilah Institute has changed their lives. When first meeting the smiling 20-year-old Allen Kazarwa, it would be hard to tell the amount of sadness she experienced at such a young age. Kazarwa was born in Uganda but was orphaned when her family returned to Rwanda in 1994.

When Kazarwa shared her story with the captive audience, it was impossible not to feel her pain.  “I have no siblings or parents, but I have hope for my future,” said Kazarwa. “I want to become an independent woman and start my own business. Akilah is giving me the skills to reach my goals.”

Akilah’s first class will graduate in August 2012 (the Rwandan school year starts in January). While at Akilah, all of the students participate in internships at eco-lodges, high-end hotels, safari lodges or local touring companies in hopes of securing full-time careers after graduation. By 2020, Akilah plans to educate 1,000 female students living and studying on campus in four academic programs. Davis’ ultimate vision for Akilah is to create a model of transformational higher education for women that can be replicated in countries around the world.

It is obvious in every facet of Davis’ persona that the work she is pursuing at Akilah is her calling. She was inspired to action because of the unjust atrocities she read about in books, but her attitude towards life is something that developed long before she went to college. “I’ve thought a lot about what drives me and why I feel so strongly about what I do, and I really feel like I won the lottery of life,” contemplates Davis. “I was born to a well-off family in the right country and young women born on the other side of the world were denied the same opportunities. I do what I do out of a sense of obligation and responsibly to find a way to help other women.”

Davis concedes she never imagined she would have accomplished so much to help Rwandan women in that Vanderbilt classroom, but argues that if you pursue your passion you will inevitably find your calling along the way. “Don’t wait and wait for the perfect model and perfect team, just put yourself out there and take the risk of being a social entrepreneur,” she says. “The resources and people will come into your path. Just follow your bliss and be brave enough to follow what ever it is that you’re after. “



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