Empowering young people is the key to a promising future in the world. That is why encouraging them to take charge of their lives should be everyone’s focus. CEO of Asante Africa Foundation, Erna Grasz built a non-profit organization that is intimately-focused on the academic education of young people in East Africa with the purpose to help them develop the skills that will launch them into a career they love and enjoy. In fulfilling this mission, Erna shares her remarkable transition from being a high-powered corporate executive to becoming the CEO of a non-profit organization. Learn how she managed the complexity in managing boards in three countries and how she built that commitment in the communities that they are working on.
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The Asante Africa Journey with Erna Grasz
I am thrilled to have a truly exceptional social profit leader with us to share her story and the story of her organization, Erna Grasz, the Founder and CEO of Asante Africa Foundation. Welcome, Erna.
Thank you. I’m super excited to be here.
Your story is one that our audience will get a lot out of. For those that aren’t familiar, start with telling us a little bit about what Asante Africa is?
Asante Africa Foundation is a grassroots-managed and a globally-guided nonprofit. We are intimately focused not only on academic education but the life education of young people in East Africa. Our point and purpose is to help these young people develop their skills. That as they go through their adolescent years and their teen years, they graduate academically, but with skills that will launch them into a career and a profession they love and enjoy. As well as potentially starting a small business that would support the emerging economy not in the urban areas, but where they lived, their local rural communities.
You have a fairly big ambition for the organization and what you’re accomplishing.
Yes, we do. We’ve given ourselves a target over the next few years to achieve a million lives impacted through our different programs.
Where are you at now?We work hard to celebrate and to learn lessons from things that don't go quite right. Click To Tweet
We’re about half a million and growing exponentially. It’s exciting, stressful and intense at all levels.
You’re building the exit velocity on this strategy. How do you measure a life impacted?
In the donor world, quite often there’s a tremendous focus put on the number. As a global board in an organization, we do not want to compromise the quality of life impacted for a number. For us, that means a young age grade girl in rural Kenya that would have been married off a couple of years ago is now midway through her high school career and developing economic skills. For a young child who was sitting home because he or she couldn’t pay school fees, now they’re graduating with academics able to launch them into a university profession.
You mentioned the global board. One of the things I find fascinating about your organization is how you have managed to distribute responsibility and ownership of the organization into the countries where you’re doing your work. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
From the very beginning of this organization, we did not believe in an outside-in approach. I co-founded the organization with a Kenyan woman and a Tanzanian woman. At that time we set up three boards, a dedicated governing board in Tanzania, a dedicated governing board in Kenya and a dedicated fundraising board in the United States. What is truly critical to our success is that these three boards co-manage, co-govern against a common global mission that we jointly put together initially in 2007 and then revamped it in 2015.
That’s not how a lot of organizations that are doing work in Africa operate. That’s a difficult choice that you made. Was it worth it?
It was and it is worth it because no outside in solution works. If it is not passionately owned and protected from within the communities and in the country where the work is happening, it will wither out and it will die.
How do you build that commitment in the communities that you’re working in?
Our organization only employs local people within these communities. Our staff comes from these rural communities. Many of our young people who graduate come back and work for us either as interns, staff or support staff long-term. We’re passionate that we work hard not to think like Americans. We work hard not to think about how we would solve the problem. I will say one of my family partners was brilliant because she used to say, “Erna, you’re thinking like an American. That’s not how we think here.” That early on shifted the framework of the solutions have to be created and developed by those living in the community. We make sure they have the skills and the tools in their toolkit to implement those solutions toward keeping children in school, minimizing any negative effects in the community with patriarchal societies like girls potentially getting married off at an early age. How do we walk alongside them to collectively tackle the challenges that are getting in their way?
It must be a very difficult balance and one that you’ve been over time. You mentioned founding it with two other women. Go back to 2006 when you’re starting the organization, where does the idea come from? How does Asante Africa come in to be?
My husband had a bucket list dream of climbing Kilimanjaro. While we were in Tanzania, we met my first co-founder. Her name was Emmy Moshi. She was a young 30-something trying to start a safari business. At the time, she wasn’t even able to purchase a vehicle. On the same trip, I met a woman in Kenya who was one of the very first school principals who happened to be a Maasai woman from the Maasai Tribe. I was so inspired by these two young 30-something women with big visions and trying to navigate a complicated path to their vision.
I came back home. I was the Vice President of Research and Development for a medical device company. I sit in an hour and a half commute each direction to the office. Usually, it’s at 5:00 AM. Who else is awake at 5:00 AM but Emmy or Helen? While I’m sitting on the freeway, I’m mentoring and listening to their challenges. About a year in, we began to think about, “Is there a way that this triad of slightly crazy women could create an organization that wasn’t driven by the western culture but was led by the African culture and supported by a Western culture of people who wanted to do good but didn’t know how?” That’s how it began. A year in, we started small. For quite a few years I kept my corporate role and supported them as part of my night job.
That’s quite an undertaking as a side gig. Let’s talk a little bit about that transition from the high-powered corporate executive on the road to get to work at 5:00 AM to visionary social profit leader. It’s not a light switch, I assume. Tell us a little bit about what that meant for you and the process you went through.
I would say that transition is one of the most humbling, gut-wrenching, transformative transitions I personally have gone through. For me, my entire ego was attached to being an executive vice president to big stock options, to being one of the only women in Silicon Valley. Frequently asked to speak on panels and all the accolades that go along with being a successful woman executive in a male-dominated world, transitioning to a nonprofit sector, which quite frequently is perceived as a ladies’ lunch club initiative. It was gut-wrenching. When I first was in this transition, I remember people saying, “What do you do?” I would say, “I used to be a vice president of research and development at XYZ Company and now I’ve transitioned to being a CEO of a nonprofit.” They’d be like, “Why would you do that?” It took me quite a while to get comfortable in this new skin and own it and say, “All those skills from all the years prior have made me the transformative leader that I can be and help transfer those skills equally to people who have transformative visions but don’t have that mentor.” It was a couple of tough years.Even just the words we use can severely hamper others’ progress. Click To Tweet
You were changing your skin. Was there a moment or was there a time when you realized the first time you introduced yourself as CEO of Asante Africa and not as what it used to be?
How I introduced myself is that I am a previous systems engineer who has become a systems social entrepreneur. The world has very complex problems to solve. There is no one single-stranded solution. We have to look at the system problem from a systems solution perspective and tackle it from multiple directions for it to succeed. At the end of the day, all the engineering skills come into play. I don’t know if there was one pivotal moment yet.
One of the things in all that you’ve described that comes through is there’s immense complexity in the organization dealing with rural communities and multiple countries trying to forge and sustain this new model of working in Africa for your donor-base and your board here in North America. How do you manage that complexity?
Thank goodness for technology. Technology allows the staff in all three countries to feel like one team. Technology allows us to make sure we’re all working on common documents and a common strategy. Probably the most critical piece to this was recognizing upfront that we needed a global plan that we all believed in. In 2013, we brought in PwC, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to help us develop a global governance structure across the three boards at that level and help us define what would the roles and responsibilities be below those three boards.
Again in 2015, the PwC came in and helped us put the organizational structure in place, not only for a single year but a transitional model. It would grow and stretch between 2015 and 2022 so that the programmatic leadership would firmly sustain and reside in East Africa. Every year all three boards come together in June. We stare at each other eyeball to eyeball. We say, “Where did we crash and burn? What are we going to learn from that to lift us up? We get a recommitment every year to the plan. We are now starting to feel like 2021 is too close. In 2019, we will come together and begin to work in 2025, 2027 plan. It’s that constant check-in. It’s the constant links between the boards and the staff to make sure the staff has the support they need in all three countries.
One of the things that I liked about how you described that is, “Let’s come together and talk about where we crashed and burned? What are the mistakes that we’ve made?” You’re building a learning organization that’s trying to find the right answer. Focusing on getting the right answer, not on being right, which can be very difficult in complex organizations or in any organization. Where do you find the space or how do you take a deep breath and recognize all of the positive things that you’ve accomplished?
I have learned early in my career that when you lead a large organization and the problems you’re solving are difficult and complex, celebrating is key. In my world, celebrating is how we honor that we’re headed in the right direction. Celebrating incremental success builds the confidence of all the players on the team that, “We made progress. We’re over half way to our big hairy goal.” For me, we work hard to celebrate. We work hard to learn lessons from things that don’t go quite right so that we build trust amongst ourselves as a team. We honor and recognize that there are rocks on our road. This is not going to be a straight path. We honor and recognize that some days we’re going to have to go over, under, around and even through those big rocks. Celebrating in some cases is that we got rid of the rock. In other cases, it’s, “We found a new creative approach to solving this problem.”
Your leadership vision and your style come out in your answer to that question. Let me ask underneath that. That’s how you remind others and show others that on this journey with you how collectively are achieving those successes. How do you remind yourself that you’re making those successes?
I make sure that I’m in the country frequently. I make sure that I spend time with the young people that we work with. I’m a storyteller. I’m going to share two stories with you. I will never forget meeting with a young woman who’s blind in one eye. In a sense, she’s very disabled in the African culture. She has been with our programs for about four years and she has started her own nonprofit in her own radio station program talking about taboo subjects in a rural community. I remember Emily telling me, “Do not call me a beneficiary. I am the change agent that you have been helping us become.” It was at that moment that I realized even the words we use severely could hamper other’s progress. The other story that I will share is that we have a young man who was sitting at home in a mud hut. He’s in his third year of becoming a heart surgeon. When you sit and talk to his mother and father, they are living the dream that they never thought possible. For me, when I am with these parents, teachers and students, the impact becomes very real. That’s what fuels me because they’re becoming the change agents.
I imagine you’re probably walking a few feet off the ground when you finish those conversations with parents like that.
I’d come home and I can dig back into the QuickBooks.
The 5:00 AM conference calls haven’t changed. One of the things that I admire about you is that you have persevered. One of the challenges with a lot of organizations, especially organizations that are doing work in Africa, is that they have a great first two or three years. The going gets tough, the rocks become too high to get over and organizations fade away. There are many successful ones, but many more than that don’t get to that stage of maturity that Asante Africa has gone to. You’ve learned a lot. You’ve traveled a path that many have set out on and very few have gotten as far as you have. Tell me something that you’ve learned that almost no one agrees with.
What I’ve learned is that it’s more important to go slow so that the local leaders who work for Asante Africa, Kenya and Tanzania can claim successes as their own is the most paramount success. There are a lot of organizations who would have grown much bigger than we have, but they forced it from the western side. What I truly know is that when Erna phases out, these organizations are peddling 100 miles an hour on their own accord. They’ve learned to fundraise. They’ve learned to manage staff. They’ve learned to negotiate with the big funders. They’ve learned to think strategically. They’ve learned to stand up at international conferences representing our work as thought leaders themselves. There is a lot of things in the nonprofit echo chamber where all these funders and nonprofit leaders come together and talk at each other. At the end of the day, it’s about living, teaching and mentoring what’s said at those conferences.
It’s not about the Westerners representing the work, it’s about the African leaders solving the problems themselves and getting the credit for the work themselves. One of the biggest battles I had with the larger funder early on was when the funder wanted me to put a white person, a Westerner in the local office so that communications could be easier for the donor. I said, “No,” and we lost our funding because it was too hard for the funder to work alongside a young, struggling organization trying to stretch and grow. It’s a tough road. There’s such a hunger, intensity and pride. One of the things that one of my staff members said that gives me a lot of pride is when someone asked them, “This is a Western organization, isn’t it?” Zakayo, who’s our accountant in Tanzania said, “No, this is a locally-led organization and we are the leaders.” It was at that moment that I knew we are creating a legacy.Be an accelerant versus being a starter. Click To Tweet
Erna, thank you for sharing that. On this show, we talk a lot about governance. We have to admire someone who not only created one board but three boards to report to and to work with. My compliments to you on that. Finally, what would you say to someone who has a personally transformative experience and says, “I’m going to start an organization. I’m going to found an organization.” What advice would you give to that person?
You must’ve had a number of those conversations. People must approach you, “You’ve done this. Tell me how I can do this. Give me the kit.”
My Kenyan chairman of the board, he said, “Erna, if this were easy, everyone would do it and we wouldn’t need leaders.” The reason that I say don’t, what I mean by that is do not take action, but take action through visionary, transformative leaders who are already making strides and help them go faster. Be an accelerant versus being a starter. There are brilliant, talented, visionary leaders in these developing countries who need acceleration, doors opened and dots connected. Do that. Don’t start from scratch.
I like that, to be the accelerant and don’t worry about being the one holding the match. That’s great advice. Erna, if anybody wants to learn more about Asante Africa and join you on this path, how can they learn more about the organization?
The easiest step is to join our social media. Our website is AsanteAfrica.org. We’re on Facebook. We’re on Instagram. We’re on Twitter. You can always drop an email to Info@AsanteAfrica.org and we can get you connected.
Thank you so much for being a part of this show.
- Asante Africa Foundation
- Facebook – Asante Africa Foundation
- Instagram – Asante Africa Foundation
- Twitter – Asante Africa Foundation
About Erna Grasz
Erna Grasz co-founded Asante Africa Foundation with two visionary African women from Kenya and Tanzania (Educating Children | Transforming Worlds). She refers to herself as a Systems Engineer turned Systems Entrepreneur for Global Impact. Originally trained as an Electrical-System Engineer, she spent her early career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and then moved into Executive Roles in Silicon Valley. While spending 25 years in the Corporate world as a senior executive, she earned the reputation as a strategic leader, “organizer of chaos” and with demonstrated success in diverse industries, including medical device, defense research, and semiconductor capital equipment. In 2012 she left the corporate world to manage the global organization full time ( USA, Kenya, Tanzania). Erna brings her business savviness to the Non-Profit world and is the visionary behind many of the organization’s innovative programs and practices. She has led teams as large as 400 people and as small as 3 people.
She has a strong belief in local staff, local partnerships and developing local talent for the long term sustainability. In 2013 Erna was the recipient of the Jefferson Award for public service. In 2014 She received a “Distinguished Engineering” Award for her Innovation in Developing Countries and In 2016 She was a HULT Prize Judge for Innovation in Urban slums ( Clinton Global Initiative).
She is frequently on global stages on topics of traversing the corporate-non profit divide, executive leadership, innovative education programs, and sustainable philanthropy versus charity. International Moderating and Convening is a fun part of her portfolio.