Crazy Kids

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

June 22, 2014

I have had a 30-year career in STEM and, by quite a bit, am the old man at iNERDE. Old, only, in experience, as competitive sports and yoga have kept me in shape and mentally supple. Thirty years is a lot of experience and after finally tiring of chasing that pot of gold in tech I decided it was time to start using my knowledge to give back.

Just as I had made that decision, along came Mohamed and Rakib, young African immigrants starting careers in the sciences and burning with the desire to give young people in the part of the world they had come from the kind of opportunity they had in the US. They were working on a crazy plan to stimulate STEM opportunity in Africa by triggering a virtuous cycle of supply and demand though education for kids in the critical age group of 9-12. This is the window in which kids are either turned on or turned off by STEM for the rest of their lives.

They had come up with the idea of working with local schools to create STEM summer camps, thereby not only reaching the kids but also training the teachers, propagating the effects of the camp into the school year and reaching into the school systems and a larger group of students.

Mohamed insisted on creating a social enterprise, not a “charity”, following an aggressive business plan like any start-up. The plan included a strategy for growing their “entry market” and expanding scope and scale of operations once they had achieved market dominance. The pilot summer camp would be replicated in many countries, curriculum packaged and eventually “franchised” throughout Africa with iNERDE providing mentorship and organizational support to schools running their own programs. The objective was no less than to become a key player in a revolution in education throughout Africa. In the ultimate phase iNERDE will go from the revolution in education to the revolution in opportunity. With a cadre of iNERDE “graduates”, and feet both in North America and Africa, iNERDE will be positioned to be a catalyst for African STEM entrepreneurship and to help forge mutually beneficial international partnerships.

Crazy kids with big dreams!

I have participated in a lot of start-ups and my gut told me these guys were the real deal. Mohamed has the leadership mojo, Rakib, the ability to turn ideas into detailed plans. They had already assembled a team of dedicated and amazing volunteers, more crazy kids, started a crowdfunding campaign, put up quite a decent website, launched all the social media stuff, incorporated, applied for non-profit status, honed core messages, and, above all, developed curriculum and put partnerships in place to hold the pilot STEM summer camp in Mali. Clearly, these guys are going to succeed big at something, someday … but what about today, could the iNERDE business plan work? Is Africa ready for this?

I have learned over the years that long-term success is most often more about positioning yourself to be able to take advantage of the inevitable than a specific invention or innovation. “Being at the right place at the right time” is one part of it, but there is really much more. Without the innovative mindset needed to adapt and shape emerging opportunity it is useless to be at the right place at the right time.

iNERDE is positioned in the right place, just ahead of the curve, right where a start-up wants to be. Radical development in Africa is inevitable because of irresistable pressure from without and from within. In a world as profoundly interconnected and interdependent as ours is today the economic imbalance between Africa and the other continents is … unproductive. Under the economic system that gave rise to colonalism, the powerful profited from holding human development in Africa back. In a global knowledge economy human underdevelopment in Africa is lost opportunity. Investment is flowing into Africa today and is ready to turn into a flood. As another consequence of our interconnected world, Africans have a greater ability than at any time in history to act on their aspirations. They are organizing at the grassroots level to resist and overcome those forces that would deny them the means to create a better life, and these actions are having a powerful impact.

Yes, Africa is in the early stages of radical development, but why is iNERDE focused on STEM education? Aren’t there other, basic, things more important right now like healthcare or clean water? The fact is that every problem, at its core, is a problem of education and confidence in one’s ability to solve problems. Technology, STEM, provides the tools to solve problems with understanding, cheaply and efficiently, and on a large-scale. Creating good infrastructure in Africa is not unattainable; we have seen many countries build a modern infrastructure nearly from scratch in one to two decades in the last fifty years.

In fact, African infrastructure has improved enormously over the last decade, bringing vast improvements in the “classic” African problems like water supply and healthcare. African countries are now focused on developing a broader manufacturing base or even the creation of high tech centers like Kenya’s Konza Techno City. What is needed is people with the technical knowledge and enough confidence in the future to dream and act on an ambitious scale.

STEM education is about much more than building infrastructure, it is the key to enabling truly transformative economic growth. The fact is that despite some of the highest growth rates in the world, Africa is starting with a large deficit and, combined with population growth, merely strong economic expansion is projected to leave most of Africa far behind the rest of the world in the coming 30 years. The equation is not, however, fixed, and growth does not have to be linear. We live in a remarkable time where the greater part of wealth creation comes from knowledge, not material. A scientific idea can result in an abundant source of energy that could not even be imagined a decade earlier, a computer program can efficiently organize an economic activity increasing productivity ten thousand fold. As Africans are enabled and empowered to participate in the knowledge economy through STEM education the rules of the game of economic growth will change. Radical development in a single generation, with a whole lot of will, is a real possibility.

As I write this iNERDE is turning our beliefs into a reality, it is now week 3 of our very first STEM summer camp in Mali. The joy of learning and the ability of our 9 and 10-year old kids to absorb and put to use STEM concepts is breathtaking. Crazy kids. This experience so strongly confirms for us what we knew, that the only thing that really held back African young people from transforming their world was the opportunity to learn. And that opportunity is here, right now. Our crazy kids are going to amaze the world.

STEM and Soccer, An African Perspective

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Rabikou Ouro-Djobo, Chief of Nerdy Operations

June 16, 2014

OK, aside from the physics of a ball flying toward the goal and statistics about players, what does association football, aka, in the United States, soccer, and STEM in Africa have to do with each other?

Soccer is, by far, the most popular sport in most African countries, and an enormous souce of pride and joy for many, many Africans. Each World Cup, Africa sends better and better teams to the competition and this is one symbol of the fantastic transformation happening in Africa today. The World Cup is also a showcase, followed by more than a billion people, where people around the world learn about African countries and witness the skill, exuberance, and high aspirations of African people. Africa is advancing in all areas and STEM education and the opportunity to pursue careers in STEM is an important area where we are seeing the same rising skills, exuberance and high aspirations.

So, at iNERDE, we’re both passionate about STEM and soccer fans, proud of the accomplishments of the African teams.

I am a multinational person. I was born and raised in Ghana and spent my adolescence in Togo until I recently moved to USA when I won the American lottery visa in 2005.

For two consecutive world cups, Ghana and USA have crossed paths, and for the third time this Monday they cross paths AGAIN… Each of the last two times Ghana has prevailed, with Ghana, a soccer powerhouse, reaching the quarter-finals in 2010. My love for both countries is very strong, and I always face a dilemma deciding which country to root for.

Should I support Ghana, where I was born? or should I root for the USA, a country that has given me the opportunity to become who I am, and what I want to be in years to come and whose coach Jürgen Klinsmann was my idol growing up?

Ghana is, again, a strong and confident team, no doubt about it. The USA has great potential and may go far, if not in this tournament, certainly in the years to come. To this I say, may the best team win.

My prediction? OK, under great duress, and with immense love and respect for both teams and both countries, USA over Ghana, 2-1.

iNERDE Takes Off

Mohamed T. Kante, Visionary & Chief Nerd

June 4, 2014

This is a proud day for me, the iNERDE staff, and our donors and supporters. The vision that we share of empowering African youth to create their own future through knowledge took a giant step forward with the launch of our first STEM summer camp in Bamako, Mali, scheduled to begin operation on June 9.

Mohamed Kante in 2003
Mohamed in 2003
This incredible journey began, for me, in 2003 when I came to the United States from Mali to pursue a university education. I had never heard the acronym STEM, the only career options I knew about were law, economics, politics and jouralism. But given my competence in math courses the Dean told me I had the aptitude to be an electrical engineer. Electrical engineering gave me the chance to work on life-changing projects such as iCRAFT, an eye-controlled robotic arm designed for people who need help feeding themselves. This project was featured on Engadget.com, PC magazine and CNN among many other media outlets. I also learned about educating for social change, volunteering for Upward Bound mentoring and STEM education programs such as Solar Cars apprenticeship and the DIGITS program.

The success of iCRAFT and my volunteer activities helped me to realize that one doesn’t have to be a genius to change lives with technology, one needs knowledge, skills, and belief in oneself and in the future. So I thought about a way to share this success with my brothers and sisters in Africa who do not have the same chance I had to study in America.

I knew that an effective solution could only come from Africans themselves, originating from their deep aspiration to make a better life for themselves and their communities. Americans can share knowledge and learning tools but Africans are the ones that will educate themselves and create opportunity. I realized that only a grassroots approach would be sufficiently deep and broad, sustaining, and transformative. This is why I founded iNERDE.

iNERDE stands for New Education for Radical Development. The goal of iNERDE in simple terms is to ignite creative thinking, to nurture invention, to encourage entrepreneurship, and to build integrity among young people. Why? So that they learn to identify the challenges in their communities, gather the resources available to solve those problems, and implement their own solutions. We decided that the most efficient way to do this and to effect long-term transformation was through a 7-week STEM summer camp. The summer camp aims to increase primary school students’ aptitude in, specifically STEM and, generally, in problem-solving, by engaging them in interactive, team-based science and engineering projects.

For iNERDE, success is when these children mature into technologically-aware adults with greater aptitude in Math and Science, gainfully employed, possibly directly in a STEM field, and, above all, willing to give back to their communities. iNERDE is creating a movement in education to channel the aspirations of Africans and set them up to have the same full range of professional options enjoyed today by the citizens of the technologically advanced nations.

Another critical aspect of my vision for iNERDE was to create a “social enterprise”, an organization dedicated to social transformation open to all the ingredients that make American tech companies so dynamic. iNERDE aims to play a role in the longer term in helping to forge partnerships, based on mutual interest, between entrepreneurial Africans, “graduates of iNERDE”, and tech enterprises in the United States and the rest of the world. One in three children will be born in Africa by 2050 according to the UN Children’s Fund. Africa is the largest growth opportunity on the planet, an opportunity ready to be unlocked with knowledge that leads to societal transformation. iNERDE’s model is not “charity”, it is investment.

One of most wonderful things for me personally that has happened since I started iNERDE is to have been joined by so many people that feel inspired by the vision of iNERDE and have jumped in to help: volunteer staff, donors, and supporters. Without them none of this would be happening. We have a team of 5 leaving today for Mali to run the first iNERDE STEM summer camp, a staff member in Mali, and many more back in the US and Canada supporting our team in the field and building a stronger iNERDE to expand our mission. This “start-up” effort would not have been possible without our far-seeing donors who made an angel investment with little more to go on than Mohamed’s elevator pitch.

All of us were honored today when Fortune named me one of 50 “Heroes of the Fortune 500”. I feel very humbled to represent such an incredible group of people, the iNERDE team.

Today, iNERDE is taking off, literally as we send our field team to Mali and in turning our dream into reality. The first iNERDE STEM summer camp will offer a life-changing experience to 30 young Malians. Change one person, change the world. What might 30 inspired young people do? And this is just the beginning.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela