Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Rye Barcott of Carolina for Kibera: A Marine's Take on the Power of Social EntrepreneurshipPublished: August 16, 2011
What would you do if someone gave you $26? For Tabitha Festo, the answer was easy -- start a new business. From Kibera -- one of the world's largest slums, located smack in the middle of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, in East Africa -- the single mother of three took the grant she had received from Rye Barcott, a University of North Carolina undergraduate-soon-to-be-Marine, and managed to transform not only her life but also those of many others, including Barcott's. Together with Salim Mohamed, another Nairobi local, the two new friends soon founded a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on empowering youth through sports and other activities called Carolina for Kibera (CFK).
Tabitha's colorful -- and eventually heartbreaking -- story is an important part of It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace, the new memoir Barcott wrote to celebrate the NGO’s 10th birthday this year. It is a memoir that tells of Barcott's often-rocky journey that led to CFK and its innovative promotion of community development driven by the saying, "Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not."
While on a recent book tour in London en route to Nairobi, the 32-year-old Barcott – who was named a 2011 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum -- sat down with Knowledge@Wharton High School to discuss why CFK is different than other NGOs aiming to develop today's and tomorrow's young leaders, and the life-changing lessons he learned along the way, including balancing being a soldier and a social entrepreneur.
Knowledge@Wharton: What compelled you to write a memoir at your age? Isn't that something someone does when they're old and retired?
Rye Barcott: The main message that I'd like folks to take away is that you don't have to wait to make an impact, especially if you take the right approach. That means two words that aren't particularly glamorous but characterize a lot of the work we do at CFK – participatory development. It's a message for high school kids in the U.S., Europe or anywhere else in the world, but also if you're 30 years old and living in a slum. There are ways to make contributions [to society] and to do it now, particularly by forming long-term relationships, rooted in trust with individuals who may be very different from you, and eschewing those old notions of command-control leadership and resisting the temptations of breadth versus depth.
By that I mean that lot of technologies today are really powerful and give us reach, or breadth, that was unthinkable even 10 years ago. All of our members at CFK have Facebook accounts, regardless of their age. It's really powerful, and it extends the breadth of our networks. But [contributing to society] still takes deeper, long-term relationships and trust.
That was one of the fundamental challenges we faced with the military, and I tried to illustrate that in the book's narrative [by showing] the strengths and values of an organization like the military, but also the severe limitations it faces to accomplish goals.
One of the goals with the book was to show the various setbacks CFK faced, to give a very honest portrayal of what transpired, so that folks can apply some of these experiences to their own lives, even if they're not necessarily in a combat environment, or a slum. I wanted to humanize the power that a participatory approach has.
Going back to the question about why write a memoir, the book had been rejected by publishers twice. When I started writing it, its objective was largely to be about Kibera and to create an awareness of talent – that talent is universal and opportunity is not. I finally got some feedback from an agent who said, "Listen, another book on Africa is not necessarily going to reach a mainstream audience. Beyond that, you have a fundamental flaw with the entire narrative: You're not in it. You really need to personalize this."
Putting myself out there was not an easy thing to do. The original goal was not to tell my story, but to have an avenue for others to apply to their own lives.
Knowledge@Wharton: One of the words that appears a lot in the book is "mentor" -- the importance of being one and the importance of having one, such as someone like your CFK co-founder, Tabitha, who was one of several mentors to you.
Barcott: When I speak with students I end with various pieces of advice. One always has to do with mentorship, and the fact that it is not easy. It takes work; it takes an investment. Very rarely will you have the luxury of mentors just finding you. There's a reciprocity, which is why I say, "Write thank you notes." It's a simple gesture, but don't forget the investments that people are making in you or take it for granted. You have to work on it, make it long term, invest in it. It's not a one-way relationship. Some of the richest mentoring relationships evolve into friendships.
And it's really hard to put yourself out there and say, "I don’t know the answer to this," or break from the cool apathy of the teenage years -- which I felt too. I was no saint as a kid growing up. Far from it.
I benefited at an early age from my father and his closest friends, who reached out. That gave me confidence in later years in college, when all of a sudden I was outside the 'bubble' of home.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you still need mentors now that you're established? Or is your time and energy devoted to being a mentor?
Barcott: I try to do both. One of the first pieces of advice an early mentor gave me – "Being a mentor is not just a good thing to do but there's an expectation that you will pay it forward and respond to anyone reaching out."
My mother really gave me an appreciation of getting to know cultures that are different than my own. But it took Kibera to really shake up my world in such a way that I recognized that you can learn from most people in the world if you take time to build relationships. There are certainly extraordinary leaders, extraordinarily talented people like Tabitha, who by all outwardly, materialistic measures of success to which we in the Western world ascribe, would be seen as failures. Yet they don't see themselves as failures, and would not be reticent to provide advice if you asked for it.
In the military, there's a real value in age and seniority. That experience can mean some wisdom. That's an important thing to recognize, especially when you're a high school student and you might think the world is small and you know so much about it.