Stanford Grad Fred Swaniker working to brighten Africa’s future

Here’s the column I wrote after meeting Fred Swaniker about a year ago.

Publication:  San Jose Mercury News
Web Headline:  Cassidy: Fred Swaniker is tapping Silicon Valley to mold leaders in Africa
Reporter:  By Mike Cassidy,
Day:  Friday
Print Run Date:  5/20/2011
Section:  Business
Edition:  Valley Final
Page Number:  1
Section Letter:  D
Slug  ssjm0520cassidy
Text:  Fred Swanikerhas a plan for Africa that is as bold, vibrant and vast as the continent he intends to help turn into an economic powerhouse.It’s not where he expected to end up when he made his way from his native Ghana to Silicon Valley in pursuit of a Stanford MBA. But Silicon Valley has a way of surprising you, creating opportunities and possibilities that were unimaginable only a short time before.Swaniker’s possibilities revealed themselves in 2003 when, while working on his degree, he started noodling around with the business opportunity in creating a high-caliber, high-cost college prep school for the children of Africa’s elite. Then he was struck by a better idea, a bigger idea, an idea that could literally change the world.

The wealthy, he figured, could always find top-notch schools for their kids. But what about the kids who had nothing but wonderful ideas, a burning desire to learn and a willingness to work? Some were trapped in small villages and crowded slums, doomed. And yet, they could be the ones to lead Africa in the new century.

“I had been thinking about this whole thing: How do we develop better leaders for Africa?” says Swaniker, 34. “And so when I started work on this business plan I realized, well, maybe that is the problem that this school solves.”

In a twist on the Silicon Valley bromide, Swanikerdecided to go big and go home. He’d return to Africa and with help start the African Leadership Academy, a nonprofit college prep school, designed to create Africa’s next generation of leaders. His goal: develop 6,000 leaders in the next 50 years to move Africa forward.

“We’re not trying to define where they should lead, ” Swanikersays. “We’re saying, take your unique talents and passions and values and use that to drive change in their specific area. So if you are passionate about technology then you become the Bill Gates of Africa. If you are passionate about politics, become the next Nelson Mandela.”

The academy’s two-year intensive program opened in 2008 on the outskirts of Johannesburg. School officials recruit across Africa, searching for students with fat potential and slim chances, who then go through an interviewing process worthy of an Ivy League school. Nearly 190 students from 33 African nations are currently enrolled. Most receive scholarships with the understanding that they will work in Africa for at least 10 years after completing their college studies. Otherwise they must repay the tuition. Many in the inaugural graduating class have ended up at elite U.S. universities.

Swanikersays Silicon Valley taught him the importance of networking, so he and school staff have found mentors to guide students even after graduation. He also plans to regularly bring students and alumni together to exchange ideas.

I met up with Swanikerrecently on the Stanford campus. He was having a good week. He’d returned to speak at a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research conference on tapping Africa’s economic potential. The Omidyar Network, which invests in and donates to enterprises working on social problems, had just announced a $1.5 million grant. And he would be attending a summit of social entrepreneurs sponsored by the network, a Redwood City organization launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.

It is no accident that Swanikerfeels very much at home in the valley.

“We literally could not have built this institution without Silicon Valley, ” Swanikersays. The school’s financial supporters include former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook, former Cisco Systems CEO John Morgridge, Stanford professor Irv Grousbeck and companies like Cisco.

“I think that a lot of the people who support us are entrepreneurs who understand what we’re trying to do because it’s their life story, ” Swanikersays. “They also get, in Silicon Valley, that a few people with tremendous ideas and innovations can transform the entire world.”

Fiorina, who spoke at the Stanford economic policy institute’s conference, says that Swanikerhas it exactly right: Leadership is a learned skill. After her talk, Fiorina told me she is optimistic about Africa’s economic future, particularly if U.S. investors and others can shake their perception of Africa as a disease-ridden and war-ravaged continent. “There is talent, potential and the beginnings of companies and entrepreneurs that can make a difference, ” she says.

For his part, Swanikeris determined to add to that army of entrepreneurs and others who have the power to shape a continent.

Contact Mike Cassidy at or 408-920-5536. Follow him at


Illustration:  Photo
Caption:  PHOTO: Maria J. Ávila Lopez/staff
Fred Swaniker attends a summit of executives of social enterprises backed by the Omidyar Network Menlo Park on Tuesday.
Column:  Silicon Valley Dispatches
Word Count:  761

1 Comment

Filed under Education Technology, Silicon Valley Business, Silicon Valley Life

One response to “Stanford Grad Fred Swaniker working to brighten Africa’s future

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