Game Changer: Erna Grasz (United States & Africa)

In Africa, Education, Empowerment, Game Changers 14 by Mary Kurek

Erna Grasz is Educating East African Youth to Thrive in a Global Economy

Erna Grasz was raised by an immigrant father and an orphaned mother in the deep south of Mississippi and Texas. She developed a passion for education at a young age through her teachers and Girl Scout leaders despite her family background of not attending college. She quickly began to understand that education can lead to a better life out of poverty. Fast forward into adulthood. During her career as an electrical-systems engineer, Erna met Emmy Moshi, a local Tanzanian, and Hellen Nkuraiya, a Maasai woman from Kenya, on a trip to East Africa. She was inspired by their dreams to create their own schools to give back to their communities. The three kept in touch and Erna’s passion for education turned into a passion for education in Africa. The three women worked together, sharing their ideas and passions, and created Asante Africa Foundation in 2006. Erna balanced her corporate role in Silicon Valley, California and used her leadership and business skills in her role with the non-profit. In 2012 she left the corporate world to manage Asante Africa Foundation full-time. Today, the organization has helped to educate over 500,000 children in over 400 schools in the most rural communities in Kenya and Tanzania. Erna has been a recipient of several awards such as the 2013 USA Jefferson Award for Public Service, the 2014 “Distinguished Engineering” award for innovation in developing countries, and the 2018 Gratitude Award from the Gratitude Network.

Q & A with Erna Grasz:  

Q:  How did you come to the realization that you needed to utilize your skills to help to solve problems with education in Africa?

A:  My teachers and mentors saw potential in me before I ever did. My mother taught me that we all have talents and skills and that it’s your duty to give a supporting hand up and pay it forward. After meeting Hellen and Emily, we realized that we had all these ideas to do something good. I believe that every person has the talent to achieve his or her dreams, but the opportunity isn’t always available. We wondered, “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 started.  After many years of working as a senior executive in global corporate organizations, I had also developed skills leading and guiding a globally distributed team. At the time, leading teams in Tanzania and Kenya did not seem so different from leading engineers in India, Mexico, and Europe. While I recognized the cultural context, I had confidence in my abilities to lead, guide, and learn.

Q: What were those specific problems inhibiting education?

A:  Access to education was a major issue when we began the organization. Young girls in rural East Africa want to finish school, but child marriage and female circumcision are barriers that prevent them from getting a full education. Young boys are frequently pushed into the mines, fields, and streets to assist their families’ survival.  Today the challenges are more specifically focused on the quality of learning in the classroom and equipping youth with life skills necessary to thrive outside of the classroom. Students graduate but they struggle to find a job in the local economy. Asante Africa Foundation tackles the root causes of these issues through building family and community knowledge and advocating to end child marriage.  We provide scholarships and teach entrepreneurship so young people can start businesses and have successful careers.

Q:  What impact is Asante Africa Foundation creating now?

A:  We have a goal to impact 1 million lives through our scholarships and adolescent and teen-based programs. Our focus is on reducing the vulnerabilities for children, strengthening their resilience, and increasing future opportunities for young people from rural communities. We are also greatly focused on leveling the playing field for rural youth as compared to their urban counterparts.

Q: How do you measure your impact? Can you give us a success story?

A:  While the political, economic, and educational landscape of East Africa continues to evolve and change, our efforts and success remain focused on “doing the greatest good for those who have the least” through education, knowledge, and skill-building. We measure success by observing our alumni as successful community leaders and respected business owners, choosing to remain in their home communities rather than move to urban areas. They are becoming our investors and donors – providing scholarships, acting as role models, mentors, and coaches to children in their communities.

An example of this is Pauline Naserian, a 15-year-old orphan from Kenya. At age 13, Pauline was forced to leave school and marry an older man. Her life drastically changed and she felt isolated and excluded from her family and community. Four months into her marriage, Pauline ran away and returned to school. She ended up receiving a scholarship and is a part of our Girls’ Advancement Program. She is now an active participant of a girls-led club, where she mentors girls about their rights, safety, and health and hygiene. She aspires to be a lawyer and work towards the empowerment of girls in her community.

Q: What are your challenges in expanding programs?

A:  One challenge is staying aligned to our organizational values and philosophies at times when funders have other philosophies and funding is difficult to secure. We once had a funder who wanted a Westerner in one of the local offices so that communications could be easier for the donor. I said “No” and we lost our funding, which affected our efforts to expand our programs – but it was temporary. We’ve managed to grow while sticking to our value that Asante Africa Foundation is led and managed by locals in the communities where we work.

Q:  What is your philosophy around developing youth as global citizens?

A:  I believe that our role is to facilitate youth to recognize their talents and skills and to help develop their self-confidence so that they can go and do great things. We help to open doors and facilitate connections while preparing the youth to seize the opportunities. Every successful project developed and delivered by youth is because of their ownership. We act as facilitators and they are the active change-makers.

Erna’s Networking Interests: 

  • Connectors and Networkers who grasp the importance of “global connectedness” and the importance of creating opportunity in all parts of the world
  • Global corporations and investors developing teams in East Africa, or those who would like to be a part of the growth opportunities in East Africa
  • Travelers who have been to East Africa and have seen the need and are seeking a path to play on a bigger stage in creating a significant, sustainable impact