How a leader deals with personal adversity can affect the entire organization. On today’s show, Dr. Santor Nishizaki chats with someone whose leadership is transforming people’s lives. Nelly Cheboi is the CEO & Founder of TechLit Africa, a nonprofit American organization that redistributes recycled technology to build computer labs in African schools. Nelly has even been recognized amongst Forbes 30 under 30 and recently was named a CNN Hero. She is on a mission to help the people in Africa overcome adversity through access to technology and opportunities online. She aims not to provide a band-aid solution but to teach lessons that people can carry to succeed in life. Be inspired by her story and moved by her advocacy by tuning in and finding out how you can help too.
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Personal Leadership: Overcoming Adversity to Help Transform Lives Through Technology
Nelly grew up in a rural village in Kenya. The situation there was dire. Circumstances force her to raise her younger sister when she was nine years old. She wanted to change the narrative of kids growing up in communities like hers and to fix poverty for good this time. Through hard work and determination, she landed a full scholarship to Augustana College in America. Coming to the United States and studying Computer Science, gave her the platform to accelerate her impact.
As an undergrad, she invested all of her income from various campus jobs into her community back in Kenya. She built a school there and later started TechLit Africa. TechLit Africa is a nonprofit American organization that redistributes recycled technology to build computer labs in African schools. They have already built ten computer labs in Rural Kenya and are working on their next 100 computer labs. They already have around 4,000 students and 20 teachers. By next 2023, they will have around 40,000 students and 200 teachers. Their program is unique because they teach classes that are relevant and hire local teachers to make sure of it.
They train their own teachers to run the computer labs and their communities who meet every day to improve the classes. They are unlocking a world of opportunities for these kids who will be inspired to take on a dozen careers and have the skills to tap into the global economy straight from the village. This is her life’s work because Nelly knows firsthand how awful poverty is. They plan to do this for the whole of Rural Africa, positioning themselves for ten times a growth year-over-year. TechLit is Nelly’s opportunity to fix poverty and for good this time. In addition, Nelly became a CNN hero. Let’s hear what Nelly has to say.
Nelly, I know you are in Kenya. I’m super excited to have you on here. As we said in the intro, we can talk a little bit about TechLit Africa but I love to start with your story. Tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are now because its so fascinating.
I am dialing in from Magotcha. This is where I grew up. It’s a small village in Kenya. Four hours for Nairobi, the capital city. Growing up in this community, I grew up in poverty. I used to go to school baffled, and go to bed hungry and my story is no different. I have three sisters. I’m from a single-parented family. I am the second to last. I watched my mom work hard to put us through school. I became motivated to look at sustainable solutions to poverty mostly because I wanted to take care of her.
She was always working so hard and would come home at 10:00 PM at the end of the day tired and exhausted and still has to do the same thing the following day. She would buy goats and sell goats. Buy vegetables in one business field, and she would pick them up the next. I became determined to fix poverty and take care of her. The only thing I could do at the time was study hard in school. I used to study hard in school and it looks a bit different here.
I used to go and study at a hospital that’s down the street from here because they had electricity and my mom couldn’t kerosine, so I used to go on and study at the veranda until 2:00 AM. I graduated at the top of my class from my primary education, which is K-8, and went to a good high school, which is like the high school league in high school here. High school is like boarding school. I struggled with tuition. I could not afford tuition, so I was constantly sent home.
Every time I would go home, I bring all my homework and catch up on my classes so that when I go back, I’m not left behind. I used to go back on Sunday because the accountant was not in. It’s the hack I used to do. I still graduated as one of the top girls’ inaugurations. From that, I got a scholarship to come to America in 2012. When I got to America, I had things to do.
The first thing was to leave my family from poverty. I used to do janitorial work. Over the weekend, I will work ten hours. I wake up at 6:00 AM until noon cleaning bathrooms, making $8 an hour, and will save all that money. After one year, I saved up $700. I bought a piece of land. The idea was to build my family a house. I realized that if I keep trying to save up for building a house, I will never be done and they are still leaving the house I grew up in because it’s not safe at all.
Instead, I said that I will bring some more. Borrow some money from some friends, flew to Kenya, and went to a slum in Nairobi. It’s called Kariobangi. I bought a whole truckload of furniture like a mattress, couch, TV stand, all this, and drove four hours to Magotcha to move my family into a nice apartment. I had worked on sites, trained on-site, and electricity.
It was such a wonderful homecoming about thirteen months after going to America to be able to move my family to this city and nice house. What happened is that I moved into a nice house. They even had a TV, and cable to pay for it. They had an electricity bill. They had all these things. The rent was ten times more expensive and they could not afford it. Now, I’m a sophomore in college and on the hook for supporting them.
It’s a lot to deal with.
Yes, also if I keep doing this, I will never get to help in my community and look at solutions to poverty. I started thinking of ways to help my family and what came up was building a school because if I build a private school, I had the land I bought from the $700. I had a piece of like 1/8 of an acre, 50×100 meters. Not much but I had that land and could build a small school.
Almost like a preschool and the kids pay $10 a month to go there. When you get enough kids, it’s enough for us to pay the teachers, buy stationaries, food, upkeep, and also have some leftovers to give my family. That’s what was the idea for the school. This is now two years into America, I needed $5,000. I had some amount of money saved. I went back to the same friend who had given me some loans to help my family. I had already paid her back and built a school.
While you are working full-time and studying as well in college, you are doing this remotely and that’s incredible. That’s amazing.
I was doing it in college. I built a school in 2015, moved in 2016, and we had 40 kids the first week. Ever since then, I’ve never needed to send money home. They were able to sustain themselves. The school was able to educate my own sister who’s in college now. It became cool. When I was building this school, I also discovered Computer Science. Growing up in the village, I used to live my life with textbooks. I would read all these textbooks that I didn’t know much about computers. I first need a computer when I got to America at eighteen. When people are doing assignments in college, you write all these papers.Even if you do a bandaid solution, you realize they’re going to need you tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Click To Tweet
I used to write like a ten-page on a piece of paper first then move it over to the computer because I could not type fast enough. I could not type at the speed. I didn’t know how to Google and use the terminal. I stumbled upon Computer Science as a field, as a junior in college. I fell in love with it. Immediately, instead to switch my major to Computer Science but also, it became clear that was the tool I needed.
When I was thinking about poverty, I kept wondering, “What is it about Rural Kenya? Why are we so poor?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was about the systems that we had in place. For example, if you want to set up a business, you are looking at 13% interest rates from loans in one-month business. If it’s a tech business, you can’t find talents locally. You end up outsourcing to talents from Europe and other places, which is very expensive.
If you are a farmer and you want to distribute your tomatoes, you don’t have reliable roads and the list goes on and on. If you make a little bit of profit from your business, and you have been tackling, we need to wait for that too. Someone needs money for tuition. Someone needs money for medical bills. Someone over here needs money for so and so. This ended up happening to me. I was only a sophomore in college making $8 an hour but still supporting my two sisters and my mom. It’s a very peculiar story.
I realized that to fix poverty, we need to fix the systems and that is hard but then if you give people access to the boundless opportunities online, where they could be able to work on Upwork or Fiverr, make a logo and make $5 an hour. If they are technical enough, working mostly for these tech companies out in Silicon Valley, you don’t need roads for that.
You don’t need good backing for software. You need internet, a computer, and the skills. It came all together. I was like, “This is now my life’s work.” Bring computers to people in communities like them, and train them on how they can leverage the bonus opportunities online in the hope of imparting them to get themselves out of poverty and out of their communities.
That is inspirational, Nelly, and being able to do this all before you turn 30. I read about your story in Forbes 30 under 30, which is an incredible accomplishment as well. What you’ve accomplished, to me, is incredible because that’s life-changing for all these kids that you are going to be able to impact. Now, the kids that are going through this program and as I was looking through your website and listening to your other podcasts, it sounds like, you teach them coding.
It started with video games and what I heard from what you said before was the kids love to come to school now because they get to play with computers. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? I thought that was cool. I have two kids and I could see my oldest one being excited. We have him on one of the coding things and building a video game but I love to learn more about that, Nelly, and the impact it has for these kids.
Initially, when we started, we would work with adults. We wanted to teach adults how to make money online but it became hard because there are less skills along the way. You need a lot of time to focus to be able to even do the skill and multitask that skill. Meanwhile, we had kids wanting to come to the program and so we switch our focus people. We realize that when we do this afterschool program on the weekends and school breaks, it’s mostly boys because girls are helping with the chores then we went to schools.
Now, in schools, what we do is that we go to schools. We ask them to provide us a room and the room is already equipped with electricity. It has security, which is bringing the computers and the curriculum. These computers are donated mostly by American corporations. We would bring them into the computer lab. We train local youths to help us find those computer labs. We are there from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM every single day. It’s part of the academy. They are growing up with this and we would teach more than coding.
More likely what we are trying to do is self-efficacy. If you are motivated enough, what can you learn? Sometimes it’s building a game from scratch. Sometimes it’s a multiplayer game. Sometimes it’s chatting with your friends on the social application. Sometimes it’s touch-typing and having a leaderboard. We started audio production and making music and they love it. The cooler thing about the computer labs and why the kids love it so much is because they come in and have the freedom.
They are coming in from my classroom where the teacher has the authority. The kids do all the teacher say. When the teacher says, “One,” they will say, “One.” Something like that and they are supposed to sit down, listen, and be quiet. Only raise their hand if they need to talk. They come into this computer lab and they are free to explore. They explore what they want. They play all these games. They get to compete with their friends. It’s so energetic. They are energized by it.
We have many stories about it. When it’s their time to come to the computer lab, they run. They are dancing. They are so disappointed when their lesson is over. One time, 1 kid asked 1 of our teachers because we are closing the doors at 4:00 PM. The kid came in. He was a third grader about eight years old and was like, “Can I ask a favor?” The teacher was like, “Yes, sure.” “Can you lock me in the computer room for the night?”
“I can play video games, chat with friends, watching YouTube videos.”
It’s offline. We focus a lot on skills. Things like touch-typing and communicating online, coding, and music production, so we don’t have internet in the computer labs. 1) It was expensive. 2) If we get internet, they would do that.
That is a good thing from a safety standpoint with kids and being online. I love that, Nelly. Let me ask you this question to shift gears a little bit. You’ve dealt with probably a lot of adversity. I don’t think it’s probably. It is a lot of advertising of, “I worked full-time and going to school full-time.” That was tough but I wasn’t building a nonprofit in another country. That’s incredible. We heard a little bit about what you went through but how did you overcome that adversity? What advice would you give to younger folks who are maybe dealing with similar adversity or any adversity? If you could talk about that a little bit. I would love to learn.
It changes from week to week. In the very beginning, our biggest talent was shipping. We were paying about 50% of the value of the computer. If you have an old computer and you go to eBay and it’s worth $300, you are paying $150 to get it into Kenya, for example. That’s hard to convince donors like, “Give us money to go through the Kenyan government to import these computers.”You look around and there’s so much pain that the challenges you are facing trying to impact it, it’s negligible compared to the suffering that you see around you. Click To Tweet
They have a good reason why it’s very expensive. It’s because they don’t want time to produce waste. They don’t want to get the green eWaste. They have all these high taxes on it. It’s because I was doing this in Chicago, I used to stay up until 3:00 AM, so I can, depending on time zones, talking to freight forwarder, and to people over here for three month’s time to figure out shipping.
That was one thing. We come over here, so we realized, “Let’s put ten laptops in our backpacks, bags, and luggage and fly.” It gets better because when we were getting our shipping, we didn’t even have a product. We didn’t even have anything. We are over there trying to import some computers, so we can come here and experiment. We put a pause on that to collect ten computers and came to Kenya.
We come over here and assumed that, “Shipping is the hardest thing that we have to deal with. Once we get over here, people will not be overjoyed with the computers and want to use it.” We have all these ideas on how people can make money online. We see someone doing a taxi service on a motorcycle. We call them Bodaboda, making $2 a day and are like, “We can get this person to make $8 an hour.”
We go around recruiting people and we tell them to come over. They come in and start with one class. They don’t like it and then we start asking them, “What do you want to do?” Some of them say, “Shall we do marketing.” Some of them say programming. We stay up all night again creating a curriculum for them, and then the next day, they don’t come back. We will have different people coming back then we are like, “Maybe if the issue is the money or they don’t want to come because they are worried about what they are going to eat that day, what if we pay them?”
We had not fundraised. It was from our pockets. “What if we pay them to come here and learn?” When you pay them, they are like, “We don’t have money to come back.” If they get internet, they are just on YouTube watching music videos. That was hard. For one month, we tried to do that because it was the quickest way to prove that, “Can we get these people from making $2 an hour to $3 a day?” In one month, it was so heartbreaking. The whole time, we only have three people to return. Can you imagine?
After quitting my job as a software engineer in Chicago, no money, trying to figure out the product and then only having three people to show up and are barely doing it. We switched our focus to kids and were like, “Let’s switch our focus to kids.” That goes great. We work with 1,200 kids, and then when we fly back to America now to figure out shipping, so we can work with more kids, then the pandemic hits. All the Kenyan schools are closed for a year and there’s nothing we can do, so we wait. We came back in 2021 and school is back in session and then we are like, “Let’s go to schools.”
Now another problem is that the schools don’t get it. They don’t understand why we are doing this so we are getting out of backlash before like who have authority. The kids love it but the kids have no say. It’s about the head teachers and the principal. Again, problems after problems but the point is that when we were going through all these challenges, we knew what we wanted. We knew what Rural Kenya would look like exactly to succeed. It didn’t matter what the challenges we were facing because every time we turned around, we moved to exist.
We need to work on this thing because we are hearing over here that someone dropped dead because they did not know that they had cancer their whole life. If they had the money, they could have been screened. Someone over here is going through domestic violence and cannot leave because to go back to their parents is embarrassing and they have no means to leave this abusive husband. You look around and there’s so much poverty and pain that the challenges that you are facing trying to impact it. It’s negligible compared to the suffering that you see around you.
If someone is over here is going through domestic violence, all they need to do is move out, have their own apartment and then a source of income. They don’t have the skills to set in their selves. Even if you help them move out, you are going to be on the book to support them. The concept, even if you do a Band-Aid solution but still attempting to do it, you realize that they are going to need you tomorrow and the day after that.
What we are trying to do is like what happened to my family. Start a school, a business and are able to sustain themselves. We kept going back to that, like, “Why are we doing this? Why do we need to exist?” Compared to everything else, all the pain in the world, all the challenges that you are facing is manageable. It’s nice to have a core reason why you are doing something then you can overcome.
It sounds like your purpose. I read through your website, it’s amazing about your purpose and your core values. It sounds like your vision also it didn’t sway and that’s what drove you. Hearing those stories was helpful of to keep you motivated because I could imagine you are up until 3:00 in the morning having to go to school work. It must have been difficult but like you said, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t seem as.
The thing is that I also knew exactly what that poverty is because I grew up with it. I know what it’s like for your stomach to chime at night because you are so hungry. It’s painful but you have nothing to eat. I grew up eating stew and drinking water so that my stomach can be full because we didn’t have food. I knew what they are going through and wanted to fix it for good, not like Band-Aid but really fix it. Life in Africa seems so simple. Give them the skills. There’s so much money online, get them online, look at them making money, and then they are good.
The next question is, what’s it like to be a younger leader now? What you’ve accomplished is so incredible already. I know, in your mind probably, I’m assuming it was a lot more to do. What’s it like to be a Millennial leader?
I don’t think about that problem a lot. I don’t think I have because immediately, when I came to America, when I was eighteen, I already had a mission. Move my family out of poverty. I’ve never looked at my age as something that has held me back. I’ve never thought about it. I wish I had a better answer. The only way I’ve done stuff is so sequential. I start something and don’t give up. I keep walking.
Along the way, I meet people that may dismiss me. They will be like, “She’s very passionate and all that,” then they don’t do anything. They see me a little later and are like, “You did all that?” They buy in. If I meet someone who doesn’t believe in the mission or in me, I’m like, “It’s okay. I don’t have to defend myself at what you think. I know myself better than anyone. It will come around.” They all come around. Just ignore them. That’s the best kind when they ignore you and then see you grinding and making meats and bounce impact and growing. There’s that guilt like, “I guess I dismissed her.” They come in and get supported. They will come around.
They are going to know you on this show too, of your story. That’s great. I want to ask you another question. I know nonprofit life is difficult because of resources, funding, and getting out there. What advice would you give to other folks around the world of who started the nonprofit, who are thinking about it? What advice would you give to them that you wish you had based on what you’ve learned in your career?If you’re thinking of starting, just start. Click To Tweet
If you are thinking of starting, just start. I started with a small school then growing. At one other school, it’s a full scholar community center. It’s so big now. If you are already being a nonprofit, you have to look if you are solving a problem. Often, Tyler, my Cofounder and I, always ask ourselves, “Is what we are doing now going to help them get a job at Google after they graduate high school?” Sometimes we don’t like the answer to that but we keep asking that question because it’s so easy to look at happy kids enjoying using a computer but maybe they are not doing anything. It’s realizing what are you trying to do and are you doing that? That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that get to love the people that you were walking with, that trying like, “They are calling for me, officially.” I am always with the kids. I go on class with them. I hung out with them. I love hearing their stories. I love being around them and then it looks like an investment. I’m investing in kids’ lives. I never think about, “Poor kids. Let me help this kid who is having a sad life.” I never think about that because these are like how you would help friend. Like a childhood friend you have known for so long who’s going through a rough patch.
You never think like, “I’m such a hero. I’m helping my buddy.” You never think about that. You are like, “I’m doing what I got to do.” Most people, sometimes they look at the beneficiary like it’s almost transactional. I would pass on helping them. I hate words like the less fortunate, the disadvantage. Even the word help, I don’t like that one. I like the word invest. I’m investing in these people. When you do that, you give them dignity with the way you tell the stories of impact. With the way you fundraise, and bring people onboard to invest in people the way you are investing in them.
If you look at all our social media content, you will never see on the side of the kid. Our stories are always uplifting and inspiring because we are like, “This is our friends. This is the people that we get to spend time with.” Invest in them, and give them a much better future. If anything, as a nonprofit, it’s still easy to pull their guilt route.
To say, “These kids, if you don’t help them with a computer lab, they will never catch a computer all their life. They are going to live in poverty or probably die before they are attached to you because they didn’t have any help.” It’s so easy to tell that story. That story innocence, guilt and get money immediately but that’s wrong. Get to understand the beneficiary, why you are doing it and are you solving the problem you are caring to solve? Give the beneficiaries a lot of love and dignity.
It’s still in its infancy. Now, it’s not because it’s over 4,000 kids. Have you seen them get hired yet to do good jobs?
They are integrated. Got you. Probably in the next 6 or 4 years?
Yes, and that’s the hard thing about the job is that when we work with adults, it’s hard to even have enough people who put their product but then with the kids, we keep asking ourselves, “Are we doing it? Are we preparing them?”
With this field in tech, their continues too now. A lot of things changed.
That’s what we are focusing on self-teaching because if they can teach themselves anything, then they can do anything instead of a particular skill.
Like critical thinking. I love that. Learning to learn because it may not even in tech in their career in the future. It could be something else but the skillset of teaching themselves using tech to teach themselves is something they are interested in and very skill.
We do other things outside of tech like marketing, communicating online, graphic design, and music production, all those things.
That’s huge too. 3D modeling is big now. The other question is being a leader and I know you have a cofounder and a team. You have your board as well as the beneficiaries, the teachers. As I was reading about your project and your organization, how would you say you define yourself as a leader with everyone who you interact with? What would you say? What type of actions do you do to help keep your team engaged during those rough patches?
For me, I did a lot of empathy. I try to get to know them. Again, these are people I spending so much time with. I choose my circle wisely like the people we work with, the board members we have, the people that we onboard to help us with the curriculum. Part of it is selfish like, “If I’m going to be spending so much time with these people, do I want to be spending time with them?” These people, I get to understand them. I continue to invest in them with teachers. I continued to invest in them in terms of finding them scholarships.
Now, about 60% of them are doing an online course out of UK, an online class because you got a scholarship for them to pursue higher education. Most of these teachers had given up on college because they couldn’t afford it. Not that it would be business. It’s more than about the mission, just about showing up to school and helping these kids. It’s also about like, “How can I help them succeed in their lives?”It’s more than just about the mission. It’s also about how you can help them succeed in their lives. Click To Tweet
When you do that, they become so motivated. I’m not doing it because I want them to be better employees. I genuinely care about what they do with their lives. If their life can be better, if they can leave TechLit and make more money online because then our mission is complete. What ends up happening is that when I continue to invest in them, they continue to invest in the mission and then become founders themselves.
I got to tell you this story about this guy. His name is Roki. He’s only 21 years old and joined TechLit. The way TechLit work, we do a hub and spoke model. We go into a community, open an office, and then serve about ten schools there. There a new community out in Mombasa, which is about ten hours away and we had found through school. I was lazy to go out there. I just landed. I didn’t wanted to travel anymore. I was like, “Roki, you go. Take two of the team members. You go and try to make this thing work.”
He’s only 21 and has never done any leadership role or anything like that. He goes there, rents an apartment, convert their living room into an office, and then publishes the computers. They are pulling all my chance to image the machines and get them ready for the lab. They got there on Sunday. On Tuesday, they already have the computer lab running. Now, that keeps going around.
When we went there, we only had three schools selected. He was going around and trying to get five schools already. He’s finding the schools on the Google, calling them, and telling them about TechLit and asking them if we can come. It’s so amazing. Before, if we were to hire for that role, we would hire someone with ten years of experience in scaling but by telling him, “I believe in you. You do what you got to do. Make this have to work.”
That’s such an incredible story. I love that, Nelly and that’s leadership. It’s empowering the people and helping them. I’m sure if he needs help, you are going to pick up the phone and see how you could advise him as needed.
I do them with multiply a leader. I don’t micromanage. I identify what someone is good at and then amplify that in them.
You would look at their strengths and how you can utilize the strengths in a role. I love that. It’s so great. Nelly, that’s awesome.
I’m so lazy. I like to tell people what they are good at and tell them to do it and see how it goes. The worst case in that is they fail and then start over. A big deal. It’s not that bad.
You are always there to help in case they do.
Yes. The funny thing is, in 2021, the first time we had the school running. We came in March, set up ten computer labs and were leaving in August. In March, it was Tyler and I. We didn’t have no employee. We were thinking that we are going to leave in August. We are going to leave the kids with them and they will run the program.
In August, we found a guy, Moha, who’s also the producer in the music business that we have. I do not know the guy. I knew him for two weeks. I was like, “You do good with machines. Here are the keys. You handle everything.” I give him the keys. We came back, they see and everything was amazing. He did a much better job than we will do.
Nelly, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It’s so inspiring. How can the readers invest in TechLit Africa? Tell us more about that.
The biggest impact you can make is joining the network, which is a monthly giving program. You can come in at $40 a month, $50 a month and this money 100% goes towards paying educators because they are there every single day. If we can pay for 2 educators, we are impacting about 100 kids a month because we are able to go to those schools. The impact is huge. To be able to invest monthly, that is the most impact you can make.
We always looking for other things. You can help us collect and compare donations. You can help us with image, our curriculum, marketing, and spending the word. You can do different peer-to-peer fundraisers. We have tons of assets that you can share and just spread the word. Whatever you think of, just reach out to me. My email is in the website.
It’s TechLitAfrica.org. Are you on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, all of them?
Yeah. All of them.
Thank you so much for your time, Nelly. I appreciate it. I’m excited to see what you, the TechLit Africa, your teachers, and all the students are going to do to help continue to make the world a better place. I look forward to keeping in touch.
Thank you for having me.