Rye Barcott of Carolina for Kibera: A Marine’s Take on the Power of Social Entrepreneurship

Photo Credit: Jason Arthurs

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 High School: 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.

KWHS: 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.

KWHS: 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.

KWHS: Another word that appears in the book frequently is “leadership.” You mention meeting people who you say are leaders. What is it that you see in a teenager who is a leader?

Barcott: I wasn’t always a good judge of that, and that’s part of the reason why I included different stories in the book.

Along the way, the most important value that made [me understand leadership] was one that the military helps instill: Integrity. Integrity means being true to not only yourself, but also to the collective. Leaders have to embody integrity at an individual level, and then nurture that within an organization.

It’s one of the challenges that people often face in situations of dire need — you have to confront tradeoffs that can be excruciating, while staying true to yourself. In that type of environment, it is all the more difficult.

At 12, 13, 14 years old, most kids have the capacity to lead and those skills can be developed. But it does take mentors and positive role models. That’s why our greatest mission in Kibera is to assist role models. That creates a powerful multiplier effect. If you’re 12 years old and you can look at the 16 year old, who’s coaching you in a positive way, you can cross a barrier and say, “Wow, that might be possible.”

I didn’t fully answer your question about whether there are qualities and characteristics that I look for when I meet individuals, in part because I’ve been humbled by the fact that the characteristics that you assume make a leader [aren’t always right] – for example, it’s very easy to look for people who are like you, who mirror your own leadership. But oftentimes the strongest teams are those that have complementary approaches, with the exception of that one value — integrity. And without trust, forget it — it’s be impossible to build social change.

KWHS: So you’re saying leadership can be learned, while others say it can’t be.

Barcott: Absolutely. That’s why I try in the book to give a deep and rich portrait of some of my mentors, like my mother and father. They created an environment where I was able to develop the self-confidence that is often a central attribute [of leadership] but that was checked with a large dose of humility about how much in life is determined by timing and the good fortune about where you were born.

KWHS: You’ve traveled to many different parts of the world, so you might be well placed to observe whether or how culture is important for leadership.

Barcott: In the U.S., it’s often culturally acceptable to be self-promotional, to be louder, to make your voice heard. If you tried to apply that in other places, like Kenya, you could be doomed to failure from the outset. One of the largest pieces of participatory leadership is the old-fashioned skill of listening. To be an effective do-er, you have to be a really good listener.

On that point, one of the most challenging things about going to business school [after military service in Bosnia and Iraq] for me — and other veteran military who served and went on to business school — was having to adapt to the culture of the pursuit of self interest, and recognizing the reality that most people are motivated to some degree by self interest, but not particularly by the overarching mission of the organization. I believe the [essence of a] business is never to make money. That is an outcome, not the driving reason why businesses exist. Leaders have to have a broad sense of the contributions of the organization besides the generation of wealth for a small congregation of individuals.

The reason why the veterans wrestled with that was because the military is a service-based organization, and it values the group over the individual. The surest way to be a failure in the military is to be a big self-promoter and to lose sight of what really matters, which is not the success of you but of the unit.

KWHS: The book ends at around 2008. What’s happened since then?

Barcott: There’s been a lot of dynamic things going on. Salim — one of the co-founders to whom the book is dedicated along with Tabitha — went on to earn a Master’s degree at University of Manchester [in the U.K.] He never had an opportunity to go to college, but there’s this unique Master’s at Manchester. He graduated with distinctions, in December 2010. He’s now the first-ever East Africa representative of Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs.

Salim is still part of CFK. He’s a board member, but not involved in the organization on a day-to-day basis. Like me.

KWHS: What’s changed, and what’s remained the same in Kibera since you arrived there as a young undergraduate?

Barcott: When the book ends, Salim and I are standing on a rooftop and Kibera looks very much the same as when I arrived. Conditions are still frighteningly appalling. But the change we see is with individual’s lives within that community. We see the development of self-esteem and confidence.

Poverty can also be a frame of mind. There’s a political scientist, who speaks of a cohesion of oppression, where you start to conform to lower expectations and you don’t [see] the possibilities that are out there and attainable.

KWHS: In the book, there seems to be a frustration that there aren’t only ethnic tensions holding back these communities, but also, and arguably more so, there are economic and political tensions.

Barcott: There were large political figures using the city to divide rather than unite. What CFK tries to do through sports is build teams rooted in trust that can withstand the forces of violence…. The most effective way to fight [those tensions] with limited resources is to invest in the proverbial next generation, because it’s unlikely you’re going to change the mentality of the so-called big men who run much of the Kenyan government.

The youth are hungry not only for change but to be a part of it. That’s what we’re seeing across North Africa — young people taking action to create a better future. The speed is so dramatic — and the demographics are like sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half the population is younger than 15. These countries cannot afford to not engage their young leaders. It’s either a time bomb, or a different trajectory is possible if individuals and governments take more of a participatory approach, take a long view for change and recognize that effective change rarely comes from the outside. They have to be adopted from within. Just because someone lives on less than $1 a day or lives in a slum doesn’t mean that they’re not capable, talented and ambitious and worthy of your investment. It’s the ethos of our organization.

KWHS: What are the things that helped you in the military that you learned while in Kibera and vice versa?

Barcott: We touched on one crucial thing from the military — integrity — and the ability to find a collective mission and recognize that setbacks are going to come but to push on through them. Some may call it perseverance. That sounds a bit lofty. Some people call it stubbornness. That may be more characteristic of the approach. The third part is confronting your fears and recognizing where your tolerance is, especially as a young person, and testing it. Go to places where you may not be comfortable, [even if] that means going up to professor after class and asking for help.

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