On Monday May 21st, Carnegie Mellon University Africa (CMU-Africa) hosted Mrs. Tstisi Masiyiwa, Executive Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Higherlife Foundation, as part of CMU-Africa’s ongoing Distinguished Lecture Series. The series is a long-standing tradition, that brings in industry leaders from across the globe to speak on a variety of topics from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence to space exploration. Through its partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, CMU-Africa has been able to expand this series with a focus on influential African leaders that can inspire students to have transformative impact in their communities.
CMU-Africa is most well known for producing engineers and technologists. However, its mission goes well above producing high quality technical talent. During her opening remarks, Director of Strategy and Operations, Crystal Rugege said “we want our students to leave CMU-Africa with a master’s degree in engineering—that is grounded in leadership, integrity, empathy, and a commitment to improving the human condition.” Given Mrs. Masiyiwa’s passion for youth, education, and philanthropy, CMU-Africa invited her to speak to its students, as well as other students from local universities and young leaders from various organizations.
Mrs. Masiyiwa’s fireside chat on “Servant Leadership: cultivating a culture of service and philanthropy in the African context” traced her journey of giving starting from her lowest point – economically and socially – in the late 80s and 90s, at a time when her and husband’s business was struggling with no relief in sight, and the HIV epidemic was claiming the lives of friends, family, and employees. She felt compelled to help out in any way she could. Relying strongly on faith, she and her husband began their giving journey by helping to care for 12 orphans. From those humble beginnings, their foundation has supported the education of over 250,000 young people. Through an online learning platform, they are educating and mentoring 1.2 million young people with a goal of creating 2 million leaders by 2050.
When discussing what it means to truly give, Mrs. Masiyiwa noted, it is important to connect with those you are trying to help. My ethos is we go where the people are, we eat what they eat, and we sleep where they sleep. We sit with them and hear their stories so that we can better help them achieve their God-given dreams and purposes. Stressing the importance of an authentic connection, Mrs. Masiyiwa stated that there is no one definition of servant leadership. Rather, one must carry out research to determine one’s own unique journey of service. Her personal journey of servant leadership, however, is driven by love: You have to love your neighbor as you love yourself, because when you do that, you are able to reach out and authentically bring about change.
Philanthropy, however, is not simply about giving. Mrs. Masiyiwa emphasized that one has to be strategic in their approach and have a long-term mindset. In addition, it is important to be open and transparent, to have integrity and humility, and to acknowledge that many hard decisions will have to be made along the way. This, coupled with having a vision for one’s community and one’s country are what have contributed to Mrs. Masiyiwa’s journey as a philanthropist.
The talk was attended by young people representing the University of Rwanda, African Leadership University, African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Akilah Institute, Kepler University, Fawe Girls’ School, Kigali Global Shapers, as well as young entrepreneurs and change makers. Also in attendance were representatives of the Higherlife Foundation, Imbuto Foundation and Liquid Telecom. Closing remarks were given by Hon. Rosemary Mbabazi, Rwanda’s Minister of Youth who encouraged all youth to follow Mrs. Masiyiwa’s example and realize that “leadership is not a position, it’s your ability to influence your environment, your school, your family, and your community. Don’t wait for a position in order to act. Act now. The leadership is in you.”