A big part of why I came to the MIT Executive MBA is MIT Sloan’s mission: to develop innovative and principled leaders who will improve the world. During the program, I applied what I learned to found the nonprofit Broken Crayon in Ghana, which is not only helping to feed and educate children by helping mothers, but also disrupting the nonprofit world.
The goal of Broken Crayon was to create a sustainable model, where we would help mothers start businesses and they would eventually pay a portion of their profits to support future groups of women. Our goal was to transition into the role of mentors within 24 months, while the mothers lead the organization.
I’m pleased to say that model is working. Today, Broken Crayon is flourishing and expanding into additional areas of the capital city. It’s become a cost-effective nonprofit with almost no overhead. Based on our one-time investments to eight women, the organization has since helped launch 38 thriving businesses. The original group of mothers have become community leaders, as they train and mentor the next groups of women entrepreneurs.I also have two more updates that show just how much the MIT Sloan mission lives on after graduation.
Small acts lead to big impact
The first one involves my daughter’s third-grade class. What started out as a simple request from her teacher to talk about poverty in Africa soon became an opportunity to show young people how they too can improve the world.
At the beginning of the talk, I gave each student a quarter and asked them to hold onto it. I then talked about what life is like for children living in slums in Ghana. When the kids asked how they can make a difference, I said they could donate things like books, clothes, school supplies, etc. As for the quarter, I said that every time they ask their parents to buy them something while they’re waiting in line at a store, to remember that a quarter is how much it costs for feed a child in Ghana for a day. I wanted them to ask themselves, “Is that pack of gum or candy that costs $1 really worth it because that amount could also feed four kids for an entire day on the other side of the world.”
One girl raised her hand and said she’d like to give her quarter to a kid in Ghana because she doesn’t need it. After that, every child proceeded to give me their quarters. It was very touching.
A few days later, the teacher reported that the kids were bringing in massive amounts of donations. This “drive” went viral and my garage and living room quickly filled up with boxes. We collected more supplies than I could possibly bring on a plane, so I ordered a shipping container to ship it all to Ghana. I kept thinking how all of this started because of one third-grade girl’s donation of a quarter!
When my cofounder Andy Pechacek (MIT EMBA class of 2012) and I visited Ghana several weeks later, we delivered the supplies to a large local school in the heart of a slum. While it was heartwarming to see the kids’ reactions to receiving their first toys ever, we also noticed something very disturbing. The school lacked toilet facilities. When the 500+ students and staff needed to relieve themselves, they had to either leave the school and use a neighbor’s home or go to the very public outdoor courtyard, which faces classrooms.
We also noticed that many of the students and teachers had scars and open cuts on their arms and legs. When we asked about it, we learned that the furniture at the school was so old and rusted, that it literally wounded people.
Andy and I were determined to fix these problems. We got quotes to build toilet facilities with indoor plumbing and running water for sanitation and order new furniture. The total for the projects was about $23,000.
Through speaking engagements, we raised money from donors to cover the cost and we recently held a ceremony to drop off all of the new furniture. The new restroom facility will open soon.
Again, I thought about how all of this started with the donation of that quarter.
The power of the MIT network to make a difference
Our second update involves our director of operations and founding board member Carl Dey, who was born in Ghana and grew up on the edge of extreme poverty. When he was an adult, he applied for a travel visa to the U.S. because he knew it would change his life. Coming to Texas on a tourist visa, he worked as a custodian at a church in exchange for Walmart gift cards.
When a parishioner heard his story, Carl was offered a scholarship to college. After he finished college, I hired him for his first job in the U.S. It was an entry level sales job and Carl was our top performing sales rep. Carl later earned his PhD and returned to Ghana, where he worked to help impoverished children.
Years later, we reconnected and formed Broken Crayon together. Holding our first board meeting for Broken Crayon at MIT, Carl came to campus and met my classmates. That night, he joined Andy, several classmates, and me for dinner, where Carl shared his incredible story.
At the end of his story, Andy asked if he ever considered going to MIT. Carl laughed at what he thought was a crazy notion. But Andy was serious. He told Carl that if he applied and was accepted to the MIT EMBA program, he would pay for it. He explained that this program not only impacts student’s lives, but it helps students make an even bigger impact in the world. Andy said that he couldn’t even imagine the type of impact Carl could make in world with an MIT Sloan education – not to mention the impact Carl would make on his classmates. Today, Carl is a member of the MIT Executive MBA Class of 2021.
The MIT Sloan mission is alive and strong not only in Ghana, but also in the lives of the program’s graduates who understand the power of this program to affect change. One person can make a big difference and together we can make an extraordinary impact.
Chris Penny, EMBA '17, is President and Founder of Broken Crayon and Cofounder and CEO of Kinetic GPO in Boston, MA.