Elizabeth Dearborn Davis went to Rwanda at age 22, armed with nothing more than a pedigree education from Vanderbilt University.
She didn’t speak the language. She had no relatives or friends there to give her support. There was no job waiting for her.
But what she did have was boundless energy, a resourceful brain and business skills and a stubborn determination to make a difference in the war-torn country.
And in just five years, this South Tampa woman accomplished a seemingly impossible mission when she co-founded the Akilah (“wisdom” in Swahili)) Institute for Women, a nationally accredited college that offers degrees in hospitality management, information systems and entrepreneurship.
I told her story in 2011, 18 months after the school opened. I promised her then that I would watch her progress so I could report back to Tribune readers. Many of you from the Tampa Bay area are big supporters of this nonprofit initiative, from funding building projects to providing money for scholarships.
This month seemed like the perfect time to catch up with Elizabeth, with so much attention on this African nation. It’s the 20th anniversary of a swift and horrific genocide that stands out as one of the worst in modern times.
In 100 days in 1994, nearly 1 million people were raped, tortured and slaughtered, wiping out generations of families living in once-bustling villages. Given that ethnic conflict had embroiled the country for decades, much of the world paid little notice to the Rwandan bloodbath.
But this young American woman did. After reading an article on the genocide in “The Economist” while in college, she became singularly focused on the country’s history and what she could do to be part of a massive change.
What she has accomplished in just the time since we last spoke is truly remarkable.
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She has a new name now — Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes. In 2012, she married Dave Hughes, her Akilah co-founder. The Hong Kong native had been working in property development and investments in London when he Googled “volunteer opportunities in Rwanda.” That fateful click led him to the woman who would become his wife.
Their daughter, Lorraine Fowler Hughes, arrived 13 months ago. (The baby’s middle name is a nod to Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother, Maud Fowler, a successful developer and the first vice mayor of Temple Terrace, the town she helped found in the 1920s.) Always a multi-tasker, Elizabeth continues her fast pace, only now she has a toddler on her hip half the time.
And what of Akilah, which had just started with its first class? So far, it has graduated two classes from the three-year program. Of those 95 students, 94 percent have full-time professional careers, with large corporations such as Marriott or launching their own companies.
Mind you, these are Rwandan women. Women who once had no such hope of a professional career or a college education.
Elizabeth knew that opportunities and open doors can change everything. She and her three sisters all had choices, growing up in a home where education and community service were always stressed by her parents, Cody and Beth Davis. She also got some of her zeal for service from her uncle, former U.S. Rep Jim Davis.
“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born into such a supportive environment,” she says. “Dave and I wanted to make that kind of environment in a place where it had never been.”
The main campus is based in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a country she says is “fully on the path of restoration” from its bloody past. A second campus opened in January in Burundi, a country south of Rwanda.
Akilah’s staff has grown from eight to 45, and its annual operating budget from $200,000 to $2.2 million. Beth still volunteers as the chief operating officer, working out of donated space in Cody’s law office in downtown Tampa.
“I’ll work until Akilah outgrows me and needs someone who can take it to the next level,” Beth says. And with her daughters spread all over the world — Rwanda, Hong Kong, Pennsylvania and Chicago, all in careers or pursuing degrees — she and Cody would like more freedom to travel and visit them.
“We’ve always encouraged our girls to go out in the world and make incredible experiences,” she says, laughing. “Well, the downside of that is that they’re gone. So we have to go to them.”
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Since Akilah is a work in progress, Elizabeth has had to make some adjustments along the way. A few years ago, she launched a $3 million fundraising effort to build a boarding facility on government-donated land so the students could stay on campus.
But they learned that many of the women need to return home so they can work in their off hours and support their families. Akilah’s board also didn’t want the institute to be regulated by government restrictions.
“Our independence is important,” she says. “We returned the land and we made some changes.” That includes using Akilah as a model in other countries. So instead of having one mega-campus, she now envisions satellite operations in several countries where women don’t have access to a program like this.
Tuition is $3,500 a year — a princely sum in a country where the median household income is $1,100. But donations from individuals and foundations will pay up to $3,000 per student for scholarships.
Elizabeth believes in accountability, particularly when it comes to showing donors that their dollars are wisely spent. So Akilah makes it a priority to track each student’s progress and measure the impact the education she receives has on her life, her family’s life and the country’s economy.
“It may take years to see the ripple effect of what an education and employment will have, but we already know it’s making a difference,” she says.
And she also brings students on her tours around the world to drum up support, so donors can meet the women and personally hear their stories. That is an invaluable way to demonstrate the positive influence of the Akilah program. That fundraising is essential if Elizabeth is to make her ambitious goal: to graduate at least 1,500 women by 2020. She’ll be bringing the 2015 student class president with her to a luncheon Thursday at the Tampa Museum of Art.
There are risks for women who pursue their education in Africa. Earlier this month, some 100 women were kidnapped from a school in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram (which translates to “Western education is forbidden”). Though Rwanda is 1,500 miles away and has different religions and cultures than Nigeria, Elizabeth says news like that just illustrates the challenges females endure, whether it manifests in extreme poverty or violence. And it only confirms the necessity of her mission.
There’s a personal price to pay in making Rwanda her home. It takes 24 hours to travel back to the United States, which means she can’t get home as often as she would like. But on the plus side, Kigali is now home, a place where relationships have deepened and progress is being made. She no longer is the outsider. She belongs.
“God has put his hands on Rwanda and has taught the people about forgiveness and reconciliation,” she says. “That is nothing short of miraculous, when you consider what happened here just 20 years ago. I’m grateful to be a small part of the good things happening in this country.”