Webale Nyo: Life Lessons from Uganda
When Steve Sprieser arrived at Illinois he brought him a passion for making a difference in the lives of others. As a Vernon Hills High School student, Sprieser had worked with others to raise $40,000, which was used to construct a primary school in rural Uganda.
As he acquired new skills in his new business classes, he envisioned taking the Uganda project to the next level. This time, it would be done from a business perspective. “My mission,” he says, “was to conduct economic development through business and economic education for low-literate learners, an often-missed demographic.”
Sprieser connected with Professor Viswanathan, Dean Collette Niland, and the principals at Illinois Business Consulting—the College student consulting group—who helped him to secure funding and to organize his return to the school in Uganda. Generous financial support was provided by George and Amanda Hanley, regular benefactors of the College of Business.
This past summer, Sprieser travelled to Uganda to teach 25 low-literate Ugandan citizens business skills that will help them to make the most of their limited resources. With direction from Professor Viswanathan, he gave a one day seminar on the function of marketplaces, how to be a better consumer, and the basics of building a small business.
Upon returning, happy and tired, Sprieser sent the following thank-you to his many supporters.
Dear Friends and Family,
Now that the jet lag is behind me and I have actually had time to contemplate that I was actually in Africa, I want to thank each and every one of you for your support over the past 18 months.
In some way, each of you provided some sort of inspiration, encouragement, and support leading up to the last two weeks, from the "good luck in Uganda," my colleagues preparing months-long pro-bono consulting reports for aid agencies, giving me advice about what to expect in a developing country, assisting in the numerous logistics preparations, accompanying me in countless meeting, providing financial support for our university's efforts in Uganda, and finally being there when it was needed the most, and everything in between.
The trip was a blur - a time of both utter relaxation from no communication with the outside world, as well as a time of important and much needed work. We began in London and soon moved on to Entebbe, Uganda, from which we took the two hour drive to Kapeeka, Uganda, our home for the next 12 days. Uganda is a beautiful country and by far one of the most gorgeous places I will ever travel to in the world. Further, the cheers and waves could be seen in every block we walked or drove: "Mzungu! Mzungu," the children would shout, which means "white person." Given my Irish skin, this meant I was "very Mzungu!" We visited secondary schools and elementary schools, as well as vocational schools and clinics. Along the way, I was able to conduct several interviews with entrepreneurs and farmers, some of whom have in turn trained over 2000 farmers each. This culminated in a one-day seminar on marketplace, entrepreneurial, and consumer literacy, which I taught with the help of three very dedicated assistants (Annette, Joseph, and Harriet).
I found that regardless of the successes and failures I have had as an entrepreneur, these all were dwarfed in comparison to the joys that came with teaching - and more importantly, listening and learning - from those who are experts on poverty. At the end of the day, several entrepreneurs came up and expressed immense thanks for all we had done, and listed many of their needs, which they hoped we could assist with in the future. The people of Uganda are hard-working, ambitious, and have tremendous tacit knowledge. They, to put it simply, lack access to many of the resources we have in America. This is not fair.
As I went on and met some of the brightest and most motivated students and business owners, I could see in their eyes the appreciation they had for all Vernon Hills High School and the University of Illinois has done in the past few years. And just like how it started, the trip was over and we were wheels down at O'Hare.
In the time following our departure from Uganda, I put together a list of life lessons learned from the people of Uganda:
1. Be thankful for what you have (the grass may be greener on the other side, but someone feels the same way about you).
2. Be hospitable (treat those who care for you and about you like royalty).
3. Learn to both laugh and cry in the same day (we saw both the joys and sorrows of those living in Uganda).
4. Take time to get exercise (the children in Uganda walk several miles to school. Every day.).
5. Appreciate nature (we live in a beautiful world where we are its stewards).
6. Embrace diversity (this was the first time ever that I, a white, middle-class male, was a minority).
7. Eat smaller portions (I was fine consuming 2/3 as many calories as I normally do in the United States).
8. If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down (this should not require an explanation).
9. Enjoy some time every week for relaxation, especially with your family and friends (you only live once).
10. Do what you love (this was echoed by every entrepreneur and farmer I met for why they chose the path they did).
And so, I too, chose what I loved. Any fatigue and sickness on the trip paled in comparison to the joy and love each of you provided over the last 18 months. No words can express how grateful I, and the Ugandan beneficiaries of our work, are with your assistance. It has become a personal mission of mine to ensure that the University of Illinois can make available its immense amount of resources for the developing world, accessible to those in rural Uganda. We aim to build a business instructional facility that in turn has the potential to reach thousands of farmers and business owners. This CASE (Centers for Agriculture, Sustainability, and Entrepreneurship Education) will make available strategic resources to scale agriculture and entrepreneurship in the people of a struggling nation.
I end with a quote from a Ugandan friend, regarding how you too can continue to help as we scale this project in the future: "When people tell me they want to donate money, I tell them I do not need their money. I need something entirely different. I need their hearts. The money will follow."
We will build that school.
Webale nyo (Thank you),
University of Illinois | College of Business
Information Systems / Information Technology
Class of 2014
Consultant | Illinois Business Consulting
P.S. - While I normally do not like to single individuals out, there are six such individuals (and one group) who have gone beyond their means to make this project successful. Professor Paul Magelli donated two groups from his entrepreneurship class and colleagues of mine from Illinois Business Consulting, for two projects related to agriculture and the construction of such a business facility. Professor Madhu Viswanathan spent countless hours with our teams and provided decades worth of insight into how to develop programs for those in poverty. Dean Collette Niland worked to secure cross-campus connections for our project's many interdisciplinary needs. George Hanley graciously assisted through his scholarship, as did my travel counterpart, Principal Ellen Cwick. Richard Mugisha was my head guide in Uganda; worded differently, he had to put up with me for two weeks. Finally, I'd like to thank all my colleagues in Illinois Business Consulting who worked on projects related to Uganda for the last year. You grace this university with your efforts.