The following interview is part of a class assignment for Entrepreneurship and the Hero Adventure at SMU, Meadows School of the Arts. Each interview has been conducted and created by students for this course, which celebrates those heroes in our communities. Heroism, for the purpose of this course and assignment is described as:
- Service of something larger than oneself.
- A willingness to sacrifice in the name of service.
Author: SMU student Avery Hanson
Alexis Hefley graduated from Texas A&M and worked in banking for 10 years. She began to think there was more to her journey and so she began to ask God for her purpose. She began to explore different areas, which led to her going on a fast for one week. After the fast was over, Alexis felt a new found freedom she had never felt before. That freedom gave her the courage to quit her job in banking two weeks after the fast. She moved to D.C. shortly after quitting her job and met a Congressman and his wife. They were both involved with third world countries, so Alexis’ began to learn more about the global issues of AIDS and the number of orphans and vulnerable children in Uganda. Impacted by the new information, Alexis went to Uganda in 1993 to meet the First Lady of Uganda because the Congressman had a close friendship with the President of Uganda.
Going to a country that is not spoken about a lot, and when talked about, it is usually negative, is a frightening thing to do. Alexis wanted to step out of the norm and want to see the unexpected; so going to Uganda was the first step in the process of accomplishing that. She wanted go outside the bounds of her usual social expectations. She ended up living in Uganda for a year and a half. Alexis had heard about a Ugandan nun by the name of Sister Rose Muyinza who had been caring for orphans since 1972. Alexis kindly asked the First Lady if she could leave and continue her work in Uganda with orphans and vulnerable children by helping Sister Rose and work in her orphanages.
Alexis finally returned to the U.S. to bring awareness to what she had experienced in Uganda. She started a non-profit that she ran for 10 ½ years, but left in 2006 because she wanted to found another non-profit with a different philosophy. Alexis partnered with Donna Malouf and cofounded Empower African Children with a different mission. Their mission was based on scholarships, not sponsorships and a deeper investment in young peoples lives. They started partnerships with schools in Uganda that the organization would recruit children from. The organization strives at helping the children develop the right tools to live a successful life; they create confidence into the child’s mind by teaching them how to be skillful and leaders. This organization gives children that have so much potential, but don’t have the necessary resources to succeed, the full opportunity to develop them for what they are capable of doing in their life.
Alexis and her team work in a little warehouse-like office, and she has an accountant that works once a week for them, and a man who works with the computer company, QHT and IT consultants, to help the organization with computer and technical difficulties. They have main jobs, but choose to lend their time to Alexis and her organization to help them succeed at their goals. The organization also has two social enterprise programs called Spirit of Uganda, and Uwezo Brands. Spirit of Uganda is a performing arts program and dance company that travels the United States every two years. There are 22 children involved and their goal is to help bridge the gap between the two continents, Africa and America. Uwezo is a shoe that Alexis saw in Uganda that she became interested in so she contacted the manufacturer, which was located in Kenya. Empower African Children made about 15 different changes from the original shoe to be able to be imported to the U.S. for purchase. Using Uwezo, they are trying to make it it’s own for-profit organization that all the proceeds will go to providing scholarships to the schools at Uganda.
Alexis continues to go to Uganda about four times a year, and with most visits, she brings different groups or organizations to educate them about Uganda, because the media, most the times, associates negative things with Africa. Empower African Children is different because it is all about good news, and investing in the potential of the children, not the negativity that surrounds them. Alexis agrees that there are challenges, but there are also great opportunities.
Empower African Children have partners in Africa and in the United States. The partners in Uganda help with networking skills, not so much with money as the U.S. partners do. The partners help with tutoring, learning skills, and critical thinking skills that each student is provided with. The U.S. partners are “more like relationships,” says Alexis; because they have the different visitors go over to Uganda with the organization to help lead different programs with the children. 90% of the funding for the organization comes from individual donors, 10% comes from other foundations, and 5% comes from corporations. Empower African Children is an organization that requires a lot of connections, and for them, the connections aren’t hard to find because of their selfless cause.
Empower African Children were lucky enough to have Macy’s publish a book on their behalf and had their dance company, Spirit of Uganda, perform at a few fashion shows that Macy’s presents every year, to raise money for aids. Macy’s also featured their shoes; Uwezo’s in one of their fashion shows in San Francisco. Even though Macy’s and Empower African Children do not have an ongoing partnership, Macy’s wanted to help sponsor the organization for several years.
Alexis’ advice for young entrepreneurs entering the market after college was to not start a new nonprofit, but to join efforts with another organization that is the closest to what they want to do or envision. She believes there is too much duplication in nonprofits and thinks it would make a greater impact to join efforts. Alexis also states that “Financial resources are important in starting a company or nonprofit—make sure you have a good runway of financial support—at the very least 6 months of operating capital and a realistic and great strategic plan for 3 to 5 years.” She strongly insists on making sure you are not in anything alone, and to make connections with people who are willing to help you succeed.