The SMU Tower Center and its programs strive to influence the next generation of leaders. One of these leaders is Thomas Schmedding ’17. At only the age of 24, Thomas has created and implemented solutions to combat food shortages in Kenya and Somalia, and is now helping to develop a leadership program for young African leaders. He credits much of what he has accomplished to what he learned from SMU and the training he received from the SMU Tower Center. We spoke with him recently and he told us more about his time in East Africa and his plans for the future.
After graduating, I moved to Kenya, where I eventually co-founded and led business development at FreshBox, a social enterprise paving the way for solar-powered cold storage in East African produce markets. Today, I am the Director of Operations for the African Leadership Group, an ecosystem of institutions and innovative leadership development programs democratizing access to quality education, enabling meaningful employment opportunities, and equipping the next generation of African leaders to capture the continent’s greatest opportunities. Both of these roles require a complex navigation of domestic and international public policy; a keen understanding of current events and the downstream impacts they have on the private sector; and exposure to a broad network of problem solvers and change makers. Fortunately, the Tower Center helped cultivate this toolkit while I was a student.
It was when I was initially working in East Africa that I learned much of the perishable food (i.e. fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, and fish) produced is lost or wasted. This is extremely detrimental in areas where food insecurity is high. What these areas lacked was a simple solution, large commercial cooling units that would help preserve fruits and vegetables for longer periods of time. My time at SMU and in the Tower Scholars program made me comfortable and confident to explore what actionable public policy items could be implemented to make a difference.
Through the Tower Scholars program, I learned how to navigate a complex web of laws and policies and take these laws and apply to real world practices. This meant a lot of desk research and sitting down with local and regional government officials learning how to ethically and legally set up an organization in this context. Once created, FreshBox grew quickly; and now, these cold storage systems provide more reliable revenues to the retailers and provide more consistently available produce to the citizens in these communities.
It was during the time that we were transitioning the organization to local management that I saw a need to help develop the next generation of African problem-solvers and innovators. With Africa poised to be the world’s largest workforce in just 15 years (surpassing China and India), I decided to join the African Leadership Group’s mission to create leadership capacity for 40% of the world’s population.
My career and outlook on life are driven by an emphasis on social responsibility. Through my engagements at the Tower Center, I became active in the DFW community and began to understand the multi-faceted challenges that require an intersection of public, private, and social sector resources. I carry this approach with me today and now understand the role adequate public policy can play in solving some of the world’s most complex issues.
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