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Developing the Next Generation of African Leaders: Meet Siebel Scholar Chris Bradford

Opportunity, it has been said, is there for the taking. Grappling with the idea of purpose driven education, Siebel Scholar Chris Bradford (’05) found himself at a crossroads of sorts. He’d arrived at Stanford Graduate School of Business after having taught at an English boarding school where the majority of students were from wealthy African families. He remembers asking what their career goals were with most of them replying “Engineering.” However, he knew that wasn’t really their dream but those of their parents. He wanted to figure out how he could help build the next generation of leaders on the continent.
As luck would have it, Fred Swaniker had the same dream and both recognized that there were equally gifted students locked out of educational opportunities via the circumstance of being poor. Both wondered if there was a different type of school that could prepare these students to become change makers at home. They realized they could build a world class school in Africa and fund the students via scholarships and the African Leadership Academy (ALA) was born. Located in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, ALA seeks to transform Africa by developing and supporting future generations. To date, there are 1,180 young leaders in the network who come from 46 countries and have started a total of 177 ventures.
We sat down with Chris to learn more about the ALA journey.
11 years later, how has your perspective on leading evolved or changed?
To be frank, working in Africa has shown me the limitations of what it’s like to be a white American in the midst of creating an ecosystem for the students ALA serves. To combat this, I’ve been very intentional about surrounding myself with people who have more knowledge and are more relevant role models. In building ALA, I’ve learned that it’s not about what you do, it’s how you put a team together that is stronger and smarter than you in every possible way. ALA is what it is because we saw an opportunity to attract people way smarter than us and even more passionate about this dream because they’ve walked the dream of aspiring for these things themselves. 
What’s the most common question you get?
The funding community always asks me about scale and growth (i.e. when are you going to build more schools?) For the communities we’re seeking to serve, we want to be very intentional about the ecosystem. There are 5,000 students that go to schools funded by ALA alumni and that number is growing every year. These alumni go off to major universities and come back home to build the ecosystem so that they can lead change on the continent over the coming decade. 
Tell us more about how alumni are impacting the ecosystem.
They come back home to build because it’s part of the culture we build at ALA. There are immense opportunities on the continent and very few schools or universities experiences that focus on imagining Africa as a land of opportunity. We intentionally build a community that portrays Africa as a land of opportunity. When we put the students into contact with a network that believes in this, it creates a snowball effect to want the same things. I’ll share the story of one student who grew up in Zambia. A major issue in his community is international crime-driven poaching. He thought if he could understand the traffic patterns of the animals, he could help reduce this. He studied in Ohio, then lived in Silicon Valley and came home after his visa timed out. With his friend, they are now building an AI startup that uses drone activity to monitor the animals.
What are the challenges of running an organization like this?
Our biggest challenge is how you build a great team and capacity to succeed yourself. ALA’s success is that it will be better than ever 10 years from now and that the new leadership won’t be a white male or founder.
How are you preparing ALA to be bigger and better after you?
Two of the things I think about constantly are ways to measure success realistically and how to manage complexity. We’re extremely lucky that others want to partner with us and come to the table with ideas, especially around strategic partnerships. We spend a good bit of time sorting out what we should do versus what we can do. We’ve been approached with lots of opportunities and try to focus on where we can have the most success. One guiding question for us is do these partnerships match up with the core competencies of ALA and serve the leaders we are trying to build? The outcome we want is to be very cognizant of how ALA expands its scope without diluting the focus on Africa’s future.
What does the future look like for ALA?
One of our strategic goals is coming to fruition: we’re building an accelerator which is a program that supports the building of these networks. It’s a crash course MBA program over the next 2 years to build their enterprises. We’re also building schools in Uganda to serve an unbanked community of parents who are illiterate. We’re also building in Sudan where there’s not been a school before. We’re also thinking heavily about our funding. About 90% of our student body is on financial aid, and about 50% come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have growing streams of revenue but do rely on donors globally. I’m always open to talking to organizations that support growing entrepreneurs.
If you could write a message to the 2020 Siebel Scholars, what would it say?
When you’re a grad student, you have an amazing opportunity to imagine what’s possible for yourself. When you receive the Siebel Scholar award, you’re getting an investment in that version of yourself - make the most of it and dream the big dream!
Learn more about the African Leadership Academy here