USAID Acting Administrator Wade Warren's Welcome Remarks at the 2017 Mandela Washington Leadership Summit

For Immediate Release

Monday, July 31, 2017
USAID Press Office
Telephone: +1.202.712.4320 | Email: | Twitter: @USAID

Hi everybody.  What a great crowd.  You've heard this already from a couple of the speakers but I just want to say, welcome to Washington.  I know that for many of you the last six weeks have been the first time that you have been to the United States, so I wanted to say, welcome to the United States.  Also, we're so happy to have you here with us.  When they asked me if I would be willing to come and speak at this event this morning, I jumped at the chance.  I've spent the majority of my career at USAID working in Africa and on African issues, both here in Washington and I also lived in Zimbabwe and Botswana, and traveled throughout the continent.

Over the course of my career, I've met so many inspiring young leaders on the continent, and so I know just how great you guys are.  As you've heard already, you are an elite group.  You beat out more than 98 percent of your peers to be here today, and I've had a chance to read some of your bios and learn more about you.  I have to say, I feel very humbled by your accomplishments.  At your age, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, what to do with my life.  But you all have already started companies; you've been elected to office; and you're changing the way your countries and your communities operate.

Take Ibrahim Djagra Ibrahim.  Ibrahim, give a shout if you're here.

From Cameroon.  Ibrahim founded the first private center to fight radicalization, violent extremism, and terrorism, in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Or Dr. Damilola Olabisi Akinsulire from Nigeria.  Says to give me a wave, but I think that will do.  I think that will do instead.

Dr. Akinsulire provides cancer screening and other lifesaving services to more than 400 girls every month in Nigeria.

Thabo Joy Masiye from Zambia.  She works to address unemployment and recidivism in Zambia.  She runs regular jewelry making workshops that bring young people and inmates together to learn employable skills and bridge societal divides.  And these are just a few examples.  You're all heroes in your own way or you wouldn't be here.  You inspire me.  You're the future of your communities and your countries, and it's people like you, who make our work at USAID possible.

Nelson Mandela once said, "Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great."  And we want to help you be great.  We designed this fellowship to build on the foundations of leadership that each of you have already laid.  You all bring important skills, abilities, and experiences, to the table, and you each already know what it means to be a leader.  You understand that leadership doesn't come from seniority or titles.  It comes from your ability to inspire and to empower others.  It comes not just from a willingness, but an active desire to incorporate diverse opinions, embrace differences and collaborate with uncommon partners.

Each of you embraces a duty that goes beyond job descriptions or defined roles, and you strive to change your community for the better in any way possible, bringing your full self to each task.  You're the embodiment of hope, and when you leave Washington you will join the ranks of thousands of young leaders who've been asked to change your nations for the better.  

You're joining people like Simon Ojok.  Simon was a 2016 fellow who returned home to Uganda and used his experience with beekeeping to start a nonprofit called, "HIVE Uganda."  Through HIVE, Simon teaches beekeeping to visually impaired people from rural communities, providing them with meaningful economic opportunities.  Being partially blind himself, he knows how hard it is to maintain your independence if you're visually impaired.

But he's been able to overcome the odds, and last month Simon became one of the first three winners of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, receiving $25,000 to expand and grow.

Like Simon, when you get home, you're going to have a chance to take what you've learned and pair it with what you already know to build something new.  And I'm confident that together you will reach millions of people.  And reaching millions in Africa is crucial.  Africa is changing rapidly.  Between now and 2050, more than half of the world's population growth will occur on the continent.  Nigeria will overtake the United States as the third most populous country in the world.

This is going to happen as an incredibly young population comes into its own and begins to shape the future of the continent.  Today, the average African leader is 65 years old and the average African is 19.  It won't always be this way.  Soon, you'll be the ones running government, corporations and major nonprofits, and as you do, you'll build on your years of progress.  

In Africa, as around the world, we've seen dramatic reductions in extreme poverty.  The health of Africans, particularly children, has improved significantly, and more African countries are holding regular elections that meet international standards for credibility.  This, as Africa has seen among the highest rates of economic growth in the world.  So, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.  But there are still many big challenges for all of you to take on.  While the percentage of Africans living in poverty declines, the absolute number of poor continues to grow.  300,000,000 Africans don't have clean water and are at risk of disease, and too many people remain in the dark because of limited access to electricity and weak infrastructure.  These are significant hurdles but I'd ask you to look at them as opportunities.  Think big.  Bring your experience, energy, and fresh perspective to the table. As young African leaders, you know that Africa is more than its caricature: poverty, disease, corruption, and war.  You understand the strength of African communities and their rich tradition of supporting those in need.  You understand the joy, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit with which people across the continent approach their lives, problems and opportunities.  Your leadership journey did not start when you became a Nelson Mandela Washington Fellow, and it doesn't end when you leave the United States.  I'm decades ahead of you in my own leadership journey, and I'm still learning.  I still need lots of guidance and advice, some days more than others, as my colleagues will tell you.  We know you're no different.  So, we're going to stand by you and give you a hand when needed. 

On Wednesday at this summit, you'll hear about additional opportunities such as mentorships and professional practicums that will be available to you once you return home.  I encourage you to take advantage of these and continue to build your leadership skills and expand your personal and professional networks.  In fact, there are several 2016 Mandela Washington Fellows here today who are to give you some advice later this morning.  I've met a few of them already.  Can those who are here from the 2016 Fellows give a shout?  Most of them are backstage, all right.  They're here.  We brought these folks to the Summit to talk to you about what's next, share their lessons learned, and answer your questions.  They each serve on one of our three regional advisory boards, and we can't thank them enough for being here.  Over the next year, the boards they serve on are going to be your connection to the vast network of Fellows and to USAID.  So please make sure to visit their booth at the Partnership Expo.  And also keep in mind that the people in this room are just a small fraction of the YALI community.  YALI has grown tremendously since it was launched in 2010.  When you return home, you'll join 2000 Mandela Washington Fellowship alumni, and more than 5,600 graduates of the YALI regional leadership centers.  You'll also have access to more than a half a million members of our YALI network.  Make use of those resources.  Every member of the network is just as hungry for change and progress as you are and is open to partnership or collaboration.

Before I leave you, I'm going to share some final advice.  You get to do that when you have gray hair like I do.  First, I want to warn you, when you return home you're going to get swept up in your day-to-day cares and concerns.  You'll have job responsibilities, family responsibilities.  You're going to want to spend time with your friends, of course.  But even so, take a moment to step back and consider what you have accomplished.  Set aside some time and take stock.  You should be proud of yourselves.  You should be encouraged and confident and excited about the future.  Make that a habit. Check in on your growth and give yourself a congratulations every few months whenever you've accomplished something that you've done, and take note of ways that you can also continue to improve.  As I said earlier, life is a journey and you never stop learning.  Embrace that truth and it will take you far. 

Second, I'm going to borrow another thought from Nelson Mandela because he knew a thing or two about leadership.  He said, "Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."  It's not fun to hear, but you're not always going to succeed. Sometimes you're going to fail.  That's okay, we all do.  You learn from it.  It makes you better.  It makes you stronger.  The important thing is that you get up, learn from your mistakes, and try again.

Which brings me to my third point and final point.  Things are going to be hard sometimes, but it will be easier for you if you have a community that supports and inspires you.  Connect with likeminded people.  There are a lot of them right here in this room.  And hold each other accountable.  Whether you're looking for a thought partner to brainstorm new ideas, a mentor to stimulate personal and professional growth, or a business partner to help scale up your successes, these relationships will be valuable sources of information, connections and opportunities.  

I'm going to leave it at that.  I just want to say again how inspired I am by all of you.  I quoted Nelson Mandela saying, sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, but there was more to that quote.  The rest of the quote was, "you can be that great generation."  I believe that, and so thank you again for having me here.  I'm really happy to be part of the opening of the Summit.  Congratulations.