Start-up in Senegal
Several summers ago, when Forel Kourouma went to Rwanda as part of an internship program designed to spur economic innovation there, he expected to see entrepreneurialism but found profiteering instead.
“I learned that the program was actually exploiting the communities it was supposed to serve,” says Kourouma, who graduated from Hampshire in May. “There was no equal power among shareholders, and when we left the country, the program fell apart.”
He says that as international internship programs become widespread in developing countries, many of them engage in unsustainable practices that often benefit one party, the learner, rather than a mutual relationship between interns and the community.
In response to this imbalance, Kourouma decided to right a wrong. He created Nko Abroad, an international internship program that offers a platform for US college students to work with local entrepreneurs in Senegal.
Nko, a West African writing script and the Malinke word for “I say,” signifies Kourouma’s ideal of an international internship program in which all constituencies — staff, community partners, and host-country directors — have input.
The blueprint for this venture was his Div III, Nko Abroad: An Internship Program. Combining theory and experience, he created an organization through which students can innovate with preestablished start-ups, live with host families, and experience in-country exploration activities. His Div III committee was chaired by his adviser at Hampshire, Lynda Pickbourn, assistant professor of economics, with Will Ryan, codirector of the Writing Center and a faculty associate in the School of Social Science.
Kourouma writes in the introduction to his Div III that his mission is “to foster a collaborative space where both students and communities mutually benefit from the exchange. In doing so, Nko Abroad pairs interns with preestablished start-ups that will sustain long after interns depart the communities.”
He himself has roots in West Africa. Born in Guinea, he emigrated to the United States with his family when he was a small child, leaving behind difficult political and economic conditions. The family settled in New Haven, living with Kourouma’s uncle.
Kourouma attended New Haven public schools. As a teenager, he chose New Haven’s James Hillhouse High School, which prepares students for a world of increasing diversity, technological change, and global challenges. That experience, he says, gave him a pathway to college and made Hampshire a particularly attractive choice.
“I came to Hampshire to visit,” he says. “I fell in love with the educational model. As someone interested in entrepreneurship, letter grades weren’t that important to me. Hampshire people care deeply about doing the right thing.”
During college, he traveled extensively. His Div III, he writes in the introduction, “is more than just a yearlong independent project; it is the culmination of four years of academic experience across cultures, nations, and belief systems.”
Among his best experiences was an internship designed to reduce economic barriers in Kankan, the largest city in Guinea. His placement was under the auspices of the Vermont-based experiential study-abroad program, the School for International Training (SIT). Its emphasis on respectful collaborative partnerships with organizations in host countries provided a positive model for Nko Abroad.
Kourouma plans to have Nko Abroad’s first internships under way by this December, so students can participate during their winter break.
He’s learning about business on the fly as he puts the program into action. “We have to be incorporated as an LLC,” he says, “and we have to be fiscally sponsored by a nonprofit partner abroad, so we needed a lawyer to write contracts between myself, students, and the staff in Senegal, where the first program will be.”
He chose the city of Touba as the site for his first project because it needs the service of students and there’s a network of local entrepreneurs with whom they can collaborate.
“My academic journey led me into African countries,” Kourouma says. “Traveling abroad led to a richer academic experience for me, and I want other students to have that opportunity.”