The following interview is part of the Council on African Studies’ Alumni Spotlight series featuring graduates from both the Master’s and Bachelor’s Degrees in African Studies. Simon Stumpf graduated with a BA in Anthropology and African Studies in 2006. He has spent more than a decade promoting social entrepreneurs in Africa, and he currently serves as Director of Venture and Fellowship at Ashoka US.
CAS: Would you tell us a bit about who you are and what drives you?
Simon Stumpf: My name is Simon. I am a dad of three kids, a partner to my wife, Ashley. I live in rural Wisconsin. And it’s funny – I know this is an interview for the African Studies program, so I’m not trying to get the gold star – but we do have a family motto, which we borrowed from a Sudanese proverb, which is that we give our children two things: the first is roots and the second is wings. Roots for us is being here in the Midwest, where we were raised, where we’re raising our kids in the countryside on this piece of land. But then wings is also real for me. I’ve worked for more than a decade at a global organization called Ashoka, including for the four years we were living in Nairobi, Kenya before returning to the Midwest. I have colleagues around the world. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel and have a lot of friendships with people around the world, and our kids are experiencing that too. So that drives me, to be able to maintain that balance and share that with family.
Recalling your education at Yale, what led you to choose the African Studies major?
I arrived at Yale in 2002. Up until that point I had lived most of my life in rural central Minnesota, and so I just knew college was going to be a place where I would expand my horizons and learn more about the world. I had this strong sense that what you do in college is you become a global citizen and you learn about other cultures. I didn’t go to college thinking that I would get a degree that translated into a job or that I would meet my spouse. It was really just about expanding my worldview.
I started as an anthropology major, and I had an interest in Africa, in the African continent and its people. In Minnesota, there’s a very large African immigrant population, and so I’d been exposed to the warmth and the hospitality of the African community in the Midwest. So I think that was in me. And then for the anthropology degree, a lot of the classes were also in the African Studies department and frankly, the African Studies department felt more personal and professors took more of an interest in me. So the department became my academic home at Yale.
Do you have any memories that come to mind of your experience of African Studies at Yale?
Yeah, I bet when you ask this question the majority of people talk about the language skits, right? Where you all do your skits for Swahili 101 or Hausa 202? That was for me maybe the moment where the African Studies program came together most memorably, where you just were in the physical space of the academic offices with other students. That was great.
I also did study abroad, I spent a semester in Kenya with SIT, the School for International Training out of Brattleboro, Vermont. So while it wasn’t affiliated with Yale, while in Mombasa I met up with Ann Biersteker, who was the director of Yale’s African Studies program at the time, and who taught Swahili courses in Kenya in the summer.
We do hear the languages get a lot of praise. I wonder what your next steps were after leaving Yale or after graduating? How did your African studies degree help you start out your career?
One way I’ve thought about my career path was that in high school, I would have identified as an activist, and in college, I gravitated more towards advocacy having spent my four undergraduate years running this network of chapters of college students advocating for more bilateral aid. But my time in Kenya and in Yale’s Anthropology and African Studies department really shifted my perceptions. So by the time I graduated, I gravitated towards people proximate to the challenges that they were wanting to solve, coming up with solutions themselves, oftentimes called social entrepreneurs, which is a vocabulary I’d never gotten while at Yale, but it was something that I was starting to see matched the people I was spending time with.
One of the first social entrepreneurs I really got to know was a Kenyan woman who was doing work with young kids, living on the streets. This woman had deep insights into how the system was failing these kids and how that system should shift. So upon graduation, I went back to Kenya with a research grant, but also with humility and the goal of being present and helpful to this particular organization. I saw that what I was drawn to was less the activism, the raising awareness of problems, or the advocacy of championing just one solution, and more towards partnering with and accompanying somebody who’s in it, who sees the problem in all of its complexity and sees a way forward that brings people along. And so that was clarifying.
It also didn’t last long because I didn’t understand the immigration system, and I had a tourist visa instead of my student visa, which ran out more quickly than I realized. I got kicked out of the country and found myself in Laos. Again, there was a social entrepreneur as part of the mix. I thought this will be great, but I didn’t have the skills. So those couple experiences after college, with the anthropology and African Studies background, and then this new framework that gave meaning to what I was drawn towards, social entrepreneurship, was all finally in place about a year and a half after I’d graduated.
If you Google social entrepreneurship, you get the person who coined the term, Bill Drayton, and the organization he founded is Ashoka, and this is where I landed. I deeply connected with their work, which was supporting those people who were proximate to the challenges that they’re solving with a systems-changing approach. I’ve been with Ashoka now for 13 years, and I’ve had different roles, including a four-year period where I went to help on our global program and then eventually led our East Africa operations out of Nairobi.
I wanted to give you an opportunity to spotlight some of your professional accomplishments or some of the interesting work that you do, if you have some examples that stand out that you want to share?
I’ve been around long enough that there are different life phases or chapters of my time with Ashoka. First, I found authentic, appropriate ways I could be helpful. I started in DC where I helped with the Ashoka Fellow selection process, to help represent African candidates through that process, by writing their materials, by clarifying some of the questions that our team was asking, to draw out the brilliance of social entrepreneurs from across Africa, where we were working in 19 countries at the time.
When I was with the Ashoka East Africa team, there was still this strong sense of humility. There, I think I was proud to help make connections. We have a program where, inspired by the work of many social entrepreneurs, where all of those who work with young people saw the power of putting them in charge. And so we said, this is a principle that we should make sure spreads, right? So let’s convene the many amazing youth serving organizations and help them realize is this the potential of this. Many folks have already arrived at this principle, but some orgs focused more on giving young people leadership opportunities, others on the experience of being on teams, and fewer on actually helping young people dream up and do something new.
We see all of these as key elements of what can make a really profound impact on a young person, setting them up as a changemaker for life. If they have an experience like that, they experience their power as a changemaker, and that’s with them forever, whether they draw on it 10 years from now or 10 minutes from then. It helps them know that sometimes—oftentimes—the solution might be within you. And so we rallied local organizations around this vision. We saw that some groups did the service piece really well, some groups did the leadership really well, some had a bus and some groups had a soccer pitch. We had a little bit of grant funding and capacity to support, and we were able to be a convener of a group of folks that created a really powerful experience for more than 13,000 young people in just in a couple of years.
You see a lot of this top-down development or the imposition of other people’s worldviews or values. But I felt this was an authentic expression of a universal truth, which is that young people are powerful, young people are talented, and that our systems fail them. Africa being the youngest continent, it just felt really great to be so tapped into that energy, and connected to the organizations that serve these folks.
What advice would you give to a student who is considering African studies?
It’s easier today to spot the connections between African Studies and my career. But I think maybe the fact that I didn’t connect the work I was doing as a student to a future career, in hindsight, was a blessing. I didn’t lose sleep over the question, “what kind of job would I get?” I come from a working-class background where everybody I know is an hourly worker. I was making 13 bucks an hour, working my way through college. I knew that would go up to at least 16 bucks an hour when I graduated—that’s the way I was thinking.
What I didn’t appreciate was how many doors would open because of my education, the African Studies program, and the opportunities I’d had. When I did suddenly have that degree in hand and started thinking about what I would do next, that I booked a flight to Kenya was a gift from this African Studies department. That I had the language, the confidence, the connections—that was huge. And that was not the end of the story. I learned more about what I didn’t have than what my next job would be, but that needed to happen.
But to your question, I do think it’s really important, that this continent, the African continent with so much potential, with its history and language and diversity, is not overlooked. As the youngest continent, as a rich continent, albeit with a lot of poor folks because of the systems that have failed so many people, we Americans should all know 500x more about Africa and the continent than we do. You just can’t go wrong learning about a place in general. So if you want to pick the place that’s probably most misunderstood or stigmatized or overlooked, and one where you’ll probably fall in love with African foods and languages and complexity, then definitely consider African Studies.
I’m getting to the end of my questions, but I want to give you an opportunity to share anything else that you’d like to. Any last words?
One thing that I’m curious about—and this is just one of the things where my learning has taken me since I was in an academic environment like Yale—is around my own white identity. I didn’t start the conversation by identifying as a white male, but I am, and I’ve done a lot more work in recent years understanding that. To be back in the African Studies department, I would just be interested in how those conversations are happening amongst white students. I just said, and I do deeply believe, that everybody can benefit from learning a thing or two - or 2000! - about Africa, its politics, its history, its people, and yet I do think as part of white people’s racial identity work, there can be an over-identification with people of color or a sort of fetishization of other cultures.
I know that I displayed problematic behaviors as a young person understanding my own racial identity, and doing that oftentimes through other racialized people, not white people. If I could go back, I’d be more conscious of that tendency in all white people and in me, and just be more conscientious and careful.
Which makes me wonder, as much as I have my really warm and lovely memories of these African language skit nights, the times have changed so much that that could be a very complicated viral video: a bunch of mostly white Yale kids speaking very rudimentary Swahili. I believe we probably wore costumes. There are just certain things that I now would have more questions about, as a parent, and just as a much better friend to Kenyans and Nigerians, for example, than I was as a student. And it wouldn’t scare me off. Instead of making me less comfortable or less likely to take on an African Studies focus, I think I’d be more inclined to. It just would come with a little bit more self-awareness and responsibility.
Thank you for saying that. Your positionality as a white person, as an American, as a Yalie—all of these things inform the way that we come to African Studies, and I think that’s a really important observation.
That’s all I had in terms of answers. I can’t think of anything else that I wanted to share, but it is fun to talk, and there was some dusting off some of these old memories that I hadn’t had the chance to do in a while, so thank you!