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Partner Spotlight: Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Executive Director of Rise

22 February 2022

Rise, an initiative of Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust, is a program that finds brilliant young people who need opportunity and supports them for life as they work to serve others.The program starts at ages 15–17 and offers an annual cohort of Global Winners access to benefits that last a lifetime including scholarships, mentorship, access to career development opportunities, funding, and more as these Global Winners work toward solving humanity’s most pressing problems. Just like UWC, Rise believes that a new generation of leaders is needed to solve the world's most pressing issues - and that those young leaders must span across all backgrounds, cultures, and continents.

In 2020, Rise entered into a partnership with UWC that had two main components: delivering a foundational education programme to young people at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in collaboration with UWC and Amala, and supporting scholarships for talented youth, with a focus on those from refugee backgrounds, to attend UWC schools. UWC also helped promote the Rise opportunity among its own students and wider community members. 

In 2021, the first cohort of 100 Rise Global Winners was announced, with 10 UWC community members among them. Shortly after the announcement, we were excited to speak to Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, the Executive Director of Rise, about our partnership and about our shared mission of seeking and empowering brilliant young people in all areas of the world and from all parts of our global society. 

It was great to see that 10 of the 2021 Rise Global Winners were from the UWC community. What are your aspirations for these students and the wider cohort? 

We are really excited for all of the winners; for the tremendous diversity and for the brilliance that they represent, thanks, in part, to our partnership with UWC! Our aspirations for them are simple: that they make use of the benefits we provide to make the world a better place in whichever area or way that feels most important to them. We don’t have a prescribed way that we think they ought to make the world a better place, we just believe in them and that they have given us a strong enough signal that whatever they choose to do to serve others is worthy of investment. And so we’re just excited to offer up that opportunity. 

What is it that you think first drew Rise to UWC as a partner? And what do you think continues to draw you to UWC today? 

Rise and UWC are just so deeply aligned, especially in terms of the diversity of our communities, as well as the service commitment that we ask of our community members. There is also our shared commitment to investing in young people and our shared belief in young people as the solution drivers, not just of tomorrow but of today. 

Of course in the for-profit world, two organisations with similar missions like ours might be seen to be in competition rather than be seen as natural partners. Why do you think partnerships between two organisations like ours are so important and impactful?

Opportunities to make the world a better place are not running out. That cake is not getting any smaller, so there is really no need to compete. What I am excited about is how we amplify each other. I am interested in how we can maximise and multiply each other’s missions and values where there is overlap, while still remaining committed to fulfilling our unique mandates as distinctly different organisations. 

A question we often reflect on at UWC is about the value of supporting one student from a disadvantaged background to access an education at a very high level, for the same cost as educating a number of students to a lower level. Rise’s mission to seek and support a select group of ‘hidden talent’ is similar. Apart from changing the lives of a select group of young individuals, how will Rise have a systemic impact on the world? Why do you think education opportunities like the ones Rise and UWC offer are so vital in this regard? 

A lot of the ways we’ve gotten into trouble as humanity and as a planet is by “either/or” thinking. It doesn’t need to be “either/or”. I invite us to adopt a “both/and” approach. The opportunity to be generous is not finite. This is another cake that is not running out anytime soon. Yes, it is absolutely important to provide access to quality education for all young people. But it’s also perfectly worthwhile to make heavy investments in highly talented people. And we at Rise then follow that up with ‘to whom much is given, much more is expected’. That’s the other side of that coin that’s important. 

We also wanted to ask about the Changemaker Program for youth in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya that Rise is championing, in partnership with UWC and Amala. How does this focus on refugee youth fit in with Rise’s goals for identifying global talent? 

That focus on refugee youth is part of our broader commitment to finding ‘hidden talent’. We look at this from two perspectives, the first is about challenging stereotypes around what brilliance is and what it looks like. We at Rise care about challenging, opening up, unpacking and diversifying those assumptions. The second way we look at hidden brilliance is from a geographical perspective. Hidden brilliance is often geographically hidden. We know that talent is geographically equally distributed, but opportunity is not. That means there is an awful lot of talent out there that is hidden by virtue of geography. We think that’s a waste. That’s where we’re really aligned with UWC on supporting refugee youth and finding brilliance in refugee camps. 

Finally, the theme of this year’s UWC International Annual Review is all about ‘Reimagining Tomorrow’. What does a ‘reimagined tomorrow’ look like to you? And what makes you hopeful that we can reach such a future? 

Investing in young people and building them up is the best way to ‘Reimagine Tomorrow’. One of my favorite pieces of literature is Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ where, in the chapter On Children he reminds us that young people live in the land of tomorrow. For me, ‘Reimagining Tomorrow’ means empowering young people, getting out of their way and ensuring they have the resources and opportunities it takes to build a better tomorrow. It means planting trees today under whose shade we know we will never sit.