Imagine not being able to read this article or anything written into words for that matter. People often forget children’s literacy is one of the key issues still problematic in Ethiopia but also the rest of the world. That’s where the Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund comes in. Through their mission of inspiring and enabling youth to succeed in; literacy, leadership opportunities, and overall education. From their various activities all over Ethiopia to their READY SET GO Books, EthioFresh wanted to help spread their message and mission through our interview below for our readers.
1. Why did you create the Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund?
My connection to Ethiopia is through my daughter who was born in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia and joined our family as a baby in 2005. We have been back with her twice since then and will return in March. We want the kids in her birth country to have the same opportunities as those anywhere else in the world. As a child and wife of immigrants and teachers, education has always been a key value for us. In 2007, we began our efforts to support organizations in Ethiopia. We started and have since expanded a wonderful library, through Ethiopia Reads, at Elementary School February 23 in Bahir Dar as our gift to her community and to connect our daughter to her birth town. It is a model of community engagement and commitment. Over five years, I also raised close to half a million dollars for Ethiopia Reads which has built libraries in every region of Ethiopia. But I wanted to do more, faster, and bigger. Building on what I had learned, I developed a plan and approach which I believed could yield much greater impact faster, but I needed a different kind of organization to achieve it. I founded Open Hearts Big Dreams (OHBD) in 2016 to increase educational opportunities for K-12 kids in Ethiopia based on these core beliefs:
1. Education is a human right and is the best tool to build the leaders of the future.
2. Opportunity should be equal, and all kids deserve big dreams.
3. Collaboration is powerful and necessary for change; too many small organizations and individuals in the US and Ethiopia are not working together or sharing information and learning.
4. Communities know best how to solve their challenges; capacity building is critical.
5. We address large gaps in opportunity through innovation and using the best of business and technology.
2. What are the opportunities you see for this organization in the next 3 years?
OHBD takes on difficult and important challenges that have not yet been solved. We want to have an outsized impact by choosing opportunities, that if successful, will be game changers. Our pillars of focus are Literacy, Technology, and Art. We chose each of these because they provide children, and adults a way to problem solve and reimagine their future. We believe education is more than formal education and that teaching leadership is critical to helping communities solve their own challenges. We also want to elevate and amplify innovative work being done for kids in Ethiopia by organizations such Ethiopia Reads, Seeds of Africa, Project Ethiopia, Ethiopian Community in Seattle, MMRTI, and Lebawi, all but one of which was founded by an OHBD Board or Advisory Board member.
Our main project to date is Ready Set Go Books, an innovative attempt to increase the literacy rate in Ethiopia, focused on addressing the lack of early reader practice books. Our goal is 200 unique books, the number research tells us is required to increase the literacy rate, distributed all over Ethiopia to the 4MM first graders. We created and published 45+ books in 2018 and early 2019. More than 300 people gave their time and talents in the US and Ethiopia. We make these books available to the diaspora around the globe through Amazon. All proceeds go back into the project. We printed and distributed 100K books in Ethiopia to more than 150 schools and trained over 300 educators to use these books to teach kids how to read. So far with Ethiopia Reads and other organizations, most are written in Amharic as well as some titles in Afaan Oromo, Dizi, Sidama, and Tembarsa. This year our goal is to produce another 50 books, print and distribute at least another 100K books, and train 400 or more teachers in Ethiopia. No kid should go through childhood without colorful, fun books to practice reading skills and discover more about the world.
We also piloted four Model Projects. We look for gaps in current efforts or innovative programs to which we can provide funding and expertise that will help address the gap or scale the existing effort for a bigger impact. Model Program grant recipients are required to document their efforts and agree to share this documentation with other organizations. We work with each grant participant to improve their program and make it more innovative or impactful.
We also commit to support for multiple years so we can start with the proof of concept, if new, then learn and scale once we have a successful model. The first Model Program was the local printing and distribution of Ready Set Books in Ethiopia with Ethiopia Reads. The remaining three were: Our first girls 6-week coding school in Addis with Lebawi; a transition scholarship program with Project Ethiopia based in Dangla to help deserving high school seniors get over the last hurdle to attend a university, and a storytelling project to document our programs with MMRTI.
In 2019, we will expand each of these multi-year efforts and begin a bold new Model Program led by Dr. Worku Mulat to develop a pilot Innovation Center starting in Gondar and Adama, with a goal to expand to Bahir Dar, Wollo, and beyond. The center will include a library, computer lab, art studio and writer’s workshop, either physical, virtual or a combination. It will create capacity within each community to address their greatest needs and more closely connect them to institutions of higher learning. Volunteers from Ethiopia and the diaspora will share knowledge and expertise including technologists, artists, teachers, writers, entrepreneurs, and professors. We are fortunate to have several professionals already eager to participate. We are testing the community art studio concept in Adama on our upcoming trip, a local committee is working on the library piece in Gondar, and we are exploring what would be the most effective way to establish a writer’s workshop in Addis.
3. What do you think is the most important part of this organization?
I think the most important part of our organization is the human capital of people who are assisting in many capacities to enable collaboration to drive impactful solutions. We want to be a very different kind of NGO that works with many other organizations, takes on the bigger challenges, encourages collaboration, and increases invention to make faster progress on vexing challenges like the literacy rate or inequity in opportunities.
4. What makes the passion behind what you strive to continue to burn?
We believe kids are the future and have the capacity to solve all the challenges facing us. However, the opportunities for kids to gain the tools, knowledge, and resources, through education formal and informal and access to experts of all kinds around the world, are not equal. We learned this reality in a painfully personal way as we contemplated our daughter’s opportunities living in the US versus those she might have had growing up in her birth country. A kid’s dreams and opportunities should not depend on where in the world they are born and addressing this inequality is part of what drives our efforts. We are also driven in these efforts to connect our daughter to her birth country and be a part of creating a better future for her and all kids growing up there since we do view our family as Ethiopian now too in addition to American, Dutch (my heritage), and Greek (my husband’s).
5. What is the message you would share with anyone reading this regarding the mission of your non-profit?
What seems impossible can become possible through resilient optimism, collaboration, and innovation. Dream BIG and then work on steps to make your dream come to life. Failing is part of the process and will educate you on what works and what might not be the best path. We are using our efforts in Ethiopia as an example that we hope will inspire others working there and around the globe to take on big challenges and work together to start to solve them, creating a better future for all.
6. What’s the biggest change your group has gone through since your inception?
We became a “publisher.” To address the literacy challenge, the research said we needed to create and publish 200 early reader books in a minimum of 3 of the languages spoken in Ethiopia to reach 80% of the target population of the 100MM citizens. We didn’t have those capabilities when we started the project but developed them out of necessity. We have now published 47 titles in 5 languages so far with many more in progress. It certainly helped that in my last role at Amazon was in Kindle so I knew some basics to get us started. Jane Kurtz’s experience as an accomplished author helped enormously and we brought others on board with the skills to build out what we needed quickly. We look forward to using this capacity to drive a big impact. We are beginning to help other organizations with their publishing efforts.
7. What’s one thing that has been key for your non-profit?
Resilient optimism and collaboration between talented people from all walks of life and experiences who have been willing to sign on and help us achieve our bold goals. We believe we can be a part of the solution and are willing to do the work to make a real difference. This creates a natural attraction to people with those same beliefs. It started with our amazing Board and Advisory board who signed on before we had achieved anything. We then built out our leadership team and have been so fortunate to have amazing people sign on with the organization: 1) Jane Kurtz, an award-winning author who grew up in Ethiopia, who envisioned the early versions of #ReadySetGo books and continues to lead the creative team; 2) Daniel Temesgen, a Senior Microsoft Engineer, who built our first website and acts as a critical strategic and technical advisor as well as leading our DC chapter; 3) Shannon Britton-Jones, a former Amazon Executive Assistant now our Operations Lead, who helped build critical systems and provides on-going administrative support; 4) Steffani Stephens, a former Microsoft Program Manager, who built out our book production team and its processes; , 5) Sabrina Matson, a Marketing and Comms expert, who helped us develop a stronger social media presence, a monthly newsletter, and our overall communications strategy; and 6) our most recent leader, Dr. Worku Mulat who holds a Ph.D. in Ecology and is also a university professor, Worku is assisting us on the books project, connecting us to academic collaborators, and leading our innovation center efforts. Our team is filled out with too many other talented and motivated volunteers and supporters to name, but they have all helped us get here and continue to reach out to offer their help. We could not do what we do without their incredible assistance.
8. What challenges have you all encountered working out of Ethiopia in comparison to your time outside working for Open Hearts Big Dreams?
Having worked at Amazon as an executive for 13 years, most of my roles there had outsized expectations which required collaboration and invention to meet so that is the same. The unique challenge I found with this work was starting an organization from the ground up. We needed to simultaneously set up systems including accounting, a CRM, a website and staff a team, as well as fundraise, develop and implement our programs. This definitely stretched me personally. To be effective, I had to learn a lot about early stage entrepreneurship very quickly.
9. What advice or pointers do you have for anyone wanting to start a similar passion non-profit?
Ensure no one else is already doing the work you want to do. If you find organizations or individuals that are engaged in similar efforts, figure out how to collaborate or partner with them. There is such power in working together and starting something new takes a huge amount of energy and resources. I really didn’t want to start a new organization because I had a good idea of the extra work it entailed. When I couldn’t find the organization that met the criteria I set out, I decided to create it. I made it as aspirational as I could imagine. I wanted to help solve big challenges in Ethiopia that could serve as a model for other locales with similar challenges. I then tested my ideas with trusted leaders and friends to see if they resonated. I got such a great response so I knew we were meeting a need and would get critical support. My ultimate design was to look for white space, compete with no other organization, and embed a key goal to collaborate with and increase collaboration across many like-minded organizations and individuals I identified over the years and add more as we grew.
10. Any messages or thoughts you would like to share with readers?
Personal stories are powerful. Our books are preserving stories and culture; our blog posts are sharing the stories of those we work with to help educate and inspire. We hope you are inspired by our stories enough to share your own and engage with a cause or challenge that moves you. The world needs everyone’s best to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
You can learn more about Open Hearts Big Dreams at: https://openheartsbigdreams.org
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)