Alumnus Helps Rwandan Women Rise Out of Poverty
February 4, 2013 – A 2003 graduate of Georgetown College is helping female artisans in Rwanda achieve financial independence and learn new skills in an attempt to prevent generational poverty.
Alumnus Conor French is CEO of Indego Africa, an award-winning nonprofit organization that leverages global markets, education and partnerships to spur economic growth and job creation in artisan sector communities. Indego Africa partners with for-profit cooperatives of more than 500 women artisans in Rwanda.
“We provide our artisan partners with capacity-building training, focusing in financial management, literacy, computers and public health, and with opportunities for entrepreneurship,” French says. “The ultimate goal is sustainable economic independence for every woman artisan.”
Sense of Possibility
The nonprofit generates income for its artisan partners by marketing and selling its jewelry, home décor and fashion accessories through its online store and to more than 80 retail stores throughout the U.S. and Europe, including J.Crew and Nicole Miller.
At the same time, Indego Africa’s training programs help women learn and then apply job skills necessary to run their own self-sufficient and prosperous artisan enterprises.
“I love what I do because it nurtures a sense of possibility and opportunity in all of us,” says French, who majored in history and English at Georgetown. “Indego Africa provides people with a collaborative model and platform for achieving economic justice in Africa through hopeful, confident women reclaiming their own futures.”
French offers the example of Emelienne Nyiramana, who was a secondary school student when she got separated from her family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Six members of her family, including her father and three brothers, were killed.
Nyiramana survived the attacks, but then found herself with limited job opportunities. She started a cosmetics company but that failed. She joined a small sewing association but found the business suffered from mismanagement.
But after receiving training in accounting and other skills through Indego, she founded Cocoki, a cooperative of 30 seamstresses that doubled its revenue in each of its first three operating years.
Now she’s an entrepreneur who helps run a successful business selling wine coasters, wine bottle bags and bangles featured in prominent magazines such as Elle and Food & Wine. She went on to graduate from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program and has hosted such distinguished visitors as Ambassador Susan Rice at Cocoki.
French says that Georgetown provided him with a “broad-based renaissance education that, complemented by concurrent life and learning experiences both on and off the Hilltop, certainly molded me into who I would become.”
Being near Capitol Hill was another plus – French had an internship before his senior year with his local congressman, then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
One of his favorite professors was Yvonne Haddad, who taught a Muslims in the West class, he says, and he admired the work of the university’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
“As a student of the 9/11 era, I found it courageous that Georgetown stepped out into the forefront of such sensitive and yet critical interdisciplinary dialog and subject matter,” he said.
French earned a law degree from New York University after graduating from Georgetown and worked as a corporate attorney, advising global companies and financial institutions.
“In order to most effectively represent my clients, who were often businesses, I had to quickly learn their businesses inside and out,” says French, who joined Indego Africa in 2010. “So I ended up with a strong business and operational expertise that I could then apply to a market-driven model for tackling poverty in East Africa.”
Out to Africa
French was raised in a multicultural family in New Bedford, Mass., which he says is heavily populated with families from Cape Verde. “My mother has told me that I actually thought I was Cape Verdian until I was six years old and realized that my skin tone was slightly different than those around me.”
In the summer after his sophomore year, he studied abroad in East Africa through the National Outdoor Leadership School, getting his first introduction to Africa.
Immediately following his graduation from Georgetown, he volunteered at an orphanage in Bahia, Brazil’s most African-influenced state.
Indego Africa hopes to someday expand from Rwanda into other African communities where women lack access to income and education,” the Georgetown alumnus explains.
But that means consumers and companies worldwide must work together with African artisans, have faith in their products and fight for gender equality, French says.
French isn't the only Georgetown graduate involved with Indego Africa. Kelly Souls (F’11) is in Rwanda completing a yearlong fellowship with the organization and Eric Vorchheimer (B’14) served as a finance and operations intern this past summer.
“The future of Indego Africa is to scale our impact whether or not we scale our organization,” he notes. “It’s to take the momentum of a movement and to reach as many populations, as many communities and as many people as we can.”