An interview with Amini Kajunju
Tell us specifically where we are standing.
We’re standing in front of a small business that represents the future of Harlem. Harlem is changing, and for many people, they feel like it’s changing for the better. Businesses are springing up, and people from all walks of life are living here; it’s actually bringing out what is best about Harlem: the culture, the art, the music, the diversity that is here. It all sort of represents who I am.
What does your organization do here in Harlem?
WIBO is helping to start many businesses in Harlem. We help them put together a business plan, help connect them with funding, and help them connect with other business development resources so their business can grow. Starting a small business can be very difficult, but being in New York actually helps, because New York has a lot of organizations that help small businesses, and we happen to be one of them.
THE 10 NATIONS HARDEST HIT BY NATURAL DISASTERS IN 2006, IN THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE KILLED OR OTHERWISE AFFECTED, WERE ALL DEVELOPING COUNTRIES.
Take us back a little. Tell us how you ended up here from BYU.
Ever since my family moved to the U.S., when I was about twelve, I’ve always wanted to live in New York. I’ve always been interested in international relations and economic development. My dad traveled all over the world to earn an education so that he could go back home and develop the country. I grew up in that environment. Once we came to the U.S., we became Latter-day Saints, and I went to BYU for my undergrad.
While I was at BYU, I kept telling everyone that I was going to move to New York to start my business and career there. Eight months after graduation, I became very miserable. I thought, “What is my life supposed to be?” I made a bold move by quitting my job and moved to New York in two weeks. I put everything I owned in my car; if it didn’t fit in my Mazda Protégé, it didn’t come with me. I drove all the way to New York and slept on a friend’s couch for four months while I looked for a job. The first job was at Lehman Brothers, where I learned a lot about the financial world that has helped me to this day, but I was miserable.
After that I went to work for the Social Science Research Council for three years as a program assistant for Africa. That was ultimately my dream; I traveled around the world and learned about other people and cultures and learned what the world was really all about, but I have always wanted to have a career that married the private sector to public service. From there, I ran an organization that helped people start businesses in Africa. I was a program manager for the ATRIP program at International Executive Service Corps, but the program ran out of money. Six years ago I took the opportunity to run WIBO.
How did your experience at BYU help with your career?
My experience at BYU was phenomenal. I tell that to everyone. I came across a lot of professors and students who were like-minded and who wanted to see a better world and wanted to work to improve it—that resonated with me. I threw myself into a community of people who wanted to see a better world—that is what I found at BYU. The classes were phenomenal, the teachers: Jeff Ringer, Valerie Hudson, Ted Lyon, and the list goes on. I learned a lot from all of them. I traveled to Bolivia and built a dispensary, in Viacha—extraordinarily fun. I did that through the Kennedy Center. I also went to Kenya for six months writing the political, social, and economic events of a community called Mwanamuinga. It was amazing to be there day in and day out listening to people’s problems and trying to put together a development plan to be used to improve people’s lives.
How have your views of development changed?
International development must be home grown, and it has to be focused on private enterprise development and building infrastructure—political, economic, and social—of a community so that that community can be a part of its own growth. Development dictated by someone else, somewhere else hasn’t worked. We have to go straight to the people to ask them what they want and what they need, because, ultimately, people want to be self-reliant, people want to be masters of their own universe, and masters of their own lives. Old-fashioned foreign aid is, frankly, too paternalistic for me. People need good jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities to make their lives better and to make their own decisions about how they are going to spend their money, where they want to send their kids to school, and what type of health services they need.
IN ORDER TO PROVIDE ANY TYPE OF RELIEF OR TO IMPROVE THE SITUATION AT ALL, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE COMING FROM.
“In Pursuit of Perspective: Integrating Development with Life Science,” 12 Oct 2007, Rebecca Plimpton, PhD candidate, biochemistry, BYU
What have your travels taught you?
In my professional and personal life, travel has opened my mind and helped me understand the way people live and the way people think. In my travels, one of the things I’ve learned is that most of us are alike. When you travel, you see people living very differently than you, you see people speaking a different language, you see people eating different foods. But we are all alike. That’s what makes traveling so interesting. One of the most disappointing things was seeing a Blockbuster in Rome. However, I have traveled to Ethiopia, South Africa, my own country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Liberia (where I lived for three years, went to high school there, one of the best times of my life; it was a great country before the war), Italy, Mozambique, India, Japan (where I lived for three years while my father got his MBA from Osaka University), Bolivia, and Egypt.
What would you say to people who want to support the Kennedy Center?
Giving money to the center is money well spent. It’s one of the best educations you could ever get in the world. While I was job searching in New York, people saw BYU on my resume and it gave me instant credibility. It didn’t matter what field, BYU has a great reputation no matter where you go in the world.
I’m grateful for the great education I got at BYU. I’m grateful for all the people who put in time and money to make sure BYU stays one of the top schools in the country. I’m grateful for all the students and professors who are there that continue to make it a great institution. I’m grateful that my parents insisted that I go there, but BYU must have an African studies program. How can such a distinguished university not have an African studies major? The African continent should not be ignored and should be available to BYU students. Africa may be struggling right now as a continent, but it is a continent of the future, and we cannot ignore it.
For more information on Workshop In Business Opportunities, see their web site at http://www.wibo.org.