Driving a Dream
Aquila Ledbetter arrived at SIT via Uber, but not as a passenger. Aquila’s career path had already taken her to the Salvation Army, the Peace Corps, and to local government in Washington DC, where she grew up. All the same, she says, “Something was seriously wrong in terms of finding my passion.”
She knew what that passion was – as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia a decade ago, she wrote a business plan. Though she was by day a desktop support analyst for the DC government, Aquila still had her mind on that plan to bring economic empowerment to residents of Namibia. She’d been doing OK driving for Uber on the side, so she quit her DC job and went full-time with Uber as she pondered next steps in making her plan a reality.
One day, she explains, just the right person got into her car. “I picked up a Liberian woman who was attending SIT. She saw my head wrap, and she asked, ‘Where did you get that?’”
When Aquila told the student about her time in Namibia and her hope to return there, the student said, “You’re driving Uber? My sister, why? Where you’re dropping me off is a place called SIT. You need to get upstairs and talk to them, right now.”
It was quickly clear to Aquila that SIT Graduate Institute was a great fit. “What was particularly significant was that Deborah Robinson [academic director of SIT’s center in Washington, DC] had also done work in Namibia. They were able to give me a partial scholarship. I’m grateful for the opportunity — I was afraid I’d never get to fulfill my dream.”
In August 2017, Aquila received her master’s degree in Sustainable Development from SIT. Already, she’s made her passion a reality. During the practicum phase of her degree program, she founded and became CEO of an organization called Afrisource Innovation Center in Ondangwa, Namibia.
“We aim to support small farmers with farming technology and training. We’re doing workshops on things like hydroponics, water conservation, and bookkeeping, and we’ve got about seven partner organizations. I’m really excited that Afrisource is showing that it has sustainability.”
Aquila’s eventual goal with Afrisource is to open a “tech shop,” a place where entrepreneurs, particularly farmers, can get the tools and skills to realize their own dreams. Namibia is a good place for such enterprises, she explains. “Namibia has about 2 million people. Around 66 percent of the population is young people, and 49 percent of them are unemployed. But it’s very politically stable and they welcome public/private partnerships. The Namibian government gave me an office and let me do my practice. Now we’re securing land to build infrastructure. I’m excited, and a little nervous.”
SIT was the key, Aquila says. “Long before, I wrote that business plan. SIT helped me to ignite my dream. I learned how to write a proposal, build collaboration, write case studies on food security and economic security, how to identify the market and focus on segmentation. I would not have had the skills or the know-how to navigate something like that.
“I knew that I wanted to do something where I could use my skills to empower others. I had a dream, and SIT showed me how to fulfill it.”