Bridging cultures

Student leaders from West Africa come to Chico to learn entrepreneurship

Twenty students from West Africa experience Chico as part of an entrepreneurship program.

Twenty students from West Africa experience Chico as part of an entrepreneurship program.

Photo courtesy of Curtis DeBerg

In Yoro Cisse’s home country of Mali, schools are overcrowded and lack proper tools to help students learn effectively. An English major at the University of Bamako, in the West African country’s capital city, Cisse, 23, leads a group of 12 mentors helping high school students excel in science, math and English.

“I already have a project I want to do in my community,” he said. “I want to build a local library.”

Cisse is in Chico to further his goal of increasing access to education in Mali. And he’s not alone: He is one of 20 West African student leaders taking part in the Study of the U.S. Institute on Social Entrepreneurship program—a partnership among the U.S. State Department, Chico State’s Office of International Education and SAGE (Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship).

The program aims to help the students achieve their business goals and foster a greater understanding of other cultures. It also focuses on working with a small budget. Another goal is to help garner mutual respect for diverse cultures. The students are paired with Chico State students, who serve as mentors and local guides.

Participants should leave the program with a business plan related to their professional goals. Cisse, for example, hopes to return home with a business plan so he can potentially fund his initiative.

While in Chico, the students will visit locally owned companies including Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and Idea Fab Labs. They also will travel to Kansas City and Washington, D.C., to visit foundations that specialize in entrepreneurship education.

The program is funded through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Curtis DeBerg, CEO and founder of SAGE who co-directs the local program, was concerned that it would be cut under the Trump administration. That didn’t happen this year, but the concern still exists for future programs.

In order to participate, Chico State competed against other universities for funding, and the exchange students faced a competitive process as well. They were interviewed at U.S. embassies in their countries and needed to make a strong case for their visit. Four students were chosen from each country: Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.

One of the students from Ghana, Sarah Awaku, wants to start a foundation for children with autism. Her goal is to help parents and families gain a better understanding of the disorder. She’s a business administration major at Knutsford University.

“I want to become a better entrepreneur,” she said. “I want to give back to society.”

The students will stay in Chico through July. While here, they’ll attend courses and seminars on entrepreneurship at Chico State. They’ll also take short trips to San Francisco and Mount Lassen while in California.

For DeBerg, these types of programs are crucial to better understanding societies across the globe.

“We are building bridges of understanding among countries, rather than building walls between them,” he said. “Friendship leads to understanding and less hostility.”

While the program helps students better understand entrepreneurship, some of the participants already have a strong foundation in running their own companies. Abdoulaye Sall, 23, has been building mobile apps in Mali for two years. Still, he said, the program will help further develop his skills.

DeBerg hopes the program also helps Chico residents gain a better understanding of other cultures.

“This is not only a great opportunity for our guests, but it is also a wonderful opportunity for Chico residents to meet and interact with these bright and energetic students,” he said.