My latest guest is Benjamin Rukwengye, a thought leader in the education and professional development space in Uganda and the founder and CEO of Boundless Minds, a mentorship social enterprise focusing on soft-skilling as a pathway to accelerate school-to-work transition for students. He is the founding chairman of 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation, a leading local philanthropy movement, a Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur, a KAS Youth4Policy Fellow, a Young and Emerging Leaders Project Fellow and has been named by Uganda’s New Vision as one of Uganda’s Top 40 under 40.
Benjamin speaks about the inspiration behind Boundless Minds and the important work that Boundless Minds is doing with young adults to prepare them for the workplace. He also speaks about the importance of starting mentorship early and why mentoring should be encouraged in the workplace.
Benjamin also speaks about his experience as a Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur and the impact this has had on his organization and his career.
**The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.
BN: My guest today is Benjamin Rukwengye, a thought leader in the education and professional development space in Uganda, and the founder and CEO of Boundless Minds a mentorship social enterprise, focusing on soft skilling as a pathway to accelerate school-to-work transition for students. He is also the founding Chairman of 40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation, a leading local philanthropy movement. He previously worked as head of recruitment at Teach for Uganda, and as a research associate at the African Centre for Media Excellence. Benjamin is a Tony Elumelu entrepreneur a KAS Youth For Policy Fellow, a Young and Emerging Leaders Project Fellow and has been named by Uganda’s New Vision as one of Uganda’s top 40 under 40. So Benjamin, welcome to Viewpoints. Thank you for doing this.
BR: Thank you so much for having me. I have listened to guests on Viewpoints for a long time. And it’s really an honour to be a guest myself on the podcast. Thank you so much.
BN: So you know, one of my biggest inspirations, obviously, just following you over the years has been Boundless Minds. And I’m curious as to what was the inspiration behind it.
BR 01:36: It’s an interesting story that is a little scattered. I always say that, for me, there was no like, single eureka moment of this is what I need to do and how I need to do it. But it was a confluence of about three things.
The first being the work that we’re doing with 4040 and how that helped me appreciate the education, its importance, and what it does to people, especially the most vulnerable, when they don’t, they can’t access quality education. Because we’re working in lands or working with teachers working with young children, working with volunteers, trying to teach things that weren’t, that could basically improve the learning experience for young people in school.
The second being a conversation that I had with a friend who was staying with me and she was here volunteering in an orphanage in Rakai. We were about the same age, Uganda was the fourth country in which she was volunteering. And at that time, I had never volunteered anywhere, or maybe I had, but didn’t, couldn’t really talk about it in terms of volunteering for professional or career development. So but that really sparked my mind in terms of thinking about how whites or muzungus get ahead of us, not necessarily because they are more intelligent than we are but a lot of times because of the exposure that they have. This was a young woman in her early 20s and she was out here learning about life and about work and about people, which would give her a head start when she went out to work, which I didn’t have because I was too busy trying to finish school before I can go out and look for a job. So that got me thinking what I was doing, when she started actually working.
The third being that I was raised by my grandmother, who was a teacher. Incidentally, my grandfather is also a teacher. And I think that also really interested me a lot more in education. My family has a very big number of teachers. So I think growing up around conversations on education growing up around conversations on civic and social awareness and consciousness sort of sparked my mind to think of how I would have wanted to learn and grow if I had had that opportunity. And that eventually came together to form the idea of boundless. It wasn’t clear at the start.
BN: In today’s business landscape, because I know I know a lot of what you do at Boundless, or the little I know of Boundless is that you are doing a lot of soft skilling for students who are just about to enter the workplace. So could you tell me a little bit more about what this entails.
BR 04:58: There is a big gap between how we learn in school and what’s required of us in the world of work than just in the world. So schools are not preparing young people for work. And because on average, you spend your first 20 years or so in the school system. That’s almost all of the preparation you need for you to succeed and grow into who you were meant to become. So our job at Boundless is to say, can we identify people that’s a little older, but also very relatable and put them in touch with younger people who have ambition and have dreams, and these two have conversations and learn from each other. And say, this is how you show up at work. Some days, you will not feel like it but you still need to show up. This is how you invest in your personal growth. This is how you invest in your profession. This is how you become a good colleague at work. This is how you stand up for yourself. This is how you brand yourself and find work or that next contract. If you’re stuck in a space, and you don’t know where to go next, this is how you can get to the next level. These are the things these are the disciplines that you need to learn to get you to the next level.
So what we’ve done, essentially at Boundless is to build a model that relies on three things. The one is human resource, right? Just basically connecting young people between the ages of 18 to 25. With all the professionals who are entrepreneurs or social justice people that they can have constant conversations with that don’t even sometimes don’t even have to do with work. But really conversations are live from growth, on challenges, experiences. The second thing that we’ve done is curated content and opportunities and tools that young people can use to enhance their soft skills. So things like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, collaboration, things like modules, like CV writing, how to prepare for job interviews, how to do marketing, how to write business proposals. That sort of stuff. How to budget, how to manage your finances. So we’ve curated courses, and templates that young people can access. The last thing we’ve done is also build a creative education shop. Because when Boundless started, I focused mainly on higher education. So people that are between, say, S6 and above. But then with time, we have also realised that, at that level, you’re basically dealing with, I think, symptoms, that’s what they call it, and not necessarily getting to the root of the problem. So I’ll give you an example. We have a module for official communication, which essentially is email writing. But this you’re teaching university students how to write an email. I don’t think that’s right. But because they don’t know and because mentors and employers, and everyone is complaining about that problem, so we’ve gone and done it. But I really think that in a functional system, university students or people at that level should be dealing with higher level problems. And they shouldn’t be learning how to send an email and BCC and attach and how to greet and how to send, actually how to introduce themselves, even on text message.
So what we’ve done is also gone backwards. So now we’ve developed a creative education shop that has storybooks and reading guides and colouring books and workbooks and toolkits that parents can use to parents or their siblings or parents that they can use to teach their young children between three to 16. All of these skills with support from ourselves and our networks, so that by the time they are 18, the things they are learning are totally different the higher level things than what they are learning now. So that’s our focus now in terms of them, because the focus is on work readiness, the idea that the skills that the market requires or not the skills such as people who are either dropping out of school, or graduating from school have so there’s that gap. And what we’re basically doing is trying to bridge that gap.
BN: I think you’re doing very important work. Have you found that there’s a benefit to starting mentorship early?
BR (10:29): Yes, certainly. And I will just tell you my own story. When I graduated from university, I didn’t know I mean, even when I went to university, I didn’t, I did mass communication. But I don’t know if that’s the course I wanted to do, or I didn’t, because I thought it was easy. Because I had been admitted to two other universities, four totally different courses. And yet, I still went and did mass communication. But really, the reason I did it is because I knew I could write. And I thought that that was the bulk of the course. So I just went and did it. At that point, I didn’t know that I was very interested in information, in knowledge, and how it’s curated and how it’s transferred, and how it’s appreciated and the things that knowledge can do the places that knowledge can take someone, if it’s broken down, and things like that. I didn’t know that. So I remember when went to do internship, being the person that was always doing research. So if they gave us a project, I was the one that was digging to newspapers and articles, and studies and stuff to just look for a small thing to beef up my report. And someone, my supervisor at my internship place, actually noticed this. I was an undergrad student in my first or second year. But I was helping her do her master’s research, which is a very interesting dynamic.
But I think that that, for me was a pointer to the fact that sometimes someone sees something in you and keeps challenging you to grow it and this allows you to perfect who you are. But that also got me wondering, if I had known the things that I was good at five years earlier and found someone or people that actually invested in helping me continue to grow those things, how good would I have been at them? And I think that’s a question that all of us need to constantly ask ourselves when we think about mentorship. Because I believe that mentorship helps people, shortcut processes. So that the lessons that you’ve learned Brenda, over the course of your life, and over the course of your professional work – imagine if you had learned all those things, five years before you learned them, how good would you have been at them. But also there are millions of young professionals, lawyers, creatives, whatever, who are going to try and follow your path, the path that you’ve created for them. And it doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t help this world if they had to take the same amount of time that you took to learn those things, because then what would have been the use of you going before them essentially.
So we have young people at Boundless that are starting businesses when they S5, S6, university. And for me, this is both challenging, but it fills me with such pride because I didn’t know how to do this. I didn’t even have a business when I was at university. But I know that these guys have now enough time to learn and fail and get challenged and build their resilience and grow into whatever they want to be. And they are very, very encouraging. There are young people who would not have stood for a guild in university if they didn’t have a conversation with their mentor who told them you go and just stand if you feel that you have something to offer. There are young people who have found internships who have found apprenticeships who have started businesses who actually there are some young people who have decided they are not going to go to university because they feel that they the things they need to learn in terms of business and stuff are not at university and for me those things make me happy that they’re discovering those things. Now when they are 18, 19, 20 and not when they are 27 and have gone through a period of two, three years of limbo, not knowing what they want to do.
So it definitely helps to access mentorship as early as anybody can.
BN: Yeah, I’m big on mentorship and I always tell people that I’ve been very blessed to have had amazing mentors, which kind of brings me to my next question. It’s pivoting slightly from the young adults into mentorship at the workplace. I was like preparing for this conversation and I came across some very interesting statistics. So 94% of employees say that they would stay longer at a company if they were offered opportunities to learn and grow. 9 in 10, workers who have a career mentors say they are happy in their jobs. And 67% of businesses report an increase in productivity due to mentoring, as I said earlier, like I’ve had the benefit of having great mentors at every single position I’ve been in. And you know, just having, you know, people to look up to at work, and them also being available to guide in the workplace has had quite an impact on my career. But I believe this is something that’s common in a lot of workplaces. So what strategies do you think employers can adopt to encourage mentorship in the workplace?
BR: These statistics are actually interesting.
BN: Yeah. Very.
BR (16:19): I don’t know when a mentorship is a new thing, or that it’s there and it’s not structured. Because why this conversation is interesting, is that last year, we were having a conversation as with my team, right? And they were saying, we’re in the business of mentorship and finding mentors for other people. But we don’t have mentors, right?
BR (16:48): But we don’t have mentors, right. And it was interesting, because we had never thought about it, right? We have never thought that it’s important for people who are doing mentorship to be mentored. And it’s been very odd, because the bulk of my team are also very, like really young people. If anyone needed mentorship, it would be them. Right? Part of my work was to find them mentors. And then we just found that a lot of people in the workplace don’t have mentorship. So it’s not strange, that there are stats that show that one that people will stay in a workplace, if they have mentorship, they will also contribute to growth of the organisation in terms of whether it’s finance or reach or whatever, if they are getting mentored.
So today, actually, just before this call, I was having a conversation with someone Robert really. I’m telling him that we’ve done work in terms of school to work transition, and mentorship for the last five years and I have a strong feeling that our next area of interest should be in service or workplace mentorship. And the reason for that is because I believe strongly that learning and reskilling and upskilling just never ends, right. But also, we know from studies that people are looking for a lot more than money at work. That they are looking for growth, they are looking for fulfilment, they are looking for a sense of belonging, they are looking for growth in ways that they can’t find elsewhere. And if workplaces aren’t able to offer those things, then it’s very likely that your staff will not be able to deliver in ways that they should agree that it’s going to be imperative, whether it’s for Boundless or for other people that are thinking or not thinking about these things, to very quickly start building ideas around workplace mentorship.
BN: It’s important for this to be adopted in the workplace. It doesn’t even have to be formally structured. But there has to be some sort of availability of like the most senior lawyers or more senior people in the business place to mentor the younger ones, to just be available for guidance.
BR (19:22): Yeah, I agree.
BN: I wanted to switch direction completely and just speak about your fellowship with Tony Elumelu Foundation. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? And how was the application process? How has that impacted the way you’re running Boundless and your career generally?
BR (19:43): So that fellowship is a very strange story because when I got selected in 2017, Boundless was just an idea that I had done for six weeks. I don’t quite even remember what I wrote in the application. But I think the unique thing is that there are not many people running mentorship programmes. In fact, there are not many mentorship programmes on the continent, which is interesting, because that’s such a huge opportunity for people that want to go into some sort of business. So I applied this one evening, I did, the list comes out and I have been selected. At the time I had the job, I was working at Teach for Uganda, I joined Teach for Uganda five months before then. I go through their online training. And then, part of that meant I had to resign my job because now I had money, well I had 5000 USD to take care of me, or at least they thought. When you never had that much money, you think it will run you for a year. Within a few months, you realise that the more money you have, the more problems you have, especially if you’ve never managed that amount of money. So it was a lesson also in financial literacy, especially for a young organisation. So anyway, we received the money. And I am grateful that I used the bulk of that money to run training sessions for young people in senior six vac. And that did two things. One, it fueled my confidence in the idea to be able to say if someone can invest or commit 5000 USD to an idea that’s not older than six days, then really, there must be something here that I need to work on. But it also builds credibility, right. So I started speaking to people that were much more accomplished in business or in mentorship, in strategy, in finance, in professional growth. So people like Michael Niyitegeka, Hashim Wasswa Mulangwa, people like Audrey Dralega, who are now on the Boundless board, coincidentally. Because I think they also saw that at that time, that if someone else on the outside can see that this is an idea worth investing in, there must be something here that this young man is trying to do. So let’s support him to grow. So that’s exactly what that Tony Elumelu Fund did for me that it built my confidence in myself and the idea, but to it allowed us to have credibility, to be able to approach people that have then mentored me to be able to deliver the work that Boundless has done. And of course, lastly, if you’re starting out, you need all the money that you can get, and to be able to get that much money as seed funding was such a huge boost. Because if if I hadn’t won that money from that seed fund, I don’t know if Boundless would have taken off. Now you look back, and you can say, okay, maybe you would have done this and done that. But the truth is, I don’t know for sure if Boundless would have taken off. That’s probably a lesson to many of us, who sometimes sit and think, or we are amazing, we’re incredible, we are great entrepreneurs and stuff. When in fact, the difference between one person and the next is that you got into a room and the other person somehow wasn’t lucky to get into that room, or you sat at a table where the other person sat on another table and that is what made the difference for you. So you were able to excel and the other person didn’t because of the circumstances that happened at that time. So I’m very, very grateful for how that went. It also taught me to think about Boundless to start thinking about a business model for Boundless because when I started, I didn’t know about where the money was going to come from. So you just have this idea that you think is noble, but you never really think about where the money is going to come from but just sitting there and saying having to write a business proposal where they ask okay, so take us through your financial modelling got me to think about how Boundless money. Of course that has this changed but it was a good prompt for myself at the time.
BN: Amazing. And you’ve actually led me to my very next question, which is fun. Funding and which every single startup or every single sort of social enterprise has to grapple with. So aside from the seed money, how are you funding Boundless? And what sort of challenges have you faced, especially being African in the social enterprise space? So the typical question for an African founder, right?
BR (25:20): Talking about funding, there is just too much, I don’t even know where to start. So, and yet, I know that I have been lucky, really lucky. I am grateful for how lucky I have been. So we started in 2017 and every single year, we’ve at least had some money come in. Sometimes a lot more than the previous year but at the very least, there’s been some money here, and they’re coming in. So I’m very, very grateful. And that has been partly because of the networks that we have. So you have this person that knows the work that you do, and they know someone somewhere that has 10 million, or 5 million that they would like to give to an organisation. And they say, No, no, no, these guys at Boundless, are doing a good job, invest in that that has been the story, really, of course, that is not able to meet all the plans that you have, or the plans that we have and the need in terms of our growth, who’d like to grow, we have big, big plans or growth plans, scale plans, and all of this stuff. And we can’t grow as fast as we want to, because the money isn’t there. But that also is closely tied to the fact that you write hundreds of proposals, some blind. Blind proposals are essentially when someone puts out a call, and you apply right for funding, in the same way that the Elumelu programme is, or a few of the ones that you’ve applied to have been. The thing is, with those, the chances of you getting any funding from that are like really low, because they are they receive hundreds of thousands of applications, the pain is also that much higher, because if the money doesn’t come in, you’ve invested your time, your emotion, your dreams in this, and then it sort of dents you. So if you’re like a founder, there’s a bit of your heart that is dark from all of this pain that you experience, of course. But I think what’s encouraging is that a lot of there are also so many other people in our spaces, who are growing, who are raising funding. So that keeps you hoping that something will come through.
We’ve had support from the Stanbic Banks of this world, from Coca Cola, from SGS Uganda, from people like that. We’ve also had people foundations, like the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, and Segall Family Foundation, which have invested money in our work. But also they brought on expertize to support my team to grow their capacity and skill set in terms of finance, in terms of monitoring and evaluation, leadership, governance and things like that. We also have the support of individuals, I don’t have the permission to name them. But there have been individuals who have really come through and supported their work because they believe in it. So the question on funding has no proper answer. I know that for sure that I have been lucky to raise the funding that we have raised, it hasn’t been easy. We’ve had conversations here with, especially corporate companies, they go on and on. And it looks like something is about to come. And then at the last minute, it just doesn’t come through. Sometimes they don’t even reply your texts or reply your emails or text so you wonder what’s going on. So those sorts of stories are stories that you are likely to hear from everyone who’s in that fundraising business. But it’s also something you come to expect.
Of course, I’m also not blind to my privilege that I have my personal privilege that is. I have friends, I have networks that are able to cushion me when things were tough or when things are tough. So you survive, and I don’t know if it’s called live to die another day. But yeah.
BN: Interesting. So Benji, if somebody wanted to get involved with Boundless as a mentor, how would they get in touch with you.
BR (29:54): So let me talk about our mentorship programme, because it’s a very exciting programme.
BN: Yeah, sure.
BR (30:06): So what we are doing essentially is we ask professionals to commit a set number of hours, in this case, 20 hours over five months, so one hour, every week. And then we have young people on our mentorship programmes, who they talk to, they use that one hour a week. So they talk to them. When we started it, it was supposed to be strictly online, so you can use Zoom, whatever platform you want to use, you can use that to have these conversations about life. It’s incredible. Right now we have 116 mentors, and well 116 mentees, who, every week have conversations, we are testing this to see how well it works. This is the first cycle the next cycle we have, will be in May. But the call is always open. So if someone knows that between May and say November, they can spare one hour, every week, even if it’s one hour, for three months, we will still take it. We are not choosers. But the idea is that the person, the mentor, commits this time and says I have this number of hours that I would like to give to a young person will find them that young person who will put them in touch. We’ll provide tools, career growth tools for the mentee to use in the course of that interaction. So we are online, Boundless Minds can be found on Twitter, our website, on Facebook, on Instagram, you just have to look for Boundless Minds, Uganda. And finally, just get in touch with us. You can also look for me, I am more active on Twitter than anywhere else. We will take if someone wants to volunteer as a mentor, we are open to that. I’m very happy to take them,
BN (32:03): So thank you, Benji. Thank you, Benjamin. Actually, calling you Benjamin is a bit strange, but thank you. Thank you, thank you so much for coming on to Viewpoints. Maybe one thing that I did not mention before is that Benjamin also contributes to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, he has a column, a regular column, so you can look for more of him and his views on the Daily Monitor online or in print. And yeah, that’s it. So thank you, Benjamin. Thank you, again, for coming on. You’re doing really important work and just keep going. I get really inspired seeing what you’re doing for the young people of Uganda. Hopefully it will become an Africa wide movement soon.
BR (32:50): We are building something that we hope will contribute to mentorship as a solution to some of these problems on the continent. And already with our mentorship programmes, we have mentors everywhere, here in Uganda, and not just in Kampala, because it’s online. So that makes it easy. Yeah, we have mentors here in Uganda, some out of Kampala. We have mentors in South Sudan, in South Africa, in Germany in the US and mentees that are also not here. One of the other things we are going to be learning from this process is how to remodel and scale this to cover other African countries. So definitely we have Africa on our radar as well.
BN: How amazing. Thank you again, Benjamin for coming on.
BR: Thank you so much.