25 young Africans learn business skills in summer program through the University of Iowa

Mandela Fellows also tour cultural sites; 'I've learned how to be a strategic entrepreneur,' dental surgeon says

Komal Sreekeessoon, a dental surgeon from Mauritius, prepares tea during a Saturday visit of Mandela fellows to the Moth
Komal Sreekeessoon, a dental surgeon from Mauritius, prepares tea during a Saturday visit of Mandela fellows to the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids. The 25 young African entrepreneurs are spending six weeks at the University of Iowa studying, while also visiting cultural sites in Iowa. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Aissatou Mandela Diallo had never visited the United States, and she had no idea what Iowa was, but she believed this place could instill in her the skills needed to launch a clothing line in her African home country.

Donning the colors of the American flag, she stood inside the African American Museum of Iowa on July 14 and reflected on the three weeks she had spent in the United States so far.

It certainly isn’t home, said Diallo, a freelancer in project management and communication from Conakry, Guinea, but she feels she is on her way to becoming an entrepreneur thanks to a U.S. fellowship.

Twenty-five people from 20 sub-Saharan African countries are sharing Diallo’s journey, living and learning at the University of Iowa campus on Mandela Washington Fellowships for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative.


This year’s program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, started June 20 and will end July 29.

The 25 fellows — only a portion of the 700 fellows nationwide from 49 countries — are spending their time in Iowa visiting companies and completing an accelerated version of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s Venture School program, which is aimed at helping young companies accelerate the startup process.

Meanwhile, the fellows also absorb U.S. culture and get a taste of Iowa on cultural excursions coordinated by the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities.


In total, 3,000 young Africans have participated in the program in the United States since the program’s inception in 2014.


Dimy Doresca, director of the UI Mandela Washington Fellowship program, said the UI is one of 28 schools participating in the program.

Fellows at the UI generally have an interest in agriculture, health care and entrepreneurship, he said.

“We hope when they go back to Africa, they will be ambassadors for Iowa, help Iowa companies find opportunities in their countries,” Doresca said.

Jo Butterfield, the executive director of CIVIC, said her organization arranges home hospitality dinners and cultural outings around the state.

CIVIC promotes the concept of “citizen diplomacy,” the idea that individuals have a role to play in shaping U.S. foreign relations and can help foster long-lasting global connections, she said.

According to the International Research & Exchanges Board, fewer than 25 percent of fellows had professional contacts in the United States before the fellowship.

More than 95 percent of fellows plan to further engage with U.S. professionals upon returning home.

“It’s a powerful thing for people to feel like they can be impacting America’s image in the world,” she said.


Diallo said she has found peace in the United States.


“I learn from everybody,” she said. “Everybody wants to help. When you have questions, everybody wants to answer your questions.”

Using the skills she learns through the accelerated Venture School program, Diallo plans to launch a ready-to-wear clothing line to make clothing made of Guinean textiles.

Connecting with Iowans has showed her they are not unlike people from her home country.

“It’s so amazing how people can have the same idea but they live far away,” she said.

Abdul-Hamid Sherriff, a development professional from Kumasi, Ghana, said he looks forward to connecting U.S. institutions to African institutions.

At home, he manages Icy-cup, a dairy processing company, which creates jobs for youth and women.

He also co-founded the West African Forum on AIDS, Violence against Women and Children, a nonprofit focused on advocacy, interfaith engagement and human rights.

The relationships fostered among the fellows and with the professionals they meet will be key to forming those global ties, he said.

“Without that global connection, we cannot help solve global problems,” he said.


Komal Sreekeessoon, a fellow from Quatre Bornes on the island of Mauritius, has seen firsthand the differences in how the United States and her country address a global problem, such as health care.

Sreekeessoon, a dental surgeon, manages two private dental clinics in Mauritius.

She said she saw the differences in the two countries’ health care systems manifested in a trip to the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.


“Many people here, they concentrate on the cure and the technology behind all the treatment parts,” she said.

“In our country, in parts of Africa, they concentrate on the curative part, like taking care of the symptoms and making sure you’re healthy, not even seeing what’s the underlying disease.”

Being from a clinical background, she said, has made it difficult for her to manage a business.

After this program, she will be more prepared to do just that when she returns home, she said.

“Here, I’ve learned how to be a strategic entrepreneur,” she said. “We learn how it’s done here, the tools we can actually use, the strategies to be in the market.”


The fellows agreed: America is diverse, tolerant and open-minded, and they hope to take those attitudes back to Africa.

“Iowa might be a microcosm of the whole America,” Sherriff said. “America’s a very good country.”

It’s the “land of opportunity,” he added.

Sreekeessoon, for example, had never entered a mosque, but a July 14 outing to Cedar Rapids includes stops at the Islamic Center, the Mother Mosque and the African American Museum of Iowa.

“Here, everybody can access the religious facility, but it’s not the same thing back home,” she said. “ You might be from other religions, but that’s OK.”

Cedar Rapids is a global village, Mother Mosque Imam Taha Tawilsaid, which makes the Mother Mosque — the oldest standing purpose-built mosque in the country — a fitting stop for the fellows.


“It is important to know that people look up to America as a role model,” he said. “They want to live to that standard.”

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