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The Shin Fujiyama Podcast | Social Entrepreneurship | Nonprofit Organizations | International Development Aid | NGOs

Shin Fujiyama is a CNN Hero and the Executive Director of Students Helping Honduras. He lives with 30 former street children in Honduras where he runs a school and international NGO out of a tree house. In each episode Shin will be interviewing a proven social entrepreneur or NGO leader in the nonprofit or international development aid industry-- including several CNN Heroes and bestselling authors. They’re going to deconstruct their journey to explain HOW they built up their organizations. They’ll also tell us about their greatest failures, lessons, regrets, and behind-the-scenes realities. We’ll talk about their tactics, philosophies, principles, tools, and motivations to give you inspiration and actionable advice. 1) Subscribe to this podcast. 2) Turn on automatic downloads. 3) Leave me a review. 4.) Enjoy every new interview for FREE during your commute or workout.
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The Shin Fujiyama Podcast | Social Entrepreneurship | Nonprofit Organizations | International Development Aid | NGOs
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Now displaying: May, 2018
May 23, 2018

While traveling in Liberia as an undergraduate research student, William Smith played in 7am pickup soccer games. As the captain of the varsity team at the College of William & Mary (‘14), he needed to stay in shape. Little did he know what would happen next.

William’s foot skills impressed Sekou “Georgie” Manubah, a former national team player. A few days later, Georgie invited William to play a friendly game at the national stadium. But it was no ordinary game. It was the Liberian Peace and Reconciliation match where JJ Okocha, Samuel Eto’o, Patrick Mboma, and Roger Milla had been invited. The organizer of the event was the legendary George Weah, Africa’s only FIFA World Player of the Year (and Liberia’s soon-to-be-President).

35,000 fans—including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—came out to watch the game. William was the only non-African player on the field. Though he lost the match that day, William gained an important insight that summer: The potential of football to change Liberia’s failing education system and gender inequality.

Liberia’s challenges were staggering. A devastating civil war had killed 250,000 people of its 3.5 million population. The GDP per capita was $455 (compared to $2,300 in Honduras). It was the least electrified country in the world. In 2013, 25,000 high school graduates in Liberia took the university entrance exam and every single one failedThen Ebola broke out in 2014.

In November 2014, William asked himself a simple question: “What about a football academy? What if we use this passion and energy that young people have for football as an incentive for kids to improve in the classroom, to break down gender barriers, and to ultimately prepare students to lead positive change?”

He reached out to Georgie and together they wrote out a plan for Monrovia Football Academy.

He began raising money in London while pondering their next steps: “What does the concept actually look like? How many students do we start with? What ages? How many boys? How many girls? Where do we do this?”

There was no time to waste. 58% of 15-24 year olds in Liberia were not completing primary education. “We jump in when ebola finishes,” they said to each other. It was a tough time to start an NGO. People couldn’t shake hands, hug each other, go to school, or play soccer for an entire year because of ebola. In 2015 when ebola subsided, they opened MFA—the first football academy in Africa with a principle of 50/50 gender equity.

William was full of self-doubts. “I had no idea how I was doing any of it,” he said. “You’d be a fool to think you have all the answers.” He tried to convince himself to try and be okay with the prospect of failure while being obsessive about not letting it fail. He woke up early each morning asking himself, what was next? How do we get better? How do we improve?

He gave a fundraising pitch at Saracens Rugby Club but that was not enough. He was asked to do a second and then a third presentation. Finally, they awarded MFA $45,000 for seed funding. Crowdfunding campaigns, meetings with potential donors, and events followed. Like pre-season training at an elite soccer camp, the pace was grueling. But his persistence began to pay off.

Now in its third year, Monrovia Football Academy is showing great promise. President Sirleaf visited, as well as US Women’s National Team coach Jill Ellis and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. Results from preliminary impact studies demonstrated academic and athletic improvements. Word began to spread. In 2017, 1,062 students applied for the 21 spots available at the academy. “We’re trying to be the best school in Liberia,” said William. “That’s our goal.”

William Smith Reading List

William Smith Show Notes

  • Will grew up in Connecticut and played soccer his whole life
  • He studied political science at the College of William & Mary and worked at Capital Hill during a summer but did not enjoy the experience
  • William took a course on African Studies which fascinated him
  • He went to Liberia for three months to do a research project with the US Embassy during his final summer as a college student
  • Liberia’s history is intertwined with the US
  • In the early 1800s, the US had The American Colonization Society which identified freed black Americans and slaves to see what to do with them. They decided to send them to Africa.
  • In 1821, the first ship of these former slaves arrived in Liberia
  • In 1847, Liberia became the first free republic in the African continent
  • Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was named after James Monroe
  • The Liberian flag is very similar to the American flag
  • The country was named Liberia because liberty is an important value for the US
  • Liberia has the fourth lowest GDP in the world, $455/year
  • Honduras’ GDP is $2,300/year
  • Liberia has been unstable for the last 38 years, since the coup d’etat in 1980
  • In 1989 a devastating civil war broke out that killed 250,000 people out of a total population of 3.5 million
  • In 2003 a ceasefire was put into place and the former President Charles Taylor stepped down
  • In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first female President in Africa after an election
  • Ebola in Liberia was at its height in 2014-15
  • Liberians on the ground were vital to stopping ebola
  • The Monrovia Football Academy started in 2015 when Liberia was not ebola free
  • William was not able to shake hands with anyone because of the ebola threat
  • While preparing for his final season of college soccer in Liberia, William was playing pickup games at 7am
  • William met Sekou Dgeorges Manubah “Georgie”, a former Liberian national team player, during one of those pickup games
  • They had a similar philosophy around how the game should be played so they exchanged numbers
  • William was an intern for the State Department at the time
  • “Will, do you want to play with George Weah’s team against the Liberian national team right now?”
  • George Weah is the only African ever named Fifa World Player of the Year. He was essentially in 1995 Leo Messi.
  • Will played the game at the national stadium. Though they lost, “it wasn’t bad.”
  • Former players who played at Arsenal and Monaco were on Will’s team that day. Though still had the game in them despite being in their 40s
  • At the time Weah was the Peace Ambassador for Liberia and so he organized a Peace & Reconciliation Match where he invited legends from the African continent like JJ Okocha, Samuel Eto’o, Patrick Mboma, Roger Milla
  • Will, a center back, was invited to play in the game as the only non-African
  • 35,000 fans attended the game as well as President Sirleaf
  • 25,000 high school graduates in Liberia took the university entrance exam and every single one failed. The education system in Liberia was a mess
  • Will took back three important lessons: The transformative potential of football, the failing education in Liberia, and gender inequality (he never saw girls play)
  • “At the time I was a kid who had been studying this stuff for less than a year. I had no idea what to do. So I started reading as much as I could.”
  • Jonny Steinberg taught African Studies at Oxford
  • William wanted to study under Steinberg so he applied and got into Oxford’s Masters program in 2014
  • There was so much football talent in Liberia but not enough coaching
  • William was the only foreigner who had such an extensive network with Liberian footballers
  • “What about a football academy? What if we use this passion and energy that young people have for football as an incentive for kids to improve in the classroom, to break down gender barriers, and to ultimately prepare our students to lead positive change?”
  • The idea was born in November, 2014
  • William reached out to Georgie to turn the idea into an organization despite the ebola breakout
  • “What does the concept actually look like? How many students do we start with? What ages? How many boys? How many girls? Where do we do this?”
  • William moves quickly. He began raising money in 2015 in London
  • “We jump in when ebola finishes.”
  • Kids missed an entire year of school during the outbreak
  • People could not hug each other, shake hands, nor play soccer
  • It was more difficult for NGOs already operating to continue, whereas those who hadn’t started (like Monrovia Football Academy) could wait things out
  • Monrovia Football Academy was the first football academy in Africa with a principle of 50/50 gender equity
  • In 2015, less than 37% of Liberian girls ages 15-24 were literate vs. 62% of boys were literate
  • There is a gender disparity in most indicators
  • William’s mission has been: to help Liberian children thrive and reshape/redefine the relationship between US and Liberia to make it more just, equitable, and rooted in collaboration
  • Of 18 staff members, William is the only non-Liberian. He hopes to one day make it 100% Liberian.
  • They started with 16 boys and 11 girls
  • The kids are with them from 8am-6pm five days per week
  • The academy has a holistic approach
  • They get breakfast (8am), life skills lessons, computer literacy courses, meditation, yoga, football class (9:30-10am), 10-11:30 professional football practice
  • They have 5 coaches at the moment
  • Liberia is still discovering the type of football it wants to play
  • In the afternoon, they shower, have lunch, and return to classes
  • They still operate in rented facilities, including the fields and classroom space
  • They hope to build their own facility soon
  • President Sirleaf came to visit the academy at the end of the first year
  • 700 students applied the second year and they grew to 47 students
  • The US women’s national team coach (Jill Ellis) and goalkeeper (Ashlyn Harris) visited Monrovia Football Academy in 2016.
  • 1,062 students applied in 2017 for 21 spots
  • They now have 68 students from grades 3-6. They are adding one grade each year
  • They are not a football factory that measures success by the number of professional football players produced
  • The kids have health insurance and medics at Monrovia Football Academy
  • Many sport academies look for football talent more than anything else
  • At Monrovia Football Academy, applicants take an entrance exam and has a football tryout
  • “School first, football second.”
  • They must pass the written test
  • They interview the top 75 students (along with their parents)
  • They invite the top 50 applicants to summer camp where they are carefully observed for football talent, character, academic excellence, commitment, “it” factor
  • They then choose the 5 best footballers, 5 best students, and 10 best student athletes
  • The school community that way becomes well rounded
  • 14 of Liberia’s 16 ethnic groups are represented at Monrovia Football Academy
  • 85% of Liberians are Christian, 15% Muslim. The academy sees similar percentages in their student body
  • The household income of the students are diverse, 70%+ come from poverty.
  • Early on, they did not have enough policies, structure, procedures in place
  • It took at least 18 months of iterating to develop a strong structure
  • They had decided to start with ages 9-11
  • They had no way to see if a child cheated during the entrance exam. They did it at a school cafeteria but were short on staff
  • “The key for our success was our willingness to adapt, adjust, and take chances.”
  • Instead of failing out the lower-performing students during the first year, they created a lower grade to keep them in school
  • 9 out of the 11 low performing students are now excelling academically
  • “We’re trying to be the best school in Liberia. That’s our goal.”
  • Less than 5% of teachers in Liberia have bachelor’s degrees. 100% at Monrovia Football Academy have a bachelor’s degree
  • Average salary in Liberia is $180/month. The teachers at Monrovia Football Academy make at least $300/month
  • “I had no idea how I was doing any of it. You’d be a fool to think you have all the answers.”
  • Humility and bringing in experts
  • They have pro-bono experts from all over the world who offer advice and support
  • “It’s been so much fun. Waking up everyday, it doesn’t feel like work.”
  • “You wake up in the morning and ask what’s next? How do we get better? How do we improve?”
  • Saracens Rugby Club from London was one of the first major donors
  • William has many relatives from the UK
  • William needed to do three, different pitches to get the $45,000 seed funding from Saracens
  • They then raised $12,000 through crowdfunding and did several fundraising events
  • Board members help make introductions for Will to meet potential donors
  • Their donor base is increasing steadily
  • William spends half of his time in Liberia and the other half fundraising in the US and UK
  • They use Quickbooks for their accounting
  • They have a development and evaluation officer who is a Liberian studying at Princeton
  • It cost $99,000 to run the academy its first year. The second year, it was $124,000. The third year, it will be around $170,000.
  • It costs $2,500 to sponsor one child per year
  • Liberia has the lowest level of public electrification in the world
  • The biggest budget item is salaries for their incredible staff members
  • Their staff get health insurance, good pay, vacation days, paid maternity leave, etc.
  • “On our website, you will see my face very little. We want this to be a Liberian initiative.”
  • They try to show an authentic image and accurate representation of Liberia’s true realities
  • They break down the sponsorship program if people cannot give the full $2,500
  • They write for www.goal.com each month
  • Their meals are very nutritious and often include Power Gari for breakfast
  • They get a snack after practice, usually fruit
  • They eat a lot of (red) rice in Liberia
  • The Liberian cuisine is heavy on the starch, maybe 80% rice-based
  • The students also have classes on Saturdays from 9am-1pm
  • Blessing is a six grader at the academy. Only 8 girls showed up on the first day of school.
  • Of 1,000+ applicants, only 60 of them were girls!
  • They went to West Point, the poorest community in the area, too look for girls who played soccer to enroll more girl
  • BBC did a story on Jessica, one of the students at Monrovia Football Academy
  • Blessing is the second best student in the 6th grade and typically starts on the team with the boys
  • “The sport-for-development sector is full of this romanticized rhetoric about how sport has the power to change the world. But there is very little statistical evidence.”
  • It is very important for us to show impact, in things like academic proficiency, their attitudes toward gender & violence, their pride in Liberian identity, potential for leadership
  • They designed a quantitative analysis study
  • 4 students from William & Mary came down to do the pilot study
  • Their students performed 12% better academically than a control group after the first year
  • Professors from William & Mary and Oxford are helping carry out the evaluation
  • The impact studies have cost very little for Monrovia Football Academy
  • They evaluate soccer metrics mostly based on passing and decision making
  • They want to improve on their tactical awareness
  • “I see myself as the entrepreneur in the background.”
  • William currently manages the fundraising, accounting, legal work, marketing, public relations, background administrative work, etc.
  • He juggles two different worlds: one in Liberia where he’s having one-on-one meetings with his students to resolve typical 8-year-old problems and then meeting with wealthy, potential donors in New York the following week
  • To cut travel costs, William stays with family and friends when he can
  • “If there’s one time in my life where I have no responsibilities, I don’t have a family, if I fail it’s okay? It’s right now. So why not give it a go?”
  • “The worst case scenario? We put in a lot of work for 10 months and it doesn’t work and then I find another job.”
  • “It was about being okay with the prospect of failure, but being obsessive about not letting it fail.”
  • William has been on a plane every six days
  • “You’re constantly on the move and there isn’t much time for family, friends, or a significant other.”
  • It’s been difficult for Will to find work life balance
  • Will has fused his two passions: soccer and academia
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