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Erna Grasz | CEO | Asante Africa Foundation

Erna Grasz: Empowering Youth to Architect Their Own Future

In today’s world, the importance of education is unparalleled. The better education the younger generation receive, the more they will contribute to the development of communities that will assist in shaping a better tomorrow. However, not every child is fortunate enough to receive a quality education due to various circumstances; their potential and talent don’t flourish with lack of access. After witnessing the situation in rural East Africa, Erna Grasz co-founded the Asante Africa Foundation to fill this gap.

Asante Africa is rooted in UN Sustainable Development Goals; it achieves results through interconnected programs designed to alleviate poverty by fostering the development of educated and resilient youth. As the CEO of Asante Africa Foundation, Erna is passionate about the power of quality education. She understands the challenges in managing the complex priorities of health, safety, security, and education, recognizing the fragility and linkage between education and food and economic stability. Apart from playing an essential role in assisting the younger generation with education, she is frequently on the global stage, promoting executive leadership, innovating education programs, and promoting sustainable philanthropy versus charity.

The Journey

A single mother raised Erna in Texas, facing challenging conditions. Erna learned early in life that education was an excellent enabler and personal resilience was the key to thriving in difficult circumstances. Her focused drive led to her graduating at the top of her class in the man’s world of Electrical Engineering. Her professional career started at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, leading innovative teams developing system solutions for the Nation’s greatest technical challenges.

As Erna transitioned to corporate leadership in Silicon Valley, these skills enabled her to lead diverse teams through ambiguity and chaos by providing vision, structure, and purpose to their technical tasks. For Erna, forward progress is always driven by a greater purpose.

Erna co-founded Asante Africa Foundation after visiting rural communities lacking access to education in rural East Africa. She and her two Africa co-founders were inspired to pursue that greater purpose: Educating Children.

Mission & Vision

Asante Africa Foundation, a global social impact organization, is focused on “Educating Children and Transforming Worlds” through academic support, skill development, and opportunity creation to youth in rural East Africa realize their potential. Erna expresses that education is the first and most crucial step in emerging from poverty. Asante Africa Foundation, a global social impact organization, is focused on “Educating Children and Transforming Worlds” through academic support, skill development, and opportunity creation for youth in rural East Africa.

Asante Africa takes this a step further in all programs with locally-led, youth-led, and girl-led programs. Asante Africa’s young people have a saying: “If it’s about us, it can’t be without us.” It challenges and drives the motivation of the foundation’s work – simple, scalable interventions can provide young people with the tools they need to thrive. Sustainable solutions must be locally led and embraced by the community. This is the best way to ensure sustainable impact and gender equity.

Leaving the Mark

As sustainable progress in rural East Africa requires a non-traditional approach, a top-down solution is not likely to work in the private and education sectors. Asante Africa programs are designed to be locally led and implemented to insure the solutions address local challenges and are embraced and sustained by the community. Erna pushes this even further with youth-led initiatives where students actively engage in Asante Africa’s “Learn-Do-Teach” academic programs and embrace Pay-it-Forward principles, ensuring their efforts have immediate impact on students, their families, and their community. Youth become empowered and confident, knowing their ideas can lead to local solutions to local challenges and ultimately, sustainable impact.

The efforts of Asante Africa’s programs were recognized when it received the USAID Young Women Transform Prize in 2018 for the girl-led Leadership and Entrepreneurship Program. In 2019, Asante Africa was recognized in the Top 10 of Drucker Innovation Prize for the Learn-Do-Teach” model. The Obama Foundation invited Asante Africa to participate in the Global Summit. In the following year, Asante Africa received the Bronze Award for Sub-Saharan Education Innovation.

Shared Values are the Foundation for Change 

Having rooted values in an organization is essential as it plants the seeds that it will grow from. A set of core values guides Asante Africa Foundation: Youth and Women Led, Inclusive Leadership, Pay-it-Forward, Innovation and Continuous Learning, Partnerships, and Accountability. These drive all efforts toward sustainable impact while ensuring transparency and accountability to all stakeholders. Erna states that these efforts impact Asante Africa’s youth thriving by learning, doing, and teaching others. Their parents and communities are involved and embracing the values of education and Pay-it-Forward initiatives. The value of education, entrepreneurship training, and hard work is clear and is spreading to neighboring schools and communities.

Assistive Technology

Technology is a great enabler, and Erna expresses that during the pandemic when schools were closed, Asante Africa sustained education for youth in the most rural communities by bringing digital content to small learning groups housed under trees or other community locations.

Modern quality education is increasingly available digitally, with or without the internet, and the interface engages students, unlike the memorization of conventional classroom settings. By embracing digital technology, African youth will be at the forefront of innovation, prepared to build peaceful, more vibrant communities and thrive in the global economy, Erna mentions.

The Next Big Change

Erna expresses that the pandemic taught several valuable lessons, including why classroom walls do not limit learning and education. Technology is changing how knowledge is delivered, and the world is increasingly connected, enabling the distribution of content and ideas in real-time. Erna continues that technology is a key ingredient in conquering the greatest challenges of our times: Climate change, health, gender equity, and ending poverty. In her opinion, technology-enabled youth will be more successful in business, providing for their families, building local economies, respectfully utilizing resources, and growing the middle class. Technology brings the world closer together, spreads ideas, enables local and global commerce, and enables positive action toward peaceful collaboration. Asante Africa Foundation is leading that change in rural East Africa.

Planning Ahead

Asante Africa Foundation aims to impact an additional one million young people in East Africa by 2025. It plans for its students, staff, and alumni to be recognized for their community success and impact. Erna states that women and youth will lead the programs, and the funding will be more globally diversified, with almost half of the foundation’s resources coming from the countries where it operates with lean operations and strong governance. She says, “These are all key ingredients of a thriving, sustainable organization with deep impacts on tomorrow’s leaders.”

Empowering Guidance

No one ever promised life would be easy. Erna’s mother used to say “If you are striving to be good, it will be hard. If you are striving to be great, it will be even harder”. Erna says “Expect difficult times and take it one step at a time, celebrating the small successes along the journey. Eventually you will be achieving greatness.” Erna encourages budding women entrepreneurs to think big and take calculated risks with the simple philosophy of “Trust your instincts, intuition, and intellect. Feel the fear and do it anyway!”

Erna’s work is living proof that big challenges require bold leaders capable of listening, learning, and acting in the best interests of those they serve. “The future is being created by empowered, skilled, and passionate young people. Asante Africa will continue educating and creating opportunities for youth determined to architect that bold future for themselves and their world.” Erna concludes.