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The Energy to Lead

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Samantha Barlow, Fellowship Class of 2014

Samantha Barlow

I received Paul’s email the day before a blackout in Accra. It's eerie walking down the street at dusk in the capital city of a foreign country when suddenly all the lights go out. I was the only one fazed, which speaks to how often this happens in Ghana.

Paul-Miki Akpablie was a student at my alma mater, Colorado College, and he had written me with a proposal the day before: “I have a new idea [for] creating a social business in Ghana that uses a for-profit model to drive social change.” He went on to explain he had developed a product using unique battery technology to help address energy insecurity issues. The product was an especially long lasting solar-charged power bank that could be used to power phones and other mobile devices. In Ghana, few families can afford home computers. As a result, there are more cell phone subscriptions than people, and phones have a dramatic impact on education, social, environmental, business, and health outcomes. “It is also a great device during blackouts, which you might have experienced at some point in time,” wrote Paul. Little did he know I would experience one the very next day!

Paul invited me to be part of the founding team for this new enterprise, Kadi Energy Company. Kadi means “light” in Paul’s native language of Ewe, spoken in southeastern Ghana. Addressing Ghana’s energy insecurity issues seemed like an unsurmountable task to those of us on the team, and it was an even tougher sell to investors. Convincing them your startup is the most deserving recipient of their money and time requires considerable conviction and strategic planning. It was – hands down – the most exhilarating professional experience I’ve ever had.

Kadi Energy Big Idea_full team with check.jpg
The Kadi Energy team after winning Colorado College's Big Idea competition in 2015

Fast forward two years and I am sitting at a well-lit desk at El Pomar. Here, I face a different set of challenges. Rather than seeking investments, El Pomar is in the business of giving money away to nonprofits, for starters. Yet I found myself employing many of the same strategies for success.

One such challenge has been chasing the vision of El Pomar’s Regional Partnerships program: to create livable communities for people to work, play, and stay. Regional Partnerships engages local leaders to learn about the needs of individual communities and make funding recommendations. I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the regional director for the North Region, encompassing Larimer, Weld, and Boulder counties. Community leaders on the North Regional Council decided to focus on kids in middle school and beyond to achieve this vision.

While Larimer, Weld, and Boulder have countless nonprofits serving youth in meaningful ways, the North Council wanted to focus on the gaps in service, one of which appeared to be middle school. “Youth are mentally dropping out in middle school and physically dropping out in high school,” posited Heather Vesgaard, executive director of Partners Mentoring Youth. Rather than simply providing one-off grants, however, the North Council wanted to do something different and lasting.

By providing large, multi-year grants to three organizations addressing middle- through high-school achievement, the Council has been able to come alongside grantees, provide referrals, and build relationships. The Council is looking to further connect with key partners in the region to discuss what the Council and El Pomar can do to help kids access wrap-around services and a continuum of care.

As a Fellow, I have had the pleasure of researching the region’s assets, meeting with community stakeholders, and helping plan strategy sessions for the North Council. It often feels like putting together a complicated, three dimensional puzzle, which reminds me of my time with Kadi Energy Company. Achieving Kadi’s mission of solving Ghana’s energy insecurity issues is daunting. Making Colorado’s North Region a “livable community” where all students can achieve is equally overwhelming. Both require long-term, creative, enterprising thinking.

Walking down the darkening street in Ghana years ago contemplating Paul’s email, I was surrounded by shopkeepers. At the time, most of my energy was focused on finding the way to my friend’s house, but I was also struck by the ingenuity of the surrounding business owners, especially as they operated without electricity. Working on community development issues closer to home through El Pomar, I am more and more convinced all the conventional solutions have already been tried. Ingenuity is what’s required, and it’s where our Regional Councils are headed.