This is New York: Eddo Kim, on Founding an NGO Beyond Expectations
NEW YORK—When one thinks of founders of nonprofits in Africa, a 29-year-old Korean male is not the typical face that comes to mind.
Eddo Kim is the founder of The Supply, a nonprofit that researches and develops low-cost community schools for impoverished children in Kenya.
He holds three Ivy League degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Harvard. Those three degrees came with a debt.
Although most of his savings were spent on trips to Kenya, Kim said he is at peace with himself as he looks back on his 20s.
After finishing his undergraduate degree at University of Pennsylvania, Kim spent 10 months working for an asset management company. It was a secure, well-paid, 9-to-5 job; yet, he said, in a strange way it was more tiring than running a nonprofit.
Kim said his corporate job was an invaluable experience where he learned communication, organization, and leadership skills, but the monotonous routine of the work drained him.
“But putting my heart and soul into my workday [at the nonprofit] is a feeling that stays with you,” he said. “In a way it frees you.”
He remembers his experience at University of Pennsylvania.
At 18, Kim had moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, where he saw poverty for the first time. “UPenn is situated right in the heart of one of the most impoverished communities in America—West Philadelphia,” he said. “It’s where ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ escapes from.”
During his undergraduate years, Kim often took service-learning courses, a method of teaching that combines classroom instruction with community service.
“I was fascinated by this model of connecting university students with the community and using research abilities and talents to understand what our democratic responsibilities were,” he said. “I felt at the core of these slums is not an issue of monetary wealth, it’s about apathy moving into action.”
Kim felt that education should not be a supply and demand model. This is the principle that The Supply was later founded upon.
After 10 months in finance, Kim quit his job to pursue a graduate degree at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University, where he “randomly” took a class on international education. It changed his worldview.
“The same way I didn’t know about the world outside of Los Angeles, I didn’t know about the world outside of the United States,” he said.
“In the class I was challenged to think about not only the quality of education, but the access,” he said. “Global education is so important for the long-term betterment and growth of this world.”
In 2009 Kim took a trip to Kenya where he saw that many government schools had 70 to 80 children in one class, taught by teachers who did not always show up.
Locals who were starting low-cost community schools, a private school model for the poor, inspired him. “It’s a new trend in very impoverished communities,” he said.
Initially on the plane ride back from Kenya, Kim had planned on helping these schools by raising funds. “I never thought I’d start a nonprofit,” he said.
But a friend Kim met during his trip stayed on his mind. He was an African man born in the slums. He was one of the few that were sponsored to go to college and study engineering. Yet instead of looking for a well-paid job after college, he returned to Kenya to start a primary school.
“What did I have that I couldn’t give up?” Kim said.
In 2010, Kim founded The Supply. The organization carries out research on the effectiveness of various education models in impoverished areas. Based on that research, they create school networks that aim to meet what the communities need.
Yet by creating this nonprofit, Kim went against major societal expectations of age, culture, and money.
Kim was 26 when he founded The Supply. “If you’re a young person [starting nonprofits] people will assume you’re a radical and that you will fizzle out,” he said. “Your idea is [seen as] not sustainable.”
The second challenge is culture. Kim recalls a Forbes article he once read that listed 30 social innovators who are changing the world. Only two entrepreneurs on the list were Asian.
“There are Asian-American nonprofits that do work for their communities and people in the public service sector. But in terms of international development, you just don’t see nonprofit CEOs that are Asian-Americans,” he said. “It was a mental barrier; I’m an anomaly in terms of my age and ethnicity.”
The third and most difficult conflict he faces is money.
Many of Kim’s friends went straight to Wall Street after college; they bought houses and got married.
“My parents saw this as a huge disappointment,” Kim said. The first year and an half Kim couldn’t draw any compensation from his work. “My parents’ fears weren’t unwarranted.”
Yet during one winter break, he returned to California and found his parents’ garage full of garbage bags. It turns out that for two years, his mother had been collecting bottles and cans to recycle to raise money for his project.
“If you give 1,000 bottles you’ll get like $20. In terms of the material investment, it’s not worth it,” Kim joked. “But this is what drives me. If my mom’s heart can change in that way, I don’t fear anything when I approach a donor.”
“What tipped my parents over was when they saw that my life and passions were parallel to what I was doing. They knew I couldn’t do anything else because it’s what my life spoke of,” he said. “I realized that they weren’t concerned about what I was doing today, it was more about whether I could actually live and breathe what I do.”
Meeting Kenyan Children
“I think the Western world … creates an image of African children that doesn’t really help these communities,” Kim said. “They present them as a dependent, typical fly in the eye image.”
But Kim wants to show the world the intelligence and strength of the African children he met.
A girl in the ninth grade named Mary Adhiambo recently emailed him a poem about poverty.
Poverty Eradication We Rebel
By Mary Adhiambo
Oh! Poverty hound!
You’ve sunk your long fangs
so deeply, so tenaciously
into our tender flesh
We protest and groan
But you increase your torment.
Nah! We rebel!
for we’ve no contrast with you
for wealth and health
We’ll turn 40 mother Earth
And extract produce
But lovingly, tenderly.
This we now vow!
To upset the order of things
of waiting for big brother
to produce our bread
Even as opportunities abound.
But we’re too lazy, choosy to exploit.
Watch us progress!
Beyond your octopus reach
by shunning armed conflict.
Which has chained us to your jaws
long and arduous the process
But this contest we sure will win.
“Education should not be a supply and demand model. We want our students to ultimately become the supply for education,” Kim said. “In terms of their capacity, what they have to offer is amazing.”