A 26-year-old social entrepreneur who co-founded a progressive academy in Liberia and is working to create a network of similar academies throughout Africa spoke at a convocation on Tuesday about youthful innovation and social entrepreneurship.
"Eight years ago I was sitting right there," William H. Smith said to the all-school audience in the Olcott Center, emphasizing that even at a young age, his listeners can have an impact as innovators and entrepreneurs. In 2015, one year after he graduated from college, Mr. Smith and a partner founded the Monrovia Football Academy, a school that combines academic classes, professional soccer training, and life lessons to help prepare its young students to lead positive change in Liberia. The academy's dramatic success led to the establishment of LEAD, a network of academies replicating the Monrovia model in other parts of Africa.
Mr. Smith urged Loomis Chaffee students to see problems as opportunities, take chances, and think creatively and empathetically about how they might contribute to their communities and the world in the near future. To be effective, social entrepreneurs also must "focus on our inner lives, so that outer lives will benefit," he noted, emphasizing the importance of Mental Well-Being, this year's school theme.
Although he has had an impact at a young age, Mr. Smith reassured his audience, he had "no clue" what he wanted to do when he graduated from high school in 2010. Even by the time he was a junior at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he played Division I soccer and golf and studied political science, he remained uncertain about his future. Inspired by a course he took on African politics, Mr. Smith secured an internship in the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, where he also worked on a research project.
Through pick-up soccer games in Monrovia, Mr. Smith was introduced to George Weah, the Liberian former professional soccer player who was the first African named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995 and is now president of Liberia. In June of 2013, Mr. Weah invited Mr. Smith to play on his team in an exhibition match against the Liberian national team to promote peace and reconciliation among Liberian citizens.
The takeaway for Mr. Smith was an understanding of the universally transformative nature of soccer in places like Liberia and many other African nations.
Through studying African politics and living and working in Liberia, Mr. Smith said he came to understand that the Liberian education system, which had been devastated by civil unrest in the 1990s, was failing the country's young people. His experience in Liberia inspired him to pursue a master's degree in African studies at Oxford University in London in 2014, at a time when an outbreak of the Ebola virus was spreading fear across western Africa.
Monrovia Football Academy was the result of Mr. Smith's and co-founder Sekou Dgeorges Manubah's idea to leverage their network of Liberian football connections to contribute to the nation's rebuilding process in the wake of the Ebola crisis. The academy's goal, according to Mr. Smith, is to use "the passion and energy that surrounds football" as an incentive draw young people into the classroom and develop strong leaders for Liberia's future. Including both boys and girls in the academy also helps to break down traditional gender barriers, he said.
Monrovia Football Academy enrolled 41 boys and 27 girls ages 8-14 for the 2017-18 school year. Its success led to the planned addition of two academies — one in Morocco and one in Zimbabwe — and the establishment of LEAD. Mr. Smith said he hopes to continue to build on the brand "Change the Game" to achieve the organization's goal of creating 54 academies across Africa by 2050.
Mr. Smith cautioned the Loomis students to consider the ethics of solutions they seek to employ to resolve issues in communities beyond their own, and he encouraged them not to fall prey to a "white savior complex."
"We need local solutions for local problems," he said. He reminded his listeners to ask questions, explore new ideas, and think critically as they explore ways to make an impact in the world.
While on campus, Mr. Smith met with students and faculty in the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI) as a visiting entrepreneur, answered student questions during and after the convocation, and joined the varsity boys soccer team on Helfrich Field during afternoon practice.
Mr. Smith's visit to Loomis was organized by the PHI and the Norton Family Center for the Common Good and was made possible with support from the Hubbard Speakers Series, a gift of Robert P. Hubbard '47.