What do you consider to be a “life-changing” moment?
For some, it may be a new job or a big move. For others, it might be the birth of a child or the loss of a parent.
For Ambrose Kamya of Uganda, it was the moment he was accepted into the Mandela Washington Fellowship program and placed at the University of Notre Dame.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), is an unparalleled opportunity for young African leaders to come to the United States for an executive-style program that is designed to build skills and empower Fellows to lead in their respective sectors and communities. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is extremely competitive, with more than 30,000 people from 49 Sub-Saharan African countries applying each year for just 700 spots at 27 educational institutions across the U.S. Kamya was one of those 700 selected in 2019 and was placed at the University of Notre Dame for a six-week Leadership in Business Institute, led by the Pulte Institute for Global Development, that focused on entrepreneurship and engagement within the South Bend community.
“The Department of State Mandela Washington Fellowship's Leadership in Business Institute is one of our premier programs at the Pulte Institute and Notre Dame,” said Melissa Paulsen, program director of Entrepreneurship and Education Programs with the Pulte Institute and leader of the Mandela Washington Fellowship team at Notre Dame. “Not only is it highly regarded in the community, enriching the campus and greater communities through a diverse exchange of ideas, cross-cultural connections, research and business collaborations, but it more deeply connects us to people like Ambrose who are developing solutions for their context which can be applied to our own challenges. Ambrose's entrepreneurial pursuits are a perfect example of this notion.”
As a serial entrepreneur, the Leadership in Business Institute at Notre Dame could not have been a more perfect fit for Kamya. The son of a sexual assault survivor, he co-founded SafeBangle, a social enterprise based in Uganda with a mission of creating a world free of violence and in which women can live without fear. In 2017, Kamya was awarded Uganda’s 2017 SWISSCONTACT-CURAD National Young Agricultural Technology Entrepreneur of the Year for his work on KeBERA, a hand-held device used to test for pesticide residues in agricultural products.
“This was a life-changing six weeks for me,” said Kamya. “In addition to the exposure to design thinking and entrepreneurship lessons from world-class experts, I made friends and connected with members of the South Bend community.”
Finding a Home Under the Dome
Engagement with the community is an integral part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Fellows complete 400 total hours of community service throughout the six-week program and are paired with a host family to experience a new culture and perspective as part of their exchange. Kamya was paired with Mike Patton, Apostle and founder of Kingdom Life Christian Cathedral, and his wife Tina, vice president of nonprofit and foundation engagement at Indiana Trust Wealth Management, and joined their family for dinner.
“Meeting Pastor Mike and Tina was a turning point for me. That family became part of my life.”
Kamya also had the opportunity to learn from and be coached by the IDEA Center’s John Henry, director of student startups, and Matt Gardner, managing principal of Notre Dame's $23M Venture Capital Fund, who taught a Lean Startup Tools & Techniques course for the Fellows.
All of these experiences led to Kamya’s decision to return to Notre Dame as soon as he was able to pursue a graduate degree.
“I originally applied for the Master of Global Affairs program in the Keough School of Global Affairs. I had been working with the Pulte Institute on a few projects and felt that development was my path, but the call to entrepreneurship became overwhelming. I applied to the ESTEEM program and, with the help of the network I had created during my time as a Mandela Washington Fellow, I was accepted to the class of 2021.”
We all know what happened in 2020. Kamya suddenly found himself without a job, funding, or a way to get to South Bend — all he had was an acceptance letter to the ESTEEM program. He turned to his Mandela Washington Fellowship community for help. The first person he contacted was Ed Jurkovic, program manager with the Pulte Institute and key member of the Mandela Washington Fellowship team at Notre Dame, who helped him organize a GoFundMe page. Within three days, Kamya had raised $2,000, enough to cover his visa and flight expenses. Everyone who donated was part of his Notre Dame family.
“I arrived in Chicago two weeks before the ESTEEM program started with $15 in my pocket. I had nowhere to stay and nowhere to go, all I could think about was landing and passing immigration. Beyond that I didn’t care if I had to sleep on the streets, I would get to Notre Dame.”
Once again, Kamya turned to his Notre Dame family. The ESTEEM recruiter booked him a hotel and an Uber to South Bend. The Pattons took him in until his rental apartment was ready and helped him get a phone, city ID, and a bank account.
“I am here because of the generosity of others.”
Ready to Launch
During his tenure as an ESTEEM student, Kamya continued to pursue his entrepreneurial endeavors and connected with his old coach, John Henry, to get SafeBangle up and running. He entered and won the 2021 Best Graduate Student-Led Venture Award at the IDEA Center’s McCloskey New Venture Competition and was admitted into Race to Revenue, Notre Dame’s summer startup accelerator, where he received funding to work solely on de-risking the business for a period of 10 weeks.
The result was a new business called Kinga Safety, Inc., a South Bend-based EdTech Software as a Service (SaaS) social enterprise with a widget-based mobile application as its flagship solution. The widget helps students get out of uncomfortable situations in a way that is easy and safe in order to reduce rates of sexual assault, thus creating safer campuses for students. Kinga received $24,000 from the IDEA Center, $2,000 in proof-of-concept funding from Startup South Bend-Elkhart, and a $10,000 private donation from a Notre Dame family, another connection that Kamya made during the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Kamya is now in the final stages of launching a working pilot on the campuses of Ivy Tech Community College, St. Norberts, and the University of Notre Dame.
“The vision of the IDEA center is to support inclusive entrepreneurship and we feel honored to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship program, which recruits the top 1% of up and coming leaders in Africa,” said Kamya’s coach and mentor John Henry. “The impact and ambition of these Fellows is so great that you can’t not help them because they are so inspiring to work with. They’ve demonstrated that not only will they make a significant impact in their home countries, but that they give back to our communities as well. Ambrose has become a vital member of our community.”
While Kamya seemed to have the world on a string in South Bend, things were not as simple back home. He lost two aunts, two uncles, and his father to COVID-19 and struggled with being so far from home while his family faced heartache head-on. Kamya had also left behind his wife, Angella Kamya Nteme, who gave birth to their first child while he was away. A few months later, his infant son was involved in a horrific accident that left him severely burned. Kamya expedited his plans to bring his family to South Bend, plans which were made a reality with the help of his ESTEEM advisor Ellen Dutton and his community of Notre Dame and South Bend friends. The whole family is now settled in South Bend.
“I have received so many gifts from the kindness of this place,” reflects Kamya. “I wanted to stay in South Bend because I wanted an opportunity to give back to the community that gave me so much. Here, I feel like I am home.”
Kamya is now an Innovation Fellow with enFocus, a South Bend-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing an entrepreneurial focus to Northern Indiana, where he works with the City of South Bend Mayor’s Office and local employers on a project designed to attract and retain international talent. enFocus allows him to make an impact in the community, while still running his start-up part-time, as part of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) through his F-1 Visa. In addition to his many jobs, Kamya is enjoying perhaps the most rewarding challenge of all: being a Dad to 10-month old son Angerose Demiano Kamya.
“The Mandela Washington Fellowship was a life-changing moment,” repeats Kamya. “I never dreamed that coming to America was possible before this program. The program has not only connected me with quality education, a good job, and stability for my family, but it has also connected me with people who have truly changed my life in different ways.”