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Tampa woman determined to make a difference in Rwanda

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 09:36 PM

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis led a privileged life.

She grew up in Hyde Park, just blocks from Bayshore Boulevard, the eldest of four daughters of a well-connected family. Her dad, attorney Cody Davis, did a stint as commodore at the exclusive Tampa Yacht Club. Her uncle, Jim Davis, is a former congressman.

Great-great-grandmother Maud, was a founder of Temple Terrace; her great-grandfather, Cody Fowler, started one of Tampa's most prestigious law firms and served as president of the American Bar Association. He earned a maverick reputation for his work in civil rights in an era when the South didn't take so kindly to such stands.

Elizabeth Davis went to private schools and excelled in academics. In 2006, she graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in political science and international development.

The world awaited her. She could have done anything. Davis had the smarts, the confidence, the looks and the pull to make her mark in business, politics or society, whatever she chose.

She chose Africa.

 

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Three days after Elizabeth Dearborn Davis graduated from Vanderbilt, she packed a few things and took four flights in 30 hours to get to Rwanda.

She didn't have a job, just some savings from working as a nanny and in the chancellor's office at college. The Tampa native didn't know anyone in the central African country of some 12 million people. And she only knew a few phrases of Kinyarwanda, the republic's primary language.

But she did know about the devastating 1994 genocide in Rwanda that left 1 million people dead in a three-month period.

"I had read about it a few years earlier, and remembered feeling so outraged and confused that something like that could happen," she says. She had so many questions. Hadn't humans learned a lesson from the Holocaust? How could something like that occur in 1994?

Davis is a mite of a girl, a ringer for Reese Witherspoon. With her pedigree education and her Hyde Park affluence, she could have written a check to a worthy cause and put her attentions toward a business career. The corporate world loves young go-getters like her.

But she couldn't shake those life lessons she got from her parents, who had always urged her to be a good citizen and work toward the common good. As soon as she got her degree, Davis had one mission in mind: Do something, anything, to improve the plight of the surviving Rwandans. She told her parents she would be gone for a year, tops.

"Did I think she would pick Africa? No. And if I told her not to go, would she have listened to me? No," says her father, attorney Cody Davis. "That's what happens when you raise independent thinkers."

Off she went, to a faraway country where Internet service was a luxury and communication would be sporadic at best. Most Rwandans who encountered her in those early months were suspicious: If you don't work for the government or the United Nations, they asked, then what are you doing here?

Davis camped out at the Episcopal Church Guesthouse, slept on the floor, ate a lot of beans and rice. She hired a tutor to learn the language and joined a Global Youth Connect group that focuses on post-conflict reconciliation and human-rights advocacy. She volunteered for grassroots education projects and set up a nonprofit to provide scholarships to street children and support an orphanage.

And then she decided to do more.

It's been just five years since Davis, 27, settled in the capital city of Kigali – yes, that's her permanent home now – and she's the chief operating officer of a nonprofit college she co-founded for women that offers a two-year diploma in hospitality management. Her research showed that Rwanda's burgeoning reputation as a wildlife destination and regional conference hub has made hospitality the fastest growing sector in the country's economy. Major hotel chains are building all over the city.

"It's where the jobs are," she says. "Yet the country doesn't have the education system to prepare young people for careers in tourism. We saw this as the quickest way to get our women in the workforce."

Eighty students are currently enrolled in the program, which opened in January 2010. Many were orphaned by the genocide and are now the main breadwinners in their families. There were few, if any, opportunities to get an education or find work after high school. Field labor and prostitution are the most common ways to keep food on the table.

But at the college, the young women learn business and leadership skills. They study English, and public speaking is required. So is community service. Thanks to Davis' interest in entrepreneurship, some of the women are branching out into their own businesses. Davis also is planning to open an ecolodge.

Create a generation of young leaders, Davis reasoned, and you create independence, hope and meaningful futures. The school is called the Akilah Institute for Women. Akilah means "wisdom" in Swahili.

It helps that networking is second nature to her. She meets regularly with corporate executives, government leaders, educators and community officials. Last month, she met with the country's president, Paul Kagame, who showed great enthusiasm for Akilah. The government has rewarded her business acumen and initiative with 90 acres to build a permanent campus in the city's Bugesera district, about 35 minutes south of the city.

By 2020, Davis hopes to have four academic programs and 1,000 students. A $3 million fundraising drive is now under way for the first phase of the project. Next year, Akilah will have boarding facilities – a huge time-saver for the students making the three-mile walk from the closest bus stop to the institute. When they go home at night, most return to mud huts with no electricity or running water.

Davis' father is alternately concerned and in awe of his oldest child. He provides office space for the nonprofit and covers some other expenses at his downtown Tampa law firm. Her mother, Beth, is a fulltime volunteer, managing operations and logistics for Akilah in the United States.

Cody Davis frets about his daughter's daunting work schedule, which takes her all over the world. The hot-pink Mac laptop that never leaves her side isn't for shopping for shoes online or messaging friends. It's for communicating with foreign governments, writing grant proposals, setting up fundraising events.

"On one of her trips home, I suggested we go catch a movie. She just rolled her eyes and said, 'Dad, these women are depending on me. I've got urgent work to do.' How could I argue with that?" he says.

He wonders if his daughter might just be a little too tightly wound.

He used to worry about her living in a country that may not be too kind to a young and petite American woman. (Although she might counter that the only time she's been mugged was in New York City.) But with her accomplishments and commitment to education and the economy, Davis says his daughter has become a national hero of sorts in Rwanda. He's comforted by his belief that the word on the street is "you don't mess with Elizabeth Davis."

The secret for her fast-track success? Elizabeth doesn't sleep much, he says, and she doesn't take no for an answer.

"You don't see her coming," he says with a laugh. "You think it's some dumb, pretty blonde walking in the door, and next thing you know, you've given her the world. She's that good."

 

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Those who wonder where Davis gets her drive need to look no further than her bloodline.

Her great-great grandmother, Maud Fowler, a successful developer, was the first vice mayor of Temple Terrace, the town she helped found in the 1920s. Great-grandfather Cody Fowler, partner in Tampa's prestigious Fowler and White law firm, faced down hostile Southerners and championed for civil rights.

Nature played a role, but so did nurturing. Her parents stressed three mantras while raising their daughters: Get a good education. Follow your passion. Give back to your community.

Daughter Mary Patton went to Georgetown and now works in Washington, D.C. Caroline is at Harvard, and has studied three summers in China. Cody, called "Junior," hopes to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology after she graduates from Berkeley Preparatory School.

"They're all super-smart," says Davis' childhood friend, Sarah Palmer, 27. "One of my first memories of Elizabeth was her reading 'War and Peace' in sixth grade. You knew she was destined for something out of the ordinary."

The two girls palled around at Berkeley Prep and did "normal stuff" like cheerleading, dance classes and going to concerts. In the summer before their senior year, Davis traveled to a small village in Costa Rica with a student group to construct a water tank and teach English. When she returned, Palmer noticed her friend was focused on weighty global issues like hunger and economic inequities.

"Elizabeth was always a dreamer who wanted to change the world," says Palmer. "Once she got a taste of it, her passion for helping others just took off."

Her uncle saw it, too. When she sought his help to land a summer internship after her junior year in college, he wasn't surprised she wanted to work with Amnesty International. She got the gig.

"She's fearless," former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis says of his niece. He says she has the zeal of a missionary with the smarts and savvy of a business leader. Combine the two, and it's a potent mix.

"Elizabeth isn't just passionate about these women. It takes more than good intentions to accomplish what she needs to do," he says. "She's very purposeful. She has a plan, and they've learned they can trust her."

That's why Pat Donohue of Tampa joined Akilah's board of directors. The retired nurse heard Davis speak at a local event and was swept away by her enthusiastic presentation. It was so motivating that Donohue took a trip to Rwanda to meet the students and faculty, then decided to become part of the vision.

"I personally witnessed the huge difference that one individual can make in this world," Donohue says. "To know the brutality and the trauma these women have endured, and to see how their lives are now blossoming still gives me goose bumps. It had been a long time since something touched my heart so deeply. Elizabeth is one unique woman."

 

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Love is in the air at Akilah these days.

Next July, Davis will marry Dave Hughes, the co-founder of the institute. The couple met in 2008 after Hughes, a Hong Kong native working in England in property development and investments, got on the Internet to look for volunteer opportunities in Rwanda. Google delivered Davis and her organization for street kids.

"Dear Miss Davis," he wrote in an email, "I just read a book about the Rwandan genocide and I want to come there for a year to volunteer. Do you have anything I can help with?"

The two kindred spirits worked together for a year, then started brainstorming ways to make a bigger impact on the post-conflict generation. Late-night discussions eventually led to the concept for Akilah.

"We had no money, no land, no team, no nothing," Davis recalls. But they had a shared vision, sharp business skills and lots of energy. Eventually, their close friendship blossomed into romance.

Davis is back in the United States on a jam-packed fundraising tour visiting 14 cities in 10 weeks. Two of the Akilah students will join her on the "Metropolitan Safari 2011" to share their stories of how the school is taking their lives from destitution and hopelessness to a bright future and economic independence. The tour kicks off in Tampa.

Though Davis lives far from her hometown now, she says she won't ever forget the support she got early on from this community. Now she can show those people their belief in her was not in vain.

"If you have a vision and you stay focused on it, every single day, you will be surprised. Doors will open and the right people will appear in your life to help make it happen," she says. "It doesn't matter if you do something in Africa or right here in Tampa. Just know that anything is possible."

TBO.com, search keyword: Rwanda, to see a WFLA-TV report on Davis at work and to learn more about upcoming fundraisers and the school's future.

METROPOLITAN SAFARI 2011

 

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday

Where: The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa

What: Fundraiser to support The Akilah Institute for Women in Rwanda. Includes cocktail reception, presentation by two of the Rwandan students, a live auction, African music, dance and dinner.

Cost: $100

Additional Akilah events: Noon on Wednesday, brown-bag luncheon at Bayshore Baptist Church, 3111 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa; 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 22, "An Evening At The Florida Holocaust Museum," 55 Fifth St. S., St. Petersburg.

Information: www.akilahinstitute.org or (813) 425-1531


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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