When Sharon Adongo ’14 was a high school student in Kenya, she attended a series of workshops at Akili Dada, an organization that teaches leadership skills to young African women. Six years later, Akili Dada is one of several nonprofit agencies in Kenya benefiting from Adongo’s skills as a technology consultant.
Adongo and her partner, Dennis Onyango, sketched out plans for their new company, Uwazi, in November 2014, and it’s been in business since January. The firm is currently helping seven organizations in Kenya analyze and improve the way they do business.
“We’re helping them compile and manage their data more efficiently, particularly when it comes to fundraising,” she says. “Most of the people in the agencies we work with have basic computer skills, but we are training them to use new systems we’re building for them.”
Adongo’s career path was anything but a straight line. She was a pre-med student when she enrolled at Vassar in 2010 because her family was encouraging her to become a doctor. But after she took her first computer science class in her sophomore year, she switched her major to Science, Technology and Society with a concentration in computer science. Her new course work led to a summer internship at a San Francisco-based not-for-profit agency called SamaHope, which helps health-related organizations find funding.
After she graduated, Adongo landed a marketing job with Unilever in Nairobi, but quickly realized she wasn’t happy working in the corporate world. She decided to switch careers after she met Onyango, who was building computer systems for a nonprofit agency in a town north of Nairobi. “We met on a Saturday and talked about our passions and experiences working with nonprofits,” Adongo says. “We drew up a business plan, came up with a strategy and decided to pool our resources and start Uwazi. I quit my job that Monday, and he quit soon after.”
Adongo says she has never regretted leaving Unilever to help nonprofit organizations. Uwazi’s clients include a Nairobi-based British organization called Save the Elephants, whose mission is exactly that, and TechforTrade, a British-based organization that helps small-scale farmers find the best markets for their crops.
Helping agencies whose work she believes in is especially rewarding, Adongo says, because her family had received support from such agencies when she was growing up. “I largely credit the person I am today and the opportunities I’ve had to the generous support I’ve received along the way from people in nonprofit organizations, and I deeply believe that ‘to whom much is given, much is required,’” she says. "Having a career that's all about making money doesn't compare to a career that makes a difference in people's lives."
Adongo says Uwazi is already self-sustaining, but she and Odyango are planning to seek assistance from some major foundations in order to expand. “If we obtain some major funding, we could do more to help organizations that are now off the grid in marginalized areas in Uganda and Tanzania,” she says.
In the meantime, the work she’s doing continues to be rewarding, Adongo says. “It used to bother me when I learned about how much overhead some nonprofit agencies had, and the money they were receiving translated into so little impact for the people they were serving,” she said. “What we’re doing is helping these agencies be more efficient so the money they have makes more of a difference. That’s the end goal for me, helping people to amplify social change.”
Read more about Adongo’s new enterprise in Ayiba Magazine.