When Suzanne “Soozi” Sinegel McGill learned about Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, she felt inspired to do something.
“Maybe we could take some computers or soccer balls — that was the scale we were thinking,” she recalled during a recent visit to Zillow’s Seattle headquarters.
Little did McGill know her desire to do something would lead to co-founding the Rwanda Girls Initiative and building an all-girls secondary school in Rwanda’s Gashora Sector.
“Rwanda is trying to define themselves as something more than a genocide,” she said. “But to have a country build its own development, they have to have an educated population.”
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, the mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu by members of the Hutu extremists. “Nearly 1 million people were killed,” McGill explained.
After the genocide, the remaining population was 70 percent women. It’s more gender balanced today, but women continue to be seen as a key player in Rwanda’s development.
When the Initiative asked how they could help the recovering nation, the answer was clear: focus on secondary schools and, please, focus on girls.
For every year of secondary school a Rwandan girl receives, she increases her earning power by 15 to 20 percent, McGill explained. Girls reinvest 90 percent of their income back into their families, as opposed to 30-40 percent reinvested by men.
The problem is so many girls drop out of school for different reasons, falling further and further behind.
“About 750,000 girls are out of school in Rwanda,” McGill said. “…We needed to build a boarding school to keep them there, give them nutritious meals and have the whole focus be on study — not chores at home.”
The Gashora Girls Academy, a secondary boarding school for 270 Rwandan girls, opened in February 2011. Last fall, the school held its first graduation ceremony for 85 seniors. About half will end up at a national university in Rwanda; 21 girls are headed to top U.S. schools, including Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, for the fall of 2014.
“I never would have expected where we are today so quickly and how much the girls have achieved,” McGill said. “It’s breathtaking to me to hear what [the graduates] want to do. …They’re so excited to go get the best education they can and come back [to invest in Rwanda].”
Previous Zillow Speaker Series guests include:
- Jim Weber, Brooks Running Shoes CEO
- Scott Hidinger & Kyle Acquistapace, Deutsch LA
- Vicente Fox, Former President of Mexico
- Hank Crumpton, Former CIA Spy
- Robert Scoble, Rackspace Startup Liaison Officer
- Laureen France, FTC Senior Investigator
- Rand Fishkin, Moz Founder & CEO
- Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg News Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief
- Exec and Justin.tv Founder Justin Kan
- Scripps Networks Interactive CEO Ken Lowe
- Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily
- Georgetown Brewing Co-Founder Roger Bialous
- Cinnabon Co-Founder Greg Komen
- TrueCar CEO Scott Painter
- Joel Spolsky of Stack Exchange
- Tom Douglas, chef and restaurateur
- Steven VanRoekel, White House Chief Information Officer
- Jay Inslee, then-candidate for Washington governor
- Gabe Zichermann, author and consultant
- Rob McKenna, former Washington attorney general and candidate for governor
- Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hang Lung Properties Limited
- Hadi Partovi, angel investor, startup investor
- GrubHub co-founders Mike Evans and Matt Maloney
- Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn
- Adam Goldstein of Hipmunk
- Adam Lashinsky, author of “Inside Apple”
- Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
- John Cook of GeekWire
- FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski
- Gordon Stephenson of Real Property Associates
- Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital
- Richard Tait of Cranium
- Adrian Hanauer of Sounders FC
- Steve Souders of Google