Akili Dada, the nonprofit scholarship organization for Kenyan girls founded by Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01, Ph.D., was one of nine international winners of the Marketplace of Ideas competition sponsored by the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). Kamau-Rutenberg, who serves as Akili Dada’s executive director, traveled to Rio de Janeiro in May to accept the recognition at the third annual UNAOC Forum.

Selected from hundreds of applicants from across the world, the United Nations (U.N.) honor paid tribute to the successful organization started by Kamau-Rutenberg in 2005. Since its creation, Akili Dada has doubled both its funding and the number of scholarship recipients year after year.

“Just to have the U.N. recognize Akili Dada is a tremendous validation of our work over the past five years,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “We are beyond thrilled.”

At podium

The Marketplace of Ideas competition recognizes “the most innovative organizations best positioned to promote intercultural dialogue.” The award focuses on lesser known organizations that have yet to be “discovered” by the international community.

“This recognition puts us in conversation with people and organizations we would ordinarily not be able to meet,” said Kamau-Rutenberg. “The force of having U.N. recognition opens up a whole new field of international partners, funding and publicity for us.”

Akili Dada is dedicated to empowering the next generation of African women leaders by providing secondary school scholarships, mentoring and leadership training for young Kenyan women from impoverished families. The organization is led by Kamau-Rutenberg and a group of international directors and advisors – several of whom are also Whitman alumni – located in Kenya and the United States. This summer Akili Dada welcomed Whitman trustee and parent Nancy Serrurier as its newest board member.

“Whitman is such a wonderful source of supporters,” said Kamau-Rutenberg, who went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota. “Being able to draw from the college’s people and culture has made us an even stronger organization.”

The U.N. award isn’t the first honor Kamau-Rutenberg has accepted on behalf of Akili Dada. In 2009 she received the Pete Reid Award for Young Alumni, presented by the Whitman Alumni Association. “It was really important to me that the Whitman community recognized what we were doing,” she said. “To get that honor from ‘home’ was very special … I keep the award in a treasured place.”

While completing her bachelor’s degree in politics at Whitman, Kamau-Rutenberg took part in a number of leadership opportunities that helped build the foundation for her work in in international philanthropy. Among these experiences, she credits her internship with Whitman’s Intercultural Center and her time as a resident assistant at the Multi-Ethnic Center for Cultural Awareness House with preparing her for her leadership role with Akili Dada.

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