Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg
Photo credit: Karen Ducey

Written by

The founder of nonprofits Akili Dada and African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg '01 is tending a global garden and watching it grow.

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01 has no trouble articulating the nuances of sexism, racism and classism. In fact, the way she talks about these systems and structures often lends itself to powerful and, at times, comedic one-liners, reproduced as section headings in her story. 

“I took no breaks in my education.”

Originally from Kenya, Kamau-Rutenberg moved at age 14 to Denver, Colorado, where she finished high school. During that time, the Rwandan genocide that shocked the world in 1994 also brought about her second major brush with African politics (growing up under corrupt ruler Daniel arap Moi was the first). In 1995, she met a mother and three children who had fled the carnage, and felt compelled to get involved.

“It made me angry,” she said. “The whole thing was stupid. It brought me face to face with how politics can ruin people’s lives. How important it is that we get our politics right.”

Before she stepped foot on the Whitman campus, Kamau-Rutenberg knew she wanted to study politics—a “hard-headed” choice that didn’t immediately satisfy her parents. When she told them, “they flipped out. It was a very big deal for them. They really tried to dissuade me.” Why? “Political scientists got killed in Kenya. That’s who agitated for change and that’s who got disappeared and killed.”

In that sense, there are indeed plenty of safer career options: “When you’re coming from a family that hasn’t had wealth and privilege, the paths to opportunity tend to be defined as doctor, lawyer, engineer—stable and safe. So, yeah, they would have rather I did that.” In Kamau-Rutenberg’s case, it seems like politics was the one forbidden field of study (out of the range of the traditionally respectable major choices) that she went after anyway.

Kamau-Rutenberg began her formal study of politics at Whitman, while also undergoing a more narrative political education that would greatly inform her postgraduate success. In a way, every Whitman College student experiences something similar—baptism into the particular social world that Whitman breeds. However, as colleges everywhere are beginning to recognize, and as Kamau-Rutenberg herself reiterated, this kind of introduction to campus life (and all that means) is more difficult for students who are first generation, of color, immigrants, international or simply outside of the American middle classes. She recalled the crucial shift in her awareness that resulted from being “embedded in the global north at an elite institution.”

As an immigrant student, Kamau-Rutenberg was exposed to “how folks—middle class, mostly white, and native to North America—were thinking and seeing the world.” Whitman “was a perfect place to get a political education, because it’s not good guy versus bad guy.” Rather than resenting or being otherwise taken aback by the financial wealth and generations-long privilege she encountered on campus, Kamau-Rutenberg remembers it as “a unique place, because people actually want to make a difference, and that’s something in my education since that stands out. People are genuinely committed—it’s not about self-aggrandizement or self-enrichment, and that makes for a different kind of conversation.” Though on a different continent and moving through a different racial and class majority than she had grown up in, Kamau-Rutenberg found kindred spirits in fellow Whitman students who also sought out education as a change-making and status quo-questioning tool.

This complicated package that Whitman provided—immersion in the global north, access to committed peers, and an academic introduction to politics—was like a deluxe starter pack for Kamau-Rutenberg’s evolution into a lauded doctor of political science. “It made me be able to see systems and structures. When people are located in systems and structures, that location shapes behavior and attitude. The problem is the system, not necessarily the individuals.” Understanding how both she and her fellow students were all placed at different points within such a system was perhaps her first real-time insight into the gendered and racialized global political economy where Kamau-Rutenberg would do her work.

After Whitman, Kamau-Rutenberg swiftly proceeded to earning advanced degrees in political science at the University of Minnesota. Was this rapid ascension up the academic ladder common among her classmates?

To take the GRE or not to take the GRE wasn’t a Hamlet-esque question for Kamau-Rutenberg: “If you can get a Ph.D., yeah, you go.” Graduating in the spring only to start the next round of classes in the fall, she earned her doctorate by age 30. “Because of scholarships, I had opportunities that hundreds of thousands of others, especially girls, who grew up where I grew up didn’t have. When you have access to opportunity like that, you don’t mess around.”

Extrapolating further on this point, Kamau-Rutenberg shared another part of her academic motivation: “Your life doesn’t just belong to you, it belongs to the community. Decisions you make are not just about you, they’re about what’s also good for the community.” Wondering if this approach to higher education was (again) significantly different from that of her contemporaries, she acknowledged that she had unique constraints while in school and starting her first projects afterward: “if you’re first generation or newly in the middle class, you don’t have the luxury of time to make mistakes.” And she didn’t waste a day. In 2004, at age 26 and four years before receiving her doctorate, Kamau-Rutenberg founded the international nonprofit Akili Dada, which translates roughly from Swahili as “Intelligent Sisters.”

Silicon Valley: “older white men funding young white men.”

The launch of Akili Dada and an assistant professorship at the University of San Francisco brought Kamau-Rutenberg to Silicon Valley. The “constraints” that had turbo-charged her progression through school didn’t go away when she graduated. Instead, they gave her a professional edge that contrasted starkly against the Valley’s more typical milieu. In particular, “there’s this whole mantra of ‘fail fast, fail hard.’ That works if you’re a particular type of kid with a family that has some resources that can help you recover from failure. When you’re barely one foot in, you’re constrained differently.”

As it turned out, the mandates brought by her background (do it quickly and don’t waste money) were far from disabling in the savagely competitive tech world. Kamau-Rutenberg saw that what she lacked (the luxuries of time and contingency funds) became distinguishing elements of her mission: “In a lot of ways, those constraints made other things possible. I didn’t have the luxury of just thinking about making money, which I think is a really good constraint.” In other words, she didn’t get into the Valley game to join in on the gold rush—she went in looking to apply the area’s money and tools to specific political means.

Considered that way, it could be said that Kamau-Rutenberg’s competitors in the Valley were actually hampered by their expansive freedoms. When you have everything at your disposal and your only charge is to churn out profits, how much powerful innovation can you truly produce? The efficacy of Silicon Valley’s function and ideology is just now beginning to be questioned at scale. However, when Kamau-Rutenberg was there 10 years ago, the “incubator” model was still new and ripe for the picking by mission-driven groups like hers. For context, the investment law group Davis Gillett Mottern & Sims defines an incubator fund as “the ideal investment vehicle for entrepreneurial managers that are searching for a cost-effective stepping stone to launching a full-fledged hedge fund.” For the purposes of Akili Dada, an incubator was an effective way to collect and manage capital so that it could then be directly invested in people.

How did Kamau-Rutenberg decide on the incubator as a mechanism? “I was in Silicon Valley seeing all the conversations around incubators.” These new possibilities and the flow of resources were undoubtedly exciting. However, she was also aware of a problem slowly coming to a head: “Silicon Valley has a huge gender problem, [and that’s] before you even get into race.” Thus, it wasn’t just any promising person that Akili Dada would invest in, but young African women.

When she founded Akili Dada, Kamau-Rutenberg explained a part of her thinking like this: “we actually need to be intentional in investing in black women because the mainstream isn’t paying attention to that. Also, for me, as a political scientist committed to leadership, we need to invest in African women’s leadership. We can’t wake up and say, ‘oh there’s no women leaders,’ when we didn’t work on the pipeline.”

What was it like to be in the Valley and fundraise for Akili Dada in the early days? “Really tough, a catch-22. I found myself as a young black woman trying to raise money from people who were not African for a cause that they could never identify with.” Akili Dada was telling a story about Africa that refused to match what many rich, white philanthropists were used to hearing, and “a lot of the reason why the funding mechanisms in Silicon Valley work the way they do is because it’s a lot of older white men funding young white men.” There is, she said, a personal recognition there, while “the people who hold wealth now have a hard time seeing themselves in a young African woman.”

Rhetorical and relatability challenges aside, the nonprofit found its footing eventually and was among the first of its kind. Akili Dada now provides scholarships and mentors for Kenyan girls in secondary school. Faith Nyakundi ’17, a former Akili Dada scholar from Nairobi, credits the organization as “the best thing that ever happened to me,” and Kamau-Rutenberg as a major source of inspiration: “every time I link with her is a motivation boost.”

We as Africans can sell all the gold from underneath our feet, all the oil, all the minerals, but if we can't feed ourselves, there's nothing we're doing.

Akili Dada’s emphasis on direct mentorship stands out among other scholarship and investment programs for women. When asked how she came to place such weight on mentorship, Kamau-Rutenberg recalls her own experiences moving to the United States as a teenager and navigating a political career as a female scholar and activist. Throughout all of those trials, she said: “I have been blessed and lucky to have tremendous mentors.” At Whitman, former Intercultural Student and Scholar Adviser Kris Barry took Kamau-Rutenberg under her wing, along with her Friendship Family, [retired professor of biology] Chuck Drabek and his wife, Jane. Faculty mentors included Associate Professor of Politics Bruce Magnusson and Paul Garrett Professor of Political Science Shampa Biswas.

On the whole, “the Whitman family is just really powerful. You’re taking care of each other.” When considering mentorship as a political tool, Kamau-Rutenberg throws sponsorship into the mix, but not before relationships: “First, friendship and trust. Then that relationship can evolve into accountability.” Successful mentors will, she said, hold you “accountable to your vision for yourself.” At last, things become political: “there’s the element of sponsorship, which is really important for women.” This might not always be monetary sponsorship, but rather, “someone has access to a particular space and uses their own social capital to give you that. To get you into that room.” That’s the kind of sponsorship that Akili Dada helps provide with their mentorship programs.

Nyakundi has experienced the power of this philosophy first hand. “On feminism, Wanjiru says, when you walk in through a door as a woman, prop the door open for other women,” Nyakundi explained.

Not only do Akili Dada scholars receive social sponsorship through the program, but they’re also taught to do the same for other women: “And on outreach—I first learned the phrase ‘pay it forward’ from her. Wanjiru reminded us that community service, social outreach and activism are not about giving what you have to spare. Most of the satisfaction is gotten from giving of yourself, your time, and your willingness to be the solution to a problem.” In other words, give of yourself before, during and after you give of your bank account. 

“I saw inequality everywhere.”       

Although Kamau-Rutenberg left Akili Dada in 2014, she continues to innovate toward gender equality with her lead role at African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). When asked about the potentially difficult transition into the agricultural sector, she responded with characteristic swiftness and simplicity. “A lot of what we do at AWARD is making sure that women scientists have the resources and skills and tools that they need to make a difference, and that’s what I did before at Akili Dada, so this is something that I’ve been doing all along. I’m just doing that work in a new sector.”

AWARD Fellow Naomi Chelimo

Through a number of prestigious fellowships, AWARD places female agricultural scientists and researchers at key institutions across Africa. The organization also has a key position in the long game for African prosperity. At a time when climate change is disrupting security and food production, and “grey matter infrastructure” is continually under threat, “Africa can’t continue outsourcing its agriculture innovation and its ecosystem.” As Kamau-Rutenberg explained it, AWARD is offering up major building blocks for an agricultural network across the African continent.

According to Kamau-Rutenberg, the trifecta of forces that will make these next hundred years “the African century” are “agricultural research, gender responsiveness and African prosperity.” AWARD is supplementing the growing agricultural innovation industry with women scientists (the talent “we’re failing to avail ourselves of”), and ensuring that this research addresses “the needs and priorities of men and women farmers.” In a vision that parallels her concept of outreach as relayed by Nyakundi (giving of yourself as the most powerful philanthropy), Kamau-Rutenberg insisted that “we as Africans can sell all the gold from underneath our feet, all the oil, all the minerals, but if we can’t feed ourselves, there’s nothing we’re doing—so agriculture and health are critical.” 

Those who have never farmed or who have never been to Africa might wonder how African women farmers’ needs differ from those of men. “African women are already deeply engaged in ag production, so we have an opening and an opportunity to see: are we going to pivot African agriculture to drive prosperity while keeping women relevant and at the center?”

Without going into detail about farmers on the ground, Kamau-Rutenberg painted a promising picture of the future. As more and more money, knowledge and technology begin to flow into Africa’s agricultural realm, AWARD will be there to direct those resources to women so that the female population can assume an official leadership role in the sector they already underwrite through labor.

When I asked Kamau-Rutenberg if she had perceived gender inequality in Africa while growing up, she turned the question around: “I think it’s usually really easy to talk about gender inequality in poor brown spaces, so I’m actually just going to sidestep that. I saw gender inequality everywhere both when I lived in Kenya and when I moved to the U.S."

In a recent BBC article, Kamau-Rutenberg is quoted as saying that the lack of women scientists is “a global cultural problem,” not at all unique to Africa. How often does she get resistance on the point that gender inequality is everywhere?

“There’s a lot of western assumption that gender bias and sexism is a poor or brown phenomenon. It’s not. The longer we stay dishonest about that, the longer it’s going to take to fix the issues.” Although many may acknowledge that there is a double standard, “the question is what do you do about it? I can sit and moan and call it out, or I can focus on tending my part of the garden and take care of this space and transform the space that I am in.”

As Nyakundi said, “that is Wanjiru for you, always living her own philosophy.” If there’s one thing to be gained from an hour with Kamau-Rutenberg, it’s that we as Whitties owe it to ourselves and to our community members to speak directly, carefully and often about the real functions and consequences of the “systems and structures” that shape our every moment. Perhaps some of Kamau-Rutenberg’s one-liners can help us practice. She’s clearly given us the words.