With the odds stacked against them, it’s not often that you hear about kids from low-income areas in Rwanda, launching their own businesses, attending university and returning to their community to pay it forward to other young leaders. But day in and day out, this is the mission of The Kefa Project, an organization which uses soccer to empower at-risk boys and girls in Rwanda to continue or re-enter education, be reconciled to their families, learn about entrepreneurship, and to love one another and God.
Asked what was the “aha moment” that inspired Brian Beckman to start The Kefa Project, he tells the story of becoming an accidental entrepreneur. “There was no true AHA moment, said Beckman. I got to know kids in Rwanda that lived on the streets and longed for them to experience the same love that had been given to me that opened doors for me. It quickly became apparent that the only way to provide this love was to start a nonprofit organization.”
“I tried to start a nonprofit that I could then hand off to have someone else manage. But it just never became possible. So I stuck with it – because I could not abandon the kids that we had begun to empower. And I am so glad I did not. It has been a gradual process of falling in love with running a nonprofit.
With a background in Exercise and Sports Science and Psychology, Brian Beckman spent a year doing medical research at Duke University Medical Center before he quit his job, traveled to Rwanda, got an idea, and started the nonprofit The Kefa Project.
Portland-born Brian Beckman shares his challenges and greatest accomplishments, and best pieces of advice for someone looking to start a non-profit.
Tell us about your organization. What problem does it solve?
We run community teams for about 500 youth every week. In addition, for our most at-risk boys, we run a boarding soccer academy. There are 27 boys currently in the academy system.
We are specifically working to address the need for at-risk youth to be integrated into the community, to help them to find the solutions they need to leave poverty, and above all to find what they are passionate about and to be able to pursue it. We also are working to stop child homelessness – both with the academy and family reconciliation.
What are your top 3 accomplishments in your career overall?
- The biggest accomplishment of our organization is having a multi-cultural impact. We have had an entire class graduate from our boarding soccer academy. Many of those graduates return to help coach and mentor new athletes at our academy. In addition, we work with parents and not just youth to see families come closer together.
- We have a staff that is completely African in Rwanda. They have created their own leadership structure and model and we work together at a round table to discuss and implement all major ideas. This we believe is how you can make a true impact – when you have local leadership and self-determination.
- We have seen kids go through our programs that were near death when they entered and now are launching their own small businesses, going to university, or playing soccer professionally. There is nothing better than seeing someone embody who they were meant to be. At that point, we mostly get out of the way and cheer from the sidelines.
What has been your greatest challenge? How did you overcome it?
I started the nonprofit in 2009 when nonprofits were laying people off because of the recession. I was 23 years old and was quickly dismissed by many people as just another kid with an idea. I was told many times that we would not succeed, that running a nonprofit was hard, and that I should get a real job. We raised almost no money our first year. And so I did what I had to do. I slept on friends’ couches. I continued to tell our organization’s story to anyone that would listen. I took every opportunity I could find. And through that, we were able to grow and to establish incredible programs for our kids.
Tell me about a time you failed in business. What did you learn from your mistake?
Without going into too many details, when I started the business I was young and made some poor decisions about who I partnered with. When you realize you have formed a partnership that is not furthering your vision, it can be devastating. I learned that it is always good to do as much vetting as possible upfront. But even with that, you will make mistakes. It is important to ask hard questions, not avoid conflict, and to make sure that your company is staying true to the vision for which it was created.
What’s your best 3 pieces advice for someone trying to launch a nonprofit?
- Stick with it, stick with it, stick with it. Perseverance is what breeds success. Overnight success stories are often a decade in the making. You might not get everything you think you will get at first. People close to you might be discouraging. Stick with it.
- Find a good mentor who you respect. I cannot tell you how valuable it was to have mentors who could walk me through the process of filling out government paperwork, establishing a board, writing grant agreements with partners.
- Take criticism, but don’t take it personally. When you launch a start-up company, it is your baby. It can hurt when someone tells you that you have an ugly baby. When someone criticizes your business, take it for what it is worth. Did what they say have merit? If yes, address it in your company. If not, move on. Do not get bogged down in the criticism. That said – do not surround yourself with yes people. Find a team that can challenge you, can say no to you, and think differently than you.
- And just as the fourth piece of advice, find a really good lawyer that is willing to help you. There is a lot you will not know when you start and a lawyer will help you avoid a lot of pitfalls.
How did working for someone else prepare you for entrepreneurship?
It taught me about all of the administrative details that were needed to keep something running. Entrepreneurs – or at least myself – tend to think much more in terms of big ideas and big pictures, but to succeed all the details need to be managed. There is A LOT of paperwork. I learned how to do all of that administrative work by working for other businesses that required me to do that type of work. When I started my nonprofit, we did not have the finances to hire someone else, so I had to do it all myself.
What are the top three ingredients that have enabled you to succeed?
I was, to the best of my ability, true to who I was. It is very easy to try to replicate someone else’s work, but you need to be passionate about what you are creating. Who I was is what made me passionate about doing what I did and so to try to change myself to fit into the mold of what I was told an executive director ought to be, did not work. This does not mean do not make adjustments or listen to others, but it means do not lose who you are to get to where you want.
I think what separates our business from other businesses is our ability to communicate. We work extremely hard to craft our messages to be very clear and to get to the heart of what we are doing. We try not to get bogged down in minutia but to use all forms of media to convey our story.
Most importantly to our organization, we have an incredible team that we work with. Our secret sauce is the people on the grounds that are doing incredible work that they believe in. It takes a long time to find the right people that fit your vision, but when you do your business can truly take off.