ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The 1 Million Cups weekly networking event last Wednesday in Downtown Albuquerque was packed with 25 enthusiastic visitors from throughout the African continent.
The group included young professionals from a range of countries stretching from Nigeria to South Africa. All are emerging business and community leaders who arrived in Albuquerque in mid-June for a six-week deep dive into the entrepreneurial innovation and startup movement in New Mexico.
The visitors are among 1,000 fellows the U.S. State Department chose for this year’s Young African Leaders Initiative through its Mandela Washington Fellowship program. Groups of visiting professionals are now in 38 U.S. cities to learn about American life and culture.
The Albuquerque program, organized by the University of New Mexico with a $150,000 State Department grant, is focused on business and entrepreneurship. It includes lectures and workshops, visits to businesses and nonprofits, and lots of networking opportunities like 1 Million Cups.
Participants are learning about strategies they can apply in their home countries while establishing a network of contacts here.
For Ruzivo Chonyera, a marketing consultant and host of a lifestyle and issues-focused TV show in Zimbabwe, networking is key.
“I want to extend my reach into Africa as a whole by consulting and sharing beyond borders,” Chonyera said. “I’m here to build strong and lasting relationships.”
South African marketing consultant Kaz Cakata said social networking can help businesses and communities in his country.
“I believe Albuquerque is on the cusp of innovative breakthroughs that we can learn from,” Cakata said. “In the global economy, networks are critical to scale businesses today.”
Chioma Okereke of the nonprofit Volunteer in Nigeria said she was honored to be among the fellows.
“The investment is this program is huge, and I want to give back,” Okereke said. “Africa is all about development. We have huge skill gaps, and we need more organizations with skilled people to move forward.”
UNM Innovation Academy Director Rob DelCampo said the participants represent a broad range of professions, from businesspeople and public officials to educators and health and welfare advocates.
“The idea was to identify people who can be change agents for the future,” DelCampo said.
Bruce Milne, UNM Sustainability Studies Program director and delegation project lead, said building global ties is good for both the African participants and for Albuquerque. “We’re building globalized connections that can create opportunities for global trade,” Milne said.
Delegation participants, meanwhile, say Albuquerque shares many of their own challenges.
“The problems we face like unemployment and poverty are global,” said Ogola Lois Kange, a Nigerian university lecturer working to empower women through vocational skills. “It’s all about finding solutions to global problems.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the dollar amount of the State Department grant.