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Commentary: The Business

Hedda Schupak: Why I Believe in Giving Back to Africa

The Diamond Empowerment Fund allows the jewelry industry to extend a thankful hand of help.

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AN ANCIENT CHINESE PROVERB says give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Or, as many modern-day politicians say, give a hand up, not a handout.

The sentiment — however one says it — always resonated with me. So has the concept of noblesse oblige, meaning that with power and privilege comes responsibility. In my opinion, especially so when one’s success and privilege are derived from the minerals that lie beneath another continent’s ground.

This is why I got involved with the Diamond Empowerment Fund. During a trip to Africa, I was struck by the contrast of abject poverty in some regions vs. the relative affluence of Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana.

Botswana is a poster child for the power of education and ethical leadership in developing nations. In the mid-1960s, the country was among the poorest in the world, but with a lot of help from De Beers and the cooperation of its government.

Botswana’s GDP is now $26.04 billion (2008 figure), it has a standard of living comparable to Turkey, and every citizen has access to government-paid education from elementary through graduate school. Not that it’s entirely without problems, but the country is testament to why a hand up is better than a handout.

That’s what DEF embodies. Founded in 2006 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Russell Simmons, its motto is, “Helping Africans Help Africa.” Its two primary beneficiaries thus far are the CIDA City Campus, and the African Leadership Academy, both in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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In a nation where even the brightest high school graduates can fall victim to a 70 percent youth unemployment rate, CIDA — Community and Individual Development Association — gives them an opportunity to attend business college for free so that they can both lift themselves from poverty and create opportunity for others. Every student at CIDA comes from a financially disadvantaged background, and is required to give back both to the CIDA community and their local villages. The school has an 80 percent employment rate among graduates.

The African Leadership Academy was founded on the belief that ethical leadership is key to sustainable economic development on the continent. With more than half of the diamond-producing nations in Africa recovering from recent civil unrest, it’s clear that ethical government, along with education, is necessary to effect permanent positive change. Students at ALA come from all 54 African nations, and learn leadership, entrepreneurship, and African Studies, to become ethical, non-corrupt leaders of the future. DEF provides full scholarships to 32 students from diamond-producing nations.

Many of you are familiar with DEF through its green bracelet, but it’s not about a bracelet. It’s about giving back to a land that’s given so much to us. As I commented above, so many have achieved great personal material success through Africa’s diamond and mineral wealth and as such, I feel an obligation to reach out our hands and help others up so that they may someday do the same.

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