Nelly Cheboi, Augustana College Class of 2016, returned to the Rock Island campus Wednesday for hardly the first time. But this time, the 30-year-old Kenyan entrepreneur was welcomed as a literal hero.
Exactly a month after shining on worldwide TV as the 2022 CNN Hero of the Year, Cheboi spoke at the Lindberg Center on Wednesday about what she learned from her African home, her American home, and how she’s working to rid her home nation of poverty.
“It’s so surreal to be back here at Augie,” she said. “To say that Augie has been transformational for me is an understatement. When I came here, I was really scared. I left home, I left my family. I didn’t know anyone here.”
Girls in Kenya are “told to be quiet, not share our dreams,” Cheboi said. “For me, coming to America, I needed to be quiet, work really hard in school.”
She learned to speak up and grow, from being shy to building a school during her junior year.
“I hold this place so dear,” Cheboi said, noting at Augie she learned to know her “why,” what she wanted in life.
A native of Mogotio, Kenya, she attended Augustana on a full scholarship and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and computer science in 2016. As a junior, Cheboi took the funds she earned from working campus jobs and built Zawadi, a school in Kenya.
The school also serves as the headquarters for TechLit Africa, which she co-founded with a literacy center and vocational classes for the community of Mogotio. The nonprofit company provides recycled computers and digital literacy skills for students, noting rural Africans lack opportunities to make a living. TechLit students learn fundamental digital skills that will unlock global opportunities.
Cheboi is also a software engineer at Fuzzy, a California-based company focused on pet health care.
She started TechLit Africa because she “saw poverty in my community and I saw how dehumanizing it can be and it has been. I see technology as such a powerful tool,” Cheboi said Wednesday. “We want our kids, when they graduate high school, to be able to work remotely for any company in the world.”
That way, they don’t have to leave their Kenyan community.
“I feel like, things are happening and it’s very exciting,” Cheboi said. “If you are thinking as a student, you have challenges and what career should I go into? Just know, what is it you really care about?”
She always wanted to help eliminate poverty. Instead of being intimidated by or comparing herself to her mentors, Cheboi always focused on being inspired by them.
“Whatever you want to do, know your why – why you’re doing it and ask yourself, how you start,” she said.
“It takes a lot of energy and power to show up when there’s no hope,” Cheboi said of living in poverty. “I always go back, because being back there, I flourish there.”
“I like going back and I’ve always gone back – even as a student, I would spend the money and go,” she said of returning to Kenya.
The best Augie export
In introducing Cheboi, Augustana president Andrea Talentino said: “Nelly is an incredible representative of what we try to achieve here at Augustana. This college is committed to education with purpose and prepares students to be global citizens and contributors to society.
“Nelly also represents that extra piece – the spunk and bravery that students need and we encourage as they think about their time beyond college,” she said. “The world needs Augustana graduates today more than ever and Nelly is a great example of that,” Talentino said.
She noted the strong support that former college president Steve Bahls and his wife Jane have
shown Cheboi, and the college has donated computers to her company.
“We are proud to support TechLit Africa and proud to call Nelly one of our own,” Talentino said.
Wednesday’s program included Cheboi’s speech at the CNN gala Dec. 11, 2022, where she thanked her mother, who shared the stage with her. She also specifically thanked Jane and Steve Bahls (the latter of whom is Augie’s immediate past president). “You took me in, you hosted me, you helped me so much,” Cheboi said on TV.
Bahls watched the Dec. 11 gala (which picked one CNN Hero from 10 finalists, after a public vote) from his home in Montana and said he was shocked Cheboi thanked him. She had called them that morning.
“We’re very proud of her. We’re particularly proud of her poise – using that good education she had, to speak without fear,” Bahls said Wednesday. Since 2016, she’s “become much more confident,” he said. Cheboi came to see them in Montana over Christmas last month, when it was 10 below zero.
She spoke Wednesday to a J-term class Bahls is teaching at Augie on fundraising (networking and relationships are key, she said of raising money).
Cheboi said she’s come back to campus to speak to classes many times since she graduated.
“I’m always happy to come back and celebrate all the achievements of the college,” she said. “I always think, I’m nobody, I was just sitting at your desk a few days ago.”
“I come back and talk to the students and tell them, I was just like you and I’m still just like you,” Cheboi said.
Her recognition has helped give hope to students in Kenya. “That is really powerful,” she said.
Tracy Okech and Waithira Nganga, two other Kenyan students at Augie (both sophomores), were inspired by Cheboi’s talk.
“It’s really nice for the whole country,” Nganga said. “Normally when you see Kenyan students come here, they stay here and forget about their home. You see someone like her coming here to get an education and going back to help the community, and that’s nice. That’s what we want to do.”
“It’s inspiring to me how much she is helping out,” Okech said. “Most people would choose the easier option, instead of coming back and helping.”
Paying tribute to her mom
Wednesday’s event also reflected how close Cheboi is with her mother, who was featured on stage with her Dec. 11 on CNN, singing a Kenyan song. That was “the manifestation of a promise from a little girl,” she said. “I was singing to her all the time. I saw her for who she was. She was growing up in a society where educating girls was not valued.”
“She’s working really hard every single day to educate her daughters,” Cheboi said. “I just really believed I could show her the world.”
With the “Hero of the Year” honor, Cheboi received $100,000 to expand her work with TechLit Africa. She was also named an Elevate Prize Foundation winner, earning a $300,000 grant and additional support worth $200,000 for her nonprofit.
The CNN award has helped Cheboi expand her business and partner with more schools, extending greater opportunities to more students. TechLit plans to double the number of schools it works with (from 50 to 100) by the end of 2023, helping 50,000 students.
“Winning this has really helped,” Cheboi said. “Also the funding has really helped.”
She focuses on sustainable solutions to address poverty.
“If they have money, an income, they can afford their food, their education,” Cheboi said. “Poverty describes the lack of hope, and that’s the hardest one.”
The best way to help TechLit is to donate regularly (like $50 a month), she said. Cheboi will also deliver the address at Augustana’s 163rd Commencement Convocation on May 27, 2023.
For more information on TechLit Africa, visit its website.