Mohammed boarded the plane with incredible anticipation. After 10 years as a medical professional, he was excited to put his training to work serving overseas. He was at a point in his career where he had a lot of experience he wanted to share with other people, but also new skills he wanted to learn.
Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.
For much of his life, he had seen people around him serving overseas and he never thought that he would get the chance. He applied for the Atlas Corps Fellowship for his opportunity to serve abroad, to meet leaders from around the world, and to develop his skills. It seemed like an unlikely dream, with his background, to be able to fly 7,000 miles from his home and serve overseas, but now the day had come. His family all came to the airport with him to say goodbye; they were all so proud that this Sudanese doctor would serve in the United States for one year at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, aiding the global fight against breast cancer.
For more than 50 years, Americans have served overseas through the Peace Corps, educational programs, religious missions, voluntourism and more, often with the desire to make the world a better place. Outside the United States, there are many talented, smart people who want to contribute to a better world, but they do not have the opportunities to develop their skills in the same way that Americans do by serving abroad. Talent is evenly distributed in the world, but opportunity is not. Until recently, they did not have the visas or financing to cross borders in service. Atlas Corps has changed all this by recruiting the best social sector professionals from all over the world to serve in U.S. organizations—future leaders like Dr. Mohammad Abdalla from Sudan.
Since 2006, Atlas Corps has supported 300 people from 60 different countries serving across the United States. Each Fellow has between two and 10 years of experience, is proficient in English, and has a college degree. These Fellows tend to be professionals in their late 20s and early 30s. They spend six to 18 months serving on the team of their host organization and are simultaneously enrolled in a leadership development program.
Atlas Corps has partnered with some of the world’s best organizations to host these Fellows, including American Red Cross, Acumen, Ashoka, CARE, Grameen Foundation, Mercy Corps, NED, Operation Smile, PYXERA Global, Save the Children, Special Olympics, UN Foundation, UNICEF, World Wildlife Fund, and many more. Atlas Corps partners are usually nonprofits, but private sector companies, such as McKinsey & Co., Nike, and American Express, as well as government agencies, such as the Peace Corps, have also hosted Atlas Corps Fellows.
By providing opportunities to serve with these organizations, share best practices, and form networks, Atlas Corps is investing in the next generation of social change leaders.
Atlas Corps applauds President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) because it focuses attention on the next generation of men and women in Africa ready to make a difference in their communities. Nearly 50,000 people applied for the YALI Washington Fellows in 2014, of whom 500 have the chance to come to the United States for six weeks, and another 100 to stay for an additional eight-week internship.
This focus on next-generation leaders is exactly what Africa, the United States, and the world need, but the short-term nature of this exchange has three major shortcomings: such opportunities are too short, too expensive, and too reliant on Americans teaching Africans, with too little emphasis on a reciprocal exchange of ideas. By providing more opportunities for one-sided exchange, it is as if the U.S. government has realized that opportunity is not evenly distributed but has failed to see that talent is. Bringing Africans to learn from Americans without acknowledging what Americans can learn from them is only slightly better than sending Americans to Africa to teach them skills in their own country. The YALI program does not effectively leverage the skills that the African fellows bring with them to the United States.
Atlas Corps is built on a complementary, but radically different, model that recognizes how much Africans have to contribute to their host organizations and proposes long-term service for sustainable, high-impact leadership development. Atlas Corps has also developed a public-private partnership model that makes the experience affordable and desirable for host organizations and Fellows alike. A one-year fellowship costs $45,000; a host organization such as Susan G. Komen pays $30,000 for the opportunity to host a Sudanese doctor for one year, covering two thirds of the costs. Atlas Corps’ generous donors make up the balance. With this innovative business model, Atlas Corps is fundamentally altering the status quo and future potential of international exchange.
Since 2006, Atlas Corps has supported 300 people from 60 different countries serving across the United States.
The talents of Atlas Corps Fellows are unique and diverse; Mohammad is only one of 300 colleagues with equally inspiring stories of serving abroad. Kate, a human-rights lawyer from Kenya, is currently serving at the Nike Foundation in Portland. She brought her experience empowering teenage girls in Nairobi to Nike to help them improve their girls’ leadership programs. Tom, a Fellow from Uganda, served at the U.S. Peace Corps headquarters, using his experience working for World Vision in Uganda to strengthen the Peace Corps’ Africa office in Washington, D.C. After his year of service, he returned home to address environmental issues in Kampala. Zhirayr from Armenia became an Atlas Corps Fellow to develop his management skills and prepare him for greater leadership roles. Four years after returning to Armenia, he was hired as the Country Director for World Vision Armenia—the first Armenian to serve in a leading role historically held by an expat.
The experiences of these Fellows prove the founding concept of Atlas Corps: talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not. In Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Armenia—indeed, everywhere in the world—there are talented, smart people who want to make the world a better place. The greatest insight from Atlas Corps is that these young leaders not only want to learn skills, but they also want to share their insights, experiences, and talents. These young leaders are not asking to be recipients of aid, but rather to be partners in development. This requires a new mindset towards exchange that is closer to the way the private sector leverages global talent to advance profit margins. To achieve this goal, the social sector must more effectively empower young professionals everywhere in the world to gain the skills, knowledge, and experience they need to advance the common good.
The plethora of programs launched in recent years to encourage youth exchange are a boon for this mandate, but at Atlas Corps, we believe that this is just the start. To have the desired effect, a more comprehensive strategy must leverage public-private partnerships, embrace long-term exchange, and truly value the skills and experiences these leaders already bring to their term of service.
At the end of his 18-month fellowship, Mohammed returned to Sudan as Susan G. Komen’s Regional Manager, responsible for leading the development and execution of the foundation’s strategy in Africa. A young African doctor now holds a prestigious post in a U.S.-based organization. Empowered to address women’s health on his continent and equipped with international networks and an understanding of American culture, he can work with U.S. partners, not just for U.S. donors. African leaders with professional experience in the United States have the ability to fortify the future of both Africa and America. So begins a process of global partnership that will create a network of future leaders ready to address the world’s most pressing challenges. By creating a world in which talent and opportunity are equality distributed, long-term, sustainable social progress becomes inevitable in the United States, Africa, and beyond.
Scott Beale is the Founder and CEO of Atlas Corps, a leadership development program for the world's best nonprofit professionals. Prior to launching Atlas Corps, Scott was a U.S. Diplomat in India and in Bosnia. He also worked at Ashoka's Youth Venture program and in the Clinton White House. He is the author of the first book on the politics of the Millennial Generation (Millennial Manifesto: A Youth Activist handbook) and in 2004 the Youth Vote Coalition named Scott one of 30 people under 30 changing politics in America. Among Scott’s numerous accolades include being named one of the top three nonprofit CEOs in Washington, DC; “The Nonprofit Entrepreneur” by the Washington Post; and the National Award for Citizen Diplomacy.