Teen Social Entrepreneur Jessica Markowitz
What sparks true inspiration to create change? Where does the idea, the passion, the confidence, and the tenacity to see it through come from? Jessica Markowitz, founder of Impuwe Richard’s Rwanda, answers these questions through her story, which she recently shared with Heart of Gold.
Impuwe Richard’s Rwanda was founded in 2006 when Jessica and a group of fellow seventh-grade students from Seattle Girls’ School raised money to support low-income girls in rural Rwanda, affording them the chance to complete their education.
The idea to create Impuwe was sparked when a Rwandan man named Richard stayed with Jessica and her family when she was in sixth grade. During the visit, Richard told Jessica about the genocide that had taken place in Rwanda in 1994 and described what life was like for many kids in the country. Jessica was shocked to learn that many girls couldn’t afford to go to school and enjoy a quality education like the one she was receiving.
As for the passion, the confidence, and the tenacity? After talking with Jessica, it became clear that those are attributes Jessica embodies in everything she does. Today, five years later since she first launched Impuwe, the organization, and its impact, continues to grow.
We are thrilled to feature Jessica as this month’s Heart of Gold Changemaker, and we hope you find her story as inspiring as we do. We recently had a chance to chat with Jessica about the realities of life as a teen social entrepreneur. Here’s what she had to say:
What has the impact been on you personally?
When I first started Richard’s Rwanda, it was a really big eye opener for me. I’d seen poverty before, but it was amazing to see these girls and realize how much we were helping them by doing little bake sales. So I came back wanting to do more. And every year I try to come back and think about how lucky we are to have what we have here in the U.S. because some just don’t have anything. Education is underrated in a lot of places. And we have so much and are so fortunate. Before I say or do things I just sort of take a step back because I always want to remember to put myself in other people’s shoes.
Where do you get your drive from?
Because my mom has been an activist all her life, it’s always been a part of mine. Ever since I was five, I was starting to help with fundraisers. And my mom used to do some work in South Africa, and that was something that really impacted me. So there’s been a collection of experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have that have shaped why I have motivation.
I’ve also been going to Rwanda every summer and when I see those girls and the impact we have and we visit their homes and we see how bright their future has become, that has become my main motivation. They’re what makes me see the impact we have.
Where do you go from here?
At this point we are hoping to build. We talked to the main school where the majority of the girls we support are (we work in over seven different schools), and they said a really big need is a science center. We had planned to do a library, but now we’ve been focusing more on this. As a youth-led organization, we also have chapters started by people who expanded from middle school with us, and there’s been a lot more fundraising and interest in general. We want to expand and have chapters all over, maybe national.
For me, I’m going go to college, but I really have no idea what I want to do. I definitely want to go into philanthropy and activism, but I’m also really interested in journalism and communications.
It all started in middle schools when we did bake sales and car washes. We’ve now started to write grants – we recently got a matching grant from the Paul Allen Foundation – and this year we had a brunch at the Recovery Café where we had one of our students from Rwanda come and we all worked really hard. We’re always thinking of new ways to raise money and brainstorming, but we mostly focus on basic fundraisers and grants. We also sell apparel and stuff like that. And also every year we have an April 7th event that we created in seventh grade to remember the genocide. It’s not really a fundraiser but more of an awareness event.
Is there ever a time when you feel like giving up, like it’s just too hard?
Definitely. Once you’re in high school, you have SATs and there’s so much going on…it’s hard to balance and I still haven’t figured out completely. It’s really hard, but that’s why I have to think back and remember that I’m doing a really important thing.
Do you have any words of advice for girls who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Always remember that when it seems like you’re in a situation where there’s nothing you as an individual can do, don’t doubt yourself – you have no idea where your personal inspiration will go. There are times when other youth are curious why I do what I do, and there are people who sort of tease me sometimes, but I think it’s important to hold your head up and be proud of what you’re doing because in the end you’re the one who’s changing people’s lives.
“When you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
To see more of Impuwe Richard’s Rwanda in action, watch this awesome video from Jessica’s website: