Graduating from the top-ranked high school in Kenya, John Kidenda considered Harvard University, Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — also the University of Texas and Texas A&M University — for their engineering programs.
Cadets in uniform at A&M made him hesitate. He liked, instead, the beauty, size and scale of UT and Austin. Also the global student body.
Kidenda thought: “I want a big university where I don’t have to leave the university to meet people from all over the world.”
That’s what he got — plus precious contacts he could not have presumed in advance. In 2005, for instance, he met Rick Reeder, a UT alumnus who worked at Dell. Through a Texas Exes program, Reeder mentored the Kenyan student.
Out of their budding alliance grew a nonprofit, African Leadership Bridge, which matches students from Kidenda’s home continent with top U.S. universities.
It’s still tiny. One student each from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa are only the second and third recipients of the group’s energies.
“The kids must show outstanding academics,” Reeder, 44, says. “Also financial need and leadership in their communities.”
The also agree to return to Africa to help their people.
Born in Nairobi, Kidenda is the eldest of five children from a father who runs a small shipping logistics firm and a mother who works as a therapist.
“Dad always reminded me: You are No. 1,” Kidenda, 28, says. “Because there’s still a lot of structure around the way the family is arranged. You have a very specific role. You are supposed to be a role model.”
He followed the rules. Investigated why the rules were the rules, but didn’t like getting in trouble.
At 87-year-old Alliance High School — the first for blacks in Kenya — Kidenda stood out. Before leaving his country, he wisely researched his chosen university.
“I really didn’t know anything about UT or Austin,” he says. “I didn’t even know Bevo was the mascot or that a longhorn was a symbol.”
Not long after arriving, he transferred to the McCombs School of Business and won a highly competitive three-year Texas Exes scholarship. After graduation, he worked at the Advisory Board Company, a health care research, technology and consulting firm.
“I now try to go back to Kenya once a year,” he says. “At first, I didn’t see Dad for six years. Education is such a central part of the Kenyan DNA. There’s a deeply ingrained sense that education is the conduit through which life is transformed.”
Kenyan scholars who studied abroad, like President Barack Obama’s father, are heroes back home.
“They were the people everyone looked up to,” Kidenda says. “People were motivated by that.”
A key to his lasting bond with Reeder was their first encounter at Dell.
“When he asked about Africa and Kenya, he was actually interested in learning, rather than confirming a preconceived notion,” Kidenda says. “And, more than learning, taking actions.”
For his part, Austin-born Reeder grew up all over the middle of the U.S. Graduating from high school in Plano, this son and grandson of Longhorns knew where he would matriculate.
The Air Force ROTC cadet majored in history, then headed to Southern Methodist University for his MBA. He signed on with Dell as a temporary worker in 1993 and discovered that he cottoned to the corporate environment. After a few job shifts, Reeder moved over to General Motors earlier this year.
Kidenda impressed Reeder during that first Dell encounter.
“I was amazed by his thirst for knowledge,” he says. “John asked great questions. He sent me a thank-you note, and we stayed in touch.”
Action, not words, was what Reeder respected.
“I had time, some financial resources and inspiration in the person of John,” he says. “You can’t solve all the world’s problems by yourself, but when you find one that touches you, you absolutely can make a difference.”
He recruited friends with experience in Africa and with nonprofits. They first wanted to link the students from Kidenda’s old school to UT. Then they expanded their scope to the whole continent.
At one point early on, Kidenda’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“He called and said he had to go home,” Reeder says. “That accelerated the nonprofit. John got the first African Leadership Bridge scholarship. We were able to keep him in school.”
Kidenda gave back the amount of the scholarship to help the next wave and is headed to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a full ride.
But first, his family hosted the next student in the program during a summer internship for IBM in Kenya. The mentee become the mentor.
“It creates a dignified relationship between the student and the foundation,” Kidenda says. “You are not just a receiver. You are instantaneously a giver.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, history and culture.