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‘Higher education is essential to taking on climate change, equality, poverty and building a sustainable world,’ says Jimmy Scavenius

As he prepares to accept the AACSB Influential Leader’s 2021 award, EMBA 2013 alumnus Scavenius (top left) spoke to IMD about the importance of inoculating our societies against shocks via higher education.
February 2021

 - IMD Business School

“When you are highly educated, you become more resilient to a pandemic or to economic shocks or any other disaster in society,” said Scavenius, the Founder and CEO of the nonprofit social enterprise Kwera.

It is a firmly held belief of Scavenius that higher education effectively vaccinates a population against the threats of an uncertain future. The more educated a society is, he says, the less vulnerable its members are in terms of their physical and mental health and finances. To work towards this aim, he left his comfortable job as a corporate lawyer in Denmark and founded Kwera in 2015 to fund Malawian students through university programs.

“Data from the World Bank show that with higher education you become more environmentally conscious, you become more active in your communities and in society. You earn more; you pay more tax and, though controversial, you choose reduced family sizes. And this is key if we want to address our global challenges such as climate change, equality, poverty and build a sustainable world,” said Scavenius, explaining how his sense of purpose is driven by the bigger picture.

Nominated by IMD for his exemplary leadership, Scavenius will receive the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’s (AACSB) 2021 Class of Influential Leaders award. The AASCB honors leaders who are using their business education for impact in unique ways for societal change. Just two dozen graduates of AASCB-accredited business schools receive this exclusive recognition each year.

Humbled by the award, he prefers to view it as the collective achievement of Kwera’s global staff, volunteers and partners and is especially pleased that it will confer credibility upon the enterprise he views as his life’s mission.

“I do hope that awareness around this award will get people to see that Kwera is a real business. It’s well established and it’s super compliant because, well, I’m a lawyer, after all,” laughed Scavenius. “We are an efficient, sustainable business. It is built into our model,” he said.

In Chichewa, Malawi’s national language, Kwera means ‘to climb’ and the nonprofit social enterprise finds and funds top students through their university courses at local universities and couples its financial support with a four-year skills development program that all students must complete.

Designed by a team made up of current and former IMD faculty and educational and leadership coaches, many of whom have worked with IMD in the past, the development program spends two years on the student’s personal development and communication skills and the next two years on market-creating innovation and entrepreneurial skills.

The aim is to create tomorrow’s leaders with the education and the skills to succeed in any environment. Once settled in employment, Kwera’s Student Climbers, as they are known, are contractually obliged to pay a percentage of their salaries back into Kwera in order to fund more Student Climbers. In this way Kwera aims to have one highly educated person in every Malawian family within two generations. For a country with Africa’s lowest number of students in higher education – currently just 1% – the positive potential of Kwera’s efforts in terms of health, economy, innovation and competitiveness are considerable.

Scavenius believes Kwera’s holistic approach is key to the Student Climbers’ success. A network of support surrounds and guides the development of Student Climbers from the beginning of their journey well into their careers. This is intended to secure a young Student Climber in learning environments they may find intimidating. It also protects them when hardship hits.

“One of our Student Climbers lost his father and he’s really been struggling. He has problems with his sight and it was beginning to impact his studies. He was very low. Myself, our volunteers, other Malawian graduates, we just surrounded him with support. And thanks to that we see a lower dropout rate. If I didn’t have to spend all my time fundraising, I would love to be able to spend more time with him and other Student Climbers,” said Scavenius.

Scavenius credits his time at IMD as being pivotal in his life. He arrived at the foundation week and approached former-IMD Professor Stuart Read to talk about investing in human capital. That conversation led to a thesis and ultimately the business plan for Kwera. As a social enterprise, Kwera relies on donations to fund its activities. Thirty Student Climbers are currently receiving Kwera assistance, but the organization hopes to expand that number to 100 in 2021, adding up to more than 1500 in a generation. As well as being supported by faculty, some of Kwera’s Student Climbers are made possible by a number of Scavenius’s contacts in the IMD alumni network.

Jean-François Manzoni, President and Nestlé-Chaired Professor, IMD was delighted to extend his congratulations to Scavenius on his nomination for the award. He said: “Jimmy and the Kwera team are tackling an important problem and are working hard at finding solutions. I am glad that several of Jimmy’s classmates and IMD alumni are already supporting Kwera, and I hope that this distinction will help Jimmy and his team to gather even more support, from the IMD community and beyond.”

The award coincides with the first graduating class of Student Climbers and marks a high point for Kwera and Scavenius, who said they remain his biggest inspiration. He related a recent conversation with a Student Climber with joy: “She’s studying accountancy and I haven’t seen her for two years and she has become so mature. So I said to her, ‘why don’t you help us with the bookkeeping and see it as an opportunity?’ She agreed at once but I wanted to check; I said: ‘But are you ready to call our partners Ernst and Young in Denmark?’ ‘Yeah, of course,’ she replied,” he smiled and added: “To see so much talent and potential realized is amazing to me. We need more strong female leaders, and we need men with integrity. People who ask ‘what is best for society?’ rather than ‘what’s in it for me?’”.

The briefest glance at his own actions over the past five years is testament to where Scavenius sits on that continuum.