Students participating in social impact initiative connect with project counterparts in Africa

A cohort of 19 Notre Dame students and faculty spent their spring break at Saint Bakhita’s Vocational Training Center in Kalongo, Uganda as part of the impact consulting initiative started by Mendoza College of Business professor Wendy Angst.

The all-girls vocational school, which currently operates through the generosity of Notre Dame affiliated donors, provides women with an entrepreneurial education that serves as a catalyst for economic advancement. These “Innovation Scholars” learn skills that not only generate immediate funding for Saint Bakhita’s, but also equip graduates to gain greater financial independence and contribute positively to their local economy.

The school’s website articulates, “Students at Saint Bakhita’s work closely with students at Notre Dame to collaborate on entrepreneurial innovations, and … with the community to ensure innovations have a broad, positive impact on the economic prosperity of the region.”

For the past seven semesters, students from all colleges at the university have helped develop projects to effectively generate both financial and societal value at the school. Fifth year architecture student Carlos Flores, a veteran of the Saint Bakhita’s project, told the Rover, “Mendoza’s mission statement is “Growing the Good in Business,” and Saint Bakhita’s is really the epitome of that.”

While speaking with the Rover, senior Grace Kanehan emphasized, “The way Notre Dame helps is really special because we don’t just come in and bring donations and money. We do offer both of those things, but the main point of what we do at Saint Bakhita’s is teaching and learning.” 

Elaborating, she discussed how the university teaches by implementing initiatives and providing the infrastructure which helps the girls to develop vocational skills. Simultaneously, Notre Dame learns from Saint Bakhita’s how the initiatives can be enhanced to generate greater social impact. Kanehan described the university’s approach as ethical, highlighting that it provides “more of a holistic solution for the community.”

In Uganda, the Notre Dame team immersed themselves in field research pertaining to their specific projects. Teams did market research in nearby towns, harvested honey from the Saint Bakhita’s beehives, and presented to the school board architectural plans for a childhood development center, among other things. 

Research changed the trajectory of multiple projects. Ana Toscano, a junior working to increase the profitability of textile products, told the Rover she derived from her ethnographic interviews that “there is a well-established local market for the kind of products [the girls] are able to make, and we cannot ask them to create products that would be successful in the U.S. market but not serve them in some way for their future.”

In addition to accumulating meaningful project insights throughout the trip, the Fighting Irish attended the school’s inaugural Innovation Fair, which invited the first cohort of graduates to return to Saint Bakhita’s and join the new Innovation Scholars for a day of mentorship. The fair consisted of a keynote speaker touching upon innovation, panelists discussing entrepreneurship, and breakout groups to hear about the graduates’ experiences thus far. 

The keynote speaker was Dr. Emma Naluyima, who is a Ugandan celebrity due to her ability to turn an estimated annual profit of nearly $100,000 USD by practicing integrated farming on a single acre of land. 

Notre Dame professor Theresa Foley expressed how inspired she was by Naluyima’s drive and discipline. The best part, she told the Rover, was “when Dr. Emma took off her [high heels], saying ‘These are pretty shoes, but I don’t like these’ … she held up a pair of muddy work boots and put them on. ‘These are my favorite boots because these make me money.’”

At the event, one panelist told Foley, “The message of [Saint Bakhita’s]—that women can be financially self-sufficient—is quite radical.” Foley conveyed her surprise to the Rover, saying “I certainly thought it could be a different message, but I wouldn’t have described it myself as radical.”

The Innovation Fair was the first opportunity Notre Dame had to witness the progress that the first cohort of Innovation Scholars had accomplished since graduating. Foley emphasized that the Innovation Fair revealed that “90% [of the graduates] are engaged in some sort of business, which is fantastic.”

Flores, who has been involved in the project for the past year, shared similar excitement after conversing with the Saint Bakhita’s graduates at the Innovation Fair: “In a society that is very patriarchal, like Uganda, it is amazing to see that these women are thriving.”

The overwhelming majority of interviewees affirmed that their efforts in this project were for the sake of empowering and educating the entrepreneurial girls at Saint Bakhita’s. Toscano said, “I believe that by investing in the girls of Saint Bakhita’s, we can create a ripple effect of positive change throughout their communities.”

Claudia Parisi is a junior studying management consulting and theology. When she’s not taking pictures of sunsets or playing country music at full volume, she can be reached at

Photo Credit: Ana Toscano

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