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Jake Harriman: Eradicating Rural Poverty in Africa

Jake Harriman: Ending Extreme Poverty In Our Lifetime

Jake Harriman is one of a kind -- so is the nonprofit organization he founded in 2008, Nuru International, fighting to end extreme poverty within our generation.

Listening to Jake’s “resume,” you’d find yourself in amazement and disbelief at first: “You did WHAT?” As the conversation brought us deeper into Jake’s discovery of his mission, the dots started to connect, from growing up on a small farm in West Virginia, to the US Naval Academy, to deployments as a Marine to some of the most volatile regions of the world, to Stanford Business School, and to Kenya and Ethiopia.

What follows are some highlights from the Awakin call with Jake Harriman that took the audience across worlds, around the globe, and along for an inner transformation.

Brutal Awakening

Jake Harriman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served over 7 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a platoon commander and led four operational deployments throughout Southwest Asia/Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, while being awarded the Bronze Star for actions in combat during his second tour in Iraq.

Then, one day in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, came the turning point of Jake’s life. 

"We were on Highway 7 awaiting resupply. I heard a vehicle rapidly approaching. We fired warning shots. The driver, a gaunt Iraqi, jumped out and ran towards us, waving his arms. As I raised my weapon a military vehicle stopped behind the man’s car. Six men jumped out and began spraying his car with bullets. The Iraqi man stopped, screamed, and began sprinting back toward his car. It was then I realized what was happening.

"Southern Iraq was a desperately poor region. Iraqi Special Forces had been coercing poor farmers to fight Americans, promising they would feed and educate their children if the farmer picked up a weapon. I had no doubt this man was one of those poor farmers. Yet instead of fighting, he was trying to escape across our lines to safety. By the time we got to the car it was too late. His wife lay slumped over dead on the passenger seat, his baby girl had been shot, and he was cradling his six-year-old daughter who was choking on her own blood. I put myself in his shoes. I thought, ‘I live in a world of choices. But what choices did this man have?’

“A real, burning anger started in me. I vowed I never want to see that look in the eyes of another human being again. That day, I vowed to devote my life to giving people choices and hope where none previously existed."


Since that unforgettable incident, Jake went on to witness more cases of young man, sometimes even women, who were forced to take up guns, or strap bombs on their bodies, to gamble for a sliver of hope for their families. Jake observed, “Those extreme acts did not come from misplaced hatred to the West, but was motivated by a desperate love for their children who were starving to death at home.”

Jake had many conversations with his fellow soldiers, and was surprised to find that many have arrived at a similar conclusion: it is the extreme poverty that is fueling the terrorist activities. “Maybe I can have more impact in the world if I tackle this issue from a different angle, attacking the root causes,” thought Jake.

Awakening takes time. Jake candidly admitted, “Sometimes in life I had to be hit over the head several times to really understand truth, unfortunately. I had to learn lessons the hard way. It took about two more years after that incident before I really understood what I was here to do. After I saw this again and again, I finally said, OK, enough if enough. I left everything I knew in the world. I was 120% devoted.

Taking Up Another Arms

“I got out of the marine with a burning passion to do SOMETHING. But I quickly found out that I had no idea what I was doing. No related experience, with a close-to-irrelevant degree in Engineering from the Naval Academy. I spent about a year and a half just researching this space, having a ton of meetings, talking to organization and major players in fighting extreme poverty, to find out the cause of the problem.

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to start something, I wanted to join other organization who is already doing great work. But quickly I found out that none of those organizations are willing to hire people with my background. I am pretty entrepreneurial, so I decided to build something myself.”

Building a company is a foreign territory to the seasoned Marine. Jake decided to enroll in Stanford Business School for its focus on social entrepreneurship. At Stanford, Jake’s passion soon inspired his classmates and professors, who all joined hands in building out pieces of the company, and provided mentorship and seed funding. By the time Jake graduated in June 2008, they already raised half a million to launch to project. By September that year, Jake was on his way to Kenya.

Armed with the new knowledge and support, Jake has remain humble. “I by no means am an expert. Even now, I don’t have half of the equation figured out. We are learning from everyone we can.”

Spotting the Gap

From the tireless researches, Jake saw a few serious gaps in the market. “I was able to identify it because I had such a different perspective coming in.”
Jake had two key insights on the war to end extreme poverty. First, “extreme poverty” need to be redefined. How you define the problem shapes how you solve it. The traditional, World Bank definition of extreme poverty is those who are living on less than $1.25 USD a day. “This material definition led to material solutions that simply doesn’t last. There’s a lot more to it than income.”

Jake resonated more with Amartya Sen, who believes that “extreme poverty is better defined as the lack of meaningful choices for basic human rights. With this definition, three necessary attributes must exist if extreme poverty is to end: an individual must be empowered to make choices, they must be equipped to make choices, and they must live in an enabling environment where they can act on those choices.”

Second, there is a difference between ending vs. alleviating extreme poverty. “The foreign aid industry appears at times to be a self-perpetuating industry.” Jake didn’t see a lot of organizations committed to actually ending the problem, which we have the resources to do. “At Nuru, our job is to work ourselves out of a job. If Nuru exists in 30 years, then I have failed my mission. This problem needs to be ended. We can do it in our generation.”

However, Jake, was quick to point out that “Nuru International can’t do it along. We want to be catalyst to a movement. We are onto something unique that can be scaled, adopted by other organizations and governments.”

Creating a Solution

So what’s the unique solution pioneered by Nuru International? The secret is clear to Jake: this is really about people. “You can’t force a prefabricated solution onto a village. We are all about leadership. A strong Ethiopian women with my skills will be far more successful in designing local solutions than I will ever be. Our model is fundamentally about people, building leadership capacity.”

Nuru International has a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, you have the Impact Model - -an integrated approach simultaneously addressing hunger, vulnerability to economic shocks, unnecessary disease and death, and child literacy.

On the other hand, you have the Sustainability Engine, training leaders and developing capital. “To get the capital needed to be self-sustaining, we built Nuru Social Enterprises, which invests its profit to the non-profit side of the organization.

“For leadership, we equip local leaders to meet their community’s needs. Using design thinking methodology, we build programs side by side, so that local leaders know how to fix them. Nuru’s goal is to exit in 7 years, and leave behind a self-sustaining, self-scaling enterprise and non-profit.”

Servant Leadership

When asked what leadership trait Jake looks for, his answer struck a chord with the ServiceSpace listeners: servant leadership.

According to Jake, “the most powerful leadership is servant leadership. It brings success in every context I came across. We seek out and foster this trait in our local partners. We look for those with a true passion for their people and nation.”

Nuru believes servant leadership can be learned and taught. It is done by observing existing servant leaders. The principles are very simple: be transparent, be authentic, acknowledge mistakes and apologize, lead from the front, lead by example, and lead with a vision. And one needs to know three things: know yourself, know your people, and know your job very well.

In an insightful commentary about the foreign-aid industrial complex, Jake mentioned, “Those locals who are already in power, are often the wrong people to work with. They want to take what you offer and leverage it for their own gains. Lots of handouts from the coming-and-goings of foreign NGOs has led to a crippling dependencies.”

Nuru does things differently. Nuru goes to a local community, and announces that they are looking for volunteers, with no salary. This criteria alone drives away 80% of those who show up. Then, Nuru asks local farmers: in times of difficulties, who do you go to, to help you get back on your feet? “They point us to the true servant leaders, and we recruit them. Those true servant leaders of often wary of working with the western agencies because they have seen the negative impact the foreign agencies have had on local communities.”

The next step is to build trust with local leaders. The key is to work by their side.

Nuru has very clear principles on his relationship to the locals. “We are not the saviors. We don’t have shiny gadget or drive around in SUVs. In Kenya, I had a one-and-a-half-hour walk to work everyday. When truckloads of fertilizer arrive, we don’t stand round checking boxes while the farmers work. We offload the fertilizer with the farmer. It’s all about partnership. Locals are not beneficiaries.”

Jake joked, you need to “get to the point where the farmers are willing to tell you that you are ugly.”

Failures and Faith

In Jake’s book, failure is vital. Fail fast, learn faster -- this Silicon-Valley style, rapid-prototyping mantra also serves as a guiding principle for Nuru International.

Jake spoke of his leadership philosophy, “You should expect your people to fail. Only through failures can you take risks and learn. We operate on 70% solutions. What we do is to document our failures, talk to stakeholders about them, and learn from them. We must learn from failures, otherwise it is pointless.”

  Among the early lessons is one on how to deal with the often-corrupt local government. Walking the fine line between mission effectiveness and personal principles, Jake has learned to let local government take all the credit, in exchange for not placing rent-seeking obstacles for Nuru’s work.

Another early hardship came as soon as Jake set foot on Africa. “The very first week that I took Nuru to Kenya, our hut was attacked by black widow spiders. We had an earthquake. I got malaria, then got struck by lightening.”

Jake confessed that he “kinda wanted to quick.” But his Kenyan mentor sat him down and put things in perspective: “This is one tough week for you, but many locals experience this on a daily basis. But they keep pushing, and they survive.”

At times of such hardship and despair, two things provided Jake with a get-out-of-bed motivation. One is the heart-breaking hopelessness in the eyes of that Iraqi father, who lost everything he had in the world within seconds. “Every night, when I close my eyes, I see the eyes of that man on Highway 7 when I close my eyes. And it doesn’t go away.”

The second motivation is Jake’s unwavering faith. “God loves me, and I want to share that love and abundance of choices with others.”

Jake reflected on his inner journey from anger to love. “Anger was what initially fueled me. But it can’t build lasting solutions.The faith in Jesus Christ is the most important thing to me, and has helped me to channel that anger into love for people, in a very actionable way.”

Vision for a Poverty-free Future

Today, Jake has one clear mission in life. “We want to be catalyst to a movement, to really end extreme poverty in our lifetime.”

Given his unique experience, in combat situation in some of the most dangerous areas in the world, he wants to take the Nuru model to failed states and conflict zones, such as Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. In order to do that, Jake wants to “prove it in relatively stable areas first. Later on, we will be addressing lot of the volatility factors. Everything we do is designed to scale.”

To scale the model, Jake is working to bring more capital and awareness toward the work at Nuru. At this point, all of Nuru’s capital raised is philanthropic, not seeking financial returns. Many of the donors are individuals from Silicon Valley and the finance industry. They are used to take on high risks in the search for projects with great upside: if it works, it will change the way the world fights poverty. Down the road, Jake hopes to make Nuru financially self-sufficient.

The ServiceSpace community can help to bring more awareness to the work of Nuru International, which has already been recognized by the "Unsung Heroes of Compassion” award.

At any given moment during the call, Jake spoke with the authenticity and determination of a US Marine Special Operations platoon commander, led with the pragmatic and well-researched analysis of a Stanford Business School graduate, shared his gentle compassion and burning passion for his life’s mission and faith.

Jake is both humble (“We don’t have even half the equation figured out”) and confident (“We are onto something unique that can be scaled, adopted by other organizations and governments”), both realistic (“You have to find creative ways to work with the system without compromising your principles”) and ambitious (“We want to be catalyst to a movement that can end extreme poverty in our lifetime”).

We are certainly inspired by Jake’s burning fire in fighting poverty, and are moved by the spirit that transforms righteous indignation into actionable, and universal love. 

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