OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — A vacation to Africa changed the life of a Silicon Valley executive. And now this week’s Jefferson Award winner is using her business background to help children around the world.

Erna Grasz knows their names, faces, and stories – all young people living thousands of miles away, but close to her heart.

“Mumress came to us as a young woman about to be married off, and now she’s finishing her junior year in high school,” Grasz explained. “Sampson, who came to us from a refugee camp, is now finishing his freshman year in college. And Nashiro, who was the very first girl in the program, is also a junior in high school.”

Grasz knows the details because she has a stake in their futures, something the electrical engineer couldn’t have foreseen ten years ago.

“I was an executive designing medical products and leading 400-person teams in Silicon Valley,” she remembered. “Ten years ago if you had asked me, would I be running a non-profit, I really would have thought you were talking about another person.”

But a safari vacation to Eastern Africa changed all that. That’s where she met two local women, both educators, who wanted more for students in rural Kenya and Tanzania, where the average daily wage is $2 and many girls are married off before they finish high school.

Once she returned home, Grasz mentored the women she had met, and raised money for their school projects, which led her to start Asante Africa.

“We help children go into the school, get into the school through scholarships,” Grasz said. “Once the children are in the classroom, we help the teachers learn how to manage large classes.”

Today, the Asante Africa Foundation has grown from sending four girls to school to providing more than 200 scholarships with programs that have touched the lives of more than 35,0000 students in East Africa.

“These countries are a part of our global community and we will be linked arm and arm with them economically, politically, and helping these young people become good leaders is critical,” Grasz said.

At her office in Oakland, Grasz coordinates dozens of volunteers. They have partnered with the online classroom Khan Academy, translating many of the courses into Swahili. They host annual leadership seminars to give graduating students guidance in finding jobs and improving village life.

“I like the fact that we don’t just give, you know, give money or things, we teach… we teach them how to become self sufficient,” said volunteer Shirley West.

“They don’t just go in and fix problems for the communities, but they get them involved,” added volunteer Sonja Stewart.

West and Stewart say Grasz’s vision is all about empowerment through education, something their founder learned growing up poor in Texas.

“All they need is knowledge and opportunity, and that is the gift I was given,” Grasz explained.

So for using her gifts to improve opportunities for students and teachers in Africa, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Erna Grasz.

Note: Asante Africa Foundation is celebrating CEO Erna Grasz’s Bay Area Jefferson Award with a pasta & drink party at Spice Monkey Restaurant & Bar in Oakland. When you order a pasta and drink, a percentage of the proceeds will go directly to Asante Africa Foundation to support their educational programs in East Africa. Come and learn more about Asante Africa Foundation, their programs and opportunities to get involved. When: Saturday, August 10, 2013, 6pm-8pm. Where: Spice Monkey Restaurant & Bar, 1628 Webster Street, Oakland. For more information, contact: Wilson Perez at wperez@asanteafrica.org

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