GAA Honors Two Entrepreneurs With Distinguished Young Alumni Awards

The GAA recognized entrepreneurs in solar energy and education with its Distinguished Young Alumni Awards on Friday. The 2016 recipients are:

  • Jesse Moore ’01, of Nairobi, Kenya, founder and managing director of M-KOPA Solar, a solar-power business that provides hundreds of thousands of people in East Africa clean, reliable energy; and
  • Preston Smith ’01, of San Jose, Calif., co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education, a national network of charter schools aimed at educating students in low-income neighborhoods.

The awards were presented by the GAA Board of Directors at its fall board meeting. The GAA has given the awards since 1989, recognizing alumni age 40 or younger at the time of their selection for bringing credit to the University through their achievements.

Jesse Moore: Delivering power

Jesse Moore likes to tackle big problems. That led him in 2010 to found M-KOPA, a solar-power business that supplies customers in East Africa with clean, reliable electric power for about what they would pay for the kerosene and batteries used by most homes.

The challenge included working out of an office in Nairobi, Kenya, that had to rely on a generator for continuous electricity, in a culture completely foreign to where he grew up, in a country where he didn’t speak the local language.

The opportunity also lay in those challenges. “The reason we need to run a generator at our office is the reason we have a huge market for our services,” Moore said.

Moore first came to the U.S. when he arrived at UNC from his hometown of Toronto, Canada, to start classes on a Morehead (now Morehead-Cain) Scholarship. The scholarship broadened his world view with study abroad and summer travel experiences to Costa Rica, South Africa and several other sub-Saharan countries, and Bolivia. He learned French and Spanish and took note of the need in poverty-stricken parts of the world.

At Carolina, Moore organized the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement for men to stand against violence that victimizes women. He also started Heels on Wheels, collecting unused food from sororities and donating it to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service community kitchen.

After a stint at CARE and earning an MBA from Oxford University, Moore connected with professors at Kenan-Flagler Business School who were experts in a customer base of low-income consumers.

Moore developed his idea of structuring the sale of a solar-generated electrical power similar to mortgages. Consumers make a down payment, then monthly payments equivalent to what they would spend on kerosene and batteries until they pay off their solar system in a year. After that, they pay only for usage, and payments can be made by mobile phone, a popular and accessible method in those countries.

Within 15 months of launch, M-KOPA had 50,000 customers and had raised $20 million in venture capital funding. At present, its customer base tops 375,000 and is on track for a million users by 2018. M-KOPA employs nearly 1,000 workers and is expanding into Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana, and has offices in London and Hong Kong.

Preston Smith: Rocketing toward academic success

Preston Smith never let fear of rejection stand in the way of his goals, a crucial trait, given that he has taken on the mission of educating students in low-income neighborhoods.  In 2007, he launched Rocketship Education, a national chain of public charter schools that stress parental involvement and professional development for teachers.

Rocketship Education has grown from its California roots to Minnesota, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

Smith grew up in public schools in the working-class, racially diverse town of Rialto, Calif. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Carolina, he intended to raise his own socioeconomic status by pursuing a career that would pay very well. But at a career fair at the Smith Center, he stopped by the Teach For America table and learned that he could get relief from student loans, receive a paycheck and help students in the kind of neighborhoods he grew up in.

Two years later, he’d been named Teacher of the Year at the elementary school where he was assigned and was a finalist for an award given to a Teach For America corps member with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation.

Community organizers pushed him to start a small, autonomous school similar to a charter school but still part of the public school system. So, at age 24, he co-founded Lucha (the name means “struggle” in Spanish). By the end of his third year as principal, Lucha was ranked as the fourth-best elementary school in California based on state assessments.

Smith built on his success at Lucha by co-founding Rocketship Education, a charter school and nonprofit that gave him the autonomy to ramp up professional development among teachers, engage and organize parents of his students, and draw on a variety of ways to personalize learning for students.

Rocketship has gained national attention for the strong test scores of its students, for blending traditional teaching methods with online instruction and for keeping administrative costs low. Rocketship now teaches 5,000 elementary and middle-school students a day.

Smith credits UNC for putting him on the path to success. “Not all colleges take good care of you,” he said. “You either make it or break it. But UNC created opportunities that helped me succeed and overcome some of my self-doubts.”

Nancy E. Oates

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