The Catalyze podcast: Chris Bradford, incoming president of Morehead-Cain, on building transformational educational opportunities in Africa; reimagining ‘lifelong impact’ at Morehead-Cain
The road that brought Chris Bradford to Chapel Hill began in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and included stops in New Haven, Connecticut; Palo Alto, California; Oundle, England; and Johannesburg, South Africa.
Chris spoke with Morehead-Cain from his home in Johannesburg to share his founding story of African Leadership Academy (ALA), his personal mission (which he says is to “build platforms that enable individuals to reimagine what’s possible for themselves and their societies”), and his vision for Morehead-Cain as the incoming president.
Chris, CEO and co-founder of ALA, will succeed Executive Director Chuck Lovelace ’77, who leaves this summer after 37 years with the Foundation.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at email@example.com.
The intro music is by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.
The music for the ending is by Nicholas Byrne ’19. Follow Nicholas @art.sandcrafts on Instagram.
Chris, a warm welcome from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me, Sarah.
Well, some very busy months ahead of you during this transition, so we really appreciate your time today.
You are currently the head of African Leadership Academy, or ALA, just outside of Johannesburg. Tell us a little bit about the school.
African Leadership Academy is a really unique and wonderful institution that I’ve had the opportunity and privilege of helping to build since 2004.
We identify the most promising young leaders from all over the African continent at age 16 or 17. They come join us for their last two years of high school for a unique curriculum that seeks to prepare them to be the change that they seek in the world.
And then we connect them to lifelong opportunities, including the opportunity to apply for something like the Morehead-Cain Scholarship, such that they can continue a tertiary education, come home to the continent, and build big businesses or lead social movements that can enable our mission, which is lasting peace and shared prosperity in Africa.
What would you say you set out to accomplish in South Africa more broadly? What was the vision behind forming ALA, now going on more than 17 years ago, and why South Africa in particular, versus any other country or state that you could choose?
When my founding partners and I began the project of building African Leadership Academy, we did so with one core idea, which is that it is the quality of leadership that transforms societies. We felt that the critical lever for Africa’s development, and for peace and prosperity on this beautiful continent, was a generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders.
We saw the impact of someone like Nelson Mandela on South Africa. And we said, “What if you could build hundreds, thousands of Nelson Mandelas who would work together across countries over the course of their lifetimes?” And so that’s what we set out to do in building African Leadership Academy, was identify young people who had that potential and then prepare them for the leadership challenges that they’ll face over the course of the 21st century.
Was it always in the back of your mind as you did other things, or how did that thought process evolve?
It was not specifically in the back of my mind to build African Leadership Academy when I started as a graduate student at Stanford. But I entered Stanford with a collection of experiences that had helped me recognize that I was really passionate and curious about the role educational institutions play in societies.
I’d previously taught at an English boarding school, for example, where I saw the immense power of this school that, for 450 years, had prepared young people to become English gentleman. Even when students went to that school from places like Hong Kong or Singapore or Nigeria or South Africa, they left as English gentleman. Their aspirations were very firmly set in the United Kingdom, even if they had access to all of the types of resources that would allow them to lead change at home. I wondered whether they would ever actually go home to do those things.
So, I entered Stanford with this idea of building purpose-driven educational institutions. I wondered what it would look like to create a school for students like those I taught in England, but a school that prepared them to become an African leader or a school that prepared them to live out a particular mission.
When I got to Stanford, I told a story kind of like this one and someone said, “Hey, there’s another guy here with a really similar aspiration around building a school for Africa, and you should meet.” His name was Fred, and he and I have been working together since 2003, building educational institutions here on the African continent.
Hmm. Now, throughout this transition, you’ve also had the immense responsibility of leading ALA through the coronavirus pandemic. Give us a sense of how things unfolded – for Carolina that meant classes going fully remote – and how ALA responded.
The first decision that we had to make was whether we would send our students home or whether we would keep them in South Africa and on campus. We chose to keep all of our students in South Africa and on our campus, even through what would likely become a lockdown. That lockdown ended up being six months in length because that was in the best interest of our students to be able to complete their academic program.
Many of our students come from backgrounds in which they simply wouldn’t be able to access quality of learning space or the bandwidth that would be required to carry on our online and remote program.
For us, keeping our students on our campus and locked down on our campus enabled them to participate in a program that went remote for the rest of the year, but make progress towards their diplomas and make progress in their leadership learning, and continue to build the types of relationships with their peers at ALA that will serve them throughout their lives.
Hmm. It sounds like ALA was spared comparative to what a lot of organizations and businesses went through. Do you foresee any of these changes continuing past your tenure just because of how successful those things were that you learned along the way as a result of this?
There’s no question, I think, that we will emerge from the pandemic stronger than we entered it. To give a simple example, with respect to education, is that the product cycle in a school is typically one year. You have the first day of school and you can’t have the first day of school again until the following September at a place like UNC-Chapel Hill.
And what that means is that your innovation cycle slows down dramatically because you can only launch a new version of something the following school year. Well, we found in the pandemic, as we went to remote learning and we were responding to the challenges of the time, is that we had to actually change our calendar entirely. We went from having a term to having five, four-week blocks that would allow us lots of flexibility should we decide to reopen or make other choices.
Each of those four-week blocks we were able to experiment with different allocations of time, different ways in which we might run our academic program. And we were able to do, you could argue, a couple of years’ worth of innovation around the allocation of time, which is the currency of education, in just the last six months during the pandemic. That’s one concrete example of the way in which the pandemic has spurred innovation.
I also think it’s spurred really important changes in the way we work. So often, educational institutions think about convening their networks in person. They organize themselves around big gatherings, so the big alumni reunion that happens at the end of the year. And ALA was no different. But when the pandemic struck, what we saw was that we actually had the opportunity–and requirement–to actually pivot those gatherings that would have been in-person to remote convenings. What we have done is we have had far more regular, remote interactions of a much broader range of subgroups of our alumni community than we ever might have considered to do otherwise.
We have the ALA for Education cohort, young leaders who are interested in education, gathering in different ways and gathering regularly. Same thing with our leaders in the arts, same thing with individual class cohorts that went to ALA together. I think what we’ve seen is that in the move to remote forms of convening, in the same way you and I are having this podcast right now, is enabling our network to build much tighter ties across generations and according to shared interests that will end up creating really important innovations over the long term. And they’re doing this at a far lower cost to the institution. So, I’m really excited about the way in which that will continue in the years to come.
Hmmm. In addition to COVID-19, Africa has also experienced a lot of civil unrest, which, of course, brings to mind some parallels with what was happening in the States during the spring and summer of 2020, and the renewed national conversation on race and racism. In Nigeria, specifically, there were protests over the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS. For those who don’t know all that much about the hashtag #EndSARS movement, can you share with us about the incident that sparked the outcry?
The police themselves in Nigeria, but in other African countries, are a relic of a colonial institution that was put in place by regimes from Europe with the express aspiration to oppress and manage the citizenry. There is a significant concern, particularly among young Nigerians, that the police are not reflective of – or responding to – some of the norms of democratic governance and a liberal society.
This then led to hashtag activism, which was a movement called #EndSARS, and it focused on specific stories about one unit within the Nigerian police force, which was the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, that had some high-profile cases of brutality, not dissimilar to the cases of brutality that Nigerians had seen, including the death of George Floyd, come across their social media from the United States. Nigeria built a similar movement to that which had happened in the States focused on similar outcomes.
One of the differences was that a response to a peaceful protest in Lagos on the Lekki tollgate (which I have crossed many, many times) was that police unit opening fire on those peaceful protesters. And that, I think, was a particularly dark day in Nigeria, but also a dark day for Africa and Africans because it reflected, in Africa’s most populous country, deep-seated frustrations that are held in many countries, in communities across the continent, about whether or not African governments are truly working for, and representing, and doing right by the people they’re meant to serve.
Well, I appreciate you sharing about that, and I’m asking because you had described a response of yours to the ALA community a little while back that focused on the role of institutions in speaking out on important, but often by nature, controversial issues of the day.
I’m really interested to hear how you decided to write that, and what was important to you to share and articulate, and how you came to the conclusions that you did.
So, Sarah, I think there are a couple of things to remember first contextually, which is that the ALA community has students from a wide range of backgrounds, from 46 African countries, and the community is beautiful in its diversity, and its diversity of backgrounds, and diversity of perspectives on a range of issues.
Second is that many of our alumni across the world, including those studying in the United States, see ALA, the institution, as one of the most powerful institutions that they can influence. And so, what they had, I think, expected of me and my colleagues on our leadership team, was that we would put out some type of institutional statement around #EndSARS.
I had reflected on this for some time, and I’ve been reflecting on issues like this for many years. I mean, as the chief executive of African Leadership Academy, I recognize that there are issues across Africa that are sources of anxiety and anguish for students and for our alumni.
I also recognize that we have a duty to investigate those issues and really deeply understand them as a leading institution on the continent and propose solutions. And by “we,” I do not just mean ALA as an institution, but I mean ALA and all of its students and alumni.
I felt that I was inadequately educated about the issue at hand to put out a statement, but also that I would be inadequately educated about most issues as the chief executive to put out a statement on them.
But we exist to empower young leaders, and I believe that what we should be doing at ALA is amplifying the voices of students and alumni who are on the front lines of issues and sharing the work that they are doing with the world to help them build momentum about the work that’s important to them.
I also believe that what we should be doing is creating spaces for dialogue and deeper understanding such that we do that kind of rigorous investigation that I described. So, I was very proud to see that we were able to, during the #EndSARS movement, rapidly mobilize an amazing conversation with some of the leading scholars and activists on this particular issue of policing in Nigeria that helped me and others understand the issue far more deeply than I had as I was just watching the hashtag.
And second, that we were able to share on our own social media channels some of the work done by some of our alumni and some of our students, including pieces of art that they had produced, that were seeking to explore these issues and build collective understanding and implement important solutions for the African continent.
I think it’s really important that educational institutions step into that space, not by dictating or making the statement all the time but empowering their communities to lead and amplifying the voices of those who are doing the hard work.
So, I want to ask, as you considered and ultimately accepted this opportunity, how did you know when your work in South Africa was finished? I’m sure there’s more you would want to do, and that anyone in your position would think there’s more to do, so how did you decide now was the right time for the next step, the next chapter?
I’d never felt that it was actually the right thing for ALA to have a white, American chief executive officer.
We are building a powerful, indigenous African institution. I served in this role for a period of time to help us build a set of systems and processes and some cultural norms that I was, in consultation with our board, the person who is best positioned to build those things.
It’s now time for me to hand the mantle to an African leader who I think can chart a bold new vision for ALA and where we’re headed that is consistent with our mission but sees us perhaps extended in some new and exciting ways, and I’m really excited to see where my successor will take the institution, and I look forward to supporting them in doing that work.
And for me, as someone who sees my personal mission as building platforms that enable individuals to reimagine what’s possible for themselves and what’s possible for their societies, Morehead-Cain feels like a logical next step. It is an amazing opportunity, and it is an institution that I think is only scratching the surface of what it can mean for North Carolina and the world at large.
I’m excited to work with the students, alumni, staff of Morehead-Cain, to imagine the impact that we could have over the next twenty-five years.
I do want to ask a bit more about that, of why Morehead-Cain in particular. There’s any number of institutions you could truly make an impact at and would be interested in, so what drew you to this Program and UNC-Chapel Hill against anything and everything else really?
So, Sarah, I’m so excited to work with you and everyone associated with Morehead-Cain. I mean, I have tremendous respect for what this organization has accomplished over the past seventy-five years.
But I actually see this as one of the most privileged positions in education. You have an exceptional brand across North Carolina and around the world. You have a group of passionate, engaged, and committed alumni. You have the opportunity to really define what the university experience should be like for students in the 21st century and beyond.
And I’m very excited to work with this community and imagine the lifelong impact that we can have on scholars, the impact that we can have on the University of North Carolina and North Carolina more broadly, and finally, the impact we can have on the broader education ecosystem.
I think Morehead-Cain, much in the way that it started a movement around merit scholarships at universities across the United States over the course of the past several decades, I think Morehead-Cain should be imagining itself as a change agent in the education ecosystem in the United States, which I think really needs change agents.
The team has the capacity, the board has the will to really imagine boldly what we might achieve over the course of the period from our 75th anniversary this year to our celebration of the century of Morehead-Cain in 2045.
Well, we are all very energized at the thought of you joining next summer and fall. Now, at this point in the conversation, I hope it’s OK for me to be a little nosy, and I wanted to ask how you first learned about the opportunity, whether it was through existing contacts with UNC or the Program or otherwise.
I first learned about Morehead-Cain because I sought to understand questions of selection. How do organizations around the world identify potential in exceptional young people? And when I went out into the world in 2005 and asked, “Who does a great job of this?” A number of people pointed me to a man named Chuck Lovelace and said, “Morehead-Cain really thinks about these questions of selection and identifying potential and leadership potential in young people, and they’re really at the forefront of this in the world of admissions in the United States.”
So, that’s how I first came in contact with Morehead-Cain, and then, of course, have been able to maintain that contact and interaction through our being a nominating school for Morehead-Cain. I think we’ve had six Morehead-Cain Scholars who have come from African Leadership Academy to UNC and have had extraordinary experiences.
Bradley Opere ’17 was the first student body president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from Africa, and he was our student body president who I had the opportunity to work very closely with at ALA. And I’ve had the opportunity to have Morehead-Cain Alumni and Morehead-Cain [Scholars] serve as interns and as employees on our team over the years.
I have been a long-time listener to the work that you do and while this will be my first time living in North Carolina, my first time working in the institution, I have a deep respect, appreciation, and hopefully, a fairly decent understanding of where Morehead-Cain is today as a result of admiring the work for over 13 years now.
Well, very neat. Now, reading your resume, you’re a changemaker.
In addition to establishing this pan-African institution, you founded and served as program designer for Anzisha Prize, a 10-year, $10 million partnership that supports African entrepreneurs under the age of 22, and Akwanya Scholars, a 12-year, $40 million tertiary scholarship program for African students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
You’ve directed at EduTerra Global Education, an organization that offers educational travel programs.
You’ve served as executive director in so many other educational institutions in South Africa and Rwanda.
And in 2006, you were named in Echoing Green Fellow, along with your fellow ALA co-founder Fred Swaniker, as two of the “most promising social entrepreneurs worldwide.
People react and respond to change in different ways. So, what would you tell Morehead-Cains with respect to how much or how fast you wish to change the Foundation and its work?
What we have is something that is working well. And what we have is we have the opportunity to ask, how do we take this thing that is working very well today, and how do we turn up and accelerate its impact on society? Those decisions are going to be decisions that we’re going to come to in consultation with our students, and our alumni, and our stakeholders.
I’m excited to imagine what we might do. I have some ideas, but certainly no commitments, and I’m sure that there are many people who are going to listen to this podcast who have ideas as well. So, I think the first thing that we need to do is we need to listen well, we need to imagine boldly, and we need to take the time to build a clear, multiyear strategic plan and an aspiration for where we might want to be in 2030 or in 2040, and how we want to describe the impact that we’ve had on the world as Morehead-Cain and as a community of Morehead-Cains.
And I hope that the experiences that I’ve had, whether they’ve been experiences to expand access to tertiary education, whether they’ve been experiences to accelerate young entrepreneurs and changemakers, or whether they’ve been experiences in building new programs or building new institutions, I hope that those will be instructive as we as we chart that path and begin to make steps toward.
And is this commitment to boldness something that you hope people will perhaps say of your legacy at Morehead-Cain, when the Chris Bradford era is finished years down the road? You haven’t even probably packed a box yet to move your family with your wife, Gen, and daughter to the States, so I realize this question is not quite fair, but what are you thinking of what you hope that you can even just know of yourself that you were able to do these things and maintain the kind of vision and values that you had going into it?
I hope that our alumni who already exist as alumni will say at the end of my time, “He didn’t break it,” and that, “I see it concretely stronger and more impactful institution than it was when he arrived.” That they will look at me as someone who built on Chuck’s incredible legacy because I have the greatest admiration for Chuck.
I hope that our scholars who come in and who work with me as scholars will actually maybe say something different.
I hope that they will say that in me, they saw someone who led in a way that was consistent with his values and with our institutional values and that we as an institution modeled the kind of values-based leadership that I think is so essential in taking American society and global society forward in the 21st century.
You talking about your leadership style has made me think of a possibly absurd question for you, so just humor me. The Enneagram and other sorts of personality tests are really popular right now, especially among college students, so using some or none of these metrics, how would you describe yourself and do you know your number?
I do not know my Enneagram number. I have a really good friend, Andrew, who swears by the Enneagram, but I still haven’t taken the test yet. We use something at ALA called the Team Management Profile. It breaks up my core traits as creator innovator and thruster organizer. I both really enjoy operating in this idea space, and that’s sort of my dominant trait – trying to figure out where else we might go but then I’m a heavy organizer. I like to organize teams and get things done. Hopefully those will be experienced as positive traits by the Morehead-Cain community.
So, my last question is twofold. It’s summer now in South Africa, as you mentioned, and looks like it’s in the upper 70s this week in Johannesburg. Let’s say you have no obligations whatsoever, as unimaginable as that might sound for right now in this stage of life, tell us what Chris does to recharge and enjoy time off, and also, what will you miss the most about South Africa, things that you can do there that you might not be able to do here?
I will miss South Africa immensely. I will miss the people, I will miss the music, I will miss the dancing, I will miss the weather, I will miss the varied landscapes of this beautiful country.
But I’m excited about Chapel Hill and North Carolina because I see it as a place where I can do many of the things that I love to do here. My favorite way to recharge is to be in the outdoors and to take a hike. I know that there are greenways and things in Chapel Hill, which I’m very excited about. I love taking a walk across campus and the serendipitous moments that that creates as you bump into someone who’s doing something interesting, and you learn something new, I’m excited that I’ll be able to do that in North Carolina.
I love the water and being able to take vacations by the beach and do things that are active, and you can do that in North Carolina as well. And so, [it’s a] rare place that I think will actually live up to so many of the things I love about South Africa.
And finally, I think the most important of those is the people. At the end of the day, as I told David Wright, the chair of the board, I took this job because of the people. Everyone that I’ve met who’s affiliated with Morehead-Cain I have been inspired by, and I have felt that I would be proud to share this community, this attachment with them. It would be a source of pride for me to be able to say I was associated with the types of people that are associated with Morehead-Cain. And I know that I am leaving a society and so many people who I love, but I know that I’m going to a place that will be filled with wonderful people who I will also love and learn tremendously from.
Well, that’s great to hear.
Thank you so much for your time with us today. Best of luck as you finish off your last semester at ALA and all of the steps that will need to take place before the big move here.
Thank you so much, Sarah. Can’t wait to see you on that side of the ocean and look forward to interacting with all the scholars and all the alumni soon as I can.
*This episode has been edited slightly for clarity.