Five years ago, Thione Niang met with friends on Carnegie Avenue and proposed launching a global initiative to change the world by empowering youth leaders and future entrepreneurs.
His friends thought he was crazy and refused to buy into his global vision.
Yes, they knew he was the first African American elected president of Cuyahoga County Young Democrats in 2007. They knew he volunteered for various political campaigns, served as campaign manager for Sen. Shirley Smith, and advised Congresswoman Marcia Fudge on youth issues and education in 2009. They knew he believed in President Barack Obama in the early days when he was a senator and Niang tried to fill a room at his alma mater, Cuyahoga Community College, but only youth showed up.
"Me and my friends tried to meet to organize it. But then they left it. They said, ‘you’re trying to do some crazy things, talking about helping young people all over the world. We don’t have that kind of money.’ They thought I was crazy and let it go. They’re all still here now," said Niang, 37.
Niang moved to Washington, D.C., that year. He held on to his dream, then turned it into a reality.
In the past five years, this Senegalese-born political strategist has traveled to 72 countries as founder of the Give 1 Project. Today it’s in 30 countries with more than 24,000 members. Last month marked the fifth year he’s brought young leaders from all over the world to the White House.
Niang, like millions of other immigrants who came to America, came here to escape poverty and create a better life. He grew up in a polygamist family, his father having three wives and 28 children. They lived in a three-bedroom home with no energy source. Rice was often the only food for four or five days, and he studied at night by candlelight when he could. Mostly, he woke up early to study by sunlight. He never forgot those years, or the 600 million Africans who are still without power.
Two years ago, he changed his career focus. Now, along with R&B superstar Akon, and Samba Batily, CEO of solar energy solutions company Solektra, he’s co-founder of Akon Lighting Africa. It’s a unique business model that offers solar kits to households and small communities. They’re pre-financed with a $1 billion credit line with international banks and financial partners.
"You have to think big, bigger than yourself," Niang said nonchalantly. "Anything that you can think of is possible."
But even with this venture, this youth empowerment activist is among a trio that’s finding ways to empower others. They’re providing clean energy in the form of solar panels, street lights, and micro-grids to rural areas in Africa that have no access to electricity. Just as important, they’re training people in those communities to serve as installers for the energy project.
It’s a business that’s also giving back in the form of education, employment, and donations such as computers to schools. Earlier this year, they created a school in Mali, Africa, to train people in all aspects of renewable energy, business, engineering and installation.
So far in just two years, Akon Lighting Africa is in 15 countries in Africa, and about 5,200 people are working to install and maintain the lights.
"We’re working hard to electrify thousands of villages in Africa," said Niang, who was just nominated as an Ambassador by the Department of Energy.
Niang says he’ll never forget all of the people in Cleveland who helped shape who he is today. They include a restaurant manager at David’s at the downtown Cleveland Marriott, who helped him find his first professional job at 22 as a French teacher at a charter school. He was working as a busboy and going to Tri-C at the time when he was asked to come from the kitchen area, put on a suit jacket, and temporarily serve as a host. He was the only one on staff who spoke fluent French and the restaurant was filled with French-speaking patrons visiting the Cleveland Clinic. They were also Africans who didn’t understand the cultural difference of tipping until Niang explained it to them.
That first job as a teacher led him to taking Cleveland students to Senegal each year. And years later, when some Glenville students got into trouble with the law and later had difficulties finding jobs, he wanted to learn more about politics and find ways to help youth. That led him to volunteer on local political campaigns.
He’s grateful for people such as Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell, who helped him get a one-year job as a community organizer in Glenville when another politician turned his back on him after volunteering for his political campaign for a year. Niang said he was hurt at the time, but that was among many temporary setbacks that made him work harder and dream bigger.
Niang was accustomed to overcoming obstacles. He’s the only one of his 27 siblings who moved to America. After his visa was denied four times, he came to this country in 2000 with just $20 and couldn’t speak much English. He stayed with a Senegalese taxi driver for a few months and saved $800 working as a bus boy in New York before moving to Cleveland with a student visa.
"Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can not do … You have to focus on solutions and stay persistent."
How do you relax and unwind?
I love nature. I travel around the world trying to reconnect with nature. I enjoy the countrysides.
What is your goal for Akon Lighting in the next five years?
The goal is to be in 40 countries in Africa by 2020.
What are the three apps you use most?
Instagram, Whatsup and Google Maps.
Tell us what you love most about Cleveland?
Cleveland is resilient.
What would you tell your younger self?
Seek out a mentor.
Do you have one piece of advice for someone considering reinventing?
Think big because everything is possible, if you are willing to put the work in. And don’t listen to naysayers. You can do anything, even without a support system, because I didn’t have a support system. But I believed in the possibilities. And never stop dreaming, because once you stop dreaming you get complacent. You get comfortable. And that’s when innovation dies off.
Marcia Pledger is a business reporter and columnist for the Plain Dealer