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The Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders Alumni Portraits Series will trace back the stories of impactful young leaders of the ADEL alumni community. More than a biography, this journalistic approach will capture these success stories, helping us understand the roots of their leadership and pursuit of positive impact. From Morocco to South Africa, Germany to Canada, Brazil and the United Statesl, these young leaders from diverse backgrounds came together in Marrakech for the common goal of rebalancing Atlantic relations to include Southern Atlantic states. As the ADEL Alumni community keeps on growing, we will highlight some of their singular stories here in the spirit of intergenerational dialogue that lies at the heart of the Policy Center for the New South.

Chidiogo Akunyili-Parr

This young woman comes across as a striking beauty, body and soul. Born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria, she shines. She’s not only a voice for others, but first and foremost her own person.

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She founded She ROARs in 2016, a platform dedicated to unleash the potential of young female leaders in Africa and the diaspora. It really took off after an important gathering of more than 300 African women in August 2017 in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. The “Women Advancing Africa” conference was organized by the Graça Machel Trust, named after the former First Lady of Mozambique and widow of Nelson Mandela.

I was invited as one of the core moderators to anchor the event, Chidiogo Akunyili remembers. I thought it was a shame to come all this way and not take advantage of the capacity of so many women gathered in the same place, besides the regular talks. I thought : what if we did something different, something bolder ? We had a moment of 300 women sobbing after sharing some very personal stories, opening up to different types of violence they had endured. The need to connect, take time to breathe and realize that you are not alone was overwhelming.”

She was so inspired by the gap between that need and what a few organizations can do to support entrepreneurial women that she decided to take further her action. “There is no organization promoting wellness and the acknowledgement of pain – from sexual atrocities to pressures at work, from sexual abuses to struggling with a husband, or to have a husband.

The association works through coaching, workshops, seminars and conferences. With a light team of 5, three women in different areas in the world and two technicians in Casablanca, Morocco, helping with the online side of the activity, it has already reached 2000 women, mostly young professionnals aged 27-37. The seminars and one-to-one coaching sessions address the impact one can have, the relation between personal and professional life, vision and goal setting methods and work on leadership qualities.

Her dream is to reach out to millions of women in Africa, North America and the Caribbean. The mission is not focused on therapy, but self development. « You can’t give what you don’t have, she says : your own strength, peace of mind, trust to your intuition and discernment. Young women are constantly shutting themselves down because they are told they’re not good enough ».

After all, Chidiogo knows her subject inside out. Her late mother, the multi-awarded pharmacist Dora Akuniyli (1954-2014), is an icon in Nigeria. She was the uncompromising head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control  (NAFDAC) between 2001 and 2008. As the Director-General of this regulatory agency, « she wouldn’t take bribes and did what no man could ever do : she changed the rules of the game for operators in the food and drugs industry in Nigeria ». Recipient of the Integrity Award of Transparency International in 2003 and named “One of the 18 heroes of our times” by Time Magazine in 2006, she was the Minister of Information and Communications from 2008 to 2010 in Nigeria. Chidiogo, who has five siblings, is currently writing a book about her, to inspire others.

As for her own trajectory, it is already telling. She decided to study International Relations & Economics at SAIS, John Hopkins, and French. These two subjects were “broad enouth to figure out later” what her options could be. She was eager to understand the world and human interactions, and get the skills she felt insecure about not having. That’s why she chose International Relations instead of Law, recommended by her parents. But why French ? A big revenge on life: she had a negative experience with a French teacher who slapped her in class when she was 11. “I internalized the story I was not smart enough for French and put up a wall, thinking this is not for me. When I was 17, my sister had this crazy idea for me:  spend the summer learning French in Vichy. I was excited, and two months later I came back speaking French, because the teacher focused on me when I was crying in class, and I was living in a family whose children didn’t speak English.” She  spent a year in Germany and learned the language, and then moved to China, where she worked on her undergraduate piece on China and Africa. She came back speaking Chinese, which she believes is an “important language to understand, so that colonization doesn’t happen again”. Now aware of her gift at learning languages, she went for a year to Bologna, Italy, for her Masters, and then to Mexico for six weeks, adding Italian and Spanish to her skills.

She has already been named among the “100 most inspiring women in Nigeria” by The Guardian, an aknowledgment of her commitment towards the African woman’s cause. She is also World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellow, and an Associate Fellow of the Nigerian Leadership Initiative.

Now based in Canada, she travels a lot and keeps going to Nigeria. When asked about her home town, Enugu, located in a region formerly known as Biafra, she immediately answers: “We never talk about the impact of the Biafra war, that killed 2 millions people between 1967 and 1970. A lot of the challenges in Nigeria have their roots in this unadressed aftermath of the civil war”. One more good reason to work on the rise of strong women “not allowing anyone to tell them who they are”. Chidiogo Akunyili is convinced that female leaders have the ability to change the world.

Fatim Zahra Biaz

She was 31 years old and had just set up the New Work Lab, a coworking and start-up accelerator space, in Morocco in 2013, when she was selected as one of the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders. Fatim Zahra Biaz already had an extensive professional background, which reflected her quest for meaning in work: a graduate of Edec, a business school in Lille, she had worked in Paris in "change management" consulting.

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"I couldn't sense the impact I was looking for in my work, be it economic, social or educational. I resigned and went around the world for nine months. She traveled throughout Latin America, from Australia to Asia, learning to overcome her fears and meeting "digital nomads", young people who set up their businesses on the Internet.

"When I came back, I wanted to start a business, but I didn't really know what it would be. I trained myself in the digital world of start-ups, which has a different state of mind from what is taught in school". She set up a business selling designer shoes between Paris and Casablanca but changed course quite quickly. She noted that the co-working spaces she used in Paris were sorely lacking in Casablanca - as was all the support dedicated to start-ups, incubators and training programs. "I told myself that I had to provide entrepreneurs in Morocco with everything I couldn't find for myself, and that anyone who wanted to start up a business could come, to train and upgrade their skills, to be put in touch with companies, the press, clients, public authorities, etc."

She keeps a special memory of the 2013 ADEL program: "It was the first time that an organisation in Morocco trusted me with my project. It was a very nice form of support, training and learning". Since then, she has been invited as an Alumni to the Atlantic Dialogues conferences and lists among the most memorable encounters of her life a lunch with a former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, who introduced himself as the former "CEO of Nigeria".

The New Work Lab, located on Anfa Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in downtown Casablanca, has since grown and matured, remaining true to its original philosophy. Its founder is adamant: "We need to rethink the world of work, in which employees feel disconnected and often underuse their potential". The Pitch Lab has become a benchmark competition for start-ups in Morocco, which has distinguished 150 entrepreneurs since 2013. Fatim Zahra Biaz has launched another "laboratory" called “Future of Work” to rethink innovation products in large companies, corporate culture, propose events, "bootcamps", trainings, give practical toolboxes to learn how to change and do work that matters. It offers customized services, tailored to demand, as part of a change-driven program.

In seven years, the New Work Labs have welcomed 20,000 people and hosted nearly 400 entrepreneurs for training, events and acceleration programs. Among the success stories she likes to highlight is that of Anou, which allows craftspeople to sell their products directly to consumers in the United States. "This company has developed a solution enabling people who can't read or write to use the Internet... It's great!”

The New Work Lab, supported by the Office chérifien des phosphates (OCP) Foundation, contributes to the creation of an ecosystem conducive to start-ups, "in a market that is not easy to create, by inventing models with the means at hand". She dreams of scaling up and seeing the impact of her work grow, moving from the micro-economic sphere to a more "macro" impact in the world of start-ups, with increasingly ambitious projects.

Fatim Zahra Biaz continues to travel, hike and enjoy the sea, while nurturing a spirit of excellence far from mediocrity - the thing she hates the most in life. Her dream? She takes time to reflect, before explaining, with calm enthusiasm radiating from her words and her person: "That work in Morocco should no longer be seen as an obligation, a livelihood, but as our best way of participating in the development of our country, with a collective and civic impact. For me, work is a way of expressing values, a contribution that we can leave behind, a way of writing a story together. How to make people want to work differently and to see their work as a tool for collective progress, this is the very reason for New Work Lab's existence, whether you are a salaried employee, a student or a civil servant.”

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Julian Colombo

Aged 24 in 2011, he was already Chief of staff for Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Buenos Aires - the most populated province of Argentina, counting for 40 % of the total population with 16 million inhabitants. His main challenge then was “to be young in a relevant position”. He had to fight to get recognized and accepted by his elder peers, and succeeded with “the support of the Governor, through hard work and careful analysis”, he recalls.  

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He also remembers fondly one of his main achievements of his beginnings. He was part of a team that elaborated and implemented a reform, making free the fertility treatments for couples in his province. “Before the law passed in 2010, it was very difficult for couples to have access to these expensive treatments. Some families sold their cars and put a mortgage on their houses. My governor put up a team and we negotiated with the stakeholders in the insurance sector and the health system, to make sure the fertility treatments became free in the province”.

The launch of a new consultancy firm

Born in Buenos Aires in a middle-class family, he was supposed, as the eldest and only son, to take over his parents’ business, a small manufacture of oil and products for cars. He chose another path. After studying Political Science in Argentina and obtaining a Masters Degree in Public Policy at Georgetown University (Washington D.C.), he worked as a civil servant and a political advisor for congressmen in Argentina for 10 years.

Now, his father holds no grudge nor disappointment whatsoever. In December 2019, this 33 year-old young professional launched TANT, his own consultancy firm. “I was working for several people at once, he explains, so I decided to set up my own firm, so that there would be no conflict of interest”.

One of his main areas of expertise is the relationship between Argentina and Brazil, alongside with legislative and political affairs. “Brazil is our main trade partner. Brazil and Argentina are twin countries both in trade and politics, and we need to strengthen the ties in the productive sectors between politicians in both countries. We advise on how to overcome the political differences between the two current presidents”.

Another important side of his specialization is the Fintech sector. His firm is advising government officials in Argentina on how to deal with companies willing to develop digital wallets and online banks, in order to adapt the current regulations to the market trends in that sector.  

A passion for politics

How did he fall in love with politics ? “Both of my parents are not involved, he says, but my geography professor in highschool made us take part in Model United Nations (Model UN or MUN). That’s how I started to get interested in international relations and politics.”

Julian Colombo can get “very upset”, when he sees “how some politicians from all parties manipulate the most disenfranchised people in order to get their votes, providing food and medicine during electoral campaigns”. But his head stays cool when it comes to the crucial topic of the rise of populism in Latin America. He makes his point clear : “I do not agree fully with the way Western professors talk about populism. Being in a country that has had many populist governments, I know the word might have a negative meaning, but some of these administrations have applied some of the most progressive social policies. There is a swing across Latin America between the left and the right : in the years before 2013 the trend was left, and between 2013 and 2018, it was going to the right. The region can swing again to the left, and I am not sure that the populist phenomenon is that simple”.

His fellow ADELs as role models

When asked about his role models, this keen reader of political biographies has only one name in mind : John F. Kennedy, for his approach to politics, youth and fresh ideas. Otherwise, he quotes his peers, “the African guys I’ve met in the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders programme (ADEL), because of their fight to provide basic needs, such as access to water, for instance. They are more prominent in my view than people with an actual seat at the table.”

When he joined the ADEL community in Marrakech in 2018, he was mostly interested in starting a network with Emerging Leaders from a broader horizon than his contacts, with people from Europe, North America and Africa. “I enjoyed the possibility of travelling to Africa and broaden my vision of public policies applied on the continent”.

He came to Marrakech with his two dreams, strongly intertwined. “One is personal and one is national : I would like to achieve being president of Argentina, in order to overcome the inequalities, especially for the youth. The current state of affairs affects educational opportunities, and I hope I will be able, one day, to solve this problem in my country”. In his opinion, and in his own candid words, he notes that what is really missing across Latin America is a “bigger commitment from the political and business elite to solve our issues. We have lots of people working on different matters, the same guys for 30 or 40 years, with no real political will”. Julian Colombo, a strong personality, is a name to remember.

Sabine Cessou

Emmanuel Lubanzadio

This young German man with Congolese origins, educated in Germany, the United States and the Netherlands, has roots on three continents. He’s not only the epitomy of an Atlantic young leader – the way the Policy Center for the New South defines them – but now also a member of the 2019 ADEL cohort Alumni.

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In January 2020 he transitioned as Head of Public Policy for Sub-Saharan Africa at Twitter. At this strategic position, he works for one of the most influential social media networks globally, but keeps a cool head and stays low key.

When asked about his personal impressions of Africa, he reminds quietly : « Every country is different, although sometimes people outside of the continent perceive Africa as one country simply because the majority of its citizens happen to be black. Africa is so rich in its beauty and diversity, in its culture, languages, ethnicities and religions ». He describes his personality as a « mixture of realism and optimism ». So when it comes to Africa as the world’s last growth frontier, he states simply : «Some parts of Africa may see deficiencies in infrastructure or healthcare, for example. While it may seem discouraging, things are absolutely progressing in that region because of the creative, strong, resilient people who reside on the continent.

The people who make Africa great are its youth and civil society in general ».

Dreams fulfilled

Emmanuel grew up in Germany in a modest Congolese family of five children. During his childhoold, his trips to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were few and far between, but he heard a lot about African politics, a recurrent topic at home. His first acquaintance with an African country other then the DRC happened in 2014 in Ghana, where he lived and worked for the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) on a project with the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center.

Emmanual Lubanzadio has already fulfilled many of his wishes. When he graduated from high school in Germany, he longed for a life abroad. First dream : check ! He moved to the USA in 2007, where he spent 6 years. In the U.S., he obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Oral Roberts University (Oklahoma, USA) and a Graduate Certificate in Applied Politics from The George Washington University (USA). Then, he started to think of working in politics and applied for the Emerging Leaders Program of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and was selected to spend ten months in Washington D.C. to work in the United States Congress and the Center for International Private Enteprise (CIPE). Second dream: check ! He then moved back to Europe, obtained a M.A. in Development Studies from Maastricht University (Netherlands) and sought to learn about government relations in the private sector. This led him to join a multinational pharmaceutical company back in Germany.

African youth at heart

His last position was in the healthcare industry for the last two and a half years, working in the field of government relations. He wanted to get more insights on how to engage with policy makers, after his experiences in the US Congress and GIZ. The topics that move him most are freedom of expression, digital rights, youth unemployment and lack of perspectives for many young people. “The African continent has 200 million young people, the largest youth population in the world, he explains. This is where my heart lies, in terms of their implication in the decision making process within the realm of politics and access to ways of making a living”.

That’s partly why he applied to the ADEL program, believing that Atlantic relations do not confine to the USA and Europe alone. “There are many more countries, and the Policy Center does an amazing job in capturing that as well. The participants coming from Africa and South America gave a different perspective… ADEL does not only focus on the global self, but moreover on including people who will make decisions and influence their own societies one day. The program also gives a chance to get people who have been historically excluded and marginalized from the decision-making process a seat  at the table and the ability to discuss policy issues. I haven’t seen anything else like this !

A global citizen

Now, he would like to inspire people with his trajectory, showing that for a second generation immigrant who may not have had much, it’s still possible to “make it”. When asked about his own role models, Emmanuel Lubanzadio has to admit he “did not have any” while growing up. He enjoys reading biographies and the last one he read was the Autobiography of Malcom X, written by Alex Haley. When reflecting on role models, he points at his own parents: “I have the ultimate respect for them. They have been in a pursuit of a better life and have laid the ground work, for my siblings and I to get inspired and have opportunities.”

About identity, a hot subject in Europe in a context of rising populism, he has clear thoughts: “I am a German with roots in Africa who was educated in the United States and Europe. People like myself will often wrestle with the question of identity. I’ve known many clashes of cultures, but I am proud of my roots. I have a passion for Africa and I’m also European, combined with the optimism I took from the USA, thanks to this idea that you can be whomever you want. I find it beautiful. I’ve had this privilege that certainly defines who I am, a global citizen with roots in regions where I take the best of everything.” This young man of his time is a name to remember.

Sabine Cessou

Eric Ntumba

Eric Ntumba, a young Congolese banker, came from Kinshasa in December 2017 to participate in the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders Programme of the Policy Center for the New South (PCNS) in Marrakech. At that time, when asked what his dream was, he immediately said he would like : « to become President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and bring about inclusive development, so that the country’s enormous potential can be finally transformed into power. My dream is that each Congolese child be able to fulfill his or her own dream! »

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Eric Ntumba is one of those who think big and do not easily admit defeat. In Marrakech, he met several people from diverse backgrounds at the Atlantic Dialogues Conference who « enriched » his vision of the world and offered him new opportunities. He further explains that « if I had not met the Brazilian economist Otaviano Canuto, a Senior Fellow of the PCNS, I would not have signed a chapter with him on the risks of an international financial crisis in 2018 in the Atlantic Currents Report ».

In search of an alternative

He also wrote a paper on the geopolitics of Central Africa at the African Peace and Security Annual Conference (APSACO) 2019, organized in Rabat by the PCNS. His thoughts focused on the trend towards « elections without democracy » that affects his subregion. « In Central Africa, development indicators are the worst in Africa, he went on. It is also the region where presidents exercise power much longer than anywhere else, where young people are brutally repressed, where the electoral exercise amounts to a parody and where democracy is constantly denied, as it is reflected in this famous saying of Gabon’s former President, Omar Bongo: « One does not organize elections to end up on the losing side…».

While noting with interest the wave of citizen movements that has emerged across Africa, including the DRC, Eric Ntumba points out however that it is « not backed by an alternative political offer that would make it possible to have MPs, mayors, ministers ». It is this alternative that he constantly thinks about, like others from his generation.

Eric Ntumba happened to be in good hands. He grew up in a family which was in direct touch with the world of politics. His father, Alphonse Ntumba Luaba, a law professor, a former deputy minister of justice, and a former human rights minister, was one of the negotiators of the 2002 Sun City Peace Agreement, which put an end to the second war of Congo. Then, as the Secretary General of the Transitional Government (2003-07), he chaired the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) from 2011 to 2016.

Returning to the native country

Eric Ntumba attended primary school in Nancy, France, where his father obtained his Ph.D in law, and went to secondary school in Kinshasa. After a master's degree in computer science from North-West University, South Africa, he joined the National School of Administration (ENA) in Paris at the end of 2006. Two years later, he returned directly to Kinshasa – an ‘‘obvious’’ choice for him. « I had been told that the doors were open in France and Europe, but I was convinced that it was in the RDC, in Africa, that what I had learnt would be most useful », he explains.

Because he was determined to contribute to the construction of a notoriously vulnerable state, he first sought to join the public service at the Ministry of Planning. « I was faced with a conservative environment in which I had to claim a political affiliation on which I had not made a decision at the age of 27 years », he remembered. He finally turned to the private sector, first in the position of Advisor  to the General Directorate of the Banque congolaise (BC), then as Corporate Manager at the Banque commerciale du Congo (BCC), as well as Relationship Manager at City Bank Congo (CBC), and lastly at his current position as Head of the Corporate Banking Division at Equity Bank Congo (EBC).

Once again, he notes without complacency : « The private sector in the DRC is limited to extractive industries under the control of foreign operators, without any Congolese capital properly speaking, and that is a real problem for startups, which cannot rely on business angels for guidance and funding. Yet, Kinshasa is demonstrating a powerful creative energy. The DRC lacks a real incubation ecosystem that has demonstrated its value in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. » Until venture capital companies take an interest in the entrepreneurial dynamism of Congolese youth, he will continue to provide mentoring and participate in various forums on the African economy abroad.

« Realizing you are not alone »

Two years after his ADEL Programme, Eric Ntumba remains committed to the PCNS, which he considers to be an « incubator of ideas ». « A conference like Atlantic Dialogues helps you readjust your ambitions, he says, and realize that you are not alone. Others think Africa is on the move, in a project of shared prosperity ».

Eric Ntumba, who is a keen reader, mentions among his references ‘Une brève histoire de l’avenir’ (Fayard, 2006) an essay by Jacques Attali that offers a forward-looking perspective of a polycentric world structured around nine nations, including Egypt and Nigeria. In the world of fiction, he has a penchant for one of the great classics of African literature, ‘Une si longue lettre’ (Nouvelles éditions africaines du Sénégal, 1979), by the Senegalese novelist Mariama Bâ. He has now joined her among other writers, having himself published his first novel, ‘Une vie après le Styx’ (L’Harmattan, 2019). He considers that he « has taken his responsibilities » by taking up his pen. His objective is to participate in the construction of a collective memory linked to the atrocities of the Congo war, by narrating the journey of a traumatized young girl who will however find the strength to start her life over.

Eric Ntumba has much admiration for Patrice Emery Lumumba, the father of Congo’s independence, as he has for Martin Luther King, for his fight at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the United States. « His journey tells us that it only takes a handful of  fully committed people to trigger a movement. I also like his formula: "In every mountain of despair, there is a stone of hope". This stone  can be any one of us ». A leader’s words … Sabine Cessou

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Leonardo Párraga

He is a young man like no other. One can spot him easily in a crowd by the way he dresses and addresses the issues with which he is concerned. Leonardo Párraga, an award-winning social entrepreneur and alternative education activist, was born in Colombia with the soul of an artist. He writes poetry, engages with photography, and finds inspiration in the writings of Walt Whitman, whom he describes as the poet of “interconnectedness”.

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At 25, he left Bogotá for Harvard University, for a Master’s program in International Education Policy. At the time, he had already spent five years working on “how to create community engagement through non formal education”, he explains. He wanted to complement his experience with the arts and creative thinking, and “explore how education can foster peace in the Colombian context”. He also felt like being part of an international network of practicioners in his field, to help him “get other insights on how to foster social change and activism in a more effective way”.

Since his year spent in Harvard, he has been traveling a lot, but has been fully back in Bogota since 2019. He launched the BogotArt Foundation in 2013, to conduct work at the intersection of art and community development in vulnerable neighborhoods. In 2016, his team started to expand through partnerships, working on transformation in a neighborhood “through creativity, diverging thinking and self-knowledge”. That was the year Leonardo Párraga became an Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leader (ADEL), and travelled across the Atlantic to Marrakech to take part in the Policy Center for the New South’s young professionals program and flagship conference, the Atlantic Dialogues. There, he found a unique “kind of network” with young professionnals from all horizons. “Usually, networks are really specialized, but this was different, something magical and enlightening. I learned about South-South cooperation, something I had not seen before with direct connection between Africa and Latin America”.

Towards peace and reconciliation

The BogotArt Foundation has now reached a third stage, looking for ways of achieving peace and reconciliation. It launched a campaign called Cartas por la Reconciliación (Letters for Reconciliation), with two other organizations, the Junior Chamber International and Youth for Youth Foundation. “We realized we could bridge the gap between citizens and the FARC ex-combatants, to connect them and help to dismantle stereotypes and labels about the other, that generate hatred and negative feelings”, Leonardo Párraga recalls. More than 5 000 people participated, in the broader context of the implementation of a peace agreement. Four field visits were also organized for 500 people into FARC strongholds, in order to have “face to face conversations”.

This campaign, thanks to its large visibility in the media, allowed the Colombian people to “notice the importance of reconciliation and of generating spaces to interact with one another”, he says. It nurtured the global policy paper We are here, a United Nations study on the role of youth in peace processes, where the willingness of society at large to welcome back ex-combatants of armed groups such as FARC was highlighted. He received the Youth Carnegie Peace Prize in 2018 and was named the Youth Ambassador of the Peace Palace in the Netherlands. In 2019, he was awarded the 1 Billion Acts Hero Award during the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Mexico, and was part of the ADEL alumni delegation to the Paris Peace Forum. In December 2019, he also came back to Marrakech to address the 2019 ADEL Cohort about the importance of collective memory in the reconciliation process.

A new campaign: Letters for Healing

The Covid-19 crisis has brought about an opportunity for further engagement, and has led Leonardo towards a new campaign, Letters for Healing, to help others cope with the crisis. With two international partners, he intends to connect people suffering from the crisis with messages of support and understanding, sent by people from all over the world. The recipients, spread across Colombia, Mexico and Spain, will be health practicioners, essential workers in supermarkets, delivery and cleaning services, but also infected people and their family members. Formally launched on May 22nd, 2020, the campaign seeks to improve mental health in this tough period and aims at sending 20 000 letters by the end of the year.

Inspired by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu for their work on peace and reconciliation, he also mentions Martin Luther King and his letter from the Birmingham jail, as a “powerful way to transform and give perspective on a new kind of society”. The singer Nessi Gomes catches his attention with the song All Related, about how much human beings are interconnected and can only thrive together. “If we were more mindful of the consequences that our actions have in our environment, we would reduce the harm we do to the world”.

Clarissa Rios Rojas

Born in 1984 in Peru and trained as a scientist, Clarissa Rios Rojas has a PhD in molecular biology, but also a clear taste for exploring beyond her field to see the bigger picture.

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She is since March 2020 a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, launched by the Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. “The Center is very multi-disciplinary, with philosophers, astronomers, lawyers, economists, and educators, working on the management of global catastrophe risks such as a human-engineered pandemic, she explains. It could be a nuclear war, the impact of an asteroid hitting Earth, bio-threats or climate change. Anything that could decimate humanity with little chance to recover”. 

Her team is working on ways to prevent such risks or mitigate them. Her specific role is to “be the bridge between research and policy makers, finding innovative policy solutions and an international  framework for governments to manage extreme natural, technological or biological risks”. 

She participates in workshops organized with different inter-regional stakeholders, such as the United Nations or the International Network for Government Science Advice, among others, and policymakers around the world.

She has started in her new position in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, a perfect example of why it is so important to think about the future and start to change policies now. The pandemic still has a “snowball effect” of shutting many systems one by one in many countries: the health system, food security, trade, tourism, airlines.

Expansion of knowledge

Very early on in her life, she has looked for opportunities to grow. Firstly, she decided to leave Peru for Finland, where she would study with a scholarship. “I did not even knowi where Finland was at that point”, she recalls with a smile, “people would think I was going to the Philippines or Philadelphia, none of my friends heard about Finland before”. She studied for one year in Turku and ended up being hired for another year to work in a laboratory.

Then, through what she describes as a “chain of events”, she went to Sweden to get a Master in Biomedicine, worked in Germany for Evotec, a pharmaceutical company searching for a drug in neurodegenerative diseases. There, she developed a passion for XX and XY (male and female) chromosomes and looked for a leading laboratory to uplift her skills. She found it in Brisbane, Australia, where she got her PhD in Development Molecular Biology in June 2017. What would be the next step ? “Going to the Moon”, she laughs. She loved her Australian experience, “being so far away and surrounded by nature and amazing landscapes”. 

At the same time, she launched Ekpa’palek, an NGO helping Latin American students develop professionally, through a digital platform that offers free professional mentorship opportunities, taking on a mentor role there and convincing her friends to join her. She kept on expanding her knowledge, this time on international development and politics. That’s why she applied to the Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders (ADEL) program in 2016. “Coming to Marrakesh was my first step out of science, encouraging me to attend later different conferences on science diplomacy and make presentations on international development. At the same time, I realized that some topics related to emerging technologies were a threat, like the edition of genes and the first genetically edited babies, born in China in October 2018, raising huge ethical questions. This called my attention to finding a place that would encompass science and policy advice”.

Clarissa Rios Rojas has already achieved a lot in her life. She describes her profile in her Curriculum Vitae as “a scientist with experience working at an agency from the Ministry of Environment in Peru, the European Commission and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, providing science-based evidence and advice for policymaking. She also has experience as an Eisenhower Fellow, a UN Women champion for women's economic empowerment, a UNESCO delegate, an Emerging Leader at the Atlantic Dialogues, a Fellow at the Asian Forum for Global Governance/Raisina Dialogues, a newspaper collaborator, an advisor at Women Economic Forum and as a co-lead of the Science Advice working group at the Global Young Academy”.

Empathy, a personal engine

She has also written many scientific articles and received awards (Exceptional Women of Excellence at the Women Economic Forum in the Netherlands, 2018). She has followed policy-making training in Japan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Switzerland, India, Germany and Jordan, and got herself doing presentations in conferences all over the world, from Thailand to Chile, passing through Cairo, Geneva, Kigali and Copenhagen. She describes herself as “persistent, curious and empathetic – a quality that is worryingly lacking in many well-educated people, who don’t care much about the rest of the world.” 

Her dream ? “If human beings would be empathetic with each other, a lot of problems would be resolved. This is the best thing I could see in my life. We need to teach empathy at different levels within the education system and at work to let us become more human. There must be a way.”

The famous novel 1984, by George Orwell, is her favorite book, and she also likes The Fifth Season (2016), a fiction about earthquakes and science written by N. K. Jemisin, an African-American female author. She sees her parents and friends as her main role models and source of inspiration. “My father is a technical engineer at animal farms, who taught me persistence. My mother a scientist, teaching at the National University in Peru taught her about women empowerment. She didn’t want me to be to become a biologist, thinking it would not be a good career choice if I was ending up being as badly paid as her. But in the end, she supported me and here I am…” As for her friends, she likes to be in tune with “optimists working on the reduction of inequalities, women empowerment and who think about the future”. In short, some of her own reflections.

Scarlett Varga

Born and raised in Romania, but of Hungarian ethnicity Scarlett Varga is since January 2020 the head of development at Bruegel. In other words, she is in charge of the fundraising strategy of this leading European economics think tank, launched in 2005 in Brussels. Her position is highly strategic, as she is member of the organisations’ management and contributes to a 6 million Euros yearly budget, safeguarding Bruegel’s core values of   independence and transparency.

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Leading a team of six talented young professionals, her mission is to tap into private and public sources, targeting multinational corporations (the likes of the GAFAM – namely Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple –Morgan Stanley or Shell), central banks and governments, and grants from European Union institutions. Through dynamic relationships with policymakers at every level, Bruegel has also established itself as a vibrant laboratory of ideas.

The Coronavirus crisis is putting her and her team to the test. “I just stepped in the labour market during the international financial crisis of 2008, and this is the second crisis my generation is facing in its productive life. At Bruegel, we are bringing data and potential solutions on what leaders of today have to act fast on, and not lose so much time as in 2008”.

Proposing a position she could fill

Scarlett Varga, who is also a passionate dancer, landed her first contract with Bruegel in 2014 with a broken toe and a lot of luck. During her interview with Bruegel’s director she was asked to propose a position she could fill, to search for new ways of fundraising. “I could see the potential of working more with private foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust or the Compania de Sao Paulo, to address social issues, to see where our common objective lies and how we can grow together”. In 2018, she became the Deputy Head of Development. She is passionate about the impact of the research published by Bruegel, dealing with real and immediate issues such as the Greek crisis and Brexit, but also long term challenges of climate policies or digitalization in the workplace.

She has come a long way, though, having begun her studies in the IT sector. “In Romania, it was seen as the job of the future when I started studying. After 4 years of IT, I realized this was not for me: I can’t sit next to a computer seven days a week. I need a team and constant movement”. She started Economics in 2006 in Romania, and got a scholarship to follow a double degree of Economics and Business and Marketing studies in the UK. When she arrived in Canterbury in 2009 with 500 pounds in her pocket, she was already attracted to EU economics, and was later dreaming of establishing herself in Brussels, the capital of Europe.

Which she did, in 2010. She ended her higher education  with an International Master of European Studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain. After more than two years of work in Brussels, as a Junior Project Officer and Project Officer at the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (SolarPower Europe), she decided to travel alone for nine months in Latin America in 2013.

A nine-month tour of Latin America

Against all the friendly advice she was getting on how she might “ruin” her career, she followed her inner voice. She stayed in almost every country, except Venezuela, reaching out for immersion in local life and culture through volunteer activities in the non-profit sector. In Colombia, she worked for a charity taking care of disadvantaged children, and in Chile, in the renewable energy sector. This long trip was a “life school” for her: “In Western Europe people lose track of how to be happy with what they have. I met so many nice people in Latin America, with so much compassion and kindness despite their hardships. I felt our societies are sometimes getting lost in constant status anxiety and self pity”.

Co-founder of the Brussels Binder database in 2016, she has co-created a platform where female experts can be more visible and get more chances to participate in public debates.

In my job, which is all about partnerships, I enjoy conversations and understanding how different cultures are working”, she explains. That’s why she applied to the Atlantic Dialogue Emerging Leaders (ADEL) Program in 2018, and was selected. Besides making “great friends in Marrakech”, she thinks “the length of the ADEL programme really gives you the time to understand each other and have a genuine curiosity payoff”. She was also interested to see how the youth is invested in and invited to “deliver”, sharing thoughts, projects and advice.

Attracted to the Spanish culture and dancing world, Scarlett  thinks of Spain as a possible home someday, to open a rustic hacienda, welcome people in a warm environment and host a colorful variety of cultural events from book presentations, to dance seratas and musical stunts. While acknowldedging her generation is “lacking the dreams, since Internet made our life buzzling with short-term challenges”, she explains that her “dream goes with no search of impact or income, but something just very peaceful”.

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