Interview with Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes:  Education Enterpreneur

Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes is the CEO and co-founder of Davis College, a global network of universities that prepares young leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges and to thrive in the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Elizabeth has spent more than a decade working in higher education in East Africa and co-founded the Akilah Institute, the only college for women in Rwanda. Forbes Magazine named Elizabeth one of the world’s most influential female social entrepreneurs and Newsweek recognized her as one of 125 Women of Impact. Elizabeth is a graduate of Vanderbilt University. More about Elizabeth and her work at


You launched Akilah Institute, Rwanda, 10 years ago and you’re now moving to a mighty vision of Davis College, a global network of universities of 10 campuses. What’s the thought process that gets you to “this is a huge endeavour, but I can do it?”

The world is changing – and quickly. The need for creative, ethical, and analytical leaders and innovators is more urgent than ever. But the traditional higher education system is also not designed for the needs of the 21st century. Outdated methodology, high cost, and lack of market-relevant programs results in an educational system that is neither scalable or affordable. We need a radically new approach to higher education that inspires students to think critically and creatively about how to build a more sustainable world and that’s what motivates me to scale Davis College across Asia and Africa to reach one million students by 2030.


Developing scalable solutions is part of your model. How did you conclude that what you have is replicable and scalable?

Our unique blended learning model allows us to provide high quality education at a fraction of the cost of a traditional university. After witnessing extraordinary success with over 2,000 alumni and students, we are now in a position to scale it and offer a solution to the current global higher education crisis, an academic experience for students who are unafraid to challenge the status quo and have the drive to passionately pursue innovative ideas.


Your curriculum is not just a traditional education. What in the curriculum design ensures that?

Our curriculum teaches our graduates the skills necessary for professional success in the 21st century. They gain exposure to core concepts in sustainability and social change, giving them the frameworks to holistically address economic, social and environmental challenges.

Our students are able to lead critical conversations and push forward ideas that promote women’s empowerment, climate action, clean energy solutions, smart city innovation, and more. They drive change in their families, communities, and countries.


There’s a lot of concern in Africa about the lack of jobs but your graduates don’t have this problem. What do you see as the real issue behind the high unemployment?

I think the biggest problem is actually the fact that so many graduates and not just in Africa, leave university unprepared for the workforce. Even though employers are demanding graduates with professional “soft” skills, most of the universities focus on academic research or teach only the technical skills, limiting graduates’ competencies in critical areas like management skills, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. According to global research, there is short supply of graduates with these assets. In addition to the technical skills, our colleges focus on areas that prepare students to be leaders in the workforce such as ethics, emotional intelligence, public speaking and developing a growth mindset.


Considering that you believe one should bring what’s uniquely theirs to how they lead, what ingredients do you try to instill in your own Leadership?

All of the reasons why I was discounted as a leader have ultimately contributed to Akilah’s success over the past ten years. The world will be quick to tell you that you can’t do something. Listen to your own voice. As a founder, a creator, or an innovator, your uniqueness is that you see something that others can’t or don’t want to see; you see something that needs to exist in the world and you have to protect that vision. You have to build the emotional toughness and endurance to fight inevitable doubt.


You’ve said ‘In a world that will look to discount you, don’t discount yourself” How were you discounted and how did you counter that?

People told me that I’d never be able to pull it off starting my own college, that I would have more impact by working for another school. I heard their advice, and then chose to let it go. I learned this lesson from my parents, Beth and Cody Davis. They taught me and my three younger sisters that we could do anything we put our minds to. After a major setback or rejection, I would tearfully call them and they would say, “Do you believe you can do this? If you do, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. Let’s do it.”

My parents taught me to find my voice amidst the noise, and it’s a tool I continue to use in my own life, especially right now. As I lead this new vision for Davis College, the noise has once more surfaced. Although I am scared of the risk of failure, I am even more afraid of being complacent; of regretting not upholding my integrity when I feel a moral responsibility to help solve the global higher education crisis. And when I feel overwhelmed by the noise rushing at me from all directions, I trust my own inner voice.


You believe the most important career decision a woman can make is choosing a partner who believes in you and your passion. How do young women react to that advice?

Of course, it’s up to each individual the path they choose. For me, it would be extremely difficult to have 3 young kids and a demanding career without a husband who is fully committed to this vision. I know that the kids miss me when I’m gone, but they also cherish their special relationship and unique one-on-one time with their father. I find it very annoying when people say, “Oh wow, you must feel so guilty being away from your kids.” I don’t feel guilty. They are raised by a loving community of close relatives, nanny, and of course, an incredible father who is doing the heavy lifting of parenting during this busy season. I cherish every moment with them, and when I leave, I’m fully present with my fulfilling work. Instead of feeling guilty about my work and spending time away from the kids, I focus on the tremendous benefits. They are exposed to fascinating people and experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have.


Having been in Rwanda all these years, in what ways would you say you’ve grown as a person and as a leader that would not have happened otherwise?

I was 24 years old when we opened the first Akilah campus in 2010. We had only 50 students and two classrooms with no computers or textbooks, but we were committed to providing transformational education and empowering young women from low-income communities with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to launch their careers in the fastest growing sectors of East Africa. The first several years were unbelievably stressful and we often didn’t know how we were going to make payroll. However, our competitive advantage was our naivety and freedom from ingrained beliefs about how education “should” be done. No bureaucracy or politics prevented us from building an academic institution obsessively focused on transformational, student-centered learning experiences that would lead to meaningful careers.

I have grown in so many ways, but of all the lessons I have learned, I would say the most important has been learning to trust myself as a leader, and trusting that the challenges you face—and there will be so, so many—can give you the exact skills and guide posts you need to succeed.


For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development please go to

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