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Q&A with the founder and CEO of the Global Livingston Institute and Daniels’ Director of Experiential Operations

Global Livingston Institute project

Daniels students worked with the Global Livingston Institute to build a business plan for a boat taxi service on Lake Victoria in Uganda.

Jamie Van Leeuwen is the founder and CEO of the Global Livingston Institute (GLI), a non-governmental organization in East Africa designed to engage students and community leaders to listen, think and act by developing innovative solutions to poverty. His life has been dedicated to the public good, with experience ranging from politics to nonprofits addressing homelessness in Colorado. Van Leeuwen has traveled to over 120 countries.

Over the years, the University of Denver and the Daniels College of Business have had the opportunity to partner with GLI on a number of student projects. Patrick Orr, Daniels’ director of experiential learning, has worked with GLI to help develop projects designed to help solve business problems in Uganda.

Orr and Van Leeuwen share about this partnership and how it provides learning opportunities to Daniels students.

Jamie, what was your path before becoming the CEO of GLI?

Van Leeuwen: I was born in Colorado. My parents were both educators — my mom was a first grade teacher, my dad was a social worker, and so I grew up in the community. I went to Creighton University for my undergraduate degree, then Tulane for my graduate work. That’s when I returned to Colorado to finish my PhD.

My first job back home was working at Urban Peak with homeless and runaway youth, and so the first 20 years of my career was focused on homelessness and community engagement work. Then I worked for then Mayor of Denver John Hickenlooper, and I worked with him when he became Governor as well.

Patrick, how did the relationship between DU and the Global Livingston Institute develop?

Orr: For the Denver MBA, our full-time MBA program, we create real-world projects designed to challenge students to solve business problems. The Global Livingston Institute has provided us multiple projects focused on their operations in Uganda. So, our MBA students worked on and traveled to Uganda in November of 2016. One project focused on building a boat taxi business plan. A team of five students did research and met with companies in Kampala that were operating a taxi service on Lake Victoria, and learned about the culture and people of Uganda and how business functions.

Business in Uganda is quite different compared to the United States, so the learning experience was extremely rich for the students. They then traveled south to Kabale and did a ton of data gathering and research in order to develop a boat taxi business plan for GLI to execute.

What makes GLI and DU a strong match?

Van Leeuwen: At GLI, we always look for organizations that are very focused on teaching best practices, community development — and we really want the work to be innovative. Everything we do is rooted in the principle of Listen. Think. Act. Every project that we take on, we make sure that we’re listening and thinking with the communities before we actually go and do something. The University of Denver and the Daniels College of Business have played a significant role in helping us do that.

Orr: I’ve learned a lot working with GLI. The vision that Jamie has with Listen. Think. Act. has driven a lot of the things that we’re trying to do with our students when we teach them. Entrepreneurship, in my mind, starts with design thinking, which starts with empathy. So GLI is very focused on listening to the customer, in this case the people of Uganda, on Lake Bunyoni. You know, understanding what their business problem is rather than coming at it from the standpoint of “well, we know what’s best for you.” Many nonprofits think they know what people need — GLI finds out what they need, and then delivers it. So we try to teach that kind of empathy to our students, as they venture into looking at ways to solve business problems.

What makes GLI innovative in the world of nonprofits?

Van Leeuwen: One of the one of the principles of our organization has been to teach best practices and community development. We have to take a different lens to community development. Working and building relationships in Africa is not about going and building schools, shipping laptops and creating medical clinics. There’s a need for some of those services, but good community development is hinged on building strong relationships and understanding what the needs are from the community, not just going over there and presuming you should build a school there.

I go back to my work with then Mayor Hickenlooper, and we were running Denver’s Road Home and our homelessness initiative. DU was one of the first academic partners we had. DU is one of the first academic institutions to host a project, Homeless Connect, to engage the homeless as part of the community. It was about learning who the homeless were, instead of just going and figuring out what to do for the homeless.

I don’t think it’s terribly innovative, necessarily — it’s about getting people to change that notion of “don’t just stand there — do something!” into “don’t just do something — stand there.” Get to know the community before you go and try to fix things. Our hope is to encourage other academic institutions and nonprofits to take the same approach to the work they are doing. Not just in Africa, but in our own community.