Delegate Spotlight

Delegate Spotlight | LEGO® and the House it Built: Netia and Mbadika, Fostering Youth Empowerment

by Zachary Thomas

Netia McCray, a 2013-2014 Millennium Fellowship recipient, is just one example of how the Millennium Campus Conference gives young student leaders with a passion for global issues the opportunity to make an impact and how empowered students can make a difference.

As a kid, Netia didn’t have the resources to explore her passions in the same way other kids could. She was always interested in making things with her hands, to build and create, but her family was unable to afford mainstream LEGOs® or other popular building kits. Instead, she would spend time with her father, actually constructing toys from plywood and sheet metal, producing everyday structures like bridges. Spending this time with her father, Netia learned how to use tools and materials to make everyday repairs, developing experience with and a passion for working with hardware. This passion only intensified as she grew. She was accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an Engineering Major. When she arrived at school, she quickly realized a shocking truth about her fellow engineering majors: Unlike Netia, most had no real world experience building structures or using tools the way she had learned as a child, something she had assumed was an almost universal experience.

In that moment, Netia developed a vision that would soon become the foundation for her non-profit, Mbadika. Realizing that this lack of experience with basic engineering did not only afflict young people in the United States, she wanted to forge the infrastructure to make this possible and spark a desire to learn in children everywhere. However, as a young undergraduate student, Netia had no idea how to really turn this vision for the future into concrete action. When she attended her first Millennium Campus Conference in 2011, her view of what her potential impact could be changed drastically. At the time, she was piloting her first workshop for Mbadika and wasn’t sure if it was something she should continue, due to its success on a much smaller scale than Netia had hoped; she was afraid that she would be unable to expand it further. But at the conference, she met people who weren’t students from MIT and her view on her how to define her success transformed. “MIT takes a very technical approach and if you haven’t met certain benchmarks, you should just discontinue your project.” However, this was not the way that these other students worked. Connecting with Delegates whose approaches were very different showed her what successes she had already achieved and the potential she possessed to make an impact in the future. Netia also met her company mentor, Saran Kaba Jones, the founder and executive director of Face Africa, at the conference. Ms. Jones showed Netia how to go about making her ideas into a reality.

In 2013, at the 5th annual Millennium Campus Conference, Netia was one of the 8 inaugural recipients of the Millennium Fellowship. The fellowship is a year long program that teaches aspiring student leaders how to transform their budding social change ideas into well organized and impactful operations. During this program, Netia worked to reorganize and refocus her engineering workshops as well as develop her first Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) kit. The workshops are where children who are potentially interested in hardware can go and learn how to assemble different items, including the D.I.Y. kits. These kits are a very simple kit and the most recent one in production has all the necessary parts to build a solar powered battery. Once assembled, these kits can power a small reading light or can charge technology up to a very basic smartphone. An 8 year old can typically assemble the kit in about 22 minutes, a rapidity that is essential. The goal of this kit is to show children, especially those who feel that working with hardware is something too complex and advanced, that they can easily create and use an amazing piece of technology. These two components of her nonprofit are what she uses to promote her mission: “[We] aim to foster youth driven innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the world through workshops, D.I.Y. kits and international partnerships.”

That is just one of the numerous goals of Mbadika. Ever since Netia witnessed her peers’ lack of hardware experience during her first year at M.I.T., she has had this ultimate vision for what she hopes to achieve. “[Mbadika aims] to empower youth to develop hardware solutions to tackle challenges facing themselves and their communities at large.” The Millennium Campus Conference irrevocably changed Netia and her company’s future. From a small, disorganized nonprofit at M.I.T., Netia gained the knowledge and capacity to develop 3 D.I.Y. kits, workshops structured to empower youth in a constructive way, and has recently been in South Africa overseeing the establishment of a manufacturing facility so that the organization can mass produce kits and broaden their sphere of influence.

Netia will be attending the 7th annual Millennium Campus Conference as a guest speaker and we are very excited to hear all about her experiences. For all delegates who, like Netia, have a vision that they want to turn into concrete action, apply at because this conference will provide all of the resources necessary to generate change in your community and let you make your mark!