General Alumni Association Honors Two With Distinguished Young Alumni Awards
The General Alumni Association of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill honored entrepreneurs in solar power and education with 2016 Distinguished Young Alumni Awards. Jesse Moore, of Nairobi, Kenya, is founder and managing director of M-KOPA Solar, a solar-power business that provides hundreds of thousands of people in East Africa clean, reliable energy.
Preston Smith, of San Jose, California, is co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education, a national network of charter schools aimed at educating students in low-income neighborhoods. Both are members of Carolina’s 2001 graduating class.
“The remarkable accomplishments of many of Carolina’s younger alumni such as Jesse and Preston are truly inspiring,” said GAA President Douglas Dibbert.
The GAA Board of Directors presented the awards at its fall meeting on Oct. 7. The organization has presented the awards since 1989, recognizing alumni age 40 or younger when selected for bringing recognition to the University through their achievements.
Moore founded M-KOPA in 2010 to provide customers in East Africa with clean, dependable and affordable electric power for the cost of what they would pay for kerosene and batteries, used by most homes in the region.
The challenge of starting the business included working out of a Nairobi-based office that relied on a generator for continuous electricity. “The reason we need to run a generator at our office is the reason we have a huge market for our services,” Moore said.
Originally from Toronto, Canada, Moore first came to the U.S. when he arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill to start classes on a Morehead (now Morehead-Cain) Scholarship. The award broadened his world view with study abroad and summer travel experiences to Costa Rica, South Africa and several other sub-Saharan countries and Bolivia. He learned French and Spanish and saw the need in poverty-stricken parts of the world.
After working at Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) and earning an MBA from Oxford University, Moore consulted with Kenan-Flagler Business School faculty experts on low-income consumers before starting M-KOPA. The company sells solar-generated electrical power in an arrangement similar to mortgages. Consumers make a down payment, then monthly payments equivalent to what they would spend on kerosene and batteries, paying off their solar system in a year. Moving forward, they only pay only for usage. Payments can be made by mobile phone, a popular and accessible method.
Within 15 months of launch, M-KOPA attracted 50,000 customers and raised $20 million in venture capital. Its customer base currently tops 375,000 and is on track for a million users by 2018. M-KOPA employs nearly 1,000 workers and is expanding into Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana, and has offices in London and Hong Kong.
Smith founded Rocketship Education in 2007. The network of public charter schools, which stresses parental involvement and professional development for teachers, has grown from its California roots to Minnesota, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.
Smith grew up in public schools in the working class, racially diverse town of Rialto, California. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Carolina, he stopped by the Teach For America (TFA) table at a campus career fair and learned that he could get relief from student loans, receive a paycheck and help students in the neighborhoods like those where he grew up.
Two years later, he was named Teacher of the Year at his TFA-assigned elementary school and was a finalist for a TFA award honoring the teacher with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation.
Community organizers pushed him to start a small, autonomous school, similar to a charter school but still part of the public school system. At 24, he co-founded Lucha (“struggle” in Spanish). By the end of his third year as principal, Lucha was ranked as the fourth-best elementary school in California based on state assessments.
Smith built on his success at Lucha by co-founding Rocketship Education, a charter school and nonprofit that has gained national attention for the strong test scores of its students, blending traditional teaching methods with online instruction and keeping administrative costs low. Rocketship now teaches 5,000 elementary and middle school students a day.
Smith credited Carolina for putting him on the path to success. “Not all colleges take good care of you,” he said. “You either make it or break it. But UNC created opportunities that helped me succeed and overcome some of my self-doubts.”
The General Alumni Association is a self-governed, nonprofit association, serving alumni
and friends of UNC-Chapel Hill since 1843.