“The future is not tomorrow, but today”: The story of a Senegalese student leader and social entrepreneur

Social entrepreneur and student leader Omar Cisse shared his story with Lea Gabay. 

Omar Cisse
I am an eternal optimist. I believe that we, as human beings, are capable of bringing positive change to the world. Whenever people see me, they can’t help but notice my smiling face.  You may wonder why I walk around, exhibiting such a cheerful attitude. It’s because I have hope that we can collectively solve social issues by sharing knowledge and supporting each other; more importantly, I have faith in the youth of Senegal,for they have what it takes to create a more just, peaceful, and eco-friendly society. 

My childhood
I was born on February 20th, 1996 in Ziguinchor, a town in the southern part of Senegal, in a Muslim family. My parents are from two different ethnic groups: My mother identifies as Mandingue, whereas my father was Saloum Saloum Wolof. My mother was my father’s fourth wife and had four children. I am the youngest of my siblings and my entire family. Growing up in a polygamous family has taught me about the importance of maintaining harmonious relationships and resolving conflicts in a peaceful manner. Moreover, I am blessed to have had such supportive parents who ensured that I received an excellent education and encouraged me to find my passion. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to share all of my achievements with my father because he tragically passed away in 2014 at the age of 82 when I was only 18 years old. Even though we did not have as much contact when he was working as an airline technical officer at ASECNA, an international public institution in Senegal, I am grateful for the precious moments that we had together. I also consider my mother to be the inspiration for my foray into women’s rights activism. Indeed, she conveyed to me the importance of respecting women, acknowledging their courage and strength,and being an ally to them by demanding equal rights.

Thanks to my family’s support and my own resolve to succeed, I worked hard in school and was able to pursue my studies at Université Gaston Berger, considered to be the top university in Senegal, where I am currently studying a Master 2 in Entrepreneurship and Culture and in Literature and Cinema. To me, literature is vital to promoting entrepreneurship in order to end unemployment and poverty.

Ready for action
It was during my time at the university that I started to develop greater awareness and concern for the future of young people in Senegalese society. Indeed, I could no longer ignore the fact that youth unemployment and poverty are social issues that are continuing to plague my generation. I also noticed that women have few opportunities to work outside of the home and little access to leadership roles.

What moved me to action was realizing that nobody but me could take charge of my life. I needed to trust myself and acknowledge that I have the ability to effect change in my community and to inspire others to be the solution to some of the world’s toughest issues.  Previously, when I felt at a loss, I sought guidance from the words of my role model, Mohammed Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and civil society leader. I recall a speech that he gave wherein he advised young people to think creatively in order to create jobs. Undoubtedly, young people need to be architects and builders. We should no longer stay passive in the face of social issues. On the contrary, our purpose is to build movements of positive change to transform the world and improve living conditions worldwide.

From that moment on, I have committed myself to ending poverty by training people in personal development, i.e. leadership skills development and social entrepreneurship. In so doing, I can help them to recognize their talents and abilities, become more confident in seeking opportunities, and start their own business. Moreover, I endeavor to collaborate more with female students on campus and launch a movement that demands more rights for women.

My achievements so far
Within the span of 3 years, I became active in a variety of community-based and youth and women’s empowerment projects:

In 2017, I founded a student movement called Empowering Women whose aim is to empower Senegalese women in business. Creating such a movement has enabled me, along with my peers, to promote women's creativity and skills and to engage them in entrepreneurship. My goal is also to establish a space where we can discuss ways of fostering greater gender equality and equity.

Besides, I am now the CEO of Improve your English Speaking (IES), an English language center for English language learners. Indeed, I believe that providing more opportunities for English language learning can facilitate greater access to jobs and connections in other countries for young people. That is why I deemed it useful to offer courses focused on English for Specific Purposes.

I am also currently the country representative of Admission Wahala, a platform that matches prospective international students with opportunities offered by reputable foreign universities based on student’s study-abroad interest, needs, preferences, and goals.I have been organizing seminars about these topics in various cities in Senegal, such as Thies, Saint-Louis, and Dakar.

  However, the achievement that I am most proud of is being selected as a 2019 Hult Prize Foundation volunteer Campus Director in Senegal. In 2018, I was responsible for organizing and implementing a quarterfinal round of the Hult Prize Competition on my campus.  This included working with Université Gaston Berger, students, and members of my community to sensitize about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and emphasize social entrepreneurship.

Being a Hult Prize Foundation Volunteer Campus Director was a rewarding experience, for it gave me a chance to take on a leadership role and manage many aspects of this competition on my own such as finding judges and volunteers to participate.  Moreover, since the concept of social entrepreneurship was fairly new to many of my peers, I had to actively raise awareness about its importance and the very pressing social issue of youth unemployment. After much campaigning and mobilizing, the competition ended up comprising more than 23 student teams across campus, out of which 3 teams got selected to advance directly to three of the Hult Prize's 25+ regional finals happening around the globe: Team Water for All to Paris, Team Safa to San Francisco, Team For a Better Life to Accra. Thanks to our collective effort, the first ever Hult Prize Foundation competition at our university was a success and gained international recognition.

You may think that I am doing a lot, but this is just the tip of the iceberg!

My vision
While there are times when I am disappointed with the lack of motivation and engagement of some of my peers, I refuse to give up. I really want to be a role model to them and show them that they can also have a positive impact in their communities and can become effective leaders if they put their minds to it. Indeed, many of my peers have asked me how I have succeeded in what I am doing. I simply tell them that everything that I have now is thanks to my dedication to volunteering and community service. Thus, they should not be afraid of becoming changemakers in their own community and elsewhere; more importantly, they should do it for the good of everyone and not for their own benefit. In so doing, they will becontributing to their country and community.  So, I have urged them to keep going and take risksbecause nobody is going to do it for them. It's their own responsibility to showthe world that they can carve their own future.

As a final word, I would like to say that we are on a path to creating new ways of being in the world because the future is not tomorrow, but today. Why focus so much on the future when we can do so much now? I have a vision that we are going to create the kind of world that we want to live in thanks to our incredible youth.