Why Sheila Atieno left a thriving career abroad to start an NGO

Thursday June 28 2018

Sheila Atieno Van De Graaph is the CEO and Founder-Youth and Success Association (YASA). PHOTO| COURTESY


Sheila Atieno Van De Graaph is the CEO and Founder- Youth and Success Association (YASA), a non-profit organisation that mobilises, inspires and capacitates youth for leadership and sustainable developments in Kenya.

To this end, the organisation has directly impacted over 3,000 youth entrepreneurs and has partnered with over 11 universities and colleges for mentorship programs. In 2016, she was voted by Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) alumni as the most inspiring leader among participants from 14 African Countries.


You were in a thriving career; globetrotting but you gave it all up to establish YASA. What inspired the move?

I grew up seeing my parents reach out to the needy people in our community and that made me altruistic. At 25 years, while working as the African Regional Co-ordinator for all Anglophone countries for an international organisation initiated by World Health Organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland, I realised that most youth in Kenya did not have an umbrella body that they could seek information from regarding issues like employment opportunities, CV revamping or ideas for entrepreneurship.

In 2014, we started out YASA with a magazine on such issues and we have since evolved to trainings; which we hold on a weekly basis. Our target areas include CV writing, job interviews and opportunities, mentorship and leadership skills.


Is there a day that you’ve ever woken up and felt like leaving all that you do behind?

No. I am very committed to the path that I took. However, there have been weighty challenges along the way. I founded the organisation in my late twenties and most people didn’t believe in my capabilities to lead as a young woman. In my nature of work, I need a lot of partners coming on board to help us facilitate different programmes and it can be quite frustrating when that partnership fails to come through.

What success story do you love to tout about?

Since inception of YASA, through partnerships with other organisations, we have impacted the lives of more than 4,000 Kenyan youth through our different programmes such as youth employability and entrepreneurship, governance and democracy, leadership and mentorship and sustainable environmental management.

This year, to celebrate International Youth Day, we are bringing together youth from the 47 counties to discuss how they can be involved and opportunities for them in the Big Four Agenda.

How are your 30's different from your 20’s?

My 20s were more about learning but now I have more responsibilities and more people looking up to me for guidance and instructions. However, I am enjoying growth and the maturity that comes with it.

What part of leadership do you struggle most with?

In most capacities that I have served in, I have been expected to give excellence and that shaped the person I am today- an almost perfectionist. I give my best to whatever I am working on and always expect others to do the same. I have crossed paths with people because of this but I am trying to understand that we are all different.

Two years ago, you launched 'plant a tree on your birthday campaign at Kenyatta University. What was your muse?

I am a staunch believer that we are called to be other people's priests. As someone who's passionate about community development, I thought of doing something that will not just benefit me but also generations to come. Trees, came to mind.

If you were to put on another CEO’s shoes who would that be and why?

I look up to many CEOs but one that I really admire a lot is Ms. Rita Kavashe, the Managing Director at ISUZU East Africa. She is leading in a field largely dominated by men yet she shines. Her character is admirable; too-humble and passionate about community development.

What is your absolute truth?

I am passion driven, go getter and result oriented.

If you were to do something differently in our institutions of learning, what would that be?

I would encourage a lot of practical skills and community engagement. In my case, by the time I was graduating from the University of Nairobi in 2010 where I studied Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, Gender and African Studies, I had amassed work and out of book experience.

I didn’t have a difficult time starting life out of school. There is also need of mentorship and trainings on issues that we deal with locally.

What’s your ideology about money?

Money is good and we all need it but it’s not everything. In the past, I have declined high paying jobs because they didn’t sync with my personal ethics and passion. If you are not doing something you love, there will always be a void that money can't fill.

When it’s all said and done, what legacy do you wish to leave behind?

Through YASA, I want to empower the youth and raise a generation that is incorruptible, hardworking and one that practices gender equality.