Rutendo Chigora: A Rhodes Scholar, Politics Buff and Afro-Optimist

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

An interest in the effect that global and national institutions have on social and economic development led Rutendo Chigora to the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University, where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar. Today, she’s worked for various organizations, including McKinsey and the Government of Rwanda. Find out what she thinks about the new Zimbabwe and where her career aspirations lie.

With Graca Machel at the Oxford Africa Conference

Name: Rutendo Chigora

Based in: New York

Education: Dominican Convent High School

University of Pennsylvania: Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Political Science (Magna Cum Laude)

University of Oxford: Master of Public Policy and Master of Business Administration

When she was in school, Rutendo Chigora was interested in how institutions – global and national – shaped social and economic development, an interest that was central in her decision to study international relations and politics. Just before completing her program at the University of Pennsylvania, she was chosen as one of two Rhodes Scholars from Zimbabwe, which led her to pursue a Masters of Public Policy and a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Oxford. I spoke to Rutendo to understand her achievements and her work, why she is keen on being at the intersection of public and private sectors, and where she believes the future of Zimbabwe and the rest of the continent lies.

1. At the University of Pennsylvania, you pursued an interdisciplinary program as well as taking part in various extracurricular activities. What’s would you say are the benefits of exploring a diverse range of activities and pursuing interdisciplinary studies in discovering where your interests and strengths lie?

The focus on interdisciplinary study at Penn gave me the ability to look at and understand the world through different lenses, and I think that’s so important when you want to do challenging work that involves solving complex problems. It has allowed me to be more lateral, more creative, more analytical, and, I kid you not, given me the ability to have better and richer conversations with just about everyone I meet. The curriculum also gave me the opportunity to really evolve – going into school and having to decide immediately to pick one thing and make it into a career would have been difficult for me because I was curious about a lot of things and unsure of what path made the most sense. Reading widely, taking classes across departments, and being mentored by professors across fields was instrumental in helping me come to a determination of what I wanted to do and how I could be most impactful.

2. Not only did you attend an Ivy League University, something that millions worldwide aspire to, you were named as one of two Rhodes Scholars from Zimbabwe in 2014. As someone who made it through the rigorous selection process, what would you say made you a competitive applicant and what advice do you have for those who are considering applying?

I think the Rhodes made sense for me because I had developed a strong sense of purpose – when I applied I knew what my core intellectual interests were, I knew how I wanted to use my skills and my passion to make the world a bit better, and I knew why the experience of being in Oxford as a part of that community would be important for my development. Anyone who is applying should really be reflective about why they want to be a Rhodes Scholar and be able to show why it’s a reasonable step in their consecutive development. Applying for the scholarship is such a great opportunity to take stock of the experiences you’ve had and think deeply about how best you can serve the world.

Rutendo's Masters graduation at Oxford

3. What does a day in the life of Rutendo look like?

I’ve recently moved to New York for work, so my routine is really still shaping up. Generally, I like to make sure that I read something or listen to a podcast that is unrelated to work everyday so I can continue learning and maintain multiple perspectives on what’s important that’s going on in the world. I’m also a voracious consumer of Zimbabwean news and Zimbabwean Social media, because it’s really important that I stay close to what’s happening at home. My weekends lately have been filled with furniture shopping since I’m new to the city, taking dance classes to stay active, and spending time with friends, a lot of them who are young Africans I really admire.

4. The unthinkable took place late last year when President Robert Mugabe, who had been ruling as president since 1987, was removed from power. Despite such an important and monumental change in the history of Zimbabwe, there are still many who do not believe Zimbabwe will ever prosper and are already growing impatient with the rate at which President Emerson Munangagwa is affecting change. What have you to say to these people?

“Judge me from day one.” That’s what the president said in an interview just over a week ago and I think that is essential to having a government and leadership that works for us. So, I think it’s important for people to hold their leaders to account, to make noise when they are not being heard, when their needs are not being met, and also when they are being heard and being served by the government. It’s just as important to have a government that will listen and engage with its citizens. But looking at just the presidency as the source of change, of good governance, and of development is myopic. We need to start placing more emphasis and effort in engaging with our local politicians and place as much importance on the parliamentary election as we do on the presidential election. First, because parliament is the channel through which citizen voices should be amplified, and second, because parliament is the pool from which the president must pick his cabinet. If we want to get the government we need, we have to play our part in creating it.

5. While we cannot deny that we as African countries are responsible for some of our problems, it is no secret that external players gain from our lack of development and more often than not, actively prevent it for their own benefit. Given that Zimbabwe’s new administration has expressed a strong desire to start re-engaging the international community, how would you advise that we, as a continent, or more specifically as a nation navigate these relations?

My honours thesis at Penn was on African countries’ relationship with China. One of the most insightful pieces of literature I read while doing that work posited that China has a coherent Africa policy, but Africa does not have a China policy guiding its interactions. This was especially apt because it is true that our governments do not always engage internationally with clear policy objectives and that often means that everyday Africans come out on the losing end of those relationships. In my opinion, reengagement is a good step but it has to be responsible and it has to be guided by clear policy objectives that have inclusive growth at their centre. It’s not enough to announce “mega-deals” at every turn, we have to know what that means for creating jobs and mitigating extreme economic inequality, we have to have transparency into what we are giving away and what the true cost of the relationship is – whether in terms of national debt or resources – so that we are not blindly mortgaging our country’s future.

With Dr. Kaberuka, former President of the African Development Bank at the Oxford Africa Conference 

6. It is not uncommon for those wishing to make any sort of difference to be met with negativity. As sad as it is, many have started to give up on the situation in Africa, yet you have daringly tried to make a change. What advice do you have for young women, like yourself, who are working to make the change they know can take place?

The only advice I can give to people who are looking to have an impact is to start. There’s a huge chance that you’ll fail – I have started so many things and have failed at a considerable number of them – but that’s so much better than sitting on your ideas, because, at the very least, you learn something. Of course, it’s important to really plan, know your goals and be rigorous in assessing whether your ideas actually speak to the problem you are trying to solve, but in the end the best way to know if something will work is to actually give it a shot. And one of the best ways to boost your confidence is to learn as much as you can about your field and really read up on (or even take the leap and contact) people who have successfully done similar work before.

With friends at the Oxford Africa Conference 

7. You’ve only just completed your second Masters degree yet you’ve already achieved so much. Not only were you awarded the Joshua Nkomo Scholarship for O-Level Results, admitted at UPenn as a Benjamin Franklin Scholar and chosen as one of two Zimbabwean Rhodes Scholars, you were also the co-chair of the Oxford Africa Conference in 2016, the President of the historic Oxford Africa Society in 2017 and founder of ZW Connect, a business incubator for various philanthropic organizations in Zimbabwe. You’ve also worked at top firms like McKinsey and for the Government of Rwanda. What have you got planned for the future?

There’s still a lot of learning in my future, which is why I have chosen to work abroad for a few years to build skills and experience with the most globally competitive firms. I would like to come home when I can really add value and can work at the intersection of the public and private sectors for Zimbabwe’s development. Last year, I worked with the CEO and Cabinet Member of the Rwanda Development Board, which is a government agency that manages the country’s development and investment strategy, and was really in awe of what the government can do to enable innovation and unlock economic potential for the benefit of its citizens. That’s really the kind of work I would like to do in my future.

With Clare Akamanzi in Rwanda (Cabinet Member& CEO of the Rwanda Development Board) 

If you’d like to get in touch with Rutendo, you can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter

© 2018 by nnyasha.

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