Be Hope, Be Light

The lessons Jake Harriman learned as a boy in West Virginia inspired him to join the fight to end extreme poverty.


Photo by Nuru International

Preston County native Jake Harriman was a U.S. Marine in Iraq when he had a life-altering experience. Face to face with an Iraqi farmer’s sheer desperation, he realized one of the greatest global crises is extreme poverty, which leads people to commit desperate acts and ultimately contributes to terrorism. Jake left the Marines to attend Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, where he earned an MBA and developed the concept for Nuru International.

The Nuru Model is designed to end extreme poverty in remote areas and focuses on four areas of need—hunger, the inability to cope with economic shocks, preventable disease and death, and a lack of quality education for children. Nuru trains local leaders through its leadership program to determine their community's needs and establish solutions. Successful local businesspeople are then recruited to start businesses and are provided with world-class training and access to new markets and capital. This means Western funders can invest a fixed, small amount of capital into a given country and, as new businesses achieve financial sustainability, increasing profits enable the work to spread regionally and fund program expansion that realizes national impact. To date, Nuru has been launched in Kenya and Ethiopia.

What was it like growing up in West Virginia? I grew up on a little farm in Preston County. I guess by American standards we were poor, but I never really knew it. My parents provided a great life for us. We worked on the farm and learned the power of good work ethic and a can-do attitude. It was a good childhood.

How did your upbringing bring you to where you are today? Growing up in a farming community that was relatively poor, you had a lot of farm families who bonded and stuck together through tough times. I learned the value of working together and sacrificing for your neighbors. My dad taught me to work hard and never give up, and I learned compassion and mercy from my mom. I learned great lessons, even about servant leadership from my parents and from farmers in the community who would serve each other when one of them was down.

How was the concept for Nuru born? I was in combat in Iraq, one of poorest places in the world, and Iraqi Special Forces had been coerc-ing poor farmers to fight the Americans. One morning we were in a defensive position when a car came racing at us. The driver jumps out, waving his arms frantically and running at us. I thought he’d strapped a bomb to himself. Then I looked behind him and saw this large black military truck rolling up. Several guys jump out and surround this man’s car and start shooting. That’s when I realized what was happening—this guy was a farmer trying to escape across our lines with his family. That was an awakening moment for me. I put myself in this guy’s shoes and asked the question: I live in a world of choices—what school do I want to go to, what do I want to have for breakfast—but what choices did this guy have when he woke up this morning? I made this connection between people living in poverty and their inability to make choices. That was the beginning of a journey for me—to start an organization that could fight extreme poverty and take away the desperation.

What is Nuru fighting to do? Our goal is to empower people with meaningful choices, to empower people to lift themselves and their communities out of extreme poverty permanently. We train local leaders and work with them to address needs and to design effective solutions and scale those solutions. Then we build a for-profit company and those profits are used to pay for the ongoing work of the programs independent of outside donations. It’s completely self-sustaining.

How are the places you’ve traveled like West Virginia? People are people. We are all driven by a need to provide for those we love. The people I grew up with are just like the people I’m working with today. They speak a different language, have a different culture, but some of the bravest, most resourceful, intelligent people I’ve ever met are those trapped in poverty, whether on the farms I grew up near in West Virginia or the farms I work on in Kenya or Ethiopia.

Other West Virginians are on Nuru’s staff. Are they friends of yours? Some of the folks from West Virginia are guys I went to school with who had a similar dream to impact the world and give ourselves to a greater cause. Billy Williams was one of the first five people I hired, and John Hancox, Andy Cogar, and Trey Dunham served as the three original board members with me. The four of them have been in it from the beginning.

What does Nuru’s future look like? Nuru is at a very exciting point in our growth right now. The Nuru Model is a very different approach to fighting extreme poverty, so we need to prove it first. Once we’ve proven it, then I want to take this model to some of the toughest places in the world. We see that we can end extreme poverty in our lifetime, but Nuru can’t do it alone. We want to train other organizations and governments how to adopt our model and adapt what they’re doing to make it more sustainable and scalable. Through this approach, we can empower thousands more, even millions, much more quickly.

Finally, as a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up? I wanted to be Superman. I was always a dreamer, even as a kid. We only live once, and from a very young age, I wanted to make my life count. That was important to me.


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