Stephane Akoki grew up in the Ivory Coast in West Africa, experiencing the travesty of insufficient opportunity. Now, he is a BYU information systems student and using the opportunities given him at BYU to invest in small businesses and empower Ivorian entrepreneurs through his nonprofit Life Elevate.
Akoki’s mother couldn’t read or write. Despite her hard work, she was disadvantaged her entire life. The lack of opportunity that plagued the family and his mother’s desire for education gave Akoki the passion to leave the Ivory Coast to pursue an education.
“Whenever I want to give up, I always think about my mother. She sacrificed all that she had so we could have an education,” Akoki said. “Above money and anything else, I want my mom to be proud of me.”
Akoki served a mission in Ghana, Africa for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite knowing he would lose all his scholarships for school. Akoki was the first member of the church in his family, and his father especially did not approve of his choice to serve.
After his mission, Akoki worked for two years with small businesses until his father offered to help him pay for an education in China. Members of Akoki’s family pooled their financial resources for him to attend school there.
When Akoki arrived in China, he discovered the school he would attend was a scam. Thousands of dollars lost and far from home, he was stranded and all alone.
Although Akoki experienced tragedy, going to China became a blessing. Akoki said it was only through his time in China and the people he met there that he knew he was meant to study in America.
BYU pre-management major Alex Resney, chief operating officer of Life Elevate, said it was Akoki’s experiences in other countries that prepared him to come to BYU and start a successful nonprofit.
“He has seen the third world, the developing world and a developed nation, and this has helped him to see clearly what differences exist between each, as well as root causes and solutions to the problems that exist in the Ivory Coast today,” Resney said.
On top of balancing school, two jobs and many small businesses, Akoki said he is also investing his own money into Life Elevate. This will then bring in more revenue to invest in other businesses, according to Akoki.
“(The purpose of Life Elevate is to) provide the resources for people to start up their businesses — to provide a curriculum or training … and then mentor them to make sure they are successful,” Akoki said.
Akoki said one example of a business he personally invested in is a laundromat in the Ivory Coast called Speedy Wash. He said he bought a washer and dryer for a woman, and the business broke even within six months. This business now brings in constant revenue, providing a good service for the community and creating more jobs.
Resney said Akoki understands one business can be the difference in the potential of a community.
“By lifting that one single entrepreneur, we can lift the entire community,” Resney said. “They better the lives of their family, those who use their services. They can hire employees whose quality of life will also be improved. That will create a sort of ripple effect, lifting entire communities through an investment in a single entrepreneur.”
BYU sociology major Nicole Guilott, head of marketing for Life Elevate, said she feels Akoki has a greater vision for the issue than anyone else.
“The perspective that he has is one very unique thing that he brings to the table in a business (and) nonprofit setting because he gets it on a much more personal level than most of the rest of us,” Guilott said. “He understands exactly how to do it … and that is why his influence and leadership is so valued and crucial to the success of the organization.”
Akoki said none of this would be possible without God leading him to BYU. He said he would not be able to effectively help his people in the Ivory Coast if he stayed there. He can make more money working 20 hours per week as a teaching assistant than his father can make working full-time in his country’s largest oil refinery. An America dollar can go much further, Akoki said.
Akoki’s understanding of business and vision of who these people can become is what will keep Life Elevate growing and impacting many more people, Resney said.
“A lot of times, people in nonprofits victimize the people they are helping, and somehow overlook their needs, feelings and abilities as people,” Resney said. “He respects all of Life Elevate’s beneficiaries. He knows they are bright individuals with so much potential that has just never been invested in.”
Akoki said he hopes to continue expanding Life Elevated and make it self-sustainable and independent of donations in the next five years.