Some men change careers when they turn 50. Some buy fancy sports cars. Some chase younger women.
Dale Dawson decided to adopt. A country. And he’s been joined by other prominent Arkansans.
It was 2002, and Dawson was in his second stint as head of investment banking at Stephens Inc. after selling a truck parts distributor to Auto Zone. He had reached a level of professional success of which most people only dream. But something was missing.
"I decided that passion in your life is a gift from God, that it comes and it goes, and you can’t predict where it’s going to be, and you can’t get it back when it leaves," he said.
About that time, he was introduced to Opportunity International and the concept of microfinancing, where a small loan can help a Third World entrepreneur rise from poverty. He read a book, "Half Time," by Bob Buford about finding significance in the second half of life. Meanwhile, he met John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop from Rwanda, the African country where 800,000 died in a civil war in 1994.
Dawson decided that, with his background, God had given him the tools to help that country, and that this would be his second-half focus. Like any good business leader, he crafted a vision statement: "To build a bridge from here to Rwanda and transform lives at both ends."
In 2005, he and the former CEO of Alltel, Scott Ford, met Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. It was Dawson’s first visit to a developing country, where he witnessed poverty unlike anything he had seen in America. However, he also was realizing, "These are people who you don’t have to motivate to work hard. You just have to create opportunity, and they’ll work hard."
Among Dawson’s first projects was helping start the Opportunity International Bank of Rwanda along with commercial banker Dabbs Cavin and venture capitalist Todd Brogdon, both Arkansans who moved to Rwanda for a time with their families.
The bank has made more than 40,000 loans at an average amount of $350. Ninety percent of the recipients have been women. One in her 20s named Clementine along with her husband used a $50 loan to buy a single bag of sorghum to process and sell. She and her 40-50 employees now are processing 4,000 bags weighing 150 pounds each week.
The bonds between Rwanda, Dawson and Arkansas grew stronger. David Knight, Stephens’ general counsel, helped connect the country with Hendrix College and then other schools in Arkansas and the United States. As a result, some of Rwanda’s best and brightest students have been able to study in America – many in Arkansas – as Rwanda Presidential Scholars.
Today, Dawson has a new full-time job: Bridge2Rwanda. Started by him in 2007, it is creating business and educational opportunities for Rwandans, often by working with Arkansans. It assisted Ford as he founded The Rwanda Trading Company, now one of Rwanda’s largest coffee exporters. Brogdon manages it. The Bridge2Rwanda Scholars program is run by Anna Reed, daughter of the late Stanley Reed, who was president of Arkansas Farm Bureau. Bridge2Rwanda is working with Donnie Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods, to start a commercial feed farm.
After hitting rock bottom, Rwanda is one of Africa’s greatest success stories and a model of reconciliation and renewal. Because of its relationship with Arkansas and with Arkansans, the lives of rich people here and poor people there are being transformed, just as Dawson had envisioned.
"It’s very exciting at this stage of life to be kind of an intimate friend of people who are doing such inspiring stuff," he said. "In the second half of my life, it’s fun to be involved in something that seems to be this meaningful."
Amazing what can happen when someone has a little passion.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter at @stevebrawner.