How Dale Dawson Left Stephens Inc. to Join an Arkansas Movement Transforming Rwanda

It was 2003, and Dale Dawson was at the peak of his career.

The Texas native had enjoyed a rapid climb in the accounting and corporate tax world, becoming partner at the Dallas office of global accounting firm KPMG at 30, and national director of the firm’s insurance practice at 32.

In 1985, Dale made the move to Little Rock to join Stephens Inc., where he was promoted to head of investment banking a year later and where his wife, Judi, became a vice president and stockbroker. During a six-year break from Stephens, Dale helped turn around failing Memphis-based truck part company TruckPro. The company and its 43 stores were sold to AutoZone in 1998, and Dale returned once more to one of the largest investment banks off Wall Street.

Life at “Halftime”

Despite this outward success, something wasn’t sitting right. At 51, Dale was experiencing a “halftime” phenomenon he says is often characteristic of reaching life’s midpoint, and the loss of excitement, passion and direction that comes with it.

“I was a guy who loved my work. I was inspired by it and energized by it,” Dale says. “It was like the air went out of the balloon. … After thinking about it for a long time, I decided I needed a significant change.”

He ended his 11-year career at Stephens for good in 2003, and began to mull what he would do with the second half of his life.

“Passion is a gift from God, and it’s a very elusive spirit,” Dale says. “At 51, if I wanted it back, I had to figure out what the Divine wanted me to do with it. I made the decision that if God was the giver of the gift, then I had to be available to him. It was a trusting step of faith.”

In 2001, a Bible study leader at the Dawson’s church, Martha Vetter, announced she had made the decision to become a missionary at a new boarding school for orphans called Sonrise Primary School in Rwanda — a country struggling to recover from an AIDS epidemic and the 1994 genocide in which more than 500,000 people were brutally massacred.

It would be Martha who would plant the seed for Dale’s new lease on life. She introduced the Dawsons to the school’s founder, John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop who was in Little Rock on a fundraising trip. Dale would later describe Rucyahana as a “determined but gentle man on a mission to rebuild his country.”

Gears began to turn in Dale’s mind. He caught wind of work being done by Opportunity International, an organization that provides small loans and financial training to the poor in developing countries like Uganda. He flew to Florida in 2004 to attend the organization’s President’s Forum, where he says his eyes were opened to “what global poverty really looks like and what some of the solutions were.”

He had stumbled on a game plan.

“It was like God leaned down to me and said, ‘I’ve been preparing you your whole life to build businesses that serve the poor.’ The passion that I always had for business was reignited at that point,” he says.

Catching the Wave

After his exit from Stephens, Dale turned his focus to fundraising for the new Sonrise High School and began working to create the first Opportunity International microfinance bank in Rwanda. In doing so, he was “catching the wave” of other Arkansans and Arkansas companies — from Tyson Foods and Walmart to the Clinton Foundation and North Little Rock-based Westrock Coffee — taking an interest in this Maryland-sized country nestled in the mountains of central Africa.

The work paid off, and the first classes at Sonrise High School opened in 2005. By the time it added a sixth grade, its students ranked third in the country’s national exam. The next year they ranked first.

The next step was to establish a bank that would serve as a source of capital for entrepreneurs, a safe haven for savings and a tool to lift suffering people out of poverty. With $5 million in initial capital raised by the end of 2005, the Opportunity International Bank of Rwanda was born.

With that accomplished, Dale turned his attention to a bigger project: Bridge2Rwanda. The nonprofit’s mission to “build a bridge from here to Rwanda and transform lives at both ends” has since worked to do just that, tackling the educational, economic and social needs of Rwanda while fostering relationships in Arkansas and the rest of the world.

“Bridge2Rwanda is actually just part of a significant movement that has been building a bridge from Arkansas to Rwanda for over 15 years,” Dale says. “This dense, interconnected network of relationships includes individuals, churches, schools, businesses, nonprofits and over 100 Rwandan students attending Arkansas colleges.

“Here in Arkansas, for whatever reason, people have been inspired by this little African country,” Dale says. “They have found in Rwanda a lot of hope.”

Transforming Lives

Recognizing that transforming a country requires work on many fronts, B2R is a multifaceted organization spanning education, finance and entrepreneurship while fostering relationships in Rwanda and abroad.

On the education front, high-quality schools like Sonrise High School and B2R’s Kaplan Test Prep center in Rwanda’s capital city Kigali prepare students for college-level courses and international scholarships. B2R is there for the next step, too, linking the country’s best and brightest to American colleges and universities through its B2R Scholars program, an initiative started to expand the Rwandan government’s Presidential Scholar Program. Whereas Presidential Scholar students are limited to studying the sciences, B2R Scholars can study any discipline.

In the six years since the B2R Scholars program began, Dale says approximately 170 of Rwanda’s best students have been placed in 20 colleges in this country — half of those at Arkansas institutions, including Philander Smith, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Harding University.

“With 100 Rwandan students in Arkansas, you can imagine how many lives have been touched and how many people have come to know Rwanda,” Dale says.

Ritah Nshuti was one of 52 Rwandan students who came to the U.S. as a Rwandan Presidential Scholar in 2009. She graduated from Philander Smith in May with a major in chemistry and a minor in mathematics, with dreams of working at Tyson Foods.

“Dale has happily and voluntarily served as an adviser to several scholars,” she says. “He stays relentless until we are offered jobs and internships despite his busy schedule. [It] leaves me wondering if there are any other foreigners with such a love for Rwanda and its people as Dale and Judi Dawson.”

Faith and Good Works

It was his daughter’s soccer team that first connected David Knight, general counsel for Stephens Inc., to the Arkansas movement to help Rwanda. David had been the team’s unofficial photographer when its coach and fellow local banker, Dabbs Cavin, approached him in 2004 to see if he’d be interested in documenting an upcoming group trip to Rwanda. His colleague Dale happened to be involved.

Camera in-hand, David got his first taste of Africa, capturing scenes of the beautiful country nicknamed the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” including daily life inside Sonrise School, the country’s rare mountain gorillas and memorials to genocide victims. He published the photos in a book, Faith and Good Works in Africa, in 2005. The $20,000 in book sales have gone to fundraising for Rwanda.

“The reason I encouraged David to publish this book was not so that you could enjoy the pictures, but because I want you to fall in love with the people and ministries we visited in Africa,” writes Dale in the foreword. “Africa opened our eyes to the vastness of global poverty and the challenge of doing something about it.”

David would later play a seminal role in the development of the B2R Scholars program, co-launched in 2007 in association with Hendrix College, his alma mater and for whose board of trustees he chairs.

“It was just absolutely fascinating,” David says, “to watch this country in the process of rebuilding at an incredibly rapid pace.

“That’s the thing about Rwanda. Like most developing countries, it just needs everything. If you’ve got a skill set, chances are they can use it. It’s just figuring out how you get plugged in.”

By 2007, the country saw its first merger between microfinance banks: Opportunity International Bank of Rwanda and Urwego Community Bank became the appropriately named Urwego Opportunity Bank of Rwanda (urwego means ladder). It’s now the largest microfinance bank in the country, with more than 270 employees and 40,000 active loans at an average amount of $350, money for entrepreneurs to invest, grow their business and pay back. And it’s sustainable: the bank is reinvesting a profit, paying taxes and contributing to an economic transformation.

Dale says the ability to save money has been perhaps the biggest blessing. Previously unavailable to the vast majority of people, the bank has opened up the availability of savings accounts “at the base of the economic pyramid.” Dale says there are 165,000 savings accounts with an average balance of $75 each.

Rwanda’s economy has seen sustained growth in recent years. Most importantly, less people are experiencing backbreaking poverty: Dale says a million Rwandans have been pulled out of poverty in the last 5 years alone, faster than any other country on the continent.

Despite upward trends, the World Bank reports more than 80 percent of Rwanda’s people still live on less than $2 a day. Not-for-profit Bridge2Rwanda is able to do its noble work because of generous giving. In April, the organization’s matching fundraiser met its goal of $50,000 — money that will go toward the roughly 35 students in the 2013 class of scholars.

Life Worlds Apart

Today, Dale splits his time between Rwanda and his home in Little Rock, making the continent-hopping 24-hour flight several times a year. Dale says he’s not one to succumb to travel weariness. “When I land in Rwanda, I’m very energized. I have people to see and things to do,” he says.

He’s also gearing up to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Arkansas Business 40 Under 40 luncheon, scheduled for June 14 at the Marriot Hotel in Little Rock. Bearing the tag line “From Success to Significance,” Dale says the talk will cover the “halftime” feelings he experienced and how to do business with purpose. Of course, he says, “you can be successful and significant without waiting until you’re 50.”

For Dale Dawson, the unconventional investment in a new life half a world away has paid a handsome dividend.

“I don’t think of retirement as a realistic option, or an option at all,” Dale says. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I can do this in my 80s. It’s a great treasure to expose people to something they didn’t know.”

Dale Dawson To Speak at 40 Under 40
20th Annual Arkansas Business 40 Under 40 Luncheon
When: Friday, June 14, 11:30 a.m. | Where: Marriott Hotel, formerly The Peabody, Little Rock
Tickets: $50, table of 10: $500  
More info: ArkansasBusiness.com/40Lunch, (501) 372-1443 x336  
To get involved with Bridge2Rwanda: Bridge2Rwanda.org

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