Photos by Hillary Ehlen
When I’m putting together a magazine article, I have to think about the best format to do it in. I can write a 3,000-word long-form article, Q&A, listicle, infographic and so on. There’s a wide array of tricks of the trade. I wasn’t sure how I was going to write this article when I sat down with Dieumerci Christel, a junior at NDSU and the founder of Enlight who goes by Chris, but I was blown away by how articulate, smart and visionary this young entrepreneur is. So, I present Dieumerci Christel’s story as told to me by Dieumerci Christel.
My childhood starts in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Both of my parents are Congolese but I was born in a refugee camp and I’m what they call a child of no nation because I’m not really Congolese but Tanzanians don’t say we’re Tanzanian. I was born and raised there until I was 13 years old.
Growing up, we had to innovate and we didn’t really know we were innovating. Because that word was unknown to us, we just did what we had to to get by. From there, I had this entrepreneurial spirit. I started a little candy shop because we didn’t have any way of making money. I had a friend who went to Canada and he sent me a dollar, which converted into Tanzanian shillings is about 1,000 shillings so it’s a lot of money for us.
He sent me a dollar and I could go spend it or I could start something so I started looking and said, ‘What is one thing that I really love doing?’ I wanted to do something I was passionate about so I said, ‘I really love the movies.’ I was wondering how I could finesse the movies and make some money off of it because you had to pay. And these were like 30 inch TVs where 200 kids and adults would watch one movie.
In 2007-2008 in the refugee camp, I started selling gum called Obama at the movie theatres so kids going to the movies would pay me a few shillings and I’d give them gum. That business grew from gum to actual candy so I was making a lot of revenue and some of that money was going to my family because sometimes we ran out of money.
That business led to me learning my first lesson of do not give your product out for free. I kept giving a bunch of free candy to girls. Girls took me out of business.
The Birth Of An Idea
Fast-forward, I was very fascinated with technology in the movies.
I would watch movies and see American kids in schools on computers. The only time I saw computers was when immigration came to do interviews.
My dad gave me this book about computers. You can’t learn how to use a computer just by reading a book. I was so fascinated by it and thought, ‘These American kids in the movies are doing crazy experiments in class.’
When we moved here in 2010, I was super excited to go to school. But, when I went to school, I was kind of disappointed because it wasn’t like the movies. For me, it was like the same thing. At African school, there are chairs, we sit in rows and the teachers are up there. Here, the teacher has a smartboard but it’s basically the same thing.
While I was in the camps, we didn’t have school for about three years so I was behind in school, I didn’t know English and I was in America in middle school. I would go on YouTube to learn English. As I was going to school, I became super demotivated because I found out that school was kind of boring for me. I think I came here with a lot of expectations and I’m not sure if they weren’t met but I felt like I was in the same system as I was back there.
At the same time, I’m the type of person where if there’s a problem, it’s going to bother me until I fix it. In high school, I had this crazy idea: I’m going to fix boredom. What are students doing? When students are bored in the classroom, they usually don’t pay attention and they go learn the stuff on YouTube or some other mediums.
This whole time, I never heard the word entrepreneurship. I’m in high school in my sophomore year and Jake Joraanstad (owner of Bushel) and Unseen came to our school and spoke. Jake was speaking about entrepreneurship and was like, ‘I’m building a tech company and this is something that all of you can do.’ I started to get into it and was like, ‘I have some business ideas.’
I spoke at One Million Cups about it my senior year of high school. The speech went very well. I actually got a standing ovation, which was really awesome. However, I learned very quickly that the One Million Cups stage is different than the real world. Everybody is a champion until you have to go into the real world and actually convince people.
The Idea Expanded
I would go on Reddit forums and Facebook groups and talked to at least 200 teachers.
I was trying to figure out what the problem was because students are saying they’re boring. I asked, ‘Why do students perceive them to be boring?’ They said, ‘Chris, here’s the thing. We don’t want or like to be boring.’ They said that they are like, public speakers who don’t know who their audience is.
What I started figuring out was that it usually took until the middle or end of the semester before the teacher was getting it because they’re now comfortable with the classroom. They know who the students actually are.
As students, we want our teachers to know more than just our grades. We have dreams, we have passions and aspire to be more than just a number that is put on a transcript. We know that understanding is way deeper than information because there are many people that know you, but there’s a few who truly understand you. And every teacher should seek to understand to every student in their classroom in order to truly make a difference in their lives. But the challenge is that teachers have too many students and not enough time, so I made it my mission to help every teacher become an expert on their students.
This discovery made me realize all the teachers who made a difference in my life. We all have a teacher or adult that knew how to talk to us, knew what we were passionate about, knew what our interests were and knew us as a whole and knew how to tailor things to us. That’s why you made those deep connections to them and that’s why they’re your champions and mentors. You can’t just mentor someone if you don’t know who they are as a person.
The Idea Grows
What ended up happening was that I first needed to know how to do this because I had the idea. I couldn’t build an app so I learned how to design. I’m more of a creative visionary. I designed a whole app and was like here’s what it will look like, here’s what a profile will be. I brought this back and started showing teachers and they were like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool.’
They said they already built the profile on paper where students would fill out these profiles but the problem is they had to go through 100 student paper profiles and they usually did not have time to do this. So, I was like, ‘I got to figure out a way to give you a lot of information in the same place easier and more efficient without overloading you with data.’ That’s where I came up with the class profile.
I sent this back to teachers and they were like, ‘This is crazy.’ I started researching more about building connections with students. They said that there’s one more piece missing because I can get to know who my students are but I still want the software to have an academic component.
I started looking into what’s out there and how it’s being fixed. Then I found KaHoot, which is a game that you can play with your students. I then started looking into what’s more high-end than KaHoot and I started looking at NDSU and they’re using TurningPoint, which is $30 per student and thought that teachers can’t afford that, but teachers are using KaHoot and it’s not giving any data to teachers so it was an epiphany moment. I could combine the two and put them on one platform. But, I wanted to focus my surveying tool on understanding the student. We optimized it to surveying students, so the teacher can get feedback from their students in order to adjust. This allows the student to learn from the teacher and the teacher to learn from their students.
How it works
- Students answer questions that will then create a profile of that student
- Enlight will pull data from all the surveys to create a class profile, which will tell the teachers how students prefer to learn, top interests, assessments and more.
- The teacher can send out trivia to the class to test aptitude, which will then feed into the student and class profiles.
The Idea Takes Off
Editorial Note: Chris was chosen to participate in a Wefunder Workaway where he was chosen as one of 12 founders to attend a Workaway in Hawaii. There, he got to stay in a mansion with 11 other founders and learn from experts.)
From there, I just started taking a bunch of risks, even though they were small. The first one was applying for things. I just applied for the Hawaii thing. I never thought in a million years that I would ever hear back. They emailed me back, I did an interview and they said I should come. There, I got to learn so much because it was people who had done it.
This is one of the lessons I learned. I went on a hiking trip on this crazy mountain in Hawaii. I haven’t climbed a big mountain since I was in Africa so I was super tired. It was a little steep so I was grabbing onto roots. Some would hold me and be strong enough and some would come right out of the ground.
That got me to start thinking. I wasn’t thinking about how hard my journey has been. I started thinking about how entrepreneurship and networking has made me into a better and stronger person.
The first thing I thought was that when an entrepreneur starts, you’re like a little small tree with very weak roots. For me, my roots in high school were weak. As I got out of my comfort zone and I went to my counselor and said, ‘I want to get out of my comfort zone and speak to the public about my ideas.’ My roots were growing.
Student Run Venture Capital
As if all that wasn’t enough, Chris and other NDSU students are launching a student run venture capital fund called Pathway Ventures. This fund’s mission is to lead students and startups on a path towards success through knowledge, capital and opportunity. Their currently raising a $1 million fund with the goal of raising the first $100,000 before January 1 and to have the rest of the fund raised by the end of 2020.
I started spreading my roots to One Million Cups and Emerging Prairie. Now I was getting bigger and stronger as I learned. As I got bigger, it made it harder for me to quit because my roots were getting stronger since I was learning. The more people that I connected with, the harder it was for me to actually quit and let myself down because I was becoming a strong rooted tree.
This summer, my roots started going out to Hawaii and now San Francisco. I am meeting all these people from all around the U.S. and the world. I’m stronger when I learn and listen to others because they give me the nutrients and the lessons that I need to learn and those lessons are building stronger roots and foundations for myself.
Not only as an immigrant but as a student, I’m bigger and have stronger roots. I’m more dynamic now than I have ever been because of the connections that I have been able to make. When you grab onto me, it’s hard to put me down because I’m really grounded into this thing they call entrepreneurship. But, if we did this in high school and said, ‘Entrepreneurship is not for you.’ It would have been so easy for me to quit because my roots and foundation weren’t that strong.
Go out there, expand and build stronger roots for yourself. Talk to people because the more you talk to people, the more lessons you learn, the bigger the foundation you create, the easier it is for you.