When Armaan Ismail decided to go to college, he knew he wanted to build on skills he gained as a Youth Ambassador of the Aga Khan Foundation. The L.A. youth team member, now a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, already had a wealth of experience and a vision for his future, thanks in part to volunteering with AKF. Armaan recently shared his story with us—from his first fundraiser over the P.A. system as a third-grader to his maturing sense of a future in social entrepreneurship.
A freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, Armaan Ismail already has more international experience than many of his classmates, and a vision for his future.
He first had an inkling of an international calling when he started supporting the Aga Khan Foundation in third grade at their home in Los Angeles. He had been helping his parents with their volunteer work for AKF even earlier, but it was in the third grade he got directly involved. He started by asking his school principal if he could make an announcement to his schoolmates.
He asked if he could make a fundraising appeal over the public address system to the entire school. “It was the first time I decided I wanted to help and contribute to AKF,” Armaan says now. “I was very nervous,” he recalls. It took him three visits to the principal’s office before steeling his courage to ask. With the principal’s reply, he could breathe again.
“He said, ‘Yes, of course you can use the P.A. system. You just have to write something down so I can read it first.’” So Armaan wrote down his proposed announcement, describing this organization that made a difference in people’s lives.
That year Armaan also launched a bake sale and gave talks to his fellow third-graders about AKF’s work. He was starting to feel the excitement of being a person who could make a difference himself.
Scaling Up as a Volunteer
By fifth grade, Armaan realized that with his classmates, he had been focused on the base of a pyramid. He wanted to go higher up the pyramid and make a bigger bang.
How could he do that? He asked his father, who helped him write an e-mail to 15 or 20 business colleagues. Soon he was calling his father’s coworkers and the people who worked at the bank where his grandparents had a checking account.
By the end of that year, Armaan had raised nearly $6,000 for the foundation. Today his cumulative fundraising amounts to nearly $70,000. That’s a staggering sum for anyone to raise for philanthropy, but especially for a person still in his teens.
He kept growing his skills year by year, helping to raise awareness of the Aga Khan Foundation in the weeks leading up to the annual AKF Walk|Run. He created innovative opportunities in schools and civic centers. With his youth club peers, he developed trivia quizzes, ice-cream socials, picnics, and other activities that they could adapt and use “to connect and share why AKF is so important,” he says, “and the impact that AKF is making.”
Around the eighth grade, the AKF volunteer team in Los Angeles asked Armaan to help with the Walk activities for youth, so he did. For several years after that he coordinated local activities and youth activity booths at the Walk fundraiser. He always had fresh ideas for the team to try.
Two summers ago, before his senior year in high school, Armaan finally got to go visit the AKF activities overseas that he had been contributing to, with a trip to East Africa with Global Encounters. The program in the Ismaili community provided young people a chance to see the conditions in a developing countries for themselves, and provided a short service project experience in coordination with Aga Khan Foundation.
Eye-Opening Experience in East Africa
With Global Encounters, Armaan saw AKF programs at work in public schools around Mombasa on Kenya’s coast. When the group visited Nairobi, he learned more about how programs across different agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, including private sector initiatives and the Aga Khan University, work together. In his words, the Network’s multi-faceted approach “makes a lasting impact on every individual that it reaches.”
“That was for me one of the most eye-opening experiences,” he says. He remembers in particular a statement by one of the AKF staff members in Nairobi: “When the AKDN comes together, that’s when the magic happens.”
In other words, Armaan saw, when you address the concerns of a marginalized family or a community through the full range of their lives and priorities, you can improve their quality of life, and in that way improve society.
“That quote really resonated with me because I saw it,” he says. When a person needed health care but couldn’t pay, they could go to the Aga Khan University hospital. To see about a job, they could apply in the tourist sector with the Serena Hotel or in food production with firms supported by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development. “You see how all these institutions are connected—all with the goal of sustainability in mind to better the quality of life for every individual.”
Looking Ahead in Social Entrepreneurship
Armaan laughs when asked about his plans. “Don’t get scared,” he says. Then he describes an ambitious plan to major in business administration and political economy, with minors in computer science and global poverty and practice.
“Obviously this is going to change,” he admits. He wants to spend a few years after graduation understanding corporate social responsibility efforts, startups, and how to scale for impact.
And he has a goal for his life: to become a senior executive with a nonprofit in social entrepreneurship, and to help it become more effective.
“My Global Encounters experience in Kenya, that’s what shifted my lens to social entrepreneurship in global development,” he says.