Had Toni Maraviglia bothered to show up at Berkeley to get that MBA, she might not have time to talk these days, what with all her high-powered business meetings with movers and shakers. But that's not why the 29-year-old Bartlett native is hard to reach.
"Sorry, I was out in the bush," Maraviglia says by telephone over the din of colorful birds outside a hotel in Nairobi. She apologizes for not having access to email the last several days spent in rural villages of Kenya where she works on the innovative education initiative she's launched.
Africa is where she belongs and, while her brain must focus on business matters as co-founder and CEO of MPrep, "I will ALWAYS consider myself a teacher at heart," Maraviglia says.
After graduating summa cum laude from UCLA, the political science major moved to New York in 2005 and taught with Teach For America in a public school in Harlem, eventually taking a job with that agency managing teachers in the South Bronx. She spent 2008 and 2009 helping to start a successful education program in rural Kenya, before returning to teach writing at a charter school in Harlem.
In 2011, she was accepted into the prestigious Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
"I had already put down a deposit and had an apartment," recalls Maraviglia. But she craved a summer vacation to Kenya to see her old friends before starting business school.
And that's when she got hooked on the idea of using cellphones to help teach children living in rural Kenya, where class sizes typically are more than 60 students per teacher and traditional learning supplies are scarce.
"Seeing a huge opportunity to reach remote areas like my 'dala,' (the Luo tribal language word for "home") I decided to drop out of business school and pursue the idea," says Maraviglia, who notes that she felt at home in rural Muhuru Bay, Kenya. "OK. Let's just see where this goes for the next two months."
Now she's the CEO of MPrep, which has enjoyed widespread success using old cellphones to let students take quizzes and study tutorials through text messages. The program now is used by more than 10,000 students and has agreements with many key educational groups across Kenya. "I feel like I fell into something great," Maraviglia says. "I feel really fortunate and lucky. The stars aligned."
Others have noticed.
"We were really impressed with Toni, her passion and her understanding of the complexities," says Banks Benitez, vice president of partnerships for the Unreasonable Institute, a visionary business group that brings entrepreneurs, mentors and investors together for a six-week session to work on "world-changing ventures." The name comes from a George Bernard Shaw's observation that "all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Competing with 237 applicants from 47 nations, MPrep earned one of 14 spots at this year's Unreasonable Institute in Colorado but must raise $16,500 by midnight Wednesday to pay the tuition and other costs for Maraviglia and co-founder Kago Kagichiri.
Most of the people involved in the group are in their 20s and use social media and new methods to approach problems that plagued earlier generations. MPrep is collecting donations online at marketplace.unreasonableinstitute.org/campaign/detail/829 by using a crowdfunding program called Launcht.com, where CEO Freeman White of Vermont connected with Maraviglia and supports her social cause.
In its first three years, the Unreasonable Institute has worked with 70 ventures in 36 countries, helped raise $26.7 million and has a success rate of 71 percent, says Benitez, who is 25.
Maraviglia says her success so far wouldn't be possible without the support of her family (mom Leigh Aumiller of Plainfield and dad Jim Maraviglia of San Luis Obispo, Calif.) and her upbringing in Bartlett. She still keeps in touch (when she has access) with Shawn McCusker, her anthropology teacher at Bartlett High School, where Maraviglia was a member of the poms dance team.
In Africa, she's lived in places with no electricity and plenty of prostitution. She's seen people get sick from malaria, typhoid, AIDS and cholera. When she lived in a hut near a lake, people had to fetch their water in jugs.
"We'd say, 'Look, our running water,' and it would be the donkey running with the water," Maraviglia says with a laugh. At times, her new home seems far way from suburbia.
"I miss little things like the ice cream trucks. I miss the big, beautiful lawns and green grass," says Maraviglia. Rural Kenya, with its chaotic, dusty dirt roads, "looks like 1849 California with cars and cellphones," she says. That "Wild West" atmosphere means she has to watch her valuables and be smart, she adds, saying that a laptop containing many of her photographs was stolen last year.
She also tells of great friendships and peaceful visits to scenic places such as Lake Naivasha, where she learned that baby hippos sometimes stand on their mamas' backs. "It basically looks like 'The Lion King,'" she says.
But education, whether in Bartlett, Harlem or Kenya, has the same goals and issues, she says.
"If parents feel like a school has given up on them, then they disengage," Maraviglia says. Kids need to see how an education can help them in life. Communication is key.
Even in Kenya's remote villages, almost every family has access to a cellphone, and MPrep now can show that kids who use those phones for part of their education do better in schools. Maraviglia is hoping to find ideas and funding through the Unreasonable Institute to keep MPrep growing.
"In rural Africa, there is so much hope. People want to learn and educate themselves," Maraviglia says. "Sometimes I feel as if I see decades of growth in a few months. Kenyans are so creative and entrepreneurial. I love it. I feel like I thrive in that."