Esi Kagale Agyeman Gillo is the co-founder and CEO of DiffVelopment, a nonprofit organization focused on developing historically and globally conscious Black visionary leaders.
The organization she founded with her husband creates Black leaders who prioritize community-minded entrepreneurship, and take responsibility for developing solutions to the issues Black people face.
A New Jersey native, born to parents from Ghana and Uganda, Esi studied in the United Kingdom (where she received an MA in African Studies,) Uganda, Rwanda, and Ghana before starting DiffVelopment.
During her career, Esi worked for both startup nonprofits and larger, longstanding organizations. She has a wealth of experience and advice to share about the nonprofit world, the importance of understanding Black history, and how to contribute to a more inclusive world.
She recently sat down with Johanna and Paul on an episode of The Intern Group’s podcast How to be the Difference. They discussed her early years in the nonprofit world, the work of her own nonprofit, and advice for young people, women, and Black leaders today. You can listen to the full episode here.
Entering the Nonprofit World
Esi said she was always interested in psychology and African Studies. She envisioned herself working in research, for example in a think tank or with the United Nations.
She did several internships with nonprofits, including in Ghana, and a remote internship for a nonprofit in South Africa. But Esi says she didn’t realize that her path was heading in the direction of the nonprofit world yet.
She saw herself and many of her highly-qualified Black peers struggling to find work in the research field. Ultimately, she made the decision to take a job at a nonprofit. In her second full-time job, Esi was the only Black professional on her team. She was also the youngest team member, she told Johanna and Paul.
It was in part that experience of discrimination in the research world that inspired her to start DiffVelopment. She and her husband wanted to provide the opportunity for Black college students to consult for Black-owned businesses. That’s how the first of DiffVelopment’s programs, Consultrepreneurship, was born.
The program includes both the practical, hands-on experience at a Black-owned business, the opportunity to create a business pitch, as well as a historical education component. All of the program’s elements are geared at empowering students to overcome socioeconomic barriers and build personal, generational, and communal wealth.
The Importance of Understanding Black History
The historical element of DiffVelopment’s programs is essential, Esi explained to Johanna and Paul. The program aims to prepare students for Black life after college, she said. “It’s not enough to get that degree if you don’t know that the color of your skin might affect what that degree is able to do for you.”
In addition to learning about Black history, including the ancient African trade route and the slave trade, her program also focuses on modern-day. It addresses repercussions that Black economics, African diaspora, and colonialism have had on the Black experience, including access to internship opportunities as a Black person.
“What we do is give our students an understanding that whatever you think you’re going through, every Black person around the world is going through the same exact thing, because of these common historical issues that we’re all connected to,” Esi said.
“You can’t disconnect yourself from your history or you won’t understand why things are happening,” she said.
She wants students to understand that they’re agents of change. “It’s not enough to know a little – you have to know a lot.”
Contributing to a more inclusive world
Esi has advice for people who want to contribute to a more inclusive world.
Her first point is to provide platforms for people who are well-versed and can speak on these issues from a solution-based perspective. Be creative with the ways you amplify others!
Theory will only get you so far, she explains. Connect with people who are on the ground doing the world.
She also has advice for women, young people, and importantly, Black leaders, on how to succeed.
“Go all the way,” Esi says. “Understand that you’re only gonna get as far as you want to go.”
She also advises humility. “Understand that if it’s not happening, it’s probably because you’re not ready. But keep going. Keep pushing!”
When you do reach the top, recognize your own weaknesses, she advises. Try to find the best people out there who can fill those holes, instead of trying to do everything yourself.
Her final piece of advice is financial. “Don’t let money rule you.” Money is a tool, but it doesn’t actually create anything, she explains. And having money doesn’t change the fact that you have to work hard.
“Working is inevitable, and the more successful you become, the busier you get! Success is hard work,” she says.