How a Small School in Rural Wisconsin Hosted Kenya's Elite

When it was announced that the University of Wisconsin-Stout would be hosting a delegation of Kenyan Governors for a presentation on campus, it was hard to understand why Stout was chosen for something so important. Stout is one of the smallest schools in the University of Wisconsin System, both in enrollment and in size. One could imagine that Governor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o chose Stout because of the nearby Wakanda Park, which shares the name of famed fictional country Wakanda in the movie Black Panther, a movie starring his daughter Lupita Nyong’o. However, UW Stout was chosen to host Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o, Governor James Ongwae, Deputy Governor Susan Kikwai, and other high-ranking members of Kenya’s government because of the friendship between Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o and Stout Professor Scot Vaver.

Scot Vaver is a business professor in Stout’s School of Management. He teaches courses in Management, Ethics, and Leadership. His experience in Kenya started with his involvement with the Young African Leadership Initiative, with Business Administration program advisor Dr. Mark Fenton. He has been able to use this experience to work on other projects and initiatives. Since 2015 this has included his consulting work in East Africa, with projects involving education, agriculture, and tourism.

Vaver does a lot of traveling with the work that he does. His primary travel spots include countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He is inspired to work on international projects because he enjoys helping people and doing so while exploring and learning about various cultures and environments.

Through his travels, he has done a lot of networking and gained a thoroughly impressive list of contacts. One of those contacts is Professor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, the Governor of Kisumu County, Kenya. The two met in 2018 in one of the Governor’s offices, to discuss tourism in Kisumu and the nearby Lake Victoria. Tourism is important to the Governor, as tourism, especially with the United States, is a big part of their economy. While discussing about the local community, a friendship between them developed, and they decided to work together on a television show centered around tourism. That television show became “Exploring America” which aimed to expand the knowledge of what America is like beyond staple cities like New York and Los Angeles. The show, as well as the Kenyan Governors Presentation, was produced by Rogue Productions, which was created by Stout alumnus Dale Mord.

They have continued to be very good friends, and Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o is one of Vaver’s main contacts in East Africa. Vaver has spent so much time in Kenya, and with the Governor, that he jokes about being “part Kenyan”. Their friendship is a testament to the strong relationship between Kenya and the United States. Through his travels to Kenya, Vaver noticed how Kenyans look up to the United States. He talked to someone who had plans to visit the United States, because he “wanted to step foot on Heaven”.

Vaver believes that the United States should continue building upon this relationship with Kenya, through sharing resources, knowledge, and more trade. He notes how a lot of American businesses are already in Kenya providing jobs.

The Kenyan Governors presentation came together in just five weeks. Planning had to be done really quickly due scheduling with the participating delegates. As the event came closer, this meant spending 75 to 85 hours working and getting everything ready. “If you want to do something like this, you’ve got to commit. There’s no halfway.”

After everything was over, and the Governors went back home, Vaver had a hard time coming down from all the excitement. During this time, he thought of himself like a manager of a baseball team, overseeing a lot of moving parts in the team’s success. In his closing remarks at the event, we said a deep word of thanks to everyone involved, and he really meant it. Without the tireless work of those around him, including then-Chancellor Patrick Guifoille, Provost Glendali Rodriguez, International Student Services Director Scott Pierson, Professor Ibrahim Oenga, and the Deans of Stout’s various colleges, the event would not have been the success it was. He was also very grateful to the professors who encouraged students to attend and participate in the event and said it “made all the difference in the world”.

Over 500 people attended this monumental event, and event organizers had to continually bring in additional chairs as more and more students filled into the Great Hall. Everyone knew that witnessing Kenyan Governors speak at Stout was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The students that participated in the presentation and spoke to the delegates afterwards understood the importance of meeting and networking with such powerful people. Several Stout administrators even commented that this was the first time they had ever seen so many students line up to talk to a guest speaker.

The event was described by then-Chancellor Guilfoille as what happens when respecting the “importance of the development of relationships”, which is something that Vaver fully believes in. He places a lot of value in networking, and his classes have a mentorship component. He also believes that everyone needs to spend more time talking to people, especially in the workforce, as “jobs want to see that you’ve been around a little bit.”

Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o discussed how the world has become, "a global village”. Which is something that holds true to the mission of Stout being a polytechnic institute. Professors at Stout encourage student to think beyond the classroom, and how to take those “hand-on” skills to help the greater community. Students at Stout also have vast opportunities to participate in study abroad programs, giving them the opportunity to participate in a global village. Vaver believes this is because Stout prepare students for eventually working with people from other places and cultures.

Scot Vaver prides himself on bringing his international experiences into the classroom. His lectures are constantly full of stories about finding business opportunities overseas, going through customs, and learning about what is and isn’t appropriate in certain countries. His courses have dedicated units surrounding international business and understanding cultural differences. This is because “the world is much smaller than we think”.

Vaver’s goal with this event was to create, “an awareness of different cultures outside of what we normally see,” and that goal was fruitfully accomplished. The success of the Kenyan Governors presentation set in motion a lot of really good long-term initiatives for Stout. Plans are already underway with Professor Onega to develop a study abroad trip to Tanzania and Kenya in 2021. Vaver hopes that during this trip they can develop strong relationships with other colleges in the area, and potentially creating an exchange program. This event and its success has opened the door to the creation of these new opportunities.

Stout has hosted some important events throughout its history, notably future President John F. Kennedy when he was campaigning in 1960. However, hosting such important international visitors is an impressive feat for a small school like Stout. Vaver is still impressed that it all came together. “It’s something that doesn’t happen here. They go to Berkley, or Notre Dame, or Harvard. They don’t come here.” It is even more unbelievable knowing that Stout was the only institution that the Kenyan delegation visited on their trip to the United States.

The event will have a lasting impact on our campus community, as It is something that is going to be immortalized by Stout for decades to come. Vaver believes that it brought a, “better global awareness about other countries, and really opened some eyes.” Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o told his friend Scot Vaver that he really enjoyed his visit, and there’s potential for more opportunities in the future.