Meg Whitman ’77, United States ambassador to Kenya, and Winnie Kiiru, executive director of the Mpala Research Centre. Photos by Njeri Photography
Princeton alumni and friends gather for Venture Forward event in Kenya
Jennifer Rexford ’91, University provost and the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor in Engineering, and a contingent of Princeton University administrators met with alumni and friends in Nairobi, Kenya on Feb. 1 to hear a conversation between Meg Whitman ’77, United States ambassador to Kenya, and Winnie Kiiru, executive director of the Mpala Research Centre.
Aly Kassam-Remtulla, Princeton’s vice provost for international affairs, welcomed guests — including three members of the incoming Class of 2028 — to the Emara Ole-Sereni Hotel and opened the evening discussing new initiatives that the University developed to strengthen its ties with Africa. “While Princeton has a long history of engagement with the African continent — especially through the research of our faculty members and through the African scholars and students who have come to study and teach at Princeton — the University is now actively fostering more engaged, dynamic and formal relationships with African institutions and scholars,” said Kassam-Remtulla, referencing the Mpala Research Centre, the Africa World Initiative and a priority to identify and recruit additional scholars from the continent, a population that has historically been underrepresented at Princeton.
Following a screening of the Venture Forward campaign video featuring professors Autumn Womack and Andrew Houck ’00 and men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson ’98, Rexford provided an update on several University priorities, notably greater access to a Princeton education, creating state-of-the-art facilities to support audacious bets on human talent and engaging more deeply with the world beyond our campus. Additionally, she discussed:
• Expansion of the undergraduate population and construction of new residential colleges.
• Increased financial aid resources to support students from every background.
• A transfer program that focuses on military veterans and community college students.
• Investing in generous stipends that attract and support graduate students, as well as new graduate student housing in the new Meadows Neighborhood across Lake Carnegie.
• Campus construction for the art museum, the Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute and a new home for the Department of Computer Science in the old Guyot Hall.
• A new interdisciplinary initiative in quantum information science.
• Supporting environmental studies through new buildings, as well as research spanning the sciences, humanities and social sciences to take a broad interdisciplinary view on environmental sciences.
• The installation of a geo-exchange heating/cooling facility that will help the University reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2046.
• The launch of an artificial intelligence hub in New Jersey, in collaboration with Governor Phil Murphy, the state of New Jersey and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
“The appetite of our faculty and students to go beyond the orange bubble with our work is palpable,” Rexford said. “Our efforts to expand access to a Princeton education, to build state-of-the-art facilities, and to reach beyond our campus — we want to have both regional and indeed global impact — and that wouldn’t be possible without our amazing alumni community.”
Rexford introduced Whitman and Kiiru, who began their conversation by sharing their initial encounters with Princeton — Whitman as an undergraduate and Kiiru as the parent of a Princeton student. Both described those experiences as “transformative.”
When Kiiru was offered the position of executive director at Mpala in January 2023, she was attracted by the opportunity to make the center a research and conservation leader. “As you know, we are really in trouble: climate change, biodiversity loss, environments that are changing faster than we can think of and affecting our people and our ways of life,” she said. “If we can harness the power of Princeton and the beauty and the opportunity of Mpala, I think we could really solve some real-world problems.”
Mpala is a living lab that includes 48,000 acres of wildlife reserves. “At Mpala, we’ve got everything — including the only field-based genomics lab in sub-Saharan Africa,” Kiiru said. “We can create more opportunities to do cutting edge genomics work … to understand species at the level of the gene. And if we can do end-to-end research here on the continent, then it means that a lot of time can be saved. … We can expand that possibility for universities here in Kenya and across Africa to do good cutting-edge research with field labs. They can do end-to-end work. So it’s really very exciting what is possible.”
Whitman, who had been CEO of eBay and Hewlett Packard, became U.S. ambassador to Kenya in August 2022, and she has quickly become excited about the region and its potential. She described how the “Why Africa? Why Kenya?” awareness campaign that her embassy team created generated enormous attention. “One in four people on Earth will live on the African continent in 2050, and one in three working age people will work on the continent in 2050,” she said. “If you’re a business or an NGO, you need to start thinking about what you’re going to do in Africa. Because if you’re a business, you can’t show up in 2045, and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to have a billion-dollar business here.’”
Whitman said that the Biden administration “has leaned in very hard on Africa,” sending congressional delegations, cabinet officials and even the vice president to tour the region. Whitman herself has made it her duty to travel throughout the countryside. “I learned a long time ago that the truth is not at headquarters,” Whitman said. “The truth is out in the field, talking to people, talking to customers.”
Responding to a question from the audience about local engagement versus non-Kenyan control of the research at Mpala, Kiiru explained that she is aware of the concern and that local partnerships are a top priority. “One of the brave things the board has done is that they have found an executive director who is Kenyan, who is female, who has been actively working to bring Kenyans into the conservation space,” she said. “So this is not something that is new for me. This is a space that I understand needs change.
“We don’t have a perfect system, but we are intentional about making sure that the number of African and Kenyan students that are at Mpala is changing every day. We are putting money behind it. We are building the collaborations and building the infrastructure and the space that makes that possible.”
Following the Q&A portion of the program, Kassam-Remtulla invited Grace Penn ’99, associate director for international affairs and operations, and Jen Caputo, deputy vice president for alumni engagement, to lead the audience in singing “Old Nassau.”