Constant & True: Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham

Open to wherever life takes me

Fall 2018


Wake Forest’s biggest gift to me was that it didn’t teach me how to do. It taught me to be.

In my case, I became an adventurer. I took what made me curious — what made me dream — and let it drive me.

I haven’t stopped since. I never knew, as people say, what I was “supposed to do with my life.” I only had conviction in who I was.

My years at Wake Forest pushed me down many paths. I served as president of my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and as a President’s Aide. I volunteered in a Russian orphanage, edited The Howler and spent a summer researching the religiosity of Japanese men.

After Wake Forest, I continued to find it impossible not to stray from familiar turf. I hopped from law school in 2009 to work for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna, Austria, for a few months; to Shearman & Sterling LLP for project finance work in New York; then to Arusha, Tanzania, for the law firm’s pro bono assignment assisting the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the prosecution of war criminals; and then, in August 2012, to work for the Rwandan government negotiating strategic investments in key growth sectors.

I moved to Rwanda out of curiosity. What might it be like to make it home? I knew it would provide me with a challenge in international development work.

In Rwanda, I found a country that knows the power of an adventure. Twenty-four years ago, after the genocide, its president and people embarked on a journey to create a nation that would eclipse Rwanda’s painful past. What manifested was a country where people continually ask: “So what that we are small, landlocked and resource-deprived? We can try.”

By my second year in Rwanda, surprising myself as an unexpected entrepreneur, I co-founded the 5,000-square-foot WAKA Fitness in Kigali. So what that I had never run a gym or opened a business before? I could try.

People often applaud me for how daring I appear. However, making certain choices in my life required courage and confidence that I have sometimes lacked. When I wanted to quit my day job working with Power Africa in its mission to expand access to electricity and launch a business as a full-time entrepreneur, I hesitated to make the leap. I had picked up a story along the way that I wasn’t good enough and lacked what it takes to succeed. I struggled with the decision at first.

When my business partner, Dennis Dybdal, and I began discussing opening our second location, I noticed how much I really enjoyed entrepreneurship and was especially suited to its constantly changing nature. Not knowing how to build a financial model or create a marketing plan didn’t scare me. If I didn’t know something, I knew I had the capacity to learn and the courage to try and potentially fail.

It reminded me of when I was the girl at Wake unafraid to venture down any path. My belief in myself returned, solid; I had found that girl again. I quit my job and committed to my business full time.

Dennis, meanwhile, became my life partner. We have entered into the long journey of parenthood with our daughter, Bo, and are always on the lookout for new discoveries about ourselves or the world. No surprise then that we wanted to change our business model. We couldn’t suppress persistent thoughts about how we were never just gym owners. We had first thought we wanted to open more gyms across Africa, but now we are building what we hope will be Africa’s first mixed-use space where people will be able to work, learn, exercise and enjoy life. It’s a vision that opened up possibilities we’ve always been hungry for.

From here, I’m sure my story will change again. I am grateful for the parts of my story that are constant and true  — who I am and where I’ve come from — regardless of where I may end up.

Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06) is an entrepreneur and energy-sector consultant. She grew up on the East Coast of the United States and makes her home in Kigali, Rwanda.


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