By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
Elizabeth Elango personifies inspiration, intelligence, and integrity. She also has super powers: her passion for people and her joy. In the fall of 2020, she brought all of that, along with a strong background in nonprofit leadership, to the Global Village Project (GPV).
GPV, located in Decatur, GA, is a unique and innovative school for young refugee girls and women ages 11-18. Along with a staff of dedicated teachers, Elizabeth, CEO and Head of School, works to provide a customized and holistic academic program for those whose lives have been interrupted on a global scale. This year GPV enrolled 50 students from 19 different countries and 25 different languages. While students must be able to speak English, it doesn’t hurt that Elizabeth learned to speak 6 languages herself.
While her impact on GPV has just begun, Elizabeth has had a stellar life and career long before her current role. To follow her journey is to better understand who she is as a person, a leader, and an advocate.
Roots in Cameroon
Elizabeth was born in central Africa in Cameroon but her parents were both educated in the United States and actually met in D.C. Her father was a college history professor and her mother studied poultry and the related industry at the University of Rhode Island. Elizabeth has many fond memories and stories growing up about how she developed her own “farm skills” while helping her mother who ran a chicken clinic and imported baby chicks.
Besides her education as her mother’s assistant, Elizabeth was also an excellent student. She attended an all girls’ middle school and a co-ed Baptist high school. Attesting to her “smarts,” Elizabeth began her college education at the age of 16.
At the time she was ready for college, her father had a position at Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Kennesaw, GA. This is why Elizabeth came to the states and ultimately completed her undergraduate degree at KSU. Among her treasured experiences there was being inspired by the then KSU president, Dr. Betty Siegel (now deceased). There were other valuable experiences at KSU as well, e.g., attending class with adult students (a first time for that), learning more about leadership and giving back through volunteer services like Circle K.
Reflecting on lessons and advantages from her early life, Elizabeth shared this perspective: “As for my personality, my heart and my concern for social justice, I can thank my mother. From her I also got my love of Africa and the world around me while my father taught me about the world beyond.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in International Relations from KSU, Elizabeth also received a Master of Arts in African Studies from Yale University.
A full Life: Motherhood, leadership & career
Elizabeth’s personal life includes two young daughters. No doubt they’re learning a lot from their mother, i.e., how to excel with confidence, set high aspirations, and practice leadership.
”My definition of leadership is to inspire willing followers. I think it should be an external manifestation of who you are,” Elizabeth said. “Knowing who you are is critical, and for me, trust, authenticity and intuition are very important.”
Before coming to GPV, Elizabeth brought those and other attributes to Ghana where she served as CEO of Junior Achievement Africa for five years. She transformed JA’s ability to impact youth programs, developed sustainable funding models and expanded its reach into additional countries. And, for fifteen years before JA, Elizabeth held another influential role as Vice President of Heifer International.
From those two roles, it’s clear that Elizabeth found her calling in nonprofit leadership. But she also felt the need and desire to return to the U.S. especially to be closer to her extended family. Her siblings, all of whom are equally well educated and making their own professional marks, live in Georgia and New York. When the job opportunity at GPV came across her radar, it was an easy and instant decision. Go for it – which she did.
Fast forward, and the result of that decision is obvious, i.e., a great fit for Elizabeth and a great new leader for GPV. In June 2021 during World Refugee Week, Elizabeth and GPV celebrated their own World Refugee Day with inspiring storytelling and a successful fundraising campaign. Other exciting plans feature a “Welcome Walk” this fall for newly resettled refugees. They’ll walk from Clarkston (one square mile of the most concentrated refugee population in the country) to Decatur where the school is located at the First Presbyterian Church.
Currently Elizabeth’s focus is on ramping up for the next school term and then, to start work on a new Strategic Plan. This plan is essential to ensure that the dreams and future opportunities of all GPV students can be realized. Elizabeth also gets to spread mentorship all over the world.
Insights and inspiring messages
“This year I got to see young girls read their first book on their own! A near miraculous accomplishment since they didn’t know any English when they arrived. Sadly, I also experienced seeing one of our students, and Afghan girl, who had to drop out of school and return to her home country with her parents.”
“GPV alums are change makers.”
More than 900 refugees including young girls and women are expected to resettle in GA in 2021. Brings many challenges and opportunities. Many people think of refugees as a negative on the economy but the data shows that refugees, after the first 3 months, have a very high employment rate and are contributing to the local and national economy.
GPV needs the capacity to grow, to be sustainable and to be visible.
Final note: Elizabeth Elango is set to become a top leader in the Atlanta nonprofit community and beyond. Her leadership and vision will continue and accelerate GPV’s impact on the lives of deserving young girls and women. And, watch for a ripple effect!
July 2021 – Interviewed & written by: Susan Hitchcock
Creator of The Age of SHEroes