YouthSpark Star

Mary Mwende

Techonology opened the world to this young woman from the slums of Mombasa, Kenya.

From Kenya to Dubai, Making Miracles Happen

When Mary Mwende graduated from the American University in Dubai in May, an unexpected guest looked on from the sea of people gathered for the ceremony: her mom. She arrived just hours before, struggling at the last minute to secure a visa and passport, then board a plane for the first time to travel from their hometown in Kenya.


Mary grew up in the slums of the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya. Her mother, who earns her living selling clothing door to door, struggled to put Mary through school. After Mary graduated from high school, she returned home to wait for college. In Kenya, there is a 12-month waiting period between high school and university due to a backlog in admissions for people who need student loans. As a result, many young women—especially those who are poor—give up their dreams of higher education. Many are sucked back into the cycle of poverty, some end up in the streets. Others start their own families or help relatives.

Mary was one of the first 10 girls selected for a program created by Global Give Back Circle, an organization founded by philanthropist Linda Lockhart, who connected with Mary during a trip to Kenya and remains a mentor, friend, and inspiration. Funded in part by Microsoft, the program provided the girls with a nine-month course in information and communications technology (ICT) and a place to live during the waiting period.


Mary, who grew up in the slums of Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya, says her childhood experiences inspired her to fight for change for young girls.

Mary, who grew up in the slums of Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya, says her childhood experiences inspired her to fight for change for young girls.

“Mary blossomed during that time,” said Lockhart. “Her world opened up the minute she had access to a computer.”

After completing the course, Mary was selected by Lockhart to represent the Global Give Back Circle at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative Meeting in New York. At the event, Elias Bou Saab, executive vice president of the American University in Dubai, awarded Mary a full scholarship to the university. She chose to major in business and finance.

Around the world, young people face a myriad of social and economic challenges, including rampant youth unemployment, which is globally double that of the rest of the population, and up to 50 percent in some countries. Inspired by stories like Mary’s, Microsoft developed its YouthSpark initiative to address this opportunity divide. Announced in 2012, Microsoft YouthSpark is focused on creating opportunities for young people to realize their full potential through programs and partnerships with governments, nonprofits, and businesses that strengthen education, expand digital inclusion, and give young people the tools they need to change their world.


Mary hugs her mom, Mercy, after her graduation from the American University in Dubai.  “Seeing Mary in a cap and gown, hugging her mom, was magical,” said philanthropist Linda Lockhart.

Mary hugs her mom, Mercy, after her graduation from the American University in Dubai. “Seeing Mary in a cap and gown, hugging her mom, was magical,” said philanthropist Linda Lockhart.

The YouthSpark goal is to create opportunities for 300 million young people over three years. Since the announcement of the initiative, YouthSpark programs and partnerships with 67 nonprofits have helped millions of young people around the world.

In Mombasa, YouthSpark is funding a third lab, similar to the one that helped Mary. It will be built in 2014. Through the Global Give Back Circle, 550 girls in Africa are currently receiving mentoring; about 50 of those mentors are Microsoft employees. The girls are participating in IT training and will have their college educations funded. With the third lab, the number of girls in the program will dramatically expand.

Now 22, Mary plans to get a master’s degree in public policy. She is applying for graduate programs at the Fletcher School at Tufts, the Kennedy School at Harvard, and the Wilson School at Princeton. Armed with her education, Mary will return to Kenya to advocate for women and girls throughout Africa. She is committed to working to narrow the achievement gap between boys and girls, putting an end to female genital mutilation, and shortening the waiting period between high school and college.


She has become an ambassador for the organization that helped her. In addition to being voted as the first African woman student body president her junior year and named the most accomplished student in her graduating class, Mary has traveled the world to share the message that young people need jobs and financial inclusion. She has spoken at conferences in Boston, New York, and Kuala Lumpur. She spent time in Haiti sharing her mentoring skills with at-risk youth and welcomed President Clinton during his visit to American University with a choral poem.

Mary says she was shaped by her childhood experiences and wants to continue to pay forward. “A lot more girls need to be educated beyond the high school level,” she said. “They need the skills to be able to survive in the workplace, know their rights, and emerge as leaders.”


More YouthSpark Stars
More YouthSpark Stars
Basem’s Story

Basem’s Story

This university student organized a TEDx event so young people could share ideas about the role of technology in building a new Egypt.

Muriel’s Story

Muriel’s Story

This high school dropout went through intense web development training and landed a job at Microsoft France.

John-Son’s Story

John-Son’s Story

This Malaysian entrepreneur united with other young business people to create a company that uses volunteers to build homes for villagers.