Co-founder and Senior Strategic Advisor of the Diamond Empowerment Fund, Dr. Benjamin Chavis is a very eclectic and inspiring figure. He has since long been committed to fighting for civil rights equality and economic development, notably in Africa, and proudly represents the mission of the DEF, which is to support the development of education initiatives within diamond producing countries in Africa. He tells us his story below, going back over his commitments, the creation of the DEF and the future of the industry. A gripping encounter!
Doctor Benjamin Chavis, would you mind introducing yourself and going back over your career path?
I am a fifty-year veteran of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
As a native of Oxford, North Carolina, I was born in 1948 into a family with a long tradition of promoting quality education, business development, religious faith, social change, equality and empowerment. My great great grandfather was the first African American to be ordained into the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and who also became a leading educator in America. I was fortunate to be a young field organizer for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1963 to 1968.
After establishing a family-owned restaurant business and learning the values of entrepreneurial development in 1969, I became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and worked as a community organizer-executive for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice from 1970 to 1985.
My first college degree was in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina. Later I achieved a Masters Degree from Duke University and a Doctorate Degree from Howard University.
From 1986 to 1992 I was the Executive Director and CEO of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice. During the 1980’s I did anti-apartheid work throughout southern Africa working closely with the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. In 1993-1994 I was the Executive Director and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the largest and oldest civil rights organization in the world.
In 2001, I co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network with Russell Simmons.
In 2007, working with De Beers and other leaders of the diamond and jewelry industry, Russell Simmons and I co-founded the Diamond Empowerment Fund.
Thus, my career path over the years has evolved in an interdisciplinary manner. The centrality of my life’s work and commitments remain focused on the issues of global business and economic development, education and the empowerment of people.
“The centrality of my life’s work remain focused on the issues of global business and economic development, education and the empowerment of people.”
Could you tell us more about how you came to working in the diamond industry, and, all the more, to becoming co-founder of the Diamond Empowerment Fund?
I have had long term interest in the growth and expansion of the diamond and jewelry industry in the United States and throughout the world. I have come to appreciate how the diamond industry has had an overall positive impact on the emerging economies in Africa in particular. I had personally worked previously in Angola, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and in other nations in Africa.
Therefore when Russell Simmons, who is recognized as the Godfather of hip-hop culture, established the Simmons Jewelry Company in 2005 with one his personal friends, Scott Rauch, it gave me a more direct opportunity to do more research on the industry at that time.
[two_third]One of my proudest moments was when Russell Simmons decided to travel to Africa for his first time in the fall of 2006 over the objections of some nongovernmental organizations that had been unduly critical of the diamond industry in Africa. We traveled together with Scott Rauch, Sally Morrison (who at that time did PR work for the Diamond Trading Company and De Beers) and others from the industry along with a film crew to document our journey. Our delegation to South Africa and Botswana to do a first-hand fact-finding mission on the work and impact of the diamond industry in southern Africa was a tremendous success. We visited communities around the diamond mines, schools and hospitals that the industry had built, as well as to tour the mines. We had independent discussions with the miners and their family members. We were able to witness how the industry was in fact contributing to raising the standard of living in Botswana and in South Africa and helping directly to increase the quality of life for the people of southern Africa. It was in the aftermath of our successful fact-finding mission to Africa, that we decided to establish the Diamond Empowerment Fund in 2007. I have been blessed to have served as a co-founder and as a Co-President. Since 2011, I have been Senior Strategic Advisor for DEF.[/two_third]
“We had independent discussions with the miners and their family members. We were able to witness how the industry was in fact contributing to raising their standard of living. We decided to establish the Diamond Empowerment Fund in 2007.”
Could you tell us more about the origin of the DEF ? I am intrigued, as I see that one of its founding members is Russell Simmons, the hip-hop producer…
The Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF) was established in 2007 as a global nonprofit organization. The mission of DEF is to support higher education initiatives in African nations where diamonds are a natural resource. We believe that sustainable development through education is essential to empower individuals, communities and nations to reach their fullest economic and human potential.
[two_third]One of the key motivating factors that led to the founding of the Diamond Empowerment Fund came from the personal urging of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela to Russell Simmons and me while we were meeting with him in November 2006. Mandela emphasized the importance of helping to raise public awareness about the good that the diamond and jewelry industry is doing in Africa to improve the social and economic conditions of the people. We were urged to go back to America and to build an ongoing organization to work as an industry advocate, to raise awareness, and to support the education of the next generation of leaders of Africa. We listened carefully and attentively to Nelson Mandela. He motivated us to consider working with the industry to plan, develop and establish the DEF.[/two_third]
“We believe that sustainable development through education is essential to empower individuals, communities and nations.”
Precisely, why is “education”, according to you, the best way to sustain development in diamond producing countries in Africa?
Education is fundamental to sustainable development throughout the world. Especially in emerging economies in Africa and Asia, education is the single most determinative factor that sustains the ultimate economic growth and stability of developing nations. Therefore, the provision of opportunities and scholarships for young leaders to attain a quality higher education is the best effective focus for the work of the DEF. The mission of DEF in Africa during the past seven years has been to identify, select, fund and evaluate beneficiaries that are providing educational assistance and academic scholarships directly to students native to nations where diamonds are a natural resource.
What means are at your disposal and who are your donors?
Over the past years, well over $3 million has been contributed through the DEF for higher education initiatives and scholarships to over 2,200 college students from diamond producing nations.
Annual donors that financially support DEF’s mission in Africa have come from a broad array of diamond and jewelry industry leaders including, but not limited to, De Beers Group, Forevermark, Sterling Jewelers, Chow Tai Fook, Tiffany & Company, Leo Schachter, Exelco Group, Dalumi Group, Malca-Amit, Simmons Jewelry Company, JCK, GIA, Royal Asscher, Julius Klein, Sarin Technologies, Rubel & Menasche, Standard Chartered Bank and Brilliant Earth. All jewelers and manufactures that are donors to DEF strictly adhere to the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme and System of Warranties.
DEF is also a member of the World Diamond Council delegation to the Kimberly Process.
The current annual donor support levels of DEF are the Empowerment Circle Partnership, Diamonds for Good Membership, and Chalkboard Champions Individual Membership. (For a more detailed listing please visit www.diamondempowerment.org.)
Are there any projects that are emblematic of the DEF’s work or that you are particularly proud of?
There are three beneficiaries in Africa that are emblematic of DEF’s mission and we are very proud to support.
CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg is an accredited university that offers a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree to primarily underprivileged students from across South Africa as well as students from other nations in southern Africa. Each time that we have done a site visit to CIDA City Campus, we are always impressed with the strong commitment and dedication of the administrators, faculty and students to strive toward excellence in academic achievement. In particular the BBA graduates of CIDA City Campus have helped to provide more IT directors and managers in South Africa’s growing “information technology” sector than any other university in the nation.
Botswana Top Achievers Program, based in Gaborone, provides full scholarships to the best academic student achievers selected from a nationwide secondary school competition administered annually by the Botswana Ministry of Education. DEF is pleased to contribute to this program because of its strategic importance to the future sustainable development of Botswana as the world’s largest diamond producer (in value, note from the editor) and growing financial services sector. Thus the targeted fields of study for the Botswana Top Achievers Program are finance, business, engineering, medical and science.
African Leadership Academy is located in Johannesburg, South Africa and is dedicated to the belief that ethical leadership is the key to transforming the African continent by connecting and supporting its future leaders. It is the only institution of its kind with the mission of developing leaders for an entire continent. The African Leadership Academy has students from 41 African countries and DEF’s contributions to the academy go to the students that are from the diamond producing nations. This program has been recognized as a highly successful world-class academic leadership development program.
Are your missions complicated to carry out? What difficulties must you face?
[two_third]The mission of the Diamond Empowerment Fund is clear and straightforward, but the challenges that we face are enormous.
The need is so great and the potential for productive and sustainable change going forward inAfrica today is on the incline. We believe it is in the interest of the diamond and jewelry industry to increase support to DEF now and in the future. Good corporate social responsibility is good for business. Progress is being made and we are grateful to part of an industry that contributes to the positive economic development of Africa that in turns makes our world a better place for all people.[/two_third]
“We believe it is in the interest of the diamond and jewelry industry to increase support to DEF now and in the future.”
Could you tell us about your events, The Good Awards and Diamonds in the Sky – notably the next one, scheduled for May 2014…
The DEF 2014 Good Awards will be in New York City on January 9. We will salute and award JCK, Fred Meyers Jewelers, and Forevermark for their outstanding leadership.
On May 29, 2014 the DEF Diamonds in the Sky Gala will be held in Las Vegas. We will honor and present DEF’s 2014 Global Diamond Industry Achievement Award to H.E. President Ian Khama and the Government of the Republic of Botswana in recognition of their global leadership and contributions to democracy, sustainable economic development and the growth and expansion of the international diamond industry.
Both of these special events will help DEF to raise funds to continue our mission.
How can we support you? I saw on your website that we could of course become a donor, but that you had also developed a jewelry collection. Could you tell us more about it?
You can support the DEF by becoming an annual donor at one of the three existing partnership and membership levels. Another way is to make a contribution online to DEF to receive an item from a variety of Empowerment Jewelry items that are listed on our website at www.diamondempowerment.org. Those items listed have been especially designed to assist DEF in nonprofit fundraising.
Do you have any future projects within the DEF that you would like to tell us about?
[two_third]One future project that we are envisioning is to launch a global “Diamonds Do Good” social media campaign to substantially increase consumer awareness about the good that the diamond industry is doing throughout the world and in particular in Africa. Young adult consumers are increasingly expressing a social consciousness when making decisions about what to purchase. We feel the work of DEF together with the collective good will and generosity of the diamond and jewelry industry is a story that will resonate positively with all consumers, especially with young consumers.[/two_third]
“One future project that we are envisioning is to launch a global “Diamonds Do Good” social media campaign.”
In order to broaden the subject, what are, according to you, the more or less long-term prospects and issues for the diamond industry?
The long-term challenges facing the diamond and jewelry industry is to increase profits by developing and sustaining a loyal global consumer base that supports and celebrates the high value of the products of the industry while at the same time appreciating and acknowledging the industries effective corporate social responsibility. Therefore, I believe that the Diamond Empowerment Fund can and should play an important in helping the industry achieve its long-term goals and objectives.
How about yourself? Do you have any projects that you would like to tell us about? A dream perhaps?
[two_third]My dream is for the Diamond Empowerment Fund to continue to grow and expand as the diamond and jewelry industry grows and expands. I am optimistic. I see a much better future for Africa and for the world. Economic development and building stronger global economies with help to solve some of the persisting problems of poverty and instability. The diamond industry is intergenerational and I believe that solutions to some of the world’s problems will also be intergenerational. As diamonds are eternal expressions of love, the good work and deeds of the industry must continue to contribute to the uplift, respect and love of all of humanity.[/two_third]
“The diamond industry is intergenerational and I believe that solutions to some of the world’s problems will also be intergenerational.”