Helping Others Achieve their Potential
Chingwell Mutombu’s story started years before she was born, when a Ph.D. student from Iowa traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to conduct research on the history of the Lunda tribe for his dissertation. He befriended a young Congolese man about his age who wanted to be a teacher but – unfortunately – really had no viable route to attending college.
Impressed with his friend’s intelligence and focus, the student approached his church back in Iowa to sponsor the man with his family to study at a local university. With the sponsorship, the Mutombu family moved to Iowa where they became an integral part of the church community. When Chingwell, the family’s third child, was born, a church elder became her godmother. Chingwell moved back to the Congo with her family when she was two years old.
Growing up in a remote part of the country without access to roads or many services, Chingwell noticed how self-sufficient and enterprising people were. Women were up early each morning to work in the garden, and then walked to the market to trade. Markets were a central hub, and people used barter and other creative ways to support their families.
When Chingwell was 17, she moved to Iowa. Her godmother had left her a trust to pay for her studies at Luther College. Chingwell started out as pre-med – being a doctor seemed like the most direct way to achieve her lifelong passion to help women and children. However, during a conversation with a friend, she realized she didn’t have to be a doctor to help people. She changed her focus, and graduated in 2000 with a triple major in political science, French and international studies.
Others saw the potential in me and helped make my dreams come true. My mission is to do the same for others.
After college, Chingwell moved to New Jersey, where she graduated from Seton Hall University with a master’s degree in public administration and international relations. During a class visit to the United Nations, she had another epiphany – rather than work in a large organization, she wanted to help people directly.
It was during her next job, as a program evaluator at the United Neighborhood Houses of New York, that Chingwell began to conceptualize what would later become First Step Initiative. It began with an experiment. She sent small sums of money to her mother each month to give to women to strengthen their existing businesses. Incrementally, she built a microfinance portfolio of $3,000. The small loans allowed 60 women to break the cycle of poverty and pay for their children to go to school.
After moving to Minnesota with her fiancé (now her husband), Chingwell secured a fellowship at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota where she had her first exposure to the world of philanthropy.
After a conversation about her passion for helping women, the Executive Director introduced her to Diana Carter, who had a donor-advised fund with the Women’s Foundation and a similar interest. In a life-changing meeting, Chingwell poured out her dream to Diana, who responded, “I’ll help you make this happen.”
With Carter’s support, in 2005, First Step Initiative became a 501(c)(3) charity with the goal of helping 11,000 women. As Executive Director, Chingwell traveled to the DRC to lay the groundwork for the organization and look for partners who would have a trusted presence in the community. According to Chingwell, the money First Step Initiative provides is only part of the benefit. Just as important is to inspire women and help them see their own strength.
Chingwell has always valued having a presence on the ground. It sends the community this powerful message:
“I believe in you. Let’s work together.”
First Step Initiative changed from the microfinance model to making grants to merry-go-rounds in 2012. The merry-go-round model has a long history of success in the DRC.
Chingwell is grateful for the opportunities she’s been given to follow her vision even when she didn’t yet have the skill set to make it happen. Looking ahead, she believes that the Board and supporters in the U.S. can both teach and learn from women in the Congo. There is much for Westerners to admire in the resilience and spirit of the Congolese women with whom First Step Initiative works.
Chingwell Mutombu remains actively involved with First Step Initiative as our Founder.