Erna Grasz: Leading Global Social Change

A meaningful life in its entirety is defined by what we understand as our true purpose. Those who apply their skills to helping others, whether locally or for a global cause, nurture within themselves patience, fortitude, and selflessness, often showing how to go out and change the world.

Similarly, the intention of this issue, Most Admired Women Leaders in Business, is to shed light upon individuals working to fulfill their personal purpose. The results of our search to find such people wouldn’t be complete without Erna Grasz, the CEO and Co-founder of Asante Africa Foundation.

Pioneering unknown territories, tackling complex challenges, and making the impossible possible—all of these challenges are nothing new for Erna Grasz. Grasz laid the foundation of Asante Africa Foundation with two visionary women, one from Kenya and the other from Tanzania. Grasz refers to herself as a “Systems Engineer turned Systems Entrepreneur for a Global Impact.” Originally trained as an Electrical-System Engineer, Grasz spent her early career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and then in Silicon Valley as a Vice President and General Manager.

During her 25 years in the corporate world as a senior executive, Grasz earned a reputation as an effective strategic leader, known as “the organizer of chaos,” with substantial success in diverse industries. In 2012, she transitioned her leadership skills from her role as Chief Technology Officer in the medical device market to the non-profit world as CEO of Asante Africa Foundation.

Grasz not only brings her business savvy to the global non-profit world, she’s also one of its visionary leaders, developing many innovative programs and practices. She maintains a strong belief in the power of leveraging locally available talent and partnerships to ensure the foundation’s success and long-term sustainability.

Erna has been recognized for her work worldwide, receiving the national Jefferson Award for public service and the Distinguished Engineering Award for innovation in developing countries. In 2016, she was a HULT Prize Judge for Innovation in Urban Slums (Clinton Global Initiative). Recently, Grasz received the 2018 Gratitude Network Award. In 2018, Asante Africa was honored with the USAID Young Women Transform Prize, receiving recognition for the organization’s Girl-Led Leadership and Entrepreneurship Program. To date, Asante Africa Foundation’s programs have empowered almost a half-million youth and teachers directly and through its alumni’s ripple effect.

The Scepter of Leadership and Compassion 

In Grasz’s view, over her progressively diverse career, the one thing that has remained constant is change. An optimist at heart, she sees chaos as a potential opportunity for creating a ‘new normal’ and for improving existing systems. “Technology provides a collaborative platform and creates reality from what was only a dream a decade ago,” she says. As an engineer, she is constantly looking at technology as part of a system’s solution, but not the only solution.

As a team leader, Grasz defines what can be a program’s “true north.” She then brings the appropriate talent on board, and helps the team become comfortable with the unknowns, while navigating toward the collective “true north.” She also fully recognizes the need to have a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D as things unexpectedly weave and change, upending the original plan.

Grasz has frequently been told that getting from point A to Point B will be messy. Her response? “Part of being a good leader is helping a team minimize the messiness—but also assuring everyone that sometimes messy is okay.” “The journey to true north is never guaranteed to be in a straight line,” she says.

When asked what vital attributes a business leader should have, Grasz says that number one is the ability to adapt. Also, a strong leader must remain humble, she says, because he or she might not have all the answers at any given moment– and that’s okay. Another quality is authenticity—to be able to develop the trust of colleagues and teammates to struggle together for a shared vision. “If you have no followers, you’re a lone nut and not a leader,” Grasz says.

‘Paying it forward’ Grasz passionately believes is mandatory to successfully grow the next generation of talented leaders. As the first in her family to go beyond high school, she’s achieved what she has because other people recognized her potential and helped open doors for her. Their encouragement led her to college and later to become an electrical engineer. Each of these steps helped propel her toward her global success today.

As for confronting cutthroat market competition, Grasz believes that regardless of the market, the leaders of the organization, as well as the implementers, must always stay alert, listening to the “ground truth,” while staying abreast of market data and trends. Her guideline: Continuously learn, grow, innovate, and adapt or you will become irrelevant. 

Overpowering the Stereotypes 

Grasz believes that we should recognize that leadership isn’t a title but a sphere of influence. Everyone has the potential to lead from wherever he or she stands at any moment. And each of us has the personal power to be a positive role model, regardless of job title or formal position.

Grasz recommends several ways to nurture positive growth: Women and girls should be encouraged to raise their hands, even when they don’t have 100% of the information. All of us need to recognize that we don’t have to be 100% correct all the time. Women typically have brilliant instincts and intuition, as well as the intellect to make good decisions. Women and girls need to use their networks, support each other, advocate for each other, and not be afraid to use their voices on their own behalf.

Today’s global and workplace dynamics are very different from yesterdays, and no one has the exact recipe. In her advice to future generations of business leaders, Grasz says, “Trust your instincts and intuition, as well as your intellect. I have always thought that young people need to face, not fake, it while they’re figuring it out and to recognize that to some degree everyone is figuring it out! So–be bold, stay humble, and rally experts around you. You don’t have to do it alone!”

Envisioning Global Development 

As a young professional, Erna Grasz always knew her many diverse skills and talents would come together at some point for a higher purpose–but she didn’t know what! She spent her 20s developing skills and adding tools to her toolkit. In her 30s, she developed her reputation and street credibility. And she spent her 40s going global in the corporate marketplace. Now in her 50s, Grasz immerses herself in creating global change, using all she’s learned in her previous decades.

Grasz will tell you that developing a social-mission focused on global issues is the hardest effort–and equally the most rewarding one—she’s ever undertaken. She says: “Developing the next generation of leaders is a global-sized challenge, yes –but it also reaps global-sized rewards”.

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