Incoming Morehead-Cain President Chris Bradford on departing African Leadership Academy, charting a vision for Morehead-Cain
The road that brought Chris Bradford to Chapel Hill began in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and included stops in New Haven, Connecticut; Palo Alto, California; Oundle, England; and Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Morehead-Cain Foundation announced in January that Bradford will become its president this summer. Bradford, CEO and co-founder of African Leadership Academy (ALA), will succeed Executive Director Chuck Lovelace ’77, who leaves after 37 years with the Foundation.
African Leadership Academy is an educational institution based in Johannesburg, South Africa, that seeks to transform Africa by identifying, developing, and connecting a pan-African network of leaders who can address the continent’s most significant challenges and opportunities.
The vision that led to ALA began coming together for Bradford shortly after he earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2000.
“My journey [after college] was really one of discovering my own interests and my own capabilities,” says Bradford, a Kalamazoo, Michigan, native. “And what I learned I really enjoyed doing was building things.”
He moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to Cincinnati, Ohio, for a position in brand management at Procter & Gamble. Bradford led a marketing program overhaul and developed retail promotion strategies.
After the workday, he immersed himself in a side project of designing a job training program for a local men’s homeless shelter.
“I loved that work, of building something great that would help people get to where they wanted to go,” says Bradford, who has also worked as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in Chicago and for The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in Los Angeles.
He says his personal mission today is to “build platforms that enable individuals to reimagine what’s possible for themselves and their societies.”
In 2002, through Yale’s alumni network, he found a teaching opportunity in Oundle, Northamptonshire, a small town in east central England.
Bradford put his bachelor’s degree in economics and his experience in the business sector to work while teaching sixth-form (12th grade) students at Oundle School, a co-educational boarding and day school. Once a member of Yale’s swim team, he also coached Oundle’s cross-country, track, and rugby teams. He also managed to oversee the School’s young enterprise program, helping student teams bring businesses to life.
One trend Bradford says he noticed was the number of international students that would choose to remain in England following their graduation rather than return to their country of origin, particularly those from Nigeria and South Africa. He wanted to understand why.
“Their aspirations were firmly set in the U.K., even though they had access to all of the types of resources that would allow them to lead change at home,” Bradford says.
Established in the mid-16th century to educate the sons of English gentlemen, Oundle expanded Bradford’s awareness of the power of schools “to build networks and instill values shared across generations,” he says.
Bradford says his vocational goals began to focus on building purpose-driven educational programs and institutions, such that he could expand access to tertiary experiences and networks, and support young entrepreneurs and future change agents.
“I wondered what it would look like to create a school for students like those I taught in England but that prepared them to become African leaders, or to live out a shared mission,” he says.
Bradford decided to explore his growing interest in building educational institutions by pursuing advanced degrees from Stanford University in 2003. Within three years, he had earned a master’s in education and an MBA.
During his first year at Stanford, a colleague in the business school connected Bradford to another graduate student with similar aspirations, Fred Swaniker.
“We’ve been working together ever since,” Bradford says.
Swaniker and Bradford launched ALA in 2004 and just two years later were named fellows by Echoing Green, recognizing them as two of the “leading emerging social entrepreneurs in the world.”
During the past 17 years, ALA has admitted more than 1,300 students from 46 African countries. Graduates have accepted more than $136 million in scholarship funding to the world’s leading universities, according to Bradford.
Bradford says that while the school continues to innovate, and never more so than during the coronavirus pandemic, he and Swaniker have remained focused on their mission of bringing lasting peace and shared prosperity throughout the continent.
“When my founding partners and I began the project of building African Leadership Academy, we did so with one core idea, which is that it is the quality of leadership that transforms societies,” he says. “We felt that the critical lever for Africa’s development was a generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders.”
ALA’s founding team also includes Acha Leke and Peter Mombaur.
Charting a vision for ALA
Bradford says that while his work in South Africa is “far from finished,” the decision to step away from leading ALA has been years in the making.
“I never felt that it was actually the right thing for ALA to have a white, American chief executive officer. We are building a powerful, indigenous African institution,” he says. “It’s now time for me to hand the mantle to an African leader who can chart a bold new vision for ALA . . . that’s consistent with our mission but sees it extended in new and exciting ways.”
Engaging with the opportunity at Morehead-Cain felt like a “logical next step,” says Bradford, who first became familiar with the Foundation’s work in the mid-2000s. He was responsible for mapping out ALA’s admissions process and designing the program curricula.
“I sought to understand questions of selection, and how organizations around the world identify potential in exceptional young people,” he says.
Bradford led the recruitment of ALA’s executive leadership, staff, and faculty, and he has mobilized over $140 million in philanthropic support for the institution.
“When I went out into the world in 2005 to ask who does a great job at this, a number of people pointed me to a man named Chuck Lovelace.”
The incoming president says his early introduction to Morehead-Cain through Lovelace, and the ensuing relationship that grew from it, has made him a “long-time listener” of the Foundation.
“While this will be my first time living in North Carolina and working at the institution, I’ve had a deep respect, appreciation, and understanding of Morehead-Cain as a result of admiring its work over the years,” he says.
As a nominating school, ALA has had five graduates receive the Morehead-Cain, including Bradley Opere ’17, Carolina’s first student body president born in Africa. Bradford also connected Morehead-Cain to two of ALA’s partners—the Bezos Scholars Program, which recently became a nominating affiliate for the Morehead-Cain Program, and the Aspen Institute—and he has hosted and mentored several Morehead-Cains as interns, employees, and colleagues.
‘Accelerating impact’ at Morehead-Cain
Rather than disrupting or reinventing, Bradford says he sees his role at Morehead-Cain as one of “accelerating impact” and building on the Foundation’s legacy. And doing so will require close collaboration with scholars, alumni, staff, the trustees, and all of Morehead-Cain’s stakeholders, he says.
“The first thing we do is to listen well, imagine boldly, and take the time to build a clear, multi-year strategic plan and aspiration for where we might want to be in 2030 or on our hundredth anniversary in 2045,” he says. “I’m excited to be a part of that conversation.”
Bradford will move from Johannesburg to the Chapel Hill area with his wife, Genevieve, and daughter, Naledi, by this August.