19 Feb 2021

The Acrobatics Circus Troupe: A Q+A with Co-Founder Nicole Giusti (MBA 2021)


by Ashley Wheeler

Nicole Giusti (MBA 2021) moved to Uganda as a Global Health Corps (GHC) fellow in June 2017, working at the Kampala office of LifeNet International, an organization working to improve maternal health across sub-Saharan Africa. Six months into her fellowship she connected with Richard Walusimbi, co-founder of Acrobatics Circus Troupe (ACT), a non-profit that uses circus training as a way to provide the children of Katwe, Uganda, with the resources and skills to grow into hard-working, employable citizens. When her fellowship was over, Nicole stayed in Uganda to help grow ACT. We chatted with her about her entrepreneurial journey, the effects of COVID-19 on the company, and her hopes for ACT in the future.

Tell us more about ACT.
ACT is a nonprofit located in Kampala that provides daily acrobatics training, food, scholastic materials, and mentorship to empower the children in Katwe—the largest slum in Kampala—and provide them with a safe space where they can just enjoy being kids. Through circus, we teach our athletes the importance of teamwork, trust, and consistency—skills that will advance them as confident, young leaders in their community.

What do you hope participants will take away from participating in ACT?
If every member finishes practice feeling loved and self-assured, I would consider the program a success. While violence and poverty are a harsh reality in Katwe, ACT’s training ground is filled with the sound of joyful music and laughter. Children are able to let go of the stresses that permeate their everyday lives.

ACT also works with marginalized groups within Katwe to help these children assimilate and to change preconceived ideas about refugees and women.

According to the United Nations, “Women in Uganda still face discrimination and marginalization due to slow changes in attitudes about women in Ugandan society and the culture and practices of public institutions.” ACT is working to break down these barriers by building up women and showing the community their strength. Twenty-five percent of ACT’s participants are female and our all-girl team travels across Uganda, performing and transforming ingrained attitudes about what women can and cannot do.

Sixteen percent of our members are refugees from neighboring countries. For the refugee population at ACT, we want to ensure that everyone feels welcome and can integrate into the Katwe community with a supportive group of friends and teammates. There are many different languages spoken at our training ground, but all the children still find a way to communicate and bond through art, which is a really beautiful thing to see.

How many aspiring leaders have been through the program?
We now work with over 350 children—I consider all of them to be future leaders. Almost all of our members have had the opportunity to travel across Uganda, including our Junior Team—children between the ages of 10 and 17—who were invited to perform for the First Lady of Uganda. Additionally, 15 members of our Senior Team—members 18 and above—have traveled internationally and are breakout stars within the circus world.

Most importantly, our members have become leaders within their own community. In 2018, we led an event to pick up waste and clear trenches around Katwe and all of our members participated. We also put on a free annual performance for Katwe residents, to bring joy and encourage more children to become involved.

Tell me a bit about co-founder Richard Walusimbi and how he has contributed to ACT’s success.
My partners have helped me immensely; without their guidance, support, and knowledge of the community, we would never be where we are today. As a foreigner, I cannot explain how many times I had an idea that seemed great on the surface but wouldn’t have worked given the realities in Katwe. It was my co-founder’s patience and knowledge that helped us to figure out the right solution.

Richard Walusimbi understands on a deeply personal level what the children of Katwe struggle with on a daily basis. At just six years old, his father passed away from HIV and less than a year later his mother left, leaving Richard an orphan at just seven. Richard had always had a passion for learning, which led him to an organization that empowers children through music and school sponsorship. Richard progressed through their program and eventually went on to graduate from university.

How has COVID-19 affected ACT?
As the global economy has suffered, we have found donations to be much more difficult to come by.

In Katwe, COVID-19 caused great economic difficulties for our members and presented biosecurity challenges that our team worked to overcome in order to continue our programming safely. At the start of the pandemic, the Ugandan government locked down the country—people were not permitted to drive or leave their homes—but did not have a plan to help their struggling people. This directly affected many of our members.

To ensure that no one went hungry, we expanded our food security program to provide a meal and fresh water every day. We secured masks for all of our staff and participants and built handwashing stations around the training ground; a massive change for a community without running water. Lastly, we designed a factsheet to help confused and scared parents protect themselves and their children against COVID-19.

We thought long and hard about closing our doors, but ultimately decided that as long as we felt we could practice safely, the best thing we could do for our members was provide some stability during a very uncertain time. During periods of deepening economic insecurity, a child’s risk of violence, dropping out of school, or abusing substances increases significantly. By keeping our doors open, we maintained a space where the children could go to escape any turmoil at home and to be surrounded by people they trust.

How has HBS helped during your entrepreneurial journey?

Field X was invaluable in the development of ACT’s business plan, and the progress we made in one semester as a direct result of their mentorship is incredible.

I feel very lucky to attend a school that promotes entrepreneurship and provides me with so many amazing people, resources, and outlets. Last fall, I incubated in the i-lab and received a $5,000 Spark Grant. The alumni network has also been a fantastic resource; people have been very willing to provide guidance or assist with our latest fundraising project to raise $60,000 to build a larger, safer training ground for our participants.

What has been the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur?
I have spent years with these kids—I’ve met their families, visited their schools, coached their routines, heard their stories—and they’re the most inspiring, phenomenal people I have ever met. Yet, it can be hard to get people to buy into our vision. Not everyone has the privilege of visiting Uganda and they would rather donate to organizations closer to home. People also have preconceived notions of Africa and often wonder why we’re using acrobatics to empower children as opposed to focusing exclusively on education or food security; these are very important issues, but when you’re eight years old, so is fun. Many of the team sports and childhood activities we take for granted in the states aren’t available to the children we work with, but that doesn’t always seem to resonate. The rejection we’ve experienced when trying to solicit support has been difficult.

What is the best advice you have received as an entrepreneur?
There is one quote that I always come back to, by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Even when I’m exhausted, my love for all the children in Katwe fuels my motivation to keep working with my team to make ACT larger, more sustainable, and better funded. Learning technical skills is the easy part of entrepreneurship; the harder part is sticking with your idea when others doubt you or you face setbacks. It’s much easier to overcome that if you have an idea and vision that you’re passionate about.

Where do you see ACT in the next five years?
My focus has always been on the long-term sustainability of the organization. We currently serve 350 members and I’d love for ACT to impact the lives of 1,000 children by 2022; to make this possible we’d need to accomplish two key objectives:

  • Purchase a new training ground. With new members arriving daily, we have outgrown our current training ground, so it’s imperative that we find a larger space to build a safer training facility. This will enable us to reach additional members and ensure that we have a physical location where children can go to feel safe for years to come.
  • Build a larger board of directors. For ACT to reach its full potential, we need people on our team who are energized by developing grassroots organizations and skilled at fundraising. I know there are amazing HBS students and alumni who love the challenge of working at growing an organization and I’d really love to connect with them.

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