Alumnus provides education technology in Africa

tanzania kids.jpgWe spoke to Erik Lonnroth, class of 2005, about his life after St. John’s and his current work in Africa.

Please tell us about your life after St. John’s.
After 11 great years at St. John’s, I graduated and went on to study economics and politics at the University of Edinburgh. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so decided to pursue a career that would leave my options open.
After a bit of a struggle to land interviews during the economic recession of ‘09, I eventually got a job at PwC in London. As a young management consultant, I had the
opportunity to work across Africa on international development programs in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. I enjoyed the adventure but soon realized that my heart was in innovation, not policy, so I took a leap of faith into the tech sector and joined a startup. For the past several years I’ve been working on spreading  education technology in sub-Saharan Africa by launching smartphone apps for kids and introducing tablet-based learning in classrooms.

What do you currently do?
I’m Head of Product at Mwabu, a company dedicated to improving teaching and learning in Africa through the use of software in homes and classrooms. I oversee a growing team of 12 people working hard to produce software and content covering entire primary school curricula from math to science to vernacular African languages. I split my time
between London and Nairobi.

How did St. John’s prepare you for adulthood?
Being raised in such an international environment has made me a true third culture kid, comfortable with living and working in different countries. In all my jobs I’ve become the go-to guy for anything involving foreign languages and overseas projects.
In fact, since leaving St. John’s 12 years ago, I’ve lived in 10 cities spanning 3 continents,
although lately, I am starting to feel that perhaps it’s time to settle down. I’ve stayed
exclusively in Airbnbs for the past year and haven’t bought a piece of furniture in my entire life.

What did you learn at St. John’s that has proven helpful in your career?
When I compare my upbringing to other people’s, I get the sense that the quality of teaching I received at St. John’s was several notches higher than what most children get. Many adults remember one or two teachers as great influencers in their lives, but I can quite honestly say that my entire run from Grades 2 to 12 saw a nearly unbroken chain of excellent educators. Coupled with a strong IB program, this standard of teaching gave me both breadth and depth—what you might call a solid “general education.”
The further I get in my career, the more wide-ranging my responsibilities become, and this general education really begins to bear fruit.

Which teachers/adults at St. John’s influenced you most?
I just visited my mother over the weekend and we went through boxes of old stuff—presentations I’d worked on in Grade 4 and the like. Certainly, my primary school
years under Mrs. Carol Dulac and Mrs. Elizabeth Heather gave me the freedom to explore freeform writing and elaborate projects that I believe really stretched
me in those formative years. In High School, I spent four years studying great (and dense) literature under Mr. Richard Savage and Mme Marie-Claire De Cock. Philosophy teacher Dr. Marjan Blok taught me how to write fluff-free essays, and Ms. Paula Heinen’s terrifying intellect made us all sit upright and pay attention.

What advice do you have for current St. John’s students with big dreams?  Whenever you’re given a choice in what to study or write about, pursue topics you find both difficult and interesting. If it’s difficult but
uninteresting, you’ll get bored and give up. If it’s interesting but not difficult, it means you’re staying inside your comfort zone and not building the mindset required for lifelong learning.