Imagine graduating from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2016 after having played junior varsity (JV) basketball for one of the best college programs in the world.
Then imagine heading to a remote village in Rwanda, one of the world’s least developed countries. While your classmates are learning the ropes at investment banks and consulting firms, you’re adjusting to life without running water – or electricity – or Wi-Fi.
That’s the start of the story of Jake Mendys (BSBA ’16), who is working as a Basketball Health Corps Fellow with Shooting Touch in Kayonza, Eastern Rwanda. The nonprofit uses the power of basketball to educate and empower at-risk youth to reach their full potential by providing access to basketball through courts, coaches, and equipment; changes attitudes and behaviors through health-education curriculum; and ensures access to adequate care by sponsoring healthcare coverage.
As both coach and educator, Mendys teaches them about basketball as well as teen pregnancy, STDs, gender-based and domestic violence, and other basics for living a healthy life.
Mendys was both player and vocal leader for the UNC JV basketball team. Basketball has been a passion and a source of lessons about leading and mentoring.
“What drew me to the Shooting Touch program was that basketball has given me every opportunity I’ve ever had,” he says. “I wanted to give back.”
Mendys had to compete to be accepted in the program. He says it was like applying to college all over again, writing essays and making a video that shares his life story and dreams for Shooting Touch.
Before he left the U.S., he raised financial and in-kind donations totaling more than $40,000 for Shooting Touch. Since he started his work in Rwanda in September 2016, enrollment increased by 119 percent as has participation hours (169 percent year over year). He managed a $30,000 operating budget and 16 employees across five project sites. He fundraised and provided health insurance for more than 600 families in conjunction with the Rwandan Ministry of Health.
Life is not easy for the people of Rwanda, nor was it for Mendys, but he didn’t mind. “The people are all kind,” says Mendys, who has learned enough of the local language, Kinyarwanda, to get by. He thrives most under high pressure, and prefers having a “super-packed” day when he has to be creative to get everything done.
Mendys excelled at UNC Kenan-Flagler. He graduated with distinction and received the James K. McLean Merit Scholarship to attend the South Africa Global Immersion Elective. He had internships with Morgan Creek Capital Management as a private assets analyst and with Nike Inc. in running sports marketing, and served as a Red Bull North America campus brand manager.
At UNC, Mendys’ days were packed with classes, basketball and more, such as managing the men’s lacrosse team during the basketball offseason. As a freshman, Mendys was part of the organizing team for UNC’s Dozen Doughnut Dash, a student run charity race benefitting the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. The cause was close to Mendys’ heart since his mom had a malignant tumor on her spine, from which she’s since recovered. By the time Mendys was a senior he was president of the organizing committee and led the most successful race to date.
He describes his tenure as “great business practice” – navigating the red tape and logistics of putting on an event and negotiating with vendors and sponsors – to test what he learned in class. The experience helped him recognize that while being adept with numbers was important, solid management and people skills were critical, too. He developed a deep appreciation for how business skills can be used to do great things outside of a strong balance sheet.
He also applied his business studies to address a real business challenge. In the STAR Program he worked on a team with Undergraduate Business and MBA students on a strategic marketing project for Nike Golf. “It was a taste of the consulting life,” says Mendys. “We worked long hours. There were many late nights. Then we flew in to Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, to give the final presentation to some of the top 20 executives at Nike Golf.”
Living the Carolina Way, Mendys wants to pay it forward. He says he realized at school how everyone had each other’s back whenever necessary. And he incorporated that into his work in Rwanda.
When he noticed the talent of eighth-grade student Nkundwa Thierry, Mendys invested time in helping him develop basketball skills and make connections to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and International Basketball Federation (FIBA). Now Thierry is heading to Mauritius with the under-16 Rwanda national basketball team to compete in FIBA’s African Championship. The NBA called on Thierry to invite him to participate in Basketball Without Borders, the NBA’s signature youth camp on the African continent, where he’ll be the only representative from Rwanda.
Thierry is like a younger brother to Mendys. “I was the happiest person in Rwanda when we got the call from the NBA that Thierry was chosen for the camp. It was 11 at night and I ran across town, shouting, to tell his older brother the news.”
His next hope is to produce a small documentary film about Thierry and how basketball could change his life. “Our motto is to educate and empower,” says Mendys. “I want to give Thierry the chance to fully follow his dream of playing basketball.”
“The work we’re doing here is so much bigger than basketball,” he writes in his blog. “I am of the opinion that anyone can come and teach these kids to dribble, pass and shoot a ball. Teaching life skills – teamwork, unity, perseverance, as sense of duty to our fellow man – these require a special blend of patience, experience and empathy from the teacher as well as a welcoming and inclusive learning environment.”
As his time in Rwanda drew to an end, Mendys reflected on the past and the future. “I really enjoyed my work in Africa, but it takes a lot out of you mentally and emotionally,” he says. “I hadn't been back home since I left. It was hard.”
Mendys returned to the U.S. ready to apply the personal and professional lessons he learned in Rwanda – including the power of helping others reach their goals as he achieves his own – and is working as referee operations lead assistant with the NBA in New York.
Of course, he’s not finished with Shooting Touch. “Once you join this organization, you’re in it for life,” he writes. And of course – wherever he is in the world – he will be cheering on Thierry and the others whose lives touched his during hoops journey in Rwanda.