Updated May 29, 2023
Nelly Cheboi with Dr Bengston and Wendy getting her honorary doctorate stole

TechLit's Nelly Cheboi delivers Augustana's Commencement Address

Published on May 28, 2023

On May 22nd, 2023, Nelly Cheboi was her the commencement speaker at Augustana 163 Commencement event. She was introduced by her math professor emeritus Dr Bengston.

Her message was around her three mantra: Start with why, just start and be kind to yourself.

Here is a youtube link to the speech:

Below is Nelly's Speech:

Good Afternoon Faculty, parents, alumni and the class of 2023

It is pretty surreal to be standing here today and delivering a commencement address. I was sitting where you were only seven years ago. I was scared to graduate. I loved school and I never wanted to leave. I even considered a masters program so I could postpone going out into the “real world”, but I am doing okay. 

In my few years of wisdom, I have accumulated three mantras that guide me as I navigate through life. I will extend them to you.

Before I start I will pose a question to you graduates. 

If someone gave you a million dollars right now. What would you do? 

“And no, I don’t have a million dollars to give you, I could use a million myself”

I used to ask myself that question a lot. As a kid, it gave me a lot of comfort. I was growing up in poverty in Mogotio, Kenya. We were struggling with food and basic sustenance. And so, I would think about the future, I would think how as I get older and I have money, I could build a big kitchen to feed everyone in my community. 

And if I have even more money I could build a big estate to house all the people who were living in slums. How kids could just be kids. Not have to worry about their next meal, their health or missing out on school because their family could not afford tuition.  

Even though my life was really sad, the possibility of rewriting my childhood gave me so much hope and joy. I studied really hard in school too because I believed if I got good grades, I had a better chance of realizing my dreams.

And when I asked myself that question in high school. The answer was, how could I use that money to break the cycle of poverty in my community. I saw how hard my mom was working to afford my tuition. I still worked hard and got good grades but it dawned on me that so many people in my community were just as educated, with degrees and even masters but they were unemployed.

I looked at my dear mom, she only had a sixth grade education, yet she sold all her cows to educate my sisters and I.It made me extremely sad that families were sinking deeper into poverty just to educate their children, only for those children to end up unemployed. So, maybe with a million dollars, I could create employment.

I asked myself that when I was a junior software engineer, working really hard to climb the corporate ladder. I thought, if I became a top executive and had all the influence and money, what would I do? The answer was, I would donate to an organization that is working to sustainably fix poverty. And organization that understands all the systemic issues at play that make it really hard to make it in rural Kenya. 

And As I was pondering, I learnt about companies outsourcing their IT to countries all over the world. I learnt about all the computers going to waste in the corporate world. Computers that could be used to train a pipeline for remote workers, and create a lot of opportunities for rural africans to make a living. I thought about people in my community working remotely as software engineers for Google. Just thinking about all the possibilities made me so warm and fuzzy that I decided to leave my corporate job and start TechLit Africa.

That question gives you the framework to find what you really care about. If you had all the money in the world, what would you choose to do? If you had nothing to lose what would you do? To put it simply “Why”

I ask myself why a lot. Even in the day to day. Why did I get offended by that? Why did that make me insecure? Why did that make me so sad?

I ask myself why when TechLit gets really hard. When all I want to do is give up. When I am working really hard and nothing is happening. When I am already down and something even more gut wrenching happens. I ask myself, why are you not giving up? Then I think about Leddy, a nine year old who is teaching her mom touch typing. I think about Bowen, a sixth grader who built his own website after only three months of our html classes. I think about Sammy, teaching python to his classmates in their native language. I think about all those kids, how their stories will be different. And so exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed I show up and fight for another day.

Asking myself “why” all the time has made me self-aware, purposeful and kind. It has given me more energy and drive than anything else. It has made me attuned to my goals, aspirations and my internal voice.

My second mantra is “just start”

When I thought about rewriting my childhood and creating more opportunities for the next generation of Kenyan kids, building a school seemed like such an obvious decision. So in my junior year of college, I built a school. I thought it would be easy. I thought I would make a GoFundMe page, start construction and be done.I was so sure I could raise the funds that I hired contractors and started. But then I only raised three-hundred dollars. I was at a crossroads, I could ofcourse stop but I couldn’t bring myself to. I had to find a way! And I did. Overcoming that became a reference for the things I took on. I gained confidence in my ability to make things happen and the courage to make bold moves. 

I started with four classrooms. And when I got my first job, I added three more classrooms. I loved every little progress I made so I kept investing in the school. Now it is a four storied community center. With kids having all the things I wanted growing up and even more! I first used a computer after high school, they are building websites! I memorized planets, they are having zoom calls with NASA! I struggled to break into Tech, they are growing up with Tech! I deserved better and because of that they are getting the world.

As a founder I have so many roles: program, marketing, hr, fundraising. Some of them are not my strong suits. Some of them I have to figure out. So I learn as I go and forgive myself for the mistakes I make along the way.

So whatever it is just start, because once you start you have two options: keep going or give up. You are likely to keep going because progress is intoxicating.

Lastly, “Be kind to yourself”

It is very easy in the world of social media to compare your life to other people. I catch myself doing it all the time. I look at other leaders who seem to have it all figured out and feel like I am not cut out for this. It is a constant struggle, the line between being inspired by them but not comparing myself to them. To look at other people making it and not feel like there is something wrong with you. 

We all have different ambitions, drives, fears and talents. Everyone’s life is as complex as your own, so someone else's journey should not be the yardstick to measure yours. Create your own path, celebrate the milestones you make along the way and forgive yourself for the mistakes you make.

I was recently in a room of really impressive leaders. The kind that makes me feel like I need to do more. Our facilitator gave us a prompt “you are giving a speech and you see the audience making faces. Write down what comes to your head ”, we then folded the papers and threw across the room a couple of times. In groups of ten we read what was on them. A common theme was “She doesn’t know what she is talking about”, "He is only here because of X”, “She is just lucky”. He then tells us that he does this exercise in many rooms, rooms full of executives, politicians, celebrities and the response is all the same. 

He then says

“We are our biggest bullies”

We judge ourselves too harshly, from what we say, how we look to the thoughts we have. So be kind to yourself, you are allowed to make mistakes. Be free, try, fail, learn, unlearn and relearn.

So as you get out there, live out your purpose, find out what you care about, just start and be kind to yourself.



Nelly Cheboi at Augustana 2023 commencement on stage with her left hand up
Nelly Cheboi at Augustana Commencement podium laughing
Nelly Cheboi at Augustana commencement at the podium with a stern look
Nelly Cheboi at Augustana commencement moments before getting her honorary doctorate
Nelly Cheboi with Dr Bengston and Wendy getting her honorary doctorate stole

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