Benicia High senior Kenya Wright has a plan: Graduate this month near the top of her class, head to Brown University in the fall to major in entrepreneurship, move on to Columbia University for graduate school in business, then establish a social enterprise company, most likely in Southern California.
But if she changes course along the way, she’ll adjust and move forward.
“I’ve changed my plan hundreds of times,” the 17-year-old says with an easy laugh. “But I always have a plan and a means to reach my goal.”
Kenya started thinking about college years ago. By the time she was in seventh grade, she’d set her sights on Columbia University in New York City. “I definitely wanted to be at a high-level school, but not because I wanted a big-name college. I wanted to be challenged,” she says.
To meet that goal, Kenya took honors and AP classes in addition to singing and traveling with Voena for 12 years, volunteering as a California Scholastic Federation tutor, doing gymnastics plus track and field, attending a mission trip on a Navajo reservation with her church, taking leadership roles on campus, and working part-time.
“She’s bright, she’s poised, she’s capable and she’s confident,” Kathleen Wallace, co-chair of the BHS counseling department, says of Kenya.
Kenya considered becoming a dentist or fashion designer or lawyer, but her career path changed when she joined Benicia High’s Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE) program in her junior year. That year, the club won the state title and placed third at nationals. Its water audit program and water bottle sales funded micro-loans, a water tank for a village in Haiti and first-aid supplies for Mali.
Kenya, the daughter of Linda and Randy Wright, has lived in Benicia since she was 9 months old. Her younger sister is a freshman at BHS, while her older brother attends San Francisco State University.
You were accepted at eight colleges, including three Ivy League schools. How did you decide on Brown?
I chose Brown because of the academic freedom. Even before I visited the campus, I knew that Brown didn’t have a required core curriculum, and I liked that. I value my independence and freedom. I like having choices.
Then I got on campus, and the architecture and everything was perfect. I had such a positive feeling about it. Not just about the campus, I like Providence as well.
I also like that the focus is on undergraduates; that the focus is on making sure you’re nurtured through your first years of college. The other schools (finalists Cornell and Columbia) have large grad programs, but not Brown.
What motivates you?
Besides just being self-motivated from the jump, I feel I have a responsibility to meet my potential. I feel it’s a waste if I don’t take the hardest classes, if I don’t challenge myself.
I also feel like it’s my responsibility to consider my ancestors, particularly my grandmother who’s passed. I’m a lot like her. She was really into fashion, she was intelligent since birth. She was my chaperone when I went to Italy with Voena—we were always roommates if the family went somewhere together. I always felt a connection with her because we shared a love of fashion, and apparently welook alike.
Why did you add a job to your schedule?
I wanted my own computer! In a house with five people, including my mom who writes children’s books and my dad who does genealogy research, there’s never enough computer time. I got a work permit when I was 14 so I could earn money, and I bought my own computer. Now I work six hours a week after school at Canvasback Missions.
What’s your passion?
I love singing. That’s my passion. I love singing, learning songs in new languages. … I’ve been to South Africa, China, Italy, Mexico and Washington, D.C. with Voena.
Annabelle (Voena’s director) is a genius. She teaches us choreography, she arranges songs, she appeals to kids of all ages. … She teaches you the Voena “Big Three”: hard work ethic, accept the challenge, and self-motivation. That’s part of what I value. I work to meet those. Having those values instilled in me every week has definitely shaped my life.
When you travel with Voena, do you have time to see the sights in addition to performing?
We do it all! It’s a very tight schedule. We do the tourist attractions and we do a lot of performances, and we get to see a lot of native performers. That opens a whole new world. … The entire experience is enriched when you sing with others.
How does singing with local performers enhance the experience?
If you’re just a tourist, you go back to your hotel and you only see whoever you’re traveling with. But if you’re singing with others, performing with people who live there, you become more of a local, there’s more interaction and you learn more history. You get a whole feel you wouldn’t get in a class or from a textbook. It’s an uplifting experience.
How will you incorporate music in your life after graduation?
I’ll definitely take music classes at Brown and, after grad school, I want to create a social enterprise that will have an international reach and have a music component.
What is a “social enterprise” business?
Social enterprises operate more like nonprofits than traditional businesses. There are two basic models. In the first, you take any type of business—coffee or shoes or anything— and you use all the profits for another benefit, a cause that appeals to you and needs support.
In the second model, you have a business that provides a social good and you use the profits to fund nonprofits. I’m leaning toward that second model.
What do you do to have fun?
I like going to the movies – that’s one of my favorite things to do. I also like hanging out with my best friends because one lives in Vallejo and the other goes to Berkeley High, so I don’t always get to see them.
I like researching new songs, just looking up songs from my favorite artists to listen to, and going on day trips to places that are warm. And I love puzzles and painting my nails for fun.
What would you change about high school?
In the past two years, I’ve become a little disenchanted with the AP system. I love that we have the courses and learn so much, but I feel the focus is on stuffing us with information for the tests, not on experiencing the joy of really learning a subject, not on taking the time to stop and think about what we’re learning. The purpose of this system isn’t my purpose.
Also, what I see my friends doing to get into college: all the late nights, all the extra-curriculars they take just to get into college. Then deserving students don’t get in, even if they worked harder than others.
What advice would you give other students who want to go to a top-ranked university?
Doing your research is key. These days, Columbia costs $60,000 a year. If you’re going to be spending that amount, taking all these extra courses just to get in, you need to be sure that’s what you want.