Spotlight COlorado  

Have You Met?

Papa may seem like an unusual name in the United States, and it is.  But Papa Maritew Dia (pronounced Gia) is a common name in Senegal where Papa was born.  In Senegal people go by their middle names, so he was known as Maritew,  but here as  Papa. It’s interesting to note that Papa had 4 brothers also named Papa, which is something like a title .

People use my first name in the states.  I had a very large, extended family.  My mother had 13 kids.  There were often 50 or more people in celebrations.

We grew up very poor.  We grew up in Thies, Senegal, the 2nd largest city, with about 2 million people.  We moved from house to house about 17 times.  My dad was barely making $100 a month so making rent was difficult. But we got to know a lot of people, and we were always playing soccer.  The good thing was that we got to know a lot of people.  Like the other families in our neighborhood, we knew what it like to have one meal a day and to go bed hungry. And in one bed there would be 8 brothers sleeping.

We didn’t have electricity in our home and we had to find a street light to study.  But even with those hardships, we were very happy.  The sharing and caring that came out of that experience has stayed with me.

Education was not a priority for the country because there were not enough space and resources for everyone.  I wanted to go to school, but I had to wait for my brother to come home and change clothes. Senegal is a French country, so we grew up speaking French.  The school system is difficult because there are often 100 students in class..  They are not encouraging students advance, because they lack resources.   To move from middle school to high school there is a national exam.  I studied hard to pass the tests.   I did pass, and the results were posted in the national newspaper.  That brought some joy to my family.

Out of my mothers family of 12 children,   I was the only one to go to college.  It was difficult to get there.  We only had 1 university, so I had to move from my family and home town to Dakar, the capitol.   In Dakar, I saw  big houses and nice cars for the first time.  In our home town, everyone was poor.

My reality was that I didn’t have a place to stay.  I had to be an entrepreneur.  I would buy cleaning products and would go door to door to sell these cleaning products to pay for a room that I shared with a friend of mine.  Even though the classes were so big that you could barely see the professors, I had a drive to succeed.

My undergrad degree was in literature. Then I was studied law.  In 1998 I had a chance to come to America.  My sister lived in America and I came to visit the family.  The perception in Africa is that if you come to America and everything will be solved.

I had a friend in Colorado so I came to visit in July, and the weather is beautiful and I thought it would be like that all year round.  I decided to stay here.  I didn’t speak English at all. My first big snowstorm,  I was outside waiting for the bus.  It started snowing,  I thought it was the end of the world.  I ran back to the house and watched it snow for 2 hours.

My first job was shelving books at the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek around Christmas.  They were busy.  I used that job to teach myself how to read and write English.  I spent a year and a half there.  I was making $5.25 an hour. But the money wasn’t my main focus.  I wanted to improve my professional standing, and learning about customer service and business was invaluable.

I got my first pay check and went across to the bank, I put my name in the memo line.  The teller showed me where and how to sign the check, and we are still friends today.  She said you should get a job here. She helped me fill out an application and I went to an interview, there were 5 interviewers and 25 applicants.  They were asking questions.  They were asking questions very fast,  and I didn’t understand everything, but I kept smiling.

They would do some role playing where you would be a teller and have to deal with a mean customer.  Again, I kept smiling.  That afternoon they called me to be a bank teller.  I went to $8.75 an hour.  I was so happy I started dancing.

My journey started there as a teller, and I kept the job at the bookstore working part time.  I was working inside the bank, and all the employees were very patient with me.  The family was waiting for me to send money which I was happy and able to do.  

Over time, customers would come and wait for my line, even if other lines were open.  I was a teller, then international teller, and so on and then a branch manager.  I was there for 18 years.  That was the genesis of the African Leadership Group.

There would be a lot of Africans working at the Brown Palace and they would come in on Fridays and cash their check.  I would help with that and other issues.  Word soon spread and more people came in, and I was helping these folks to understand the financial system.  Literally there would be 30 – 50 people to see me.  The bank didn’ t like that.

I was looking for a place to send them, and I couldn’t find one.  My ideas was to help people live out their American dream.  Did they want to be a lawyer, a banker, a doctor, to own a home?

I started the African Leadership Group in 2003. I didn’t know about non-profits.  Every Saturday,  I would invite someone to do a presentation.  We would have 10 people, then 20, 100 and so on, and at one point we had more than 1000 people attending events.

I ran it for 13 years without any money.  It keeps growing.  In 2016, I got a call from the Walton Family Foundation and said that they would send an executive to see what we were doing.  They saw something in what I was doing and they gave me the first grant.  It allowed me to leave the bank.

Most foundations have only 1 thing to focus on.  We focus on jobs, housing, immigration and other issues important to everyday life.   We pride ourselves on “community.”

 I met my wife in Senegal.  We got married in Senegal even thought I wasn’t there for the ceremony. My wife and I  have 3 beautiful girls.  18, 15 and 9. The entire family. speaks Wolof, which is the main dialect in Senegal. They are very involved in the organization and the community.

Recently, I started going to  Senegal quarterly,.  I started the “Breaking Barriers & Building Bridges”.  I take a delegation of Americans  to visit the country for investment opportunities and cultural understanding.  Those visits have helped us open an eye glass factory in Senegal.  It’s otherwise very expensive for people to get glasses.  I’ll be going again soon and in August I bring a delegation from Senegal here.

I am pleased to have met a friend and mentor in Brian Vogt, the CEO of the Denver Botanic Gardens.  Brian has been to Senegal, and he is helping us with a problem.  There is a very short rainy season in Senegal and because of that there is no water. Most of the people have quit farming and moved to the city.  We would like to provide water and find a way to grow other products.

My favorite saying is “if you’re not at the table you are on the menu.”  Because we were able to draw a large number of people to our events, political leaders started to take notice, and I am fortunate to be able to talk with local Mayors, Representatives and the Governor.  I am not partisan but I want to help create a platform for dialogue.

If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.  Huge advocate of being at the table.

I’m not partisan but want to create the platform to have our voices heard.

Going forward, I want to see this go national and go different chapters around the United States.  I believe the world is a village.  My vision is for us to come together as human beings.

My favorite part of the job is seeing the impact – whether it’s learning English, or helping someone to buy a car or a house.  My least favorite part is not being able to meet the people’s needs when they come here.  I know I can’t solve everything,  but it still hurts when we can’t meet the basic needs of food and shelter.


What was your first job  and your  worst job?
Shelving books at the Tattered Cover Book Store and no worst job.  Each one was an opportunity.

Which social event is your favorite?
Any soccer game and the networking opportunities we provide for ALG.

When you move, what will your home tell its next owner, about you?
That I am a family man

What three words would you use to describe yourself? 
People, community and  leadership.

If there were one thing you would change about yourself, what would it be? 
Learn to slow down.

What is your greatest indulgence?
Time in the backyard , grilling some meat and listening some good music.

Favorite vacation spot?
Brazil one day.

Who is the most interesting person you ever met? 
My father.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to be a professional soccer player.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
I am pleased with the work we do at the ALG.  To be a Community Leader  is something that I never dreamed of growing up.

What is your most treasured possession? 
My family.

Favorite books / writers? 
The Secret.

Favorite recent concert or show? 
Baaba Maal from Senegal.

Favorite restaurant?
Texas De Brazil.

What is the best advice you have ever received? 
Be patient.

What is your motto?
If you are not at the table , you are on the menu.

What’s always in your fridge?

What’s something that a lot of people don’t know about you?
I am scared of heights.