Three hundred years ago, Kente was the fabric of kings. Today, you can buy it for your college graduation.
Kente Master, a social impact company founded in 2014, is one of the few authentic Kente suppliers and has been providing graduation stoles at Penn since last year for students affiliated with Makuu, Penn’s black cultural center. At this year’s graduation, the company will also provide stoles to some minority students graduating from the Perelman School of Medicine.
While many of its competitors produce their product outside of Ghana, Kente Master partners with the same villages and artisans around Kumasi, Ghana, that first invented the weaving style.
The company was born following an unlikely intercontinental partnership. Peter Paul Akanko, a Ghanaian student, and Engineering junior Parag Bapna first met in Ghana in 2012 while participating in the International Development Summer Institute, a summer program focused on international development.
“I got the chance to visit the Kente village where I got to witness how Kente is woven and to know about the rich culture,” Akanko, who still lives in Ghana and is the CEO, wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian in an email. “A question began to ring in my mind — how come I’ve never seen these?”
Kente Master first brought its product to Penn thanks to a partnership with Makuu. After wearing the stoles at her graduation, 2015 College graduate and Chief Marketing Officer Rafiat Kasumu joined the company.
She and many of her classmates felt honored to be wearing the graduation stoles.
“Wearing a Kente stole has always been a symbol of black success in higher education to me,” 2015 College graduate Jade Parker said. “Receiving the stole was kind of like a rite of passage after seeing everyone before me having one.”
2015 College graduate Kendall Jackson, who also wore the stole for graduation, agreed.
“Getting the stole was an experience I really looked forward to,” she said. “For me it was a really important part of the black Penn community.”
With plans to expand Kente Master to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Massachusetts, the company hopes more students of non-African descent will wear the stoles.
“We understand that Kente in and of itself is a symbol of African-American cultural heritage, but depending on how people view and like the quality and the symbolic value of the product, it’s definitely something that could be worn by other students at graduation,” Bapna said.
2015 Wharton graduate Justin Malone agreed, but cautioned that the stole might lose its community value if it becomes too widely disseminated.
“I don’t think the stoles have to be limited to students of African descent, but the student has to have actively been part of the black community,” he said. “I would be very upset if each Penn student received one, since each Penn kid didn’t interact with Makuu or UMOJA groups.”
The company’s focus is not exclusively profit-driven — rather, it aims to support the Ghanaian weavers and their communities.
“We are a company, and we are thinking about profit to sustain the business,” Kasumu said. “But if we aren’t meeting our mission of creating a social impact in the communities in which we operate, we don’t think we’re successful as a company.”
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