Meet the Philly Teen Who Just Won the Prestigious Gates Scholarship

Bodine High School student Akayla Brown tells us about her plans for the future.

Philadelphia gates scholarship winner Akayla Brown

Gates Scholarship winner Akayla Brown of Southwest Philadelphia. Photograph courtesy of Akayla Brown

On Tuesday night at 8 p.m., 18-year-old Southwest Philadelphia resident Akayla Brown received a life-changing email. She learned she was one of 300 high-school students nationwide to win the prestigious Gates Scholarship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We caught up with her on Wednesday morning, after one of her virtual classes, to learn more.

First of all, congratulations. Was the process of applying for the Gates Scholarship very intense?
Yes. It’s like applying to a college. I started back when I was initially applying for colleges, a little before November. A friend sent the application to my mom, and my mom told me I needed to do whatever I needed to do to get the scholarship. There was a lot of paperwork and an essay. And then once it got down to 600 applicants out of an original pool of 34,000, there was an interview.

When you started the whole thing, did you think you had a shot?
I originally thought there were 10,000 applicants. Then I learned it was more like 34,000. I did have my doubts. But I believed in myself and manifested it all the way.

What was in your essay that you think they latched onto?
You know, they had my transcripts, so they already knew what I did in school. They could see that I had a 4.19 GPA. So instead of talking about school, I talked about my passions. At the age of 13, I decided to start a nonprofit, so I told them about that and how it has grown and how with this scholarship, I will continue to grow and extend it.

Tell us more about your nonprofit.
It’s called Dimplez 4 Dayz. (I have dimples, and my nickname in the street is Dimplez.) I started it in 2016, after my mom sat me down to help me figure out what I wanted to do. It is intended to keep smiles on the faces and in the hearts and minds of my community members by doing whatever we have to do. We extend a helping hand with back-to-school backpack events. We hosted a Courtyard En Blanc for homeless people in Philadelphia where we invited homeless people to come and we catered to them. Of course, there’s our turkey drive. We have all sorts of programs for the community, and all of our programs are led by youth. People my age.

Wow. That’s a lot!
That’s not all. I want to be an example to my peers and to the next generation and show them that you can make anything you want become possible. I want to incentivize kids. Now, I have a grant that has helped me start a workforce initiative for people 16 to 24. We help them build up résumés. We help them with attire for job interviews. If they want to get their CPR certification, we help them with that. I’m living my dream.

You’ve mentioned your mom a couple of times. She sounds like a major influence on your life.
The biggest. You can put that in all bold. I am Dimplez, and I am the face of this nonprofit, but if not for the moral support and guidance from my mother, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Who else has influenced you?
My teachers at Bodine High School for International Affairs. I love that school. I’m not the best test taker, so I didn’t do so well on my PSSAs. And I applied to several high schools, and Bodine is the only one that would give me a chance. The teachers really connect with the kids. They are amazing. The students, too. It’s a primarily Black school, and I love seeing other African Americans pushing each other to be better. We all want to be the best.

Bodine also has amazing classes, like personal finance, where we learned about credit. I was very interested in the stock market, so they brought in a Penn teacher to help us understand it.

Any stock market tips for me?
Well, I actually wound up becoming more interested in the foreign exchange market. If the economy crashes, the stock market crashes. But you can still make a lot of money on the foreign exchange market, so that’s what I decided to focus on.

Noted. So where are you going to college?
I’ve made my decision, but I haven’t announced it yet. I’ll be majoring in international business. I will say that I got into my top three choices: Temple and Villanova and Howard. I also got into Drexel and others. Ivy League schools like Princeton and Yale rejected me. But that’s fine. I’ve dealt with rejection before, and I really didn’t want to go to them. We just applied to see.

And the Gates Scholarship covers what part of your education?
All of it. No matter where I go. Tuition. Books, room and board. Everything.

Sounds like you want to stay close to home, based on your top-three list.
I have a nonprofit to run. I am the founder. I am the program director of workforce development. So I need to stay close to and connected with my community.

You mentioned that you’ll major in international business. What do you imagine you’ll be doing with that 10 years from now?
I haven’t thought that far ahead. My biggest goal is to expand my nonprofit, and this degree will give me a good foundation for that. Maybe I’ll travel all over the world and establish recreation centers so kids in other parts of the world can have these resources.

This all sounds great. But do you ever get to have any fun? 
Don’t worry. I have fun. I love fun. I’m on the debate team. I love to debate. My volunteers at my nonprofit are my friends. I go to parties. I travel. I listen to music. My mom got me into old-school, but I also like Lil Uzi. I can listen to him all day. I just live my life to the fullest. You live every day, but you only die once. And there’s no coming back.