Grace Hightower De Niro is exceptional for many reasons. As a high school senior, she was kicked out for protesting segregation. Her philanthropy work has lead to honors from the New York Women’s Foundation and the American Cancer Society of New York City. This mother of two has recently added entrepreneur to her list of feats, launching a coffee business, Grace Hightower & Coffees of Rwanda, to create economic opportunities for Rwandian women and families recovering from the genocide in 1994.
The coffee company is, for Grace, about quality. The use of Direct Trade, versus Fair Trade, allows more money to go directly to farmers in Rwanda. Hightower De Niro’s beans have recently hit the shelves of selective Whole Foods stores. From New York City, Hightower De Niro (married to actor Robert De Niro in 1997) speaks to SOMA about the coffee business, social empowerment, and making the world a better place…
How did you get involved in the coffee business in Rwanda?
Well, I first heard about Rwanda through the film Hotel Rwanda and then I heard the President of Rwanda (Paul Kagame) speak. I was very inspired by his words and his vision for his people. I had a more personal conversation with the ambassador of the U.N. and his wife, and his wife impressed upon me how they made a simple decision to live rather than be stuck in the pain and atrocity of what had happened there. I became very interested in that country because I did not know as much as I should have.
I took a trip there last May and the people won my heart because they have such zest for life. You go to Rwanda, most houses don’t have electricity or running water, their mode of transportation is walking, many without shoes, but these people have life in their eyes when you see them or meet them. They have a happiness that you can’t find outside of yourself. That inspired me, even more…they are very graceful and appreciative, but also very proud of their country, they want to participate in their rebuilding…and, of course, they support women’s initiatives. That also struck a chord with me. They have more females in the government, I believe than any place else—in significant positions as well.
Do you think their travesties have allowed them to start afresh?
It’s a new beginning and they so far are really doing quite well! One particular point that [Kagame] made is that what he wanted, what his people wanted was ‘trade not aide.’ The empowerment of the people is the power of the country and that resonated with me very much.
During your visit to Rwanda, did you personally observe the lasting effects of the genocide, 18 years later, on modern day Rwanda? How relevant is that history to the present day?
We went to the museum, which is a must-see if anyone ever goes there. It’s challenging but eye-opening as well. As a Westerner, I thought I had an idea of what happened. But the in-depth intensity of it really comes out when you visit the museum. One of the things I really appreciated about the structure of the museum was how the people of Rwanda explained that we should remember what happened and how terrible it was, but we should also look at this and be aware, all over the world, that it should never happen again. That in itself speaks volumes of how they are moving forward.
How would you describe your experience?
It has been a life-changing experience, it really has. A learning experience to see how I could create something and how it could actually help and benefit others…it’s not about a hand-out, it’s about empowering people. I think that’s the only philanthropic gift you can give to anyone: if you can empower someone, or help them empower themselves, that’s the greatest gift.
Understanding what a serious impact your travels abroad have had on your life, how do you feel about the fact that many Americans have never traveled outside the United States?
We’re all here for different reasons. We are supposed to do what we are supposed to do. Some people find their niche or that which they have a passion for right in the United States. They all have different reasons for traveling or not traveling. In my observation, I love traveling. I selfishly think, ‘I wish everyone could travel outside their comfort zone so they could have a better snapshot of the world.’ When you travel, there is a difference. When you have social interaction with the indigenous people of that country, you learn so much. You get a sense of what the country is about, being there. If I had one wish, I would hope that people would take a chance.
What do you love most about your life?
What and who motivates you?
My kids. They motivate me because looking and observing them everyday, seeing light through their eyes, helps me stay in the moment, be aware, and really become comfortable with change.
Grace Hightower De Niro is returning back to Rwanda this Spring.
Text by Vanessa Saunders