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A Conversation with Travis Adkins

February 16, 2023

Growing up in Tennessee, Travis Adkins took to heart the teaching that if he played by the rules—such as doing his homework, listening to and obeying his parents—then everything would be fine. But it didn’t take him very long to realize that things were much more complicated than that.

“I saw the way that police engaged with people in our neighborhood,” Adkins recalled during a Dean’s Speaker Series conversation with James Steinberg, the dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS, on February 16, 2023. “I saw the conditions of the schools we had to go to, and the hospitals we had access to.”

Most of the opportunities I’ve ever received was because of the kind of person that I was trying to be.

Travis Adkins
However, Adkins never lost faith in the power of perseverance. Today, he is president and chief executive officer of the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress in 1980 to invest directly in African grassroots enterprises and social entrepreneurs.

Thanks to the adult family members in his life, Adkins came to understand early on that history can shape the present, and that events in far-flung places can have an impact even within one’s immediate neighborhood in the United States. “I became totally obsessed with history,” he said. At first, he wanted to be a scholar/academic, but soon realized that he wanted to do something more hands-on; he described it as “rolling up my sleeves and getting engaged in the world, first starting where I live.”

Noting that students in the audience would be particularly interested in this question, Dean Steinberg asked Adkins how he started out pursuing his career once he’d decided what issues he was passionate about. “Most of the opportunities I’ve ever received was because of the kind of person that I was trying to be,” he said in response. “It wasn’t the name of the school that I came from; it wasn’t that I had a family that could open doors for me. It was that I possessed the ability to demonstrate passion, to demonstrate kindness, to not be strictly transactional in the relationships I was building with mentors and older colleagues in my field.”

Adkins also benefited from the insight of mentors who advised him early on to develop his knowledge and skills on two fronts— a topical interest and with a regional interest: for instance, water and sanitation in Africa; or maternal and child health in Latin America. Adkins is also glad he listened to mentors who urged him to do many different things at the outset of his career and learn from broad experiences, rather than trying too early to drill down into a relatively narrow specialty.

Before taking the helm at USADF in January 2022, Adkins served as deputy assistant administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He is also a lecturer in African and Security Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he concurrently teaches in the Prison Scholars Program of Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.

Earlier in his career, Adkins served as staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, working with leading international NGOs and think tanks. He is an alumnus of the International Affairs Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Adkins graduated from Fisk University and earned master’s degrees in international affairs and education from The New School and Lehman College.

In celebration of Black History Month, join SAIS Dean James B. Steinberg for a conversation with Travis Adkins, President and Chief Executive Officer of the United States African Development Foundation (USADF). Vice Dean Chiedo Nwankwor will provide opening remarks.