By Randall Brown.
Tasimba Jonga has a lot to celebrate as he completes his engineering degree at UT this year. The chemical engineering major graduates this spring as a 2022 Torchbearer, UT’s highest student honor, and moves forward into graduate studies in management science and engineering as a prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University.
Each spring a select few undergraduate students who embody the Volunteer spirit are named Torchbearers in recognition of their commitment to service, outstanding leadership, and academic achievement. In April, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman surprised Jonga with news of his selection in a gathering at the Zeanah Engineering Complex, and he received his Torchbearer medal during the May 3 Chancellor’s Honors Banquet, UT’s largest recognition event of the year.
Jonga is the first UT graduate to become a Knight-Hennessy Scholar since the program’s founding in 2016 and is among 70 students from 27 countries for the 2022 awards. This highly competitive scholarship has an acceptance rate that typically falls between 1 and 2 percent. Scholars have demonstrated exceptional leadership in multiple disciplines, addressing complex challenges facing the world. They receive up to three years of graduate school tuition, a living stipend, and travel funding.
After emigrating to Brentwood, Tennessee, from southern Africa, Jonga chose to study chemical engineering and economics at UT based on the Volunteer community’s reputation for selflessness and giving. Here he connected with numerous avenues to carry on that tradition, notably serving the Tickle College of Engineering community as an ambassador with the Office of Engineering Professional Practice while searching for internship and co-op opportunities.
The Engineering Professional Practice Office provided me a platform to really serve the college of engineering and impact the students by setting them up professionally. The folks at the office, especially Suzanne Sawicki, really empowered me to be a leader and fully embody the Volunteer spirit.”
As an ambassador, Jonga helped ensure that fellow students, particularly minority and underrepresented students of color, were aware of job possibilities in the STEM field. He took on a similar leadership role for the Professional Sales Forum in the Haslam College of Business.
“The Sales Forum allowed me to serve students in the greater university by immersing me into the college of business to support the students there career-wise,” he said.
He also founded VFL Ventures during his time at UT. This student-led venture capital and accelerator organization invests in and supports UT entrepreneurs and educates students interested in private equity and venture capital.
“Working on VFL Ventures provided me a platform to really kick-start an entrepreneurial culture here at the university,” said Jonga. “At the forefront of the organization is empowering UT students to innovate and create their own start-ups.”
His other projects included co-developing a platform that serves minority entrepreneurs, receiving first place in Microsoft’s internal venture competition—including an opportunity to chat with CEO Satya Nadella—and delivering compliance automation across Microsoft’s $168 billion operations. He co-founded Rease, a platform for the college student renter market.
Jonga has served as a volunteer for Youth Against AIDS and the United Nations since he was 12. He was inspired by the loss of family members to work for raising awareness of the ongoing AIDS crisis.
Moving forward, he plans to continue projects that empower underresourced high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging markets.
“I foresee my experience in the Knight-Hennessy community as a critical next step in effecting economic change of this scope and magnitude,” said Jonga. “Stanford and the Knight- Hennessy Scholar experience are the perfect incubation environments for learning how to do this.”
His upcoming experience will be an opportunity to meet and learn from a diverse global network, applying his passion for addressing economic equity, technology, and entrepreneurship.
“I grew up in southern Africa during the postcolonial era,” he explained. “I got to experience the remnant effects of this tumultuous period. One of the bigger issues is the lack of economic growth, which trickles down into every aspect of life, from education to health care.”
Jonga aims to apply his educational experience to empower these communities in need, helping create foundations that support high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging economies.
He looks forward to the diverse offerings of northern California, from the cuisine to the weather, and maintaining pursuit of diverse hobbies like rugby, boxing, writing, poetry, art, and filmmaking—and cheering on the Golden State Warriors.
“California also reminds me a lot of South Africa, the landscape and architecture,” said Jonga. “So it will provide a sense of home as well. I believe this experience will be a pivotal chapter in my journey, where I will learn, develop, contribute, and realize how I can impact the world.”