What’s with the name and the elephant?

Curious as to how we ended up with a name like “Akili” and the image of an elephant?  Read on to hear the story!


For starters, you might be interested in knowing that the word “Akili” is an African name meaning smart or intelligent.  We’d like to think that the work we do and strategies we design represent both of those words.  But that’s not why we selected the name Akili.

Many of you may also know a bit about elephants.  For those that don’t, you might find it fascinating that elephants are one of the most multi-generational species in the animal kingdom.  It’s said that when a member of the herd dies, they will mourn for days, and often return to the place of their death many years later.  Elephants are known to be able to recognize their own reflections and be able to identify members of their own herd, often after years of separation.  (Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “elephants never forget?”  Might be more truth to that than one would expect!)   While this multi-generational intuition is well aligned with the work we do, and we’d love to think we thought that long and hard about the perfect animal to represent the personality and philosophy of our firm, we just weren’t that clever, just far more lucky.

As it turns out, the naming of our firm happened as a whim, and derives from a deep rooted family story of one of our founders.


When his previous company was sold, our Founder, Ryan Ponsford was scheduled to speak at a family office conference in Las Vegas.  Without an identity, he wanted to create a brand he could represent at the conference.  With only a few days to come up with a name a logo, he decided to go with the one name and image that he had shared over the years, one that was not just memorable, but even more importantly unforgettable.  In his speaking event, Ryan has often shared the story of his family heritage – where he comes from, the values and lessons that have been passed down through many generations, the stories that have given him the perspective that drives him.  None of the stories have had quite the impact as that of his grandmother Dotty…


Sometime around 1931, a young nine-year-old girl named Dorothy Schroeder, the youngest of eight children, was living on her parents’ farm in North Dakota.  When Dotty’s mother would go into town for supplies (a day long trip), she would often bring back small gifts for each of the children.   On one particular day, she brought back a ceramic elephant family for Dotty; a mother and four baby elephants.  She was so enthralled with the gift she immediately fell in love with elephants, hugged her mother and proclaimed,

“Mom, one day I’m going to own a real live elephant!”   

Dotty spent the majority of her life sharing with anyone that would listen, her dream of owning a real live baby elephant.  She became known as the elephant lady, crazy Dotty, or Dort, constantly being told that it was impossible to own a live elephant.  As she raised a family of her own, Dotty’s children would share that they would go to zoos and animal parks, but the only animals they would ever see were the elephants.  They would watch them for hours, and  at each visit request to meet with the elephant trainer.  Her kids were pretty certain that elephants were the only animals in the zoos and animal parks.


Years later, and no less inspired by her dream, Dotty and her husband Ralph moved from their home in Southern California to a small town up north called Etna, just south of the Oregon border.  On the way home from an anniversary trip to Vancouver, they decided to stop in at Wild Life Safari, an animal park in Winston, Oregon.  As usual, they went straight to the elephants and requested an audience with the elephant trainer.  However, this time it was different than the many times before.  This time, they were introduced to Bill York, an Indiana Jones like guy that was full of adventure and passion for animals, especially elephants.  As they spoke and Dotty shared her dream since she was nine years old to own a real live baby elephant, Bill revealed a rather significant fact.  He shared that he had just returned from a trip to Africa.  Poaching of elephants had become extremely brutal, and he had gone there to rescue a herd that had been targeted; many in the herd already slaughtered for the ivory in their tusks.  He was entrusted with the rescue of 12 baby elephants that had been orphaned from their herd, five were there at Wild Life Safari.  Perhaps Dotty could see them and lean a bit more about what it would be like to have a real live baby elephant?

As you might imagine, Dotty jumped at the opportunity and knew her dream would soon come true.  Days, weeks, and months spent with Bill and the elephants, then eventually, on a fateful day in 1979, Dotty brought home her own real, live, baby elephant.  Given the choice of several Swahili names, she selected the name “Akili.”  She didn’t pick it because it sounded great, or that she loved the meaning, but rather it was the only one she could pronounce and spell!  ha ha!

For our Founder, Ryan, he would spend his summers with his brothers and cousins at their home in Etna, helping out with the many chores around raising an elephant.  As the youngest in the crew, you might guess the job that most often rolled down hill to Ryan – yes, he became knows as the “super-duper-pooper-scooper.”  We’re pretty sure this had an effective humbling affect on him, though it’s offset by a strange confidence that also comes with anyone that has spent summer afternoons perched atop an elegant African elephant while she grazed, and roamed fields and drank from the stream.

Ryan with Akili

In the hunt for a brand, for an image to represent our firm, Ryan showed up to speak at that conference with the name Akili Capital.  “Akili” to represent all that the elephant represented – family continuity, strength, connection, nurture, compassion, and the importance of family heritage.  “Capital” to represent that sources of capital that we address in our strategic plans – not just financial capital, but intellectual, social, familial, and spiritual capital.  Their integration and alignment is what drives the long term success of effective solutions.  The image of the elephant is from a picture of Akili, and the same logo that was designed and used by Dotty and Ralph with Akili.

At that conference, sharing the story of his Grandmother Dotty, Ryan had a realization about his own personality and mindset.  He had also been accused of being a dreamer, living in the clouds, seeing things as possible that most would run away from.  But he had grown up with the powerful story of Grandma Dotty who was a woman with an elephant-sized dream – who had also achieved her dream.  In Ryan’s upbringing, he was instilled with the lesson that there was no dream to large you cannot achieve.  If Grandma could raise an elephant, what could be more unlikely than that?


We all have stories in our families that have defined our own personal values and perspectives.  What are the stories in your family?  What are the philosophies and perspectives that have shaped who you have become?  Many we may not even be aware of; we often take for granted that which was instilled in us at a young age.  What are the stories and lessons you’re passing to your own children and grandchildren?  It’s been shown that families that share their stories, the wins, the losses, the victories and defeats will raise up children with stronger moral foundations and general resilience in life.

At Akili Capital, we are extremely grateful for the dream of a nine-year-old farm girl from North Dakota.  We are grateful for her resilience and dedication to her dream.  Her story is not just memorable; it’s unforgettable, and her lessons will hold the passage of time.   Without a dream our firm would not exist.  Now we have the distinct responsibility to share the story and help you define and design yours.