Unoma Okorafor: Invest in self-development. I have never met a great leader who is not a reader.

unoma okorafor
Delete the words from your vocabulary that stop you from daring to take the next step Click To Tweet

Dr. Unoma Okorafor is the founder and CEO of Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Education for African women, and working to ensure that talent is engaged in technology and innovation on the African continent.

A serial and social entrepreneur, Dr. Okorafor is also founder and CEO of Herbal Papaya, a health and wellness company that manufactures organic health beverages and supplements. She is also co-founder of Radicube Technologies Inc, a Big Data Analytics company. Unoma has been a speaker and thought leader at several events including SXSW, WISE Conference, Women’s Forum and Ashoka Foundation Changemakers.

She was a recipient of the 2013 Anita Borg Social Change Agent Award and was the 2016 winner of the GEM Tech Awards from ITU and UN Women.

You founded Working to Advance African Women (WAAW) Foundation over a decade ago. What inspired you to take this bold step?

Several factors inspired me to found WAAW Foundation in 2007 while I was completing my Ph.D. degree in Computer Engineering at Texas A & M University.  At that time, I was the only woman of color in the program and my graduate education experience had been a very lonely one working mostly amongst men. I knew that I wanted to be an engineer and had the ability to be a great one, but I wished there were more women in STEM to support each other.

Additionally, I saw the huge impact technology could have in lifting entire communities out of poverty. I could see the rapid technological advances that were in the pipeline. For instance, I saw the advent of Google, PayPal and Amazon and some of my research was around the technologies that powered these huge companies and the impact they had on e-commerce, telecommunications, and the financial industry.

The images I saw in the media did not reflect the Africa I grew up in and the Africa I envisioned in the future and I realized at that point that if we could empower African women with education in Science and Technology and teach them to innovate and solve problems in their communities using technology, we could turn around the plight of our entire African continent.

It was a huge dream considering that at the time I was still a graduate student with two young children. However, I decided it was better to start and even if we could only impact one girl in Africa it was better than doing nothing. It has been inspiring to see how WAAW Foundation has grown.

In the last decade, what are some of the major milestones that WAAW has achieved? What impact would you say that WAAW has had on the way that STEM education is delivered in Nigeria and on the number of girls choosing to study STEM?

Like I mentioned WAAW started as a dream while I was a graduate student with no substantial resources to invest and no experience with running a fully-fledged organization. The first year we launched our website, we offered to sponsor one $500 scholarship for an African girl studying a STEM-related discipline at a University in Africa. It was all my husband and I could afford from our meager graduate student stipend. But this experience opened my eyes to the huge need and the relatively small amount of resources and funds needed to bridge this gap.

That first year we received over 400 applications. We were overwhelmed and I recruited my mother to assess the applications and select the one we felt was the most deserving. But there were so many who needed a small lift. Application after application, I shed tears as I read about AIDS orphans, child mothers, abandoned girls who were struggling to make it through school, doing well with excellent grades who just needed a little support. I was inspired to keep pushing.

To date, WAAW has provided over 30 Scholarships to university girls in STEM, reached over 500 girls through our STEM residential camps, trained over 200 university-to-secondary mentors in 17 university chapters across 10 African countries and we impact almost 20,000 youth each year.

In Nigeria, we have continued to engage with the community to push against societal norms that tell girls that a STEM education is not feminine. We have worked with government ministries, secondary school teachers, communities and especially parents of girls to educate them on the huge benefits of STEM education for girls. WAAW is looking to partner with Federal Ministries of Education, Science and Technology to re-invent what STEM education should be and retrain our teachers to incorporate hands on, locally available resources to promote innovation in the classrooms.


For all the girls and young women currently on the fence about whether a career in STEM is the right choice for them, what advice would you give to them?

First of all, let me say that we are not necessarily promoting the idea that a career in STEM is the right choice for every girl. Our broad message is that we are in the middle of a technological revolution where technology is pervasive in every facet of our lives and will be even more so in the future.

Consider the recent research that states that 90% of jobs created in the next 20-30 years will require some sort of skill in STEM. That means that people who have STEM skills will have a huge advantage over those who don’t. Whether they are applying those skills in core technology or in healthcare, finance, agriculture, business, transportation. I think that girls should participate in creating those technologies so we can solve some of the critical issues facing us.

We're in the middle of a technological revolution, people with STEM skills have a huge advantage Click To Tweet

WAAW is currently partnering with African Women Engineering Leadership and Entrepreneurship (AWELE) Academy to launch the She Hacks Africa Initiative. Could you tell the readers more about this initiative, who the target audience is and what the objectives are?

We launched AWELE Academy in 2016 with the desire to empower our WAAW college fellows and provide them with employable skills in software programming. AWELE academy provides a safe environment for direct project based, hands-on tutoring through regular courses, weekly real-life project and market analysis, coding activities and introduction to computer software that will inspire African youths to view software programming as accessible, fun and doable.

She Hacks Africa coding boot camp is a 3-week coding workshop designed to provide fun and engaging software programming training. It will help build the self-confidence of African youths between the ages of 18-35 years as community change makers and technology innovators while giving them relevant skills to build technology enterprises. Our participants will gain globally relevant skills, build their capacity in technology and benefit from leadership, mentoring, and networking events.

We had our first She Hacks Africa boot camp cohort in January 2017 in Abuja, Nigeria. Our Lagos edition started on Monday, April 24th, 2017.  The training will also provide entrepreneurship sessions to enable the participants to identify potential areas of interest in Technology.

Outside of your professional work, you are also a successful entrepreneur and have several companies under your belt. The one that stood out most to me is Herbal Papaya, the health and wellness company you founded in 2010.

What sparked your interest in health and wellness? Where is Health Papaya active and how can our readers access your products and services?

Herbal Papaya is a US-based health and wellness company that manufactures herbal teas, supplements, smoothies, dried herbs and spices. It was founded in 2011 after I had quit my job as an Engineering Tech lead to stay home and have my third baby. I was focused on eating healthy for my baby and providing healthier meals for my family so I started researching healthy living. I learnt about the genetically modified foods that had flooded the food industry and their potential impact on our health.

It led me to organic papaya, which is a fruit that is hugely beneficial to healthy skin, digestion and immune system. I thought, if I am looking for this, perhaps someone else might be too. So, I did a quick market test and found there was quite an interest and that is how the company was founded.

Herbal papaya products are available to customers in the US, Canada and Europe via our website and on Amazon. We are also available in several independent retail stores and will keep expanding into stores over the next few years. We have also been discussing the possibility of expanding our brand into the African market but that is very preliminary.


You have been invited to speak at several high-profile events including SXSW, WISE Conference, Women’s Forum and Ashoka Foundation Changemakers.

Considering the target audience of She Leads Africa, which of the speeches you have given would you say is most relevant and inspiring for this group and why?

I would say that the recent speech i gave at the SXSW conference would be most relevant to the target audience of She Leads Africa and here is why. The speech focused on why women in tech matter and highlighted the fact that women need to be encouraged to stand up and lead in every facet of life and especially in technology which is very male dominated. When women lead in tech, in business and other areas, we give others the permission to step up and take up their place.

I particularly stressed the fact that encouraging more women to lead is not a zero-sum equation. It does not mean that we are taking the place of men. I encourage more men to get in on the agenda of supporting female empowerment agendas so that together we can elevate the human experience, solve the global challenges of our times and leave behind a better world for our children.

Kat and Lezita: Building a brand based on treating yourself

One of THEE most important tools of success is simply staying true to yourself Click To Tweet

Diving into the uncharted waters of starting a business is no easy task. But attempting to encourage women to treat themselves to self-love while you do it could be nearly impossible. However, the founders of the Unapologetically Single gift box, Kat and Lezita, managed to do so, and for that we needed to know how.

Both founders who have backgrounds in fashion and retail, play a role in carefully selecting the items in the boxes to ensure the products align with their mission to make women feel great about themselves whether they’re single or in relationships. After scrolling through the Unapologetically Single market, it’s clear that Kat and Lezita created these gift boxes for a market that most retailers sleep on, literally.

Give us an overview of

Kat: We want it to feel like a lifestyle destination where women can come and talk about love, life, and everything in between. We also have a market where we feature items lovingly curated with single women in mind.

What drove you to create

Lezita: It was the end of August in 2016 and I was on the way to buy my 3rd baby shower gift and my 1st bridal shower gift of the year.  As I was walking around the store looking at the gift registry, I immediately started to think, “I’m 29 years old and I’m not in a relationship nor am I interested in kids at the moment. What if no one ever celebrates me?” After I left the baby store, I immediately called Kat and we started to brainstorm. Six months later, Unapologetically Single was officially born.

Kat: I was tired of being judged and feeling less than just because of a status. We graduated from college, have great jobs, take care of ourselves and people still feel they can knock you down by saying things like: “You still aren’t married yet?” “That’s why you’re single.” “Pretty, successful and single! You must be crazy.”

Our site is not meant to bash men or relationships. We want to create a place to celebrate single women of color, and not continue to inundate them with tips on how to not be single or constantly tell them what they are doing wrong. We want to encourage them to live their lives unapologetically single and to enjoy the process.

Kat & Lezita push back against the pressure to 'settle down' with UnapologeticallySingle Click To Tweet

What do you feel are the most successful tools you used to build your brand?

Lezita: One of THEE most important tools of success to me is simply staying true to yourself and representing your brand how you want to. It’s so easy to look at what the next company or brand is doing and you may find yourself trying to compete. To me, that’s a losing battle and it’s exhausting.  When you stay true to who you are and what you want your brand to be, people will gravitate towards that authenticity.

Also, for the obvious reasons, never take rejection or negative opinions personal. A lot of times it’s so easy to feel slighted and hurt when someone doesn’t like your idea or they don’t necessarily want to work with you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared my ideas with someone and their reaction was LACKLUSTER or downright rude to say the least lol.  Everyone can’t see your vision and that’s ok. Rejection will never dictate your success AND/OR your worth.  Always keep pushing.

Dunk'd Donut Candle By Shea Shea Bakery
Dunk’d Donut Candle By Shea Shea Bakery

What resources would you recommend for Black woman who are self-employed?

Kat: Honestly, it has been a real learning experience for me. I just try to follow a lot of small business accounts and bloggers who have been where we are and who are not afraid to share their struggles and how they’ve overcome them. One of my current favorite resources is the page Brand, Build and Launch with Arsha Jones.
It’s a group with like-minded members that are supportive and freely share any tips that will help you build and grow a brand. It’s a really positive community and I’ve been inspired to keep pushing from the women there.

Lezita: NETWORK LOCALLY!  It’s so easy to want to reach out to your Instagram and Twitter favorites to network, however, always keep the local organizations in mind too.  Go to that alumni meeting that you’d never normally attend or get involved in city events! You’d be surprised the people that can inspire you or even invest in you just by participating in local events.

I’m a woman in my mid 20s who would love to create my own business but I have no idea where to start. What’s your best advice towards doing so?

Kat Like Nike says, “Just Do It.” Lezita and I have had so many great ideas but we could never seem to get started. Initially, it can be overwhelming and easier to just sink back into your normal routine or that cushy 9-5, but once you take that initial leap (create a website, buy product, etc.), it’ll be hard to turn around.

Lezita: Start out by writing down your goals in pencil (because they will change) and from there set a timeline. There is no right starting point for anyone, but having a timeline will help to keep you on track and in line. Also, be extremely open to change.  When Kat and I first started discussing what we thought our business should look like, it was nowhere near where it is today.

What is your target audience and what challenges have you faced that are unique to your market?

Lezita: Our target audience is women from the ages of 21 and up. The biggest challenge has been defining single.  When some people see the words “Unapologetically Single”, they’re automatically off-put because they “got a good man at home” or because they don’t want to identify as being “ the lonely, single girl.”

We’re constantly brainstorming ways to get the message across that “ Unapologetically Single” doesn’t mean you’re sitting at home alone eating cat food waiting to jump off the ledge. Nor does it mean you aren’t dating or enjoying your life.

You Slay Greeting Card
You Slay Greeting Card

What is the best lesson you’ve learned so far?

Kat: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to not rush the process. Of course, I want to make money doing what I love, but it’s not my motivating factor. I’m just enjoying the process of building the business and watching the company grow.

Also, I try not to get caught up with what other brands are doing, or compare their success to ours.  I just want to feel confident that we are doing our best and putting something out to the world that we are proud of. I feel confident that, if we do that and give it our all, success will come

Lezita: I wholeheartedly agree with Kat. Everyday I remind myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

What is your professional motto?

Kat: “The most they can do is say no”. It’s pretty cliché but I live by this motto, which really pushes me to take chances. In combination with that motto, I just really try not to be caught up in worrying about what others might think or say because someone will always have something negative to say.

Lezita: Breathe, let go, and “remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure. – Muva Oprah Winfrey. With so many outside forces affecting us everyday,  I don’t have the time, energy, or the space to waste worrying about what the things I cannot change. The best thing that I can do for myself and my business is to do my very best in the moment and continue to persevere every moment thereafter.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.

SheHive DC: June 22nd – 25th 2017

The SheHive train came to Washington DC as part of a North America Tour! Check out the fun we had below and join our community to stay up to date on our next SheHive destinations.

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Thank you to our accommodation sponsor Westmont Hospitality Group and The University Inn DC!!