Hannah Olukoye is a Kenyan software developer working in the IT industry. She is a graduate of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Actuarial Science.
She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Applied Information Technology at the African Nazarene University. Take a look at how her experience and expertise have opened doors for her as a Software Developer.
How did you get started in the Information Technology field?
I have always had a passion for programming even though I majored in Actuarial Science at the University. I started off with part-time courses in basic programming languages as soon as I graduated and combined that with a lot of online courses that were offered on free websites.
As an African woman, was it harder for you to enter the IT field?
I am lucky to be born in a country that believes in equality for both genders in education.
In the beginning, there were fewer women in IT compared to the numbers we see now. It was more male-dominated, especially in the local workplace. I would be in teams where we were only two female developers and sometimes, I would be the only female Information Technology expert.
What changes do you foresee in Software Development across Africa?
I see tremendous growth in the number of women sticking to IT, especially when you look at programs like AkiraChix and GADS that are providing more opportunities for developers. These programs provide opportunities to not only learn how to code but also teach them how to make their work stand out.
I am now part of a team-building an Android application that will use machine learning, algorithms to provide solutions to health workers across Africa. I gained confidence in my knowledge through the community.
Would you encourage African women to pursue a career in Information Technology?
Yes, I would! Most women have a hard time being in the IT field because they are treated unfairly and even underpaid, compared to their male colleagues.
This causes many women to be unable to advance in their careers. One of my goals would be to attain more senior roles in companies or organizations that are leading in the Tech field and change the status quo.
Do you have a routine or a way to approach your day? Setting the tone for your day has a massive impact on how much you accomplish.
This month I will be showcasing the routines of several boss ladies who work on the continent. Learn how they balance working hard with staying on top of their physical and mental health.
By sharing our experiences, learning from others and deciding what works for us as individuals, we all can have a good life.
Ethel Cofie has always admired people who had multiple jobs. She has multiple interests and is involves in several companies.
Her work fits within three main buckets: women in leadership, entrepreneurship, and technology. In addition to having personal consulting work, running a technology company focused on digital strategy and transformation, she also runs an organization that empowers women around the world in the tech space.
How does she stay on top of her work and make her health a priority?
Ethel, constantly tweaking her approach to her professional and personal life, let me in on her secret to staying motivated.
Like many entrepreneurs, Ethel describes herself as ‘uber-competitive,’ but at the same time, no one tells her what to do.
She is always trying to be more effective, efficient and productive.
If you enjoy keeping track of your professional and personal goals like Ethel, you should consider using software like excel to keep track.
Ethel uses a spreadsheet to make sure she is on track with her goals and scores herself. Monthly she gives herself a score and daily she creates a to-do list that has up to 3 priorities.
All her workouts are tracked in Apple Health so she can maximize the 30 minutes she dedicates to running each day.
Visualize your success
Success means different things to everyone but being clear on what you want will make it easier for you to attract it.
Ethel takes this one step further by spending a few minutes each day before she starts work to visualize things that she will be able to do when she achieves her goals.
Recently, Ethel has been spending time imagining how much fun it would be to take her immediate and some of her extended family on holiday. This keeps her motivated and focused.
Make your health a priority
The first thing that Ethel does in the morning is put on her running clothes. Once she has them on, she is ready to go. She swears she is not a morning person, but that she has just adjusted.
She is just as dedicated when she is traveling. The first thing Ethel does when she gets to a hotel is asking where the gym is.
She tries to keep her workout routine similar to what she does at home. She spends about 30 minutes running on the treadmill and about 20 minutes doing weights.
Learn from others
Find people to look up to online and offline. Ethel gives credit to productivity books for ‘curing’ her of wanting to do everything.
She recommends starting with reading Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown or Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke.
Ethel packs last minute for trips but plans out almost everything else including snacks. She tries to get in touch with people who will be at the conference she is attending.
About a week before the event, she will get in touch with other speakers and schedule meetings. If she is speaking, she starts practicing about a week before as well. To keep herself from binge eating, Ethel travels with her own snacks. If she is not able to get the cereal or energy bars she likes, she brings along milo. Eating these snacks keeps her from eating unhealthily and drinking coffee.
By keeping track of her progress and planning ahead, Ethel is able to make the most of her time. Even if you don’t like using elaborate excel sheets or tracking software, just knowing where you started can keep you moving forward.
As the perception continues to change on Africa’s one-dimensional portrayal as a struggling continent, the tide of brain drain from developing to developed nations is reducing as a growing number of highly skilled and educated Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalians etc. flock back to their countries of birth after some time away.
They left, either as children with their immigrant parents or for study and early career opportunities. They return, in search of an identity, of bigger opportunities, to seek their roots, and determined to make a change. The countries they come back to are certainly the winners in this affair, as these are typically the very best and brightest.
Toluyemi Nathaniel remembers when she had the awakening moment of making the decision to return home to Nigeria. It was close to the end of her 2-year stay in China studying for a Master’s Degree in International Economics and Business.
In substantiating her refreshing sense of duty towards her country, Tolu reveals that she wasn’t forced to return because her program was over. This is a common occurrence in some cases and she had the chance to further her education there, but declined to.
Curious to understand how she found herself in China in the first place, Toluyemi talks about the reasoning behind the decision to leave for that particular country. She also talks about the period of her stay in China, her return back home, and her work as a Procurement Administrator at Softcom.
Was it your choice to go to China or was it out of your control?
“Deciding to go to China was 100% my choice. It was actually my first time out of the country, but I didn’t want something familiar, which is what the UK or America would’ve been for me. In fact, immediately after I got there, there was this episode at the airport where there was a mix up with me reclaiming my luggage.
Officials gathered trying to solve the problem, but they were all speaking Chinese, which I didn’t understand at the time. This didn’t frighten me, but instead did the opposite; I was, in fact, more interested to understand the language.
In its own way for me, it was about fulfilling a sense of adventure I’d long craved. I’m a thrill seeker at heart, so China was a place I really looked forward to living in”.
Tolu’s take on a seeming over-familiarization of foreigners with Western culture is valid in the growing sense that with its global connection, European culture has grown with an all-inclusive urge to adopt, adapt, and ultimately influence other cultural trends around the world.
In comparison to a country with a rich cultural history and background still waiting to be explored by most, it’s understandable why the Asian country will be a better pick to experience an original cultural adventure.
It’s all well and good, however, the intricacies of living as a minority in the most populated nation on earth remains a reality that can’t be written off. Last year, Quartz published a comprehensive report on a growing fear in some parts of China of a “black invasion bringing drugs and crime” due to the increasing number of African migrants.
What it’s like studying and living in China as a young black Nigerian woman?
“That can honestly be a bit tricky to navigate because the Chinese aren’t used to seeing black people. They are almost fascinated when they see one, and still do things like rubbing a black person’s skin, asking if it is ‘dirt’. I’ve had a few people do that to me.
Sometimes, they just stare at you because they’ve never seen someone like that before. In my case, I was fortunate because Tianjin (where I stayed) has one of the highest percentages when it comes to the number of different national ethnicities.
I met other Africans, and some of my classmates were black people. There are blatant cases like when cars don’t wait to pick you up, or when I was told to “sound American” at an interview trying to get a job as an English tutor on campus.
As an African woman living in China, there’s this contention of you constantly trying to decide if it’s racism or simply ignorance which I guess is the same for most black people there.”
Overt displays of racism from locals can be too much to handle for some living in the diaspora. For these people, the danger of being targeted by racial violence can be the deal breaker between settling and returning home.
Tolu, however, insists that she doesn’t regret her decision to move there, and says she’s gained a new perspective on some issues because of some of her encounters.
“There’s a lot of how things are done over there that will be strange to us. There are things we can copy and a couple of things we shouldn’t copy. It’s a fascinating array of differences in culture and practice that if a balance can be found, a lot of problems will be solved. But the process of finding that balance comes with the firsthand participation in a challenging change to one’s conventions and ideas of the world.”
The case for diaspora-return driven development in Nigeria is compelling, and the advantages cannot be denied.
“All I kept thinking of was how much can I change over there? I just feel sometimes, it’s more difficult to change things you haven’t experienced. Everyone that has made a change in this country is people that lived through the Nigerian story and made up their mind to change things when given the opportunity. I decided to join that group.” she continues
Returnees come to represent a bridge of the ever-widening knowledge gap, finding solutions to knotty problems with more sophisticated approaches due to an experience of both worlds. With Nigeria’s labour force on a perpetual rise – National Bureau of Statistics says it increased from 83.9m in Q2, 2017 to 85.1m in Q3, 2017 – the majority of the population being dominated by people who’ve gained some know-how in important areas of technology and systems will be key in furthering economic progress in the country.
For her own part, Tolu works as an Admin and Procurement Associate at Softcom Ltd, a company which has the pungent line of “Engineering to enhance the way we live, learns and work in Africa” as part of its Solutions Portfolio.
While the parallels are present, the difference in her educational background in Economics and Business and her current job role is still conspicuous. I tried to find out about how she found herself in this line of work, what the role entails, and what a typical day at work is like for her.
What does working in Procurement/Operations mean in the tech world?
“I had the opportunity to start my Ph.D. even after getting back to Nigeria but I declined because I wanted to work. When job opportunities in Business weren’t forthcoming, I took on the challenge of working in Admin & Procurement, a role I wasn’t so familiar with prior to that point.
But it’s been amazing because I have learned so much on the job and now I’m just working towards being the best I can be at it. In Admin, the objective is to ensure there is a smooth operation of activities in the office.
Responsibilities can range from automating the monitoring of various activities and contracts to coordination and management of administrative issues like hygiene & welfare. Generally, admin is more concerned with making the work environment much more conducive to boost productivity levels.
As a Procurement Associate, I’m equally tasked with being responsible for all the purchases at Softcom. In a tech company, this includes project-specific materials which involve negotiating with external vendors to secure advantageous terms”.
While trying to understand the complicated landscape of Nigeria’s job market, a bit of background context is required. The country is included among the 10 fastest growing markets in the world, but still faces the problem of an overcrowded labor market that’s made gainful employment a premium in recent years.
Tech companies like Softcom meanwhile have taken advantage of the explosion of Nigeria’s digital economy, seeing the sector as an avenue to tap into a rapidly urbanizing population of about 80 million people, whilst providing solutions to issues and sustainable employment to citizens.
An important point of note is that Tolu talks about how the Nigerian job market remains a slippery slope to navigate for women, especially in tech.
Despite extolling Softcom’s value of commitment to diversity, she is under no illusions and is affirmatory when she answers “I honestly don’t think we are that much” to my question about how many women she thinks exists in tech spaces these days.
Gender disparity isn’t peculiar to the tech sector, but stats point to a decline in the percentage of women in computing-related occupations since 1991.
It’s a problem felt across the board, as women in tech still face significant barriers in the workplace; from a shortage of women role models to inequitable pay gap to persistent gender bias that nearly 90% of them say they have experienced. I got a few of Tolu’s thoughts on what she thinks the future holds for women in tech.
From Tinsel to Technology. Kelechi is changing the narrative of African women in the tech world.
Kelechi Udoagwu is an Accra-based Nigerian tech entrepreneur/consultant, presenter, advocate, student, and writer. Up until 2017, she was the full-time communications director at MEST Africa. She is also the co-founder of Skrife and produces and hosts the web series- Tech Roundup with Bitnode.
Her work revolves around empowering through mentorship, edutainment, speaking engagements, multimedia content, and connecting to new opportunities.
In this interview, she talks to us about her growing passion for technology and the need to empower more women and girls to venture into the tech industry.
You’ve switched your career many times. What inspired your journey?
It’s always interesting to be reminded of how varied my career has been. For me, it’s all been work, work, work – the different ways I earn money and contribute to the world. I started modeling while I was in the university. It was just for fun at first, then I graduated and focused on it full-time.
That was when I got the Tinsel gig and I was fortunate to work with other big brands as well – Samsung, MTN, Haier Thermocool, Lipton, Vitafoam, and others. These early experiences prepared me for “adulting” as I learned to manage my money, deal with people from all walks of life and build a professional persona.
After NYSC, I got my first 9-5 job as a Fashion Brand Manager but resigned after six months because it wasn’t very fulfilling. I then decided to explore a new industry. I was fascinated with tech entrepreneurship because it seemed like an easy way to make quick bucks.
I got into tech in 2014. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life yet. I love the industry, I love the variety and I love the fast pace. I worked as Head of Communications at MEST and founded my startup, Skrife in 2016. I also started creating multimedia – video and written – content – for brands, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
What part do African girls play in the next generation of technology, and how can they harness these potentials?
It’s time, however, that we stop limiting ourselves to manual labor and start working smarter. It’s time we leave what we’re used to and conquer new mountains.
They say “when you educate a woman, you educate a whole community,”. Imagine what we can do for Africa if we join in the global progression and conversation around technology. We don’t all have to be programmers but we can all be a part of the industry.
There are branding, marketing, HR, design, community management roles available.If we do this, the next generation of African women will have role models who look like them and they can build on what we started instead of starting from scratch like we are.
How has your journey been moving into the tech space?
My journey has been interesting. I’ve never been one to ask for permission to make a move and that has helped me navigate the various industries I’ve been in, especially tech where “move fast and break things” is a mantra.
Now is the best time for us to be involved. The industry is welcoming and there are a lot of opportunities directed at women specifically. It’s not always going to be like this so it’s wise to take advantage now.
What principles and work ethics have played a role in propelling you further in your career?
My ability shake off rejection easily greatly helped my career. Believe me, I’ve been rejected a lot of times. I believe getting ahead is a numbers game and for every 100 no’s, there’s one yes that makes it all worth it.
My entire life, not just career, revolves around keeping my word. If I say I’ll do it, I do it. If I’m not sure, I say I’ll get back to you and think about it some more. This has helped me a lot at work – keeps my mind clear, keeps me happy with the people I work with and also keeps them happy with me.
Tell us about your new book ‘Living Everyday like its Saturday’.
I’m super excited about it! I have had so many ideas for books to write but this is the most relevant to me and my audience at this time.
The book will chronicle the lessons I’ve learned being a freelancer from Africa – how I structure my day, deal with clients around the world, brand myself, use technology, etc.
I can promise everyone in advance there will be no fluff in this book; only hardcore, real life, actionable advice.
As a creative, what impact does quality content have in telling the African story for mainstream media?
When we started Skrife, our goal was to build a platform and writers’ community that is synonymous with quality. If a client ever complains about a job done via Skrife, we refund their money or rewrite it at no extra charge.
Creating content is like real-time documentation of our everyday experiences and it can be the difference between an economy that prospers and one that fails. Every time you read a book that was written ages ago, you step into the mind of that person.
With technology changing everything around us, it is very important that we document these early days so the next generation continues from where we stopped instead of starting all over. “To forget is to throw away.”
Also by creating more positive content, we can change the narrative of Africa. We can stop close-minded and sheltered foreigners from thinking we don’t read books or use the internet. Chimamanda Adichie was recently asked if there are libraries in her country.
Isolated from the rest of the world, headphones on, what’s your jam for days?
Haha, I love this question. I’m one of those people who can’t get anything done without earphones on. That one song that never gets old is All Things Go by Chiddy Bang. Go listen to it and think of me 🙂
If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.
Want to start a career in the tech industry but not sure where you’ll fit in? Already a woman in tech but want to connect with other women in tech and ask some of your pressing questions?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then you need to join this Google Hangout. You’ll get a chance to hear how these 4 amazing Nigerian Women In Tech have built their careers and also ask any questions you have.
We are partnering withGoogle Women Techmakers to bring you a Google Hangout discussion on Wednesday, March. 21st, with 4 women in tech, who have been in the game for a while.
BellaRose Okojie heads a content development team providing tech news and reviews in a never before seen manner. Damilola Teidi directs incubator programs by bringing new technology solutions to market. Judith Okonkwo is a technology evangelist, business psychologist and organization development consultant with experience working in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Yetunde Sanni is a software developer leveraging technology to tackle challenges in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
Topics that we’ll cover:
Getting started in the tech industry.
Why become a woman in tech.
Career opportunities for women in the tech space.
Incorporating technology into your business.
Discussing the root causes of the misconception that ‘Tech is Boring’.
Google Hangout details:
Date: Wednesday, March 21st, 2018
Time: 1pm Lagos
Location: Register below to get the exclusive link to join this Google Hangout.
Watch the Google Hangout video here:
About our women in tech:
BellaRose Iyere-Okojie is a seasoned broadcaster and cheeriest of the pack. She is the morning show host on City 105.1fm, having started her broadcasting career as an associate producer with Africa Independent Television (AIT).
Bella is currently a partner at Greenstreet Media Networks, owners of TechCity where she heads the content development team providing tech news and reviews in a never before seen manner. She also trains presenters and voice over artists who want to hinge on the TechCity platform.
Bella Rose is Mass Communication graduate of the Redeemer’s University.
Damilola Teidi started her career journey as a software developer, and is currently the Director of Incubation at Co-creation Hub and has seven years experience working in the technology space in Nigeria. She is passionate about using technology to solve problems.
Prior to re-joining CcHUB as Director of incubation, she worked as Chief Executive Officer of GoMyWay Africa, the carpooling platform for intracity and interstate trips, where she led the growth of the start-up to 12,000 members up by 150% from 4000 members in 2016.
Damilola holds a First class Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology from Eastern Mediterranean University, Northern Cyprus and a distinction in Strategy and Innovation management (MSc) from the University of Southampton, United Kingdom.
Judith Okonkwo was born in London but grew up in Austria, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Japan. In 2016 she set up Imisi 3D in Lagos, a creation lab building the extended reality ecosystem (augmented and virtual reality) in Nigeria.
She sits on the board of the European Organisation Design Forum, is a guest lecturer at the Lagos Business School and the University of Westminster; and is the creator of the Oriki Coaching ModelTM.
Judith is also the co-founder of We Will Lead Africa a movement curating and sharing everyday African leadership stories and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.
Yetunde Oluwatoyin Sanni is currently a software developer with Andela, where she builds software solutions for Andela partners across the globe by the day and actively a machine learning expert to be at night.
She loves to see herself as a tech junkie who’s passionate about leveraging technology to tackle challenges in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
Yetunde is also a founding partner at TechInPink, an initiative dedicated to mentoring and supporting young women in tech. There, she writes about technology, organizes events and basic programming training targeted at young women in the universities.
Ivy Barley is a social entrepreneur and currently shaping a world where more African women will be daring enough to lead in in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields.
She is the co-founder of Developers in Vogue, an organization that trains females in the latest technologies and connects them to real-time projects and jobs. In 2017, she was named as one the 50 Most Influential Young Ghanaians.
Ivy is also a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum and holds a Master’s Degree in Mathematical Statistics.
Tell us about yourself
Growing up, I always had a strong aptitude for Mathematics and Technology, and that has pretty much shaped my career path. I recently completed my MPhil. in Mathematical Statistics.
I believe that I have the potential to make a significant impact in Africa, and this is enough motivation for my work at Developers in Vogue. Aside from being a selfie freak, I enjoy hanging out with my best friend (my phone).
How did Dev in Vogue start?
About a year ago, I was working at an all-girls pre-university where my role included assisting the girls with Mathematics, Statistics, and Physics. I also taught the girls programming.
Before working in this school, I’d been hearing people say that women don’t like coding. However, I realized the contrary!
The girls were very enthusiastic about coding, they also had so many great ideas! My stay in the school was cut short but all the while after that, what never left me were the memories of the girls!
It dawned on me to start a sustainable initiative that will create the ideal environment for females to code, connect and collaborate.
What has been your biggest hurdle so far?
We pretty much didn’t have a lot of challenges getting our business off the ground. We’re glad we had support from interested stakeholders. A hurdle though is trying to create a community.
One of our unique value propositions is that we don’t only match our ladies to jobs, but also creating a community of women who support each other. It definitely requires a lot of time and effort to create such a sisterhood.
Has there ever been a time when you thought of giving up? What kept you going?
I think I have thoughts of giving up very often and I find that normal. I have however learned not to let my feelings dictate. If there is something that has to be done, I definitely need to do it and do it now!
My life is governed by one mantra: Pay Now; Play Later. That is, I would rather sacrifice now so that I can have a better future. Most importantly, I start my day with the word of God and listen to a lot of inspirational podcasts especially from Joel Osteen and Terri Savelle Foy.
What is your favorite thing about coding?
I particularly like that with my laptop and internet, I can create powerful software that can transform Africa and the world at large. Coding teaches you critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are very important skills for this era.
I won’t deny that it doesn’t get difficult. When coding, you’d realize the power of a ‘simple’ semi-colon because omitting that can sometimes cause you hours of no sleep.
Which season is the toughest for your job? How do you overcome this?
For now, it has been keeping the community engaged. Though it has been fun doing this, it definitely needs more time investment.
I’d like to call myself the cheerleader of the team, inspiring the ladies to dream big and work hard to make them happen.
What however serves as motivation in spite of the challenges are the stories of the impact we are making in the lives of these women.
What, in your opinion, is the future of coding especially for girls in Africa?
Coding and generally technology has so much untapped potential in Africa. For females, the future is even brighter. Day in and day out there are so many opportunities that come up to promote women in technology.
Relevant stakeholders are beginning to realize the gender gap in the tech ecosystem and are putting measures in place to bring more women into the room.
What advice would you give to any girl in Africa considering coding?
Keep at it, my girl! You need to work hard in order to stay relevant. You need to keep improving your skills.
Though it may get difficult at some points, think about the big picture. Also, make time to network with people in the industry to learn best practices that can make you world-class.
If coding is truly your passion, then you definitely need a lot of diligence and determination. In case you need some support with this, I’ll be glad to offer a helping hand!
Any advice for African women entrepreneurs?
I think one advice I’d always give to people is hard work. Also, have your visions and goals in writing and review them every single day.
As women, there are so many activities that are likely to take our attention from growing our businesses. This is the more reason why we need to stay focused. Let’s do this for Africa!
If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.
This former man’s world is about to be shaken. Slowly but surely, ladies are taking the tech space by storm in Africa and continuing to build that proverbial bridge over what is still one of the widest gender gaps on the planet. Some of the most promising software startups coming out of Africa today boast female founders that have faced the tech boys’ club head on, and they’re not backing down.
The women of the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) are speaking out about their experience as software startup founders and voicing the need for more women in STEM fields. MEST is a training program, seed fund, and incubator for aspiring tech entrepreneurs in Africa and is headquartered in Ghana. From just 10% women in its first class in 2008, MEST now boasts 30%, and it wants to see even more.
The ratio of women to men in tech isn’t where it should be
Head of Recruitment at MEST, Amma Baffoe, notes that though on the rise in Africa, the ratio of women to men in the tech sector is not nearly where it should be. The team is now on the hunt for even more driven, ambitious ladies to show the world how it’s done.
“We collectively need to ensure that as tech continues to thrive, we also take the necessary steps required to bring our women along with us by actively seeking to identify, recruit and mentor more African women into tech. This has enormous potential to empower families and create new opportunities for generations to come.”
Communications Director, co-founder of startup Skrife and former MEST student Kelechi Udoagwu feels the bridge is already getting stronger: “These are exciting times for women in tech – in Africa and all over the world. We are increasingly becoming visible and accepted in the tech industry, and this gives us to room to innovate and be creative in creating solutions for problems that are peculiar to females alone.” Of course, visibility isn’t nearly enough – but it’s a pretty promising first step.
A number of successful female-led startups
Female-led startups coming out of MEST have been blowing up over the past few years. Tress, the African woman’s go-to app on hair trends, styles, products, and stylists, was recently selected for the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator program in Silicon Valley, an honor founders Priscilla Hazel, Esther Olatunde and Cassandra Sarfo don’t take for granted.
“It’s been a great experience…I learned that what I’m going through in my startup is the same thing someone in another country is going through – bootstrapping, looking for money, trying to get users, or coming up with value for your users. It’s the same issues that many startups around the world face…And now I have a network of people to ask for support,” says CEO Priscilla Hazel.
“I love the fact that by working on something that we are passionate about and is at the same time very personal to us as cofounders, we are creating value for black women all over the world.”
Current MEST student Stella Ngugi notes how influential it’s been to work with changemakers and tech stars like Priscilla: “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get it. I didn’t know the true value of women tech makers until I came to MEST. There’s no denying the snowball that is women tech makers; we are driving change throughout Africa, moving fast and paving a way with no boundaries.”
Outside of their startups, the MEST ladies are going even further to encourage more to follow in their footsteps. Former Entrepreneurs in Training (EITs) Linda Ansong, Angela Koranteng and Lady-Omega Hammond have been leading the way in STEM subjects since university. After swapping stories about the incredible gender division they saw in school, they decided to get serious.
It was exposure to strong, successful women in STEM that encouraged these ladies to pursue their passions from the start, and they wanted to ensure the next generation of African women could find the same exposure.
They hunkered down in a MEST classroom to decide how best to approach the issue, and very quickly, STEMBees was born. This non-profit is now filled with smart, successful, buzz-worthy women who offer computer literacy training and career exploration for future female changemakers in Ghana.
Lady-Omega, who is also the CEO of Ampersand Technologies Ltd, believes that change is already happening. “I believe awareness around the potential of a woman being maximized outside the home is growing more each day. It’s encouraging to see men around us becoming more supportive and women being role models and actively engaging with other women, young or old. This changes mindsets and gives us women the opportunity to grow to our fullest potential.”
These female tech entrepreneurs are breaking barriers with force. But so are many of our male colleagues. According to Cassandra and Priscilla, it’s important that we don’t attribute too much of our success to gender alone.
“Everyone can go into the technology field, whether female or male,” Cassandra says. “It’s just about your drive, your passion. If you have a passion for something, you can achieve it. It doesn’t matter your sex – everyone can do it. I’m doing it, so believe it.” After all, the keyword here really is equality.
Thanks to these #MotherlandMoguls in Ghana, general interest in technology from young girls has drastically increased since the program was founded in 2008. Girls from the community are seeing the number of African female founders from MEST being recognized globally, and as a result are seeking some of that tech startup glory for themselves. Here are some #humblebrags from the women of MEST:
Anne Amuzu, CEO of MEST-incubated Nandimobile, was named one of Forbes 10 Female Tech Founders to Watch in Africa. The Tress team, led by female entrepreneur and CEO Priscilla Hazel, raised $150,000 USD from Y-Combinator before even graduating from the MEST program and was named one of 5 African inventions to look out for in 2017 by the BBC.
Female-led Beavly has raised $40, 000 and created more than 200 job opportunities for people on their platform.
These are great first steps, but we’ve got a bridge to finish building. What are you waiting for?
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.
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.
It’s always great to see our African sisters take on non-traditional fields such as technology and engineering. One such woman who has literally made technology her niche is Kagure Wamunyu.
The 27 year old is the current head of logistics and operations at Uber Kenya. Kagure is changing the way women lead in the tech industry by following her own path and refusing to take no for an answer. She has carved her way into the industry meticulously with not one, not two, but three degrees under her belt.
Kagure quickly returned to her beloved home-town, Nairobi to use her knowledge and expertise in improving the transport and urban planning industries, two things she is very passionate about.
Diana Odero, our SLA contributor had a great chat with Kagure to find out what it is that keeps her motivated to do what she does and why she believes in always paying it forward.
Word on the street is that you were Uber Kenya’s first full-time employee. How did you bag that role coming straight out of uni?
I was recruited to join the organization during my last year as a postgraduate student through LinkedIn. I think what they really liked was the fact that I had picked a particular course and specialized in it throughout my academic career and work experience.
All my research projects were transportation planning based and I mostly focused on Nairobi so I knew the topic and the area very well. Reading up on Nairobi gave me great knowledge on the industry there, which I used during my interviews with them and that resulted into me getting the job.
Your road to Uber has been quite fascinating. An internship at the UN just before joining the company, a Masters degree from UC Berkeley and you also completed two degrees concurrently in college —all funded by scholarships might we add…
How did you manage to study abroad for over five years and what would you advice young girls striving for the same to do?
I was fortunate enough to go and study in the US with the help of Zawadi Africa Education Fund, a program that provides scholarships to bright young girls who show leadership potential. I discovered Zawadi Africa while in high school and I think my taking initiative to actually want to be part of the program got me the scholarship I needed to go for further studies.
Then, I was awarded a scholarship by Meredith College where I studied Mathematics and Civil Engineering. I think figuring out what it is you want to do in life, early in life, is key in helping you achieve your goals. I knew what I wanted to be and I saw that this school in particular would allow me a chance to do a dual degree so I took the opportunity.
Being in school for five years as opposed to the traditional four meant a lot of balancing and multi-tasking on my part but every minute was worth it.
As for my Masters, I applied the same method, I looked for schools that had the course I wanted, looked up scholarship opportunities within those schools and applied. I was never scared or apprehensive about either application, I just saw an opportunity and went for it.
There have been instances when there was public opposition from your taxi drivers about changes within the company such as drastic price cuts.
How did you handle this public conflict?
For me, it’s very important to believe in what I do. It’s very important to believe in the impact the work that I do has in my community, in my city and in my country. It helps that my background is in urban planning so I have a holistic view in terms of what is going on.
When you believe in what you do, most of the time you have to set the misconceptions straight. When people are talking negatively about the work that you are doing or the impact the company has, more often than not, it’s always about misinformation or miscommunication.
I handled this public conflict through telling my story, as it is very important to set the record straight, first and foremost. Tell things from your perspective and believe it as you say it. I always see opposition as an opportunity to grow, it gives me a reason to dig deeper into my work and see what the problem is and explain to them exactly what I meant by my decision.
What tips do you have for those interested in joining the technology/urban planning field?
For those interested in this field, and this is especially to the women; we always feel like technology is all about coding and programming which by the way, I can do neither. There are so many other things you can do in the world of technology and it’s just a matter of taking the leap.
Be good at what you do now, be good at what you have chosen. Be it communications, urban planning, legal studies or engineering. Should you decide you want to be part of the technology sector, know that these companies need all these different functions to work. So if you have perfected your niche, whatever field it may be in, you will be able to find opportunities in the tech world.
At the same time, find out what it is the tech companies look for, research on which direction the field is moving towards and improve and groom yourself for that role.
In May earlier this year, we announced a partnership with Sidian Bank for USD$100 million in financing for the drivers within Uber. I had been involved from the very beginning of this ground-breaking deal, from concept to crafting and execution to eventually closing said deal.
I’m very proud about it because this vehicle financing goes to the drivers. Drivers are traditionally paid about $200 per month, making it very difficult for them to access a traditional loan. With this deal, they would be able to access a loan of about $13-15,000 with zero down payment and at the market rate they wouldn’t have to pay a premium.
The impact that this is having on people’s lives…I’m very proud of that. It’s gratifying to see the drivers becoming entrepreneurs and small business owners.
You recently organized a luncheon in honour of the women drivers at Uber. Why was it important to you to celebrate them?
The field of transportation for a long time has not been a field for women. This is something that I’m very passionate about changing while I’m working in this industry. Uber does offer safe, reliable transportation so it allows the women to take on the job, when they never thought they could before because they didn’t have a guarantee of safety.
In addition, Uber provides women quite a bit of flexibility in that they can drive whenever they are free to drive instead of being restricted to a fixed schedule. The women at Uber chose to join our unconventional way of doing things because it not only provides them a second income but it allows them to still work their full-time jobs, tend to their families and work with Uber at their convenience.
Women who are looking to build themselves and are doing so by being a part of this group is something exciting to see. I would like to see this all over Kenya, so this is why I chose to celebrate them.
Lastly, what mantra do you live by?
I live by two mantras. One was beautifully said by Ory Okolloh during a speech I attended; “Doing what you love has a formula: To do what you love, you have to be excellent at what you’re doing right now”.
I really believe in that because if you do really well wherever you are right now, it opens up opportunities that you may never even have imagined.
The second is; “Be like a duck, just dive in and kick really hard to stay afloat because sinking is not an option”.
You may be faced with various challenges in your life that make you think; ‘Oh gosh, what did I just get into, this is way above my depth, I don’t think I can do this…’ But you know what you should say instead —‘I’m going to try my hardest, I’ll tap into all the resources I have, use my network and figure out how to handle whatever difficult situation may have been thrown my way.’
Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.
The first time I met Shana Kay Derman, she was dancing along to a music performance at a women in technology conference. Actually, she was the only person in the whole room dancing, so naturally I joined her.
I will admit, I was bit shocked to see her go up on stage a few minutes later. Not only was she a speaker, but she was the Chief Innovator and co-founder of a successful internet security company.
With a refreshingly authentic leadership style reminiscent of leaders like Richard Branson, Shana heads up innovation at IntelliCred in Johannesburg. While there remains a noted absence of women founder’s in the tech space, Shana has managed to find success. Who better to meet up with for a little inspiration?
You have built an amazing tech company. Looking back on your journey, what do you wish you could have done differently?
My journey is still very much in progress, but what is always top of mind is being less afraid. Being more willing to take risks is something that as a woman, I always thought was more of a “me” thing than a gender thing.
But over 25+ years, and engaging with women from all walks of life, many of them including myself admitted to not big risk takers. An example of when I should have spoken up and taken a risk was with my first business. I wish I would have had the opportunity to purchase a larger share of the company I was building. At the time, I didn’t feel I was worthy of asking, when in hindsight, I definitely was.
Another aspect of business that I wish I had been more vocal about was questioning things. I learned not to assume that if someone is older, or in the industry for longer, or even seen as knowledgeable, that anything they claimed should be taken as fact.
Questioning engagements, partnerships, points of view, opinions and especially advice is something that I do more now. Whenever I feel that the point does not sit well with me or simply does not make sense, I question it.
I know you worked incredibly hard in your first company. With that in mind I can’t imagine you being afraid to ask for the full value of your contribution. I’ve heard similar stories a little too often.
With the wisdom of hindsight, how can women begin to have their value realized in the workplace?
In my opinion, gender-roles are responsible for women (and I am referring to my experiences here and the stories shared by my female friends and peers) not valuing themselves in the business place.
Sheryl Sandberg’s Leanin.org published a statistic that a man will apply for a job with only meeting 60% of the criteria where a woman will want to meet 100% of the criteria to apply for the same job. This takes me back to risk-taking and raises the topic of assertiveness.
Being assertive doesn’t mean being a b***h or being a horrible person, it means we need to speak up more. Speaking up more means we start to be seen. Ensuring that our team members see and acknowledge the work we do is one of the ways that we can ensure that our value is visible.
Perhaps men value themselves more because they are allowed to experiment a lot more when they are younger? As children, girls are not nurtured nearly enough to hone the skills that allow us to show and feel value, in a business context.
However, having said all that, to me the essence of value resides in women supporting and uplifting each other. Women and men should consider showcasing women more as there are so many doing amazing things who no one ever gets to hear about.
At this stage you have successfully brought your idea to life. What advice do you have on shattering our personal glass ceilings and nurturing entrepreneurship qualities?
I believe that there are two core qualities in entrepreneurs that cannot be taught. The one is perseverance and the other is drive or vision. Perseverance is key to sustaining the entrepreneurship spirit. You’ll go through many challenges before successes and the challenges are many.
A few tips on shattering any personal glass ceilings are:
Constantly educate yourself, especially on the essentials of the marketplace.
Find a mentor that can give you support and a boot in the butt when needed, and hone your skills irrespective of gender. Having a mentor is also key to challenging my thinking when I am in a rutt.
Drive or vision is the key sustainer for me. Have a vision greater than yourself. Doing a greater good for the world at large while building a successful profitable business is something I’ll always come back to.
I’ve heard it said that tech is ‘the great leveler’. Meaning that, it’s a space that doesn’t care about gender, as long as your product is good.
Have you found this to be true?
I would not say that tech doesn’t care about gender. It remains a very male-dominated industry. What I will say is that when you build something, no-one cares if a male or female built it. All they care about is that it works the way it is meant to. In this regard, tech is a leveler.
In the beginning of my technology career, I worked ten times harder because the field was so sparse with women. Over time and feeling more confident in my ability (due to educating myself and working hard), I had to prove myself less and less.
You do of course still come across the chauvinistic person every now and then. I deal with that by always speaking up in meetings or contribute to sessions where my contribution makes sense.
I imagine being one of so few women in the industry you must have felt the need to be close to perfect?
Perfection is something that I’ve always strived for in everything I do.
With that said, I realize that one cannot be a perfectionist in all aspects of life, it is simply just too exhausting. Life needs to happen too.
Can you think of a moment in your career so far that was a game-changer? What was the lesson you received from it?
In 2009, I was selected alongside 11 other South African women to study tech-entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, USA. The experience took us all out of our comfort zones. It brought together a mix of South African women in a gloabl context and the results were phenomenal.
Most of us remain very close friends, and we’ve even done business together. We also act as an informal board of advisers when the need arises.
My life changed forever due to the experience of being in the USA. It helped me to think bigger and more global. Being around like-minded, driven women, and meeting phenomenal mentors who continue to support us to this day was powerful.