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My Lessons Learned Inspiring African Girls to Transform Their Digital Future

By Guest Writer on May 27, 2021

inspire her stem

I want to connect underprivileged schoolgirls with role models to advance career exposure, entrepreneurship, and life skills development in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). First, I needed to overcome my fears to allow myself to tap into our opportunities, resources, networks to bring out the best version of myself and those I love and care about.

As I reflect on 2020, it is not exactly how I envisioned it. I had plans to travel to Kenya at least a few times to:

  • Finalize the “perfect” strategic plan and case statement to share why investing in girl’s mentorship to pursue STEM is the rapid force and ripple effect in fighting poverty
  • Hold a STEM conference to do a deeper local needs assessment and build partnerships
  • Expand a USA coding program for girls to a new country,

I had it all planned out. Then I didn’t. My dream for InspireHER STEM is still valid but with a renewed mind frame and mental attitude.

On Being Kenyan, and American

I was born and raised in Kenya, grew up in a household that borrowed from one hand to feed the other, so the desire to go back and do more for those that raised me, invested in my education, and grew up with me has always been there. Not just in the sense of being part of the billions of remittances already sent to Kenya but to establish a sustainable way to fight poverty for those we left behind.

My greatest desire was also my biggest fear.

When you move to a new country, you slowly adapt to the habits of your new environment and whether you realize it or not, it becomes the norm for you. You suddenly become a stranger to a place you once called home and are a foreigner to a place you now call home.

You are caught between a strong childhood connection, a deep desire to see those you grew up with fight poverty, and a new you that has no clue where to start and merge the two. You feel so close to the problems but in the same sense so far from the local solutions that could work.

There is an obvious disconnect between those in the diaspora, the international community, and the locals. Our experiences are different, the advancement in technologies is different, our work cultures different, but they are still differences and advances that together have a greater impact in making a difference for the greater good.

After so many years away and despite the yearly visits, I was more Americanized than I ever realized but still Kenyan in so many ways.

“You can take the girl out of the village, but you sure can’t take the village out of her.”  Cultural Perceptions in Addressing Digital Inclusion

5 Lessons Learned with InspireHER STEM

Here are 5 lessons learned from my journey reconnecting deeply with the past poverty problems of my childhood, creating sustainable gender-based solutions, and growing a local movement to InspireHER STEM:

1. Best Solutions Are From Those Living the Problems.

It is easy to imagine that having grown somewhere, coupled with exposure, all the technology tools, and years of experience in a field, you have figured out the solutions to poverty problems in a country. You haven’t. In fact, you are not the best to define the solutions.

There is nothing more insightful than allowing the person currently experiencing a problem to be part of the solution. The “talking box”, an anonymous way to collect feedback from beneficiaries becomes our biggest influence on the solutions we develop at InspireHER STEM.

I didn’t need another trip, or a “why” conference. You don’t either. Solutions with the greatest impact are from the people and by the people, I was going to give back to. Ask them what works then implement.

The youth have solutions to the poverty, digital divide, and gender problems affecting them. As global citizens, we are the catalyst that opens career opportunities and outside experiences to close the digital gender gap in Kenya and beyond.

2. Your Story is Never too Boring to Share.

Right before I boarded the plane back to the USA in early 2020, I shared my story with a local friend on what had brought me to Kenya and why I was going to be back a few more times in the year this time around. She said, “It sounds very interesting, let’s figure it out together”.

The problem was, we came from different schools of thought. As a longtime, ICT professional, I collect user stories to develop software within specified sprints. It is the agile way, right? How hard can it be to develop humanitarian stories, share with my network, provide sponsorships, teach to code and connect to a mentor within a specified time?

She reminded me, “I am not software and neither are they”. While we have had to work harder to merge our corporate and humanitarian worlds, build mentoring frameworks that work, the stories of resilience we share from our different career experiences bring us closer to the solutions that matter, for the people that matter, from the people that matter. It takes time to get used to telling your story a different way and accepting cultural differences but…

Your time counts more than you can imagine. Just show up and be there when you say you will.

3. Ask the Right Questions

The talking box or getting local feedback is not just about handing out a piece of paper and asking for solutions from the mentees. Open-ended questions and a variety of input from your professional exposure and experience still matters. Collaborations with existing grassroots organizations and professionals from other non-STEM disciplines accelerate mentors’ and mentee’s impact where our upbringing, career exposure, and experiences lack.

Fighting poverty is more than providing school sponsorships, computer hardware, career exposure, and mentor connections. It is getting to understand what keeps our beneficiaries up at night whether that is food, sanitary pads, an abusive situation at home, lack of enough teachers, lack of school supplies, an upcoming exam, lack of study materials, lack of a place to sleep safely or not knowing whether the salary for a staff member will be funded or not.

Beyond digital inclusion and girls, boys, and men matter, financial literacy is necessary, cultural connections matter, emotional and social learning is critical in developing a well-rounded future workforce. Sexual and reproductive health awareness stops the setback due to teenage pregnancies.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Collaboration from our unique experiences brings all the pieces of the puzzle together by sharing solutions that work within existing partner community-based empowerment organizations to fill the technology gender gap.

Period banks in these underserved communities provide safe spaces for girls to discuss menstrual health, access to mentor computers, obtain peer mental health support, discuss root problems and cover basic administration expenses.

4. Always Be Flexible

COVID-19 disrupted my plans to fly back to Kenya, my “perfect” one-year preparation strategy but with it came an acceleration in digitization, remote jobs, and a blessing in disguise.

Suddenly, there was an influx in the need to go remote and digital work outpaced available talent. Not just from software companies but from organizations that for a long time have held the notion that work cannot be done from home. The narrative that, “you need to work from the office,” suddenly changed to “how fast can we switch you to work from wherever you are.”

It became clear that with the right local framework, training, tools, and techniques, work and schooling could be done from anywhere. That means talent could be sourced with no excuses from anywhere in the world even from among our girls in the rural, slums, and remote villages of Kenya. What a joyful short-lived moment for a technology transformation enthusiast like me that was.

There was one major problem. The digital divide was no longer a problem to address in the near future but a NOW problem. The benefits of technology academically and economically in a pandemic were only accessible to a select few. The negative impact saw 90% of girls out of school, idle, and more vulnerable to sexual abuse, depression, teenage pregnancies on the rise, school dropouts, and human trafficking escalated.

Everything was happening faster than the “perfect” plan. The very girls we were targeting to develop into a future STEM workforce, were being lost to depression because of lack of basic digital necessities at a rate faster than the resources we had could handle. The panic in my voice was evident.

I was not prepared to homeschool a new kindergartener, work, develop training resources and mobilize mentors this fast. Digitization and dedicated volunteers allowed us to provide positive hands-on problem-solving experiences in the middle of uncertainty. We came together, regardless of the distance and our differences, we shared a common passion to keep our girls safe from sexual abuse, trafficking and stop the pandemic setback.100% of our girls made it back to school.

It is amazing how an hour of your time virtually, a change in your mind frame, and no “perfect” way to do it can have a ripple positive impact.

Location doesn’t matter, your attitude does. It’s a mind shift. You may have to rethink your perceived perfect strategy and just be present in the moment when needed. Be flexible in your time, resources, and plan. Listen, learn and adapt to the changing industry needs, location needs, and digital accelerations.

There is no perfect way.

5. Overcome Your Fears

You already have what it takes to make a change in a girl’s life. Whatever limitations you are placing on yourself will not be necessary when pandemics strike, or you are called to speak in front of an audience on a topic you are passionate about.

You will figure it out when you meet that old friend, make a new friend, school alumni, mentee, mentor, or when you get on that stage. She will share her story; you will share your story and there will be a spark that connects your different life experiences for a shared goal.

Whether it is your favorite food, your embarrassing moment, your trip to Kenya, walking long distances to school, your tough subject in school, your resilient moments as a woman in STEM, your goals, you will find a path together, because you have a shared mission, a common goal, different approaches and digital transformations that connects you to lead her to her untapped potential.

Every minute that you debate on your limitations, is a lifetime you deny an underprivileged girl the chance to be the best version of herself. Don’t do it! Don’t overthink it. Use what you have to empower.

“I am inspired to inspire” , She said

There is a girl that needs that untapped resource in you. That which seems like a small contribution to you can change a future, an entire family and drive a critical life decision for a girl. It can transform multiple lives for generations to come ending the poverty cycle.

Invite your friends and network to support you and give you a push if it’s necessary. Schedule that meeting. Get out of your comfort zone.

Africa is a hotspot for innovations and its own solutions, Kenya is a fast-growing economy with dedicated youth but still lags behind in qualified STEM teachers and talent. The future of work will require basic STEM skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, and adapting to technology changes.

Girls in remote and rural villages without internet access, science labs, or computer labs are left behind on digital acceleration, inclusion, and healthcare innovations. They miss out on opportunities for virtual global mentors and lack access to information that could help them equally lead a healthy and less vulnerable life.

If not you, regardless of your location, upbringing, beliefs, then who is to develop the future we need for our girls to lead economically independent lives, raise healthy babies in the future, and educate their children to fight poverty globally?

Your story is never too boring to share, and your time counts more than you can imagine raising the next generation of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math global women leaders. They count on you. I count on you to make a difference. Gender Digital inclusion matters.

By Emma Mitchell, the Founding Director of the InspireHER STEM Collaborative Project.

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