Guest Post by Evans Mbora Campbell of iHub.
25th April 2015 marked the Geek Girls Festival (formerly Girls in ICT Day). It was hosted at the iHub and masterfully choreographed by Akirachix. I had the pleasure of sharing a room with gifted, voracious, young minds: primary and high school girls, a few university students, the great women they would come to look up to and my wiry-haired, hat-donning self — one of 4 men in attendance. I arrived just in time for the keynote address by Wangechi Mwangi; a precocious individual in her own right. As I listened to her story and observed several of the attendees pen down many a statement she made, I realised how monumental this day was for these girls. They were seeing someone they could relate to — not as veteran as their grandparents, but not as young as they were either — narrate real, often capricious experiences in her passion-guided journey through life. I was jotting down too. It was impossible not to with so much hard-earned wisdom being imparted with eloquent poise. Here are a few lessons I gleaned from her:
We often believe we’ve got it all together. With such a mindset you can never grow others.
Vulnerability scares us all. If it does not scare you in particular, consider yourself quite an exception. No one wants to let in the cold at night. We all dislike getting wet when the skies tear open. But perhaps what we tend to fear most is what others will think of us — what/how/when we said/did this/that/the other. Wangechi admitted to us that accepting feedback is as painful as a punch in the stomach, but the pain of it reduces and the benefits invariably increase. Opening ourselves up to what others have to say and learning to siphon the best lessons from it is a fundamental skill. While a devil-may-care attitude is easy, being able to take constructive feedback is certainly worth more in the long haul.
Sometimes your career chooses you, you don’t choose it
It so happens that Wangechi wanted to study Financial Economics. While she did not submit her application in time to join the class, she was offered a slot in the Business Information Technology class. It took a bucket of tears, a pinch of isolation and a tablespoon of reflection for her to arrive at the decision to take the compromise. A school project in her second year led to Valuraha, a company that merges her interest in finance and economics, with her current field of study. For someone who did not manage to study exactly what they wanted, she has made her passion work for her: by applying herself and looking for a sustainable way to grow her interests. It should come as no surprise, then, that she recently won the Global Social Impact Award from the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO).
We can’t do things on our own.
Wangechi has had to learn a lot the hard way. She was part of a project in high school that had an ever-thinning team. At one point, she was the only one running it, and no community-based project can be a one-woman show. After her experience she began surrounding herself with people that inspired her. These mentors, with years of experience, were as candid with her as they were friendly. She learnt true leadership from them. And in her times of crisis, would always have someone to call and confide in. You need to have that too. We all do.
“Playing small never served anyone.” — Mrs. Akatsa (Precious Blood High School Principal)
When she was made CEO at Valuraha, Wangechi was hesitant and full of objections. It was difficult for her to process why her older co-founder would see fit to have her lead. But over time, the words of her former principal became increasingly evident in the actions of the women she admires — Marissa Mayer, Hilda Moraa, Sheryl Sandberg. Each of these women applied themselves. There is simply no greatness to be achieved in cowering behind our inhibitions. Wangechi is a former student in that class, currently teaching other girls like her (and gentlemen like me) the power of concerted effort.
After such an insightful address, there was a fresh round of zeal in the room, making the rest of the Festival a wonder to watch.
First up were Speed Geeking sessions. These rotational, 5-minute convergences of girls around each speaker gave an overview of the topics of discussion available for the day—
- Data science with Chris Orwa,
After familiarising themselves with all the sessions on offer, they would all proceed to various rooms throughout the building for a singular, more in-depth session with their speaker of choice. It was interesting to see software development and graphic design rooms get packed to capacity, and to hear curious questions about data science like “Do you have to love mathematics?”. The hubbub was exciting, inviting even. It represents the rise of women in technology from an early age. One of limitless possibility and endless curiosity.
To cap it all off, there were breakout sessions in the afternoon led by the girls.
The sessions covered were:
- Online safety and privacy
- Career choices, and
- Using technology practically
What impressed me the most in this segment of the day was how the conversations morphed from the known to the unknown. The breadth and depth of conversations would put the efficiency of many brainstorming sessions to shame. Notes were taken, points were argued out, opinions were challenged, facts were Googled and at the end of it all, public speaking skills were honed: one member from each group spoke before the ~200 people still gathered at the iHub by 4PM. Not many programmes put that many young girls through a potentially life-changing day. This one is free.
As I listened to the feedback from the attendees, it was evident that initiatives like these are what we need in this country and worldwide. This was not just a sensitisation campaign or marketing ploy. Akirachix has been empowering young ladies to take flight in the local tech scene for 5 years now. Ladies like Wangechi Mwangi and the brains behind Made in Nairobi, Florence Wanjugu, would not be where they are now were it not for such a powerful programme.
No tech event is complete without shwag.
Hearing everyone say how much they had learnt, seeing them proudly don their Geek Girl tee and watching their wide grins as they stuffed their handbags in their newly-acquired Geek Girl tote bag was encouraging. A lot of them would sign up for the Akirachix holiday bootcamps. Many more would take the business cards of the approachable, highly-admirable founding team, just to shoot them a hopeful, earnest e-mail in future. Their experience with this organisation and what it stands for was part of a much bigger picture — a journey for the brave woman; the journey of an Akirachix woman.
Beyond being heart-warming, it’s quite inspiring to see and be a part of a nation-building, world-changing initiative: as an Akirachief ☺