This is the first Redefining Woman Woman post of 2015 and I am so excited to introduce my school friend, Ore Somolu-Lesi to you all. Nigeria has sadly had a lot of negative press lately and I’m happy to share one of the many things that gives me hope for my homeland.
Ore and I met at Queen’s College (secondary school) about thirty years ago. Although our parents were good friends, we were sort of flung into close proximity by virtue of our height. As tall girls, we often found ourselves together at the back of the line for assembly. At school, Ore was incredibly clever- she seemed to sail through exams effortlessly; serene, strong-willed and really quiet. Whilst life has taken us on very different paths, we’ve kept in touch through the years. Today,Ore is the founder of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) known as Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC) which empowers girls and women through the use of information technology. I hope her story inspires and encourages you.
RWW: What did you want to be as a little girl?
Ore: I wanted to be so many things. Each week, I had a different ambition and they were all so different: one week I wanted to be an astronaut, the next an interior designer. I guess there was something about each one of these jobs appealed to a part of me or to one of my interests. And I had very many interests. I was fascinated by space and watched every programme that explored life outside of the Earth. I loved to organize things and people. I loved to learn about far-flung parts of the world.
The constants were that I loved reading and liked to write, so I assumed that whatever I ended up doing would involve a good deal of both.
RWW: Please tell us a little bit of your background
Ore: I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria as the eldest child of 3 children (with 1 brother and 1 sister). My parents were both engineers with strong entrepreneurial streaks. My first degree was in Economics at the University of Essex, U.K. and then I went on to study for a Masters of Science degree in Analysis, Design & Management of Information Systems at the London School of Economics & Political Science.
My Masters degree was an interdisciplinary programme that explored the development and management of information systems within organizations and countries. Information systems are made-up of technology, the users, the environment in which the technology will be deployed and any policies guiding the use of said technology. It was a very interesting programme, one in which we studied different theories on change, innovation and management.
Afterwards, I moved to the United States, to gain more practical technology skills and experience. I opted for a certificate programme on Applied Sciences at the Extension School of Harvard University, Boston. In the programme, I focused on programming, web development, multimedia and technical writing. I gained skills that led me to a variety of exciting volunteering opportunities such as helping a small non-profit design and manage their electronic newsletter. I also taught web design at a community technology centre.
My first real job was at a non-profit organisation called Education Development Centre (EDC) Inc., where I worked as a research assistant looking at the different ways men and women used the Internet for learning. I moved on to building the website and managing the technology resources for another department within the same organization. It was a time of incredible learning and stretching for me and I gradually came to realize that I could do so much more than I thought I could. However, it always meant taking myself out of my comfort zone.
RWW: Having lived away from home for so long, what motivated your move to Nigeria?
Ore: I lived abroad for eleven years (five and a half in the U.K and the U.S each). I knew ultimately that I wanted to move back home to Nigeria. From my work with community technology centres in the U.S, I had seen my students grow in confidence from learning how to use computers. I had also seen my former students go on to get jobs based on what they learnt in my classes. My work exploring the potential of using technology for change in the U.S encouraged me to see how women and girls in Nigeria could also learn how to use these tools for learning and empowerment.
RWW: Did you have a plan?
Ore: I got a job offer in an oil and gas consultancy firm. This was a very different industry from the one I had been working in. I wasn’t quite sure what I would be doing there, but it was a job and I had found that it wasn’t very easy getting a job from the U.S. However, I managed to get a job before moving home and was grateful for it. My immediate plan was to complete the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme as soon as I moved back home.
RWW: How did you go from an Economics degree to advocacy?
Ore: In my final year at Queens College, I had to pick the degree I wanted to study in university. I didn’t have a clue! I danced around from degree to degree.
The general thinking then was that the smart girls chose Medicine; the girls who can talk and argue go for Law; the business-minded girls chose business and commercial degrees like Banking & Finance, Accountancy and Business Administration. Then, everyone else gets in where they can fit in. I had no idea what I could do, but I thought “I’m quite smart, so I should pick medicine.”
This was a hilarious decision considering that, all my life, I had an aversion to blood. I closed my eyes during the gory parts of films. I also was not particularly enthused by physics and chemistry.
In the end, I didn’t get high enough grades in Physics and Chemistry to study Medicine. Although, it was such a humbling experience, it turned out to be such a blessing in disguise, because then I could give more thought to what I really wanted to do. I honestly still couldn’t figure it out, but opted to study Economics because I was very good in Economics and Maths. I decided that I would try many different things while at university and so hopefully, by the time I graduated, I would have figured things out a bit more.
RWW: And did you figure things out?
Ore: Before I started university, I went to a computer school to pass the time until I could start school again and learnt how to use a computer properly. A fascinating new world of knowledge was opened-up to me.
When I got to university, I started a business typing essays for other students. It was hugely empowering to make my own money with the skills I had. Then I started thinking about how other women could use technology in their lives for their own empowerment.
I decided to study Information Systems for my Masters degree to gain a better understanding of the role of technology in social and economic development. While I was doing my Masters, I got to learn about how few women were working in the technology space. This included creating technology, developing technology-related policy. Even in terms of access and usage – the figures for women were very low. I was intrigued to know why and to do something to help close that gap.
The idea that would eventually become W.TEC started to take shape. This was firmed-up when I moved to the United States and worked at EDC and my volunteering role at the community technology centres.
RWW: Explain what W.TEC is all about?
Ore: The Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC) is a Nigerian non-governmental organization set-up in 2008 and which encourages Nigerian girls and women to learn how to use information and communication technology as a means of empowering themselves socially and economically. Our programmes include technology literacy workshops; skill-building projects; and research examining pivotal issues related to African women’s use of technology.
Our programmes are a combination of technology literacy classes, mentoring opportunities and research. We offer young girls a technology camp each year as well as after-school clubs which help to extend and deepen the initial learning they receive from the camp.
Through a mix of classes, workshops, presentations, excursions and leadership exercises, we endeavour to build strong, intelligent and focused young women, well-prepared for living and working in an increasingly technology-driven world. Our girls learn how to program, create applications for mobile devices, build websites, make short films, etc. They also participate in career talks led by women working in technology jobs or who use technology in interesting ways for their work.
RWW: And what do you offer women?
Ore: For women, we have the Entrepreneurship & Technology programme, which is designed to equip current & aspiring female entrepreneurs with relevant business & technology skills to build and manage a profitable and sustainable business.
RWW: Why girls and technology? Why not poverty, health or education in general?
Ore: W.TEC was set-up in January 2008 and conceived in response to research that showed that although ICTs significantly contribute to a nation’s development and growth, women – who make-up approximately half of Nigeria’s population – are severely lagging behind in their knowledge and use of technology.
Over the last two decades, Nigeria has experienced a rapid growth in information and communication technology (ICT) jobs, however women are less equipped to participate in this space. Available research shows that female enrolment in the technology and engineering courses of Nigerian higher institutions is lower than men’s (Punch Newspaper, January 5, 2010). This disparity continues in industry, with women accounting for less than 20% of ICT jobs in Nigeria and tending to occupy mostly junior or non-technical positions (Development Information Network, 2006). This means that women are not benefiting from technology’s economic and social advantages.
Research also indicates that in order to ensure that more women are working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers; it is important that the interest of girls in these subjects is kept and nurtured through secondary school. That is why we pay particular attention to working with girls aged 11 to 17 years.
RWW: Every career or cause has a humble beginning. What form did W.TEC take in the early days?
Ore: The precursor to W.TEC was a project I set-up in 2006 with a friend Sokari Ekine called Blogs for African Women (BAWo). This was a 6-week project that taught secondary school girls how to blog. In doing that, we helped them gain more confidence using computers. As a result, I gained the experience of running a project from the concept stage to the implementation , monitoring and evaluation stages.
A while after the project ended, I saw a Call for Proposals for a small grant that would support projects that helped to strengthen networks. I built on the BAWo project and submitted a proposal for what would become W.TEC’s first project: the Networking for Success project (http://www.w-teconline.org/nfsblog). The Networking for Success project would teach women how to use Web 2.0 tools (essentially social media) and other ICTs to effectively develop and advance their work. We shared a lot of the learning materials online and created a blog where the network of women would discuss their use of the various tools we were learning about.
Thankfully, we were selected to receive the grant in 2007 and at the end of the year, I resigned from my job to set-up W.TEC. In January 2008, I started work full-time on W.TEC. Looking back on it now, those were very exciting times.
Project coordinator, Toyin Ajao, our office assistant, Nkechi Nnamchi, and I we set-up the structure which was the foundation for what W.TEC is today. We implemented the Networking for Success project in May 2008.
RWW: What experience did you have at the time to run the organisation?
Ore: All I really had was a very little idea about what it took to run an organization, but I learnt as I went along. At the time, it was quite nerve-wracking and I always feared I would be ‘found out’ as someone who didn’t really know what she was doing. But, it seemed to others, that I looked like I did. I was very, very passionate about my work and I realise that definitely helped buoy me through the times where I was very uncertain about myself. I handled 90% of the training in those days and all our beneficiaries commented on how well I was able to teach and how much I seemed to love my work.
Over the years, we have grown in staff strength a little (we are now four with a sizeable team of volunteers). We have some more structure in place, but still flexible enough to make decisions fairly quickly and adapt to changing circumstances.
RWW: What challenges have you faced in terms of changing perceptions of women in IT, particularly in Nigeria?
Ore: When W.TEC started in 2008, there was very little knowledge about the gender digital divide in Nigeria – why it existed and why it was important to close it. W.TEC was one of the few organizations working in this area and we have engaged in a lot of awareness-raising over the years through training, speaking at conferences and other events, interviews in the media, and presenting the results and alumnae of our programmes as strategies to educate the wider public about the importance of gender equality in ICTs.
There were many people who did not understand why closing the gender digital divide was even important. They felt that if there were fewer women working in technology than men, then it must purely a matter of choice. There was no understanding of the role of female role models in technology. There was no understanding of the unique challenges that many women and girls have with respect to access to technology, having time for the study and practice required to learn the skills. There was no thought given to the factors that cause many women to drop put of technology jobs within the first 10 years of their careers.
Now there is more understanding about the benefits of closing the gender digital divide and more government agencies and companies are expressing interest in supporting initiatives to encourage more girls and women in ICT learning – it’s use and careers.
RWW: You’ve received several awards. Which has meant the most to you?
Ore: Maybe the very first one, which was the Change Agent award from the Anita Borg Institute. There is something extra-special about the first thing and so I will always remember this first award I received.
The Change Agent award is given to women who are supporting other women in computing. I was invited to the Grace Hopper Celebration, which is the largest gathering of women in computing anywhere in the world and is an annual conference organized by the Anita Borg Institute. I was given the award in a glamorous ceremony by the president and CEO of the ABI, Telle Whitney and Alan Eustace, Senior Vice President, Engineering & Research, of Google at the time (and Board of Trustee Member of the Anita Borg Institute).
My sister Ayoola travelled with me for the conference and having her there made it so so special for me.
RWW: What is your hope for Nigeria and young girls in particular?
Ore: I really want girls to be all that they want to be. They should have the ability, access to opportunities and education that can make this happen. I want Nigeria to be a place where girls and women have the support and encouragement they need to realise their dreams. Although my work is more focused on how girls and women use and engage with technology, I care about the total girl and the total woman.
The vision of W.TEC is a society where Nigerian women and girls are able to create and use information and communication technology for learning, activism, entrepreneurship, and professional activities effectively.
RWW: Thank you Ore.