She Hacks Africa: fighting the challenges that prevent girls from enrolling in STEM

June 2, 2020

Yunus&Youth Fellow Tolulope Owajoba Adeyemo is a social entrepreneur from Nigeria with experience in international development. She holds a degree in Microbiology from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, did a social entrepreneurship program at INSEAD, and is currently taking classes for her master’s degree. Tolulope started to pay attention to global issues, such as quality education and gender equality, in 2011 and decided to act on that. Tolu, as she likes to be called, is currently the acting Executive Director at the WAAW Foundation.

The WAAW Foundation (Working to Advance Science and Technology Education for African Women) is an international non-profit organization founded in 2007 by Dr. Okorafor. Their mission is to increase the pipeline of African women entering into Science and Technology fields and ensure they are engaged in Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The WAAW Foundation recognizes that Female Education and Science and Technology Innovation are crucial components to poverty alleviation and rapid development in Africa. The goal for this social business is to increase the pipeline of African women that go into STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The WAAW Foundation runs programs that improve teaching methodology and advocate for gender balance to help over 500 women every year. So far they have impacted over 10,000 young women in sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria.

Tolu is passionate about change, is an advocate for female education, and has a personal connection with the issue. She fights against the challenges that prevent girls from enrolling in STEM classes and advocates for basic education in Nigeria. She joined WAAW as their first employee back in 2013 and is currently responsible for fundraising, program management, and long-term strategy development. She has led the implementation of high-quality STEM programs to empower girls, impacting over 10,000 girls, and raised over $52,000 through sponsorship and fundraising drive. She also serves as a personal mentor to several African girls.

Tolu has a personal connection with the issue she fights, when volunteering in a school in the north of Nigeria she could see the challenges that prevented girls from going to STEM, specifically the way teachers teach and encourages innovation. She also took STEM classes herself and there were only 3 girls in her class. But the imbalance of gender was not the only problem. Not encouraged nor motivated to finish her engineering degree, she dropped out and changed her major to microbiology, where there were more girls “Boys were rude, they didn’t want us to be heard, they would let us do small activities bout would not let us lead”.

WAAW offers a program for college mentoring before university to girls that want to study disciplines in STEM. The foundation surveyed in 2017 and found out that 70% of girls that graduated were not able to get a job even thou they went to university, because the skills they got we not enough. They didn’t have real-world applications and needed different skills from what they learned in class. So WAAW did a boot camp and their first cohort was focused on their alumni and they trained girls to give them necessary skills for industry.

The most challenging aspect of running this social business is to change people’s mindsets, as some people think they shouldn’t be making any profits because it’s a social enterprise. People are skeptical about WAAW charging for their programs, but they are a social venture for profit. When they get grants they can offer some programs for free. They have conducted 12 cohorts of the intensive boot camp and over 300 girls in 2 years and most students were able to get jobs after boot camp or start their start-up. But the most rewarding part is to make an impact in their community by providing knowledge and skills. Tolu gets motivated to keep up her hard work by getting a sense of accomplishment from seeing the program beneficiaries innovative projects, hearing their testimonials, success stories and employed alumni.

What makes WAAW unique is that they have a gender curriculum to impact girls. The instructors are female to make more impact on young women as the girls can relate to a female instructor and they get empowered. Also, they have non-technical training such as design thinking and entrepreneurship and an online platform. The core team of women founders has the expertise, experience, and passion and they have a sustainable model of local engagement with an extensive network of African women engaged in on-going activities.

The Y&Y Fellowship Program helped WAAW to structure its organization and provided great insights into the company’s financials to generate revenue. The mentoring program is helping the foundation with the big challenge to generate revenue, not to be dependent on grants and to retain the full price of their programs. WAAW is currently preparing to scale the initiative to other African countries, specifically South Africa and Rwanda by December 2019 where we see the same issues and the gender gap in technology.

Tolu gave other entrepreneurs some tips to be successful, she spoke about passion and having the right team as they are starting their journey. “It takes many hands working together to produce any significant change. You need to build a team that is as passionate as you are. Remember that your goal is changing the world. Create a diverse team with different skill sets. When you create a team you have to be sure about your skills, strengths, weaknesses and then look for somebody who will be your complement. Ensure someone on your team is a business specialist. The world is so big that it has room for every change agent. Recognize the specific innovative opportunity, define and re-define your strategy for change. You must be open to re-invent to create more impact.”

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