Guest post by Katie Penn, TechWomen Professional Mentor
Why Sierra Leone? Why STEM?
These were questions I was repeatedly asked during my journey to Sierra Leone as part of the TechWomen delegation trip last month. Delegation trips are an opportunity to raise the profile of fellows’ efforts to advocate for STEM programs within their country, as well as to understand the challenges and opportunities unique to Sierra Leone. The entire week was led by our 27 TechWomen fellows from Sierra Leone. Words cannot describe how impressive these leaders are, paving paths forward in their STEM careers while implementing various social impact projects in the country. Our week was incredibly busy and diverse, spending time leading workshops in primary schools and universities, engaging with entrepreneurs and government officials, and hosting startup pitch events with local incubator hubs.
Although each experience was impactful and unique, I would love to share more about Pitch Night, as it captures both the unique circumstances facing Sierra Leone, as well as the growth mindset rising from these challenges.
At Pitch Night, we broke into groups to conduct workshops on how to create and present an effective pitch. My team was the youth leaders, girls who ranged from 14 to 18 years old. They chose top issues they face as young women in Sierra Leone, and, after receiving feedback from fellows and mentors, had the opportunity to pitch their solutions later in the evening. My group focused on three top challenges:
- Accessibility to water
Only 20 percent of the urban population and one percent of the rural population have access to piped drinking water in their home, requiring most households to collect from alternative water sources. According to our pitch team, this is a particular challenge for the young girls, as they are often designated to collect the water each week. This is normally done one to two times a week, often in the middle of the night, and requires hours of time. By the time they are finished, they often miss school for the day or are too tired to concentrate in class, impacting their studies. Ultimately, they settled on this subject for the pitch because of the universal impact on most young women students in Sierra Leone.
- Reliable electricity to study at night
Because energy is unreliable, students often have power outages at night and are unable to consistently study. This is especially prevalent outside of the capital city of Freetown and in the villages.
- Teen pregnancy / sexual violence
The young women felt this was an issue that impacted them because they ended up losing so many peers in their academic pursuits. According to the country’s recent Demographic and Health Survey, 13 percent of girls are married by their 15th birthday and 39 percent of girls before their 18th birthday.
The pitches were remarkable. Our speakers transformed in a few hours from uncomfortable to confident, smart young leaders passionate about coming up with innovations for social impact. Ultimately, our team didn’t win the pitch competition, but the winning team chose the same issue on water accessibility, recommending improved infrastructure leveraging green technology and sustainability .
It’s hard to capture the spirit among the young leaders and people of Sierra Leone. Rising from the challenges of a decade of conflict during a civil war, followed by an Ebola virus epidemic, the country has had less time to progress than other counterparts in Africa. That said, what I witnessed was not an effort to “catch up,” but rather to “pick up” right where the world is today and where it’s heading in the future. Without historic infrastructure in place, the mind and ideas of progress are not restricted. Renewable resources and green ideas were threaded through many solutions of progress.
I am fortunate enough to work in an incredibly supportive company at Twitch that has both welcomed TechWomen into our San Francisco office and supported my entire delegation trip. I believe the mindset of mentorship should be expanded beyond traditional roles of being a mentee versus a mentor. We ebb and flow in the roles we take under these guises, and although formally designated a mentor in the TechWomen program, the exposure and transformation I have experienced working with TechWomen Emerging Leaders from other companies has been as much of a learning experience for myself as hopefully for them.
Katie is a marketing leader with 15 years’ experience building world-class brands and teams within technology, media and platforms. Her passion is driving growth and building platforms through impactful market opportunities. She’s passionate about the global commitment toward advancing the rights and participation of women and girls around the world and believes we are more similar than we are different. The closer we are connected, the more likely we are to help and fight for each others rights and dreams.