“Our responsibility today is not to tell you why but to ask you, why not?”
On day three, fellows and mentors came together with secondary school girls from across Freetown to talk about diverse career opportunities in STEM fields. Fellows opened the day remembering inspiring women in history – Amelia Earhart, Grace Hopper, Jane Goodall and Marie Curie – who courageously broke barriers despite the odds. They encouraged the girls in the room to open their minds to STEM fields, saying that they, too, can create positive change in the world.
The opening panel, moderated by 2014 fellow Fatmata Kamara, discussed the latest trends in technology, showing the possibilities of paths and careers within STEM fields. Fellows and mentor panelists were joined by local student Hawa Yokie, who spoke about the messaging young women often hear – that engineering or science or medicine is not a woman’s job. Despite others’ best efforts to stop her, Hawa grew up nurturing her curiosity, creating a project that ultimately powered 50 local homes using solar batteries – all by the age of 17. Today, Hawa is designing a portable refrigerator for fishing communities, allowing more effective preservation of food and safer hygiene practices. “I didn’t even know what STEM was until 2016,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for people to come and push you. You have to push yourself.”
Showing a path to STEM
The remainder of the morning was spent in breakout sessions with the students, demonstrating how curiosity, training and access to mentorship can open doors. 2018 fellow Ernestine Johnson, the only female forensic analyst at the Sierra Leone Police, dressed in her uniform to inspire students and encourage them to dream big. Mentor Jill Finlayson showed her groups how to succeed in STEM and beyond by using key 21st century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and maintaining a global perspective. Impact Coach Jessica Dickinson Goodman showed her groups the “notable women in computing” cards she co-created, using the deck to show students a binary search algorithm. In her group, Impact Coach and engineering program manager Caitlin Doyle talked about her career trajectory, beginning as a high school English teacher and transitioning to tech. She emphasized that the career the students originally choose might not be the one they ultimately follow, and that there are many paths to finding one’s passion.
Terri Khonsari, TechWomen Impact Coach and founder of Sierra Leone-based initiative Families Without Borders brought the group together to conclude the morning, asking each student to help inspire other girls in their communities. “There are 70 girls in here,” she said. “If you commit to telling other girls about what you learned here today, we can have exponential impact.”
Meeting future engineers
The afternoon continued at Fourah Bay College, the oldest university in West Africa. There, fellows and mentors met with female civil engineers, electrical engineers and statisticians, leading workshops and sharing their experiences in STEM. 2015 fellow Kumba Musa began the day speaking about the power and potential of STEM in Sierra Leone, telling the students to nurture their love of scientific exploration, be patient with their career process, remain open to failure and to always collaborate with others: “When you go out into the workforce, you’ll have what Sierra Leone needs to take us to the next level,” she said.
Mentors then led breakout sessions themed on design thinking, resume and interview skills, developing a growth mindset and becoming a persuasive public speaker. In the design thinking session, mentors Jill Finlayson and Molly Glauberman spoke about how brainstorming can solve big and small ideas, and that there are no wrong answers in an open and collaborative discussion. In her session on presentation skills, mentor Katie Penn shared about having a purpose in your messaging, emphasizing that, on average, people remember just one to two moments from a presentation. Impact Coach Caitlin Doyle reminded students to take the time to work on their confidence: “Give yourself a pep talk. Just because you’ve not been in a position to give a public talk before, it doesn’t mean you’re not worthy to give that talk,” she said.
After the breakout sessions concluded, 2018 fellow Davephine Tholley led the group on a tour of the historical campus, showing mentors and fellows the buildings where nearly every Sierra Leonean TechWomen fellow took classes, studied and prepared to enter their respective fields.
The group reflected on the fact that those same women – now leaders in their fields and changemakers in their communities – returned to inspire the next cohort of young leaders and instill in them a belief that they, too, can not only excel in their careers but also lead the way for future generations of women and girls.
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