AWiB’s December monthly event, the last of its kind for the year 2022 took place last week Thursday, December 1st at the Hilton Hotel. The Women of Excellence (WOE) nominees of 2022, Betelhem Dessie, Menna Selamu and Amina Mohammed, were invited for a unique and intimate discussion with the guests. Few minutes after 5:30 PM, a couple of the nominees and over 80 attendees with fire of inspiration in their eyes were chatting, connecting and trading business cards while delighting themselves with delicious finger foods at the networking session.
Unlike previous monthly events, this month’s setup was different– instead of the nominees sitting on the stage, they sat amongst the guests who were divided into groups of three circles. The nominees sat with one group at a time and rotated every 30 minutes so that everyone would get the chance to interact with each of them.
Haregeweyin Amsale¸ one of the 2022 AWiB board members welcomed everyone and presented the evenings sponsor, Wudassie Diagnostic Center and AWiB’s 2022 partenr, First Consult for their continuous support. It is one of AWiB’s cultures to encourage members who own businesses by giving them opportunities to showcase their products and services at events like this one. One of the longtime member and former board member Lewam Fessahay had a table full of t-shirts and sweat pants made entirely of cotton. Haregeweyin vited Lewam to the stage to introduce her products.
Betelhem is the founder and CEO of iCog Anyone Can Code (iCog-ACC), a division of iCog Labs, Ethiopia’s first Artificial Intelligence and robotics lab. The firm works on projects that have reached over 25,000 kids, with a focus of reaching children and adults in rural areas. Ready to share her experiences, inspirations and aspirations to the group, Betelhem began the discussion by expressing the happiness and excitement she felt when she first heard the news of her nomination for WOE 2022. She said “When I first heard that I had been nominated for WOE by AWiB, I got very excited and celebrated with my team. I used to think that AWiB is a place for women much older than me but now I see that includes people from different age groups”. After this she welcomed the group to come forward with any question, they may have for her.
To a question what drove her to pursue career path, she responded, “I was fortunate enough to be introduced to coding at the age of 9, it opened my eyes. It gave me freedom, financial independence and opportunities to travel. And what drives me is that I want to give children this opportunity that I was fortunate enough to have. At my company we know we can’t teach them everything there is to know about tech but we want to create a “Light bulb” moment, for them to see what potential it possesses”.
The tech world is male dominated; how does that affect you? She explained that the work environment isn’t comfortable for women as it is dominated by men and doesn’t have much empathy for women. She also mentioned that the majority of her staff are women therefore they focus more on the girls.
As men were not driven to work for my company even though that never bothered to find why, a male friend brought it to my attention the reason why men don’t want to work in my company could be it is woman led. I was very surprised to hear that perspective since I never thought of it like this but who knows, maybe it is the reason. She thought her blind spot on the subject could be her father shielded her from the reality imposed on women’s progress.
She acknowledges that numerous girls are interested in STEM fields at a young age but as they grow older, they start to slowly lose interest. She thinks it’s because of lack of exposure at a formidable age to enough role models in the field. Now she makes a conscious effort to encourage women and creates a conducive environment for their participation in tech. Through the “Girls Can Code” program, she helps young girls in middle school and high school explore possible paths in STEM fields.
Was there a point in your life where you doubted yourself and felt like things weren’t going to work out? Betelhem answered; “I never really stay in a negative mood for a long time, mostly because whenever I go through any issue or situation, I share with a great support system around me that I was afforded.
Menna Selamu, co-founder of Flipper International School, joined the group, ready to share her experiences, insights and perspectives. Flipper International is a school that follows a hybrid Ethiopian and British curriculum. She is also chairs Eneho Fikir board, a charity helping 240 kids with their education.
After introducing herself, she went on to tell the group what inspired her to launch the school was the gap she saw in critical thinking skill in many children and youth. Founding the school, the most challenge her team faced was finding qualified personnel that could transfer the knowledge they acquired. They managed to address this issue by hiring foreign teachers and developing a training program specifically designed for the teachers on board. They designed the program embedded in knowledge transfer which resulted in developing quality of knowledge of local teachers and lower turnover.
Menna acknowledged three main challenges faced by women entrepreneurs: lack of extensive network as men do, limited access to finance and information, and raising children. Regardless, Flipper hires majority women and offers benefits such free education for their kids.
Menna, suspecting the audience’s assumption that the curriculum was an issue in the education system, stated the problem lies in the teaching system and methodology used. She also adds that since the high school and university education is given in English, teachers need to be proficient in the language.
Amina joined the group with a vibrant energy that rubbed off to all in the group. She gave a run-through of her endeavors of how she is a leading lady on the road to abolishing early child marriage and how she used education as a tool to empower women in her reach. While introducing herself, Amina mentioned that she is working on three main things: to solve problems of women that arise from social pressures, to empower women economically and to help them have a voice politically.
Amina’s notable work was in reducing child marriage by opening a hostel for poor girls who couldn’t afford education because of lack of a place to stay. She was successful in covering a wider community in Eastern Hararghe and was able to do that because of a large pool of supporters she mobilized in the wider community.
Amina said, the dedication that she showed in opening the hostel in Dire Dawa brought her acknowledgment and the support of thousands of people in the zone. Also the beneficieries of the hostel became her disciples and spread the gospel of eradicating child marriage by going back to countryside.
In balancing professional and personal life, Amina asserted, one must always have a plan to achieve one’s goals and to always be prepared for any challenges. An economically empowered woman has a better chance of achieving her dream especially if she is supported by her community.
To the question, does she think the Sharia courts play a role in the issue of early marriage?”
She stated her understanding of the Sharia law as being fair and promoting equity. She continued, but the interpretation of Sharia obviously by men made it to serve their own interests. When challenged, the practitioners cannot raise even one provision that backed their actions.
For a final question on the issue of sustainability, Amina replied that she has secured institutions and individuals that support the cause but pointed that is not enough. She is in the process of creating a project that supports Muslim women in Dire Dawa that plays a role in empowering them to work towards respecting their Sharia rights. Amina added her door is open to those who can help in terms of knowledge and finance.
At 8:30PM, the attendees and invited guests walked out together, still fired up with inspiring conversations, making connections.
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