On January 14, Orange Silicon Valley hosted an event focused on women and youth leadership in the digital ecosystem. The two featured speakers, Rokhaya Solange and Aude Anquetil, discussed how the education system and female role models can affect the trajectory of women in STEM fields. Additionally, they compared and contrasted the factors that influence these topics in the US and Senegal.
Solange is the head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Sonatel, and Anquetil is the managing director in the US at Epic Foundation, a nonprofit startup that is passionate about empowering women and supports disadvantaged youth. The company operates in a similar manner to a VC fund, but it is philanthropic, with program teams that spend each calendar year identifying nonprofits that are working to support children across the world.
Alice Brisset, who works on communications at Orange Silicon Valley, helped organize this event. “After the success of our first event about health and wellness in the tech industry, we wanted to highlight the importance of women and especially young women in the digital ecosystem and how we can empower the next generation,” she said.
Daren Sabo, who leads the emerging countries program at Orange Silicon Valley interviewed Solange and Anquetil. Sabo opened with the event with the statement, “a lot of what we do in the office deals with the business ecosystem. We have these types of events to learn from each other and really support this ecosystem. That’s what we hope to do here tonight. We want to learn not just about education and female youth empowerment, but also understand perspectives from West Africa as well as North America and Europe.”
Higher education is vital for successs in today’s competitive work space. However, not everyone in America has the same opportunities to receive adequate education, which is one big problem that Epic Foundation tackles. Anquetil used foster children as an example to highlight education inequality in youth. According to Anquetil, 50% of foster youth in the US do not graduate from high school, and 54% of foster youth are unemployed by the age of 24. “This isn’t an absolute correlation, but you do start to see something happening when those children don’t have access to education,” she said. Additionally, Anquetil said that two-thirds of kids in the US graduate eighth grade with gaps in math, and by 2020 an increasing number of jobs will rely on math skills.
“Early on when we started Epic, our purpose was to change children’s life trajectory,” said Anquetil. “We want to change these systems and provide answers to these problems so we get more children on the right path to success. We can’t accept the fact you wouldn’t have equal chances or opportunities just because you were born less fortunate.”
As a result, her organization focused on creating better opportunities in education.
“Our work turned to a lot of education projects, because education is that kind of lever that can take a person from one place to another,” she explained. “That’s something we’ve seen consistently in East Africa, India, Europe, and the US: that education has that kind of power effect. I’m talking about education as a whole, not necessarily ed tech. We just want to level things out.”
As an advocate for women in tech, Solange works to expose women in Senegal to tech fields. While there are a lot of women who pursue higher education in Senegal, Solange said that “they usually pursue more literary based positions, such as marketing or communications, because they think tech jobs are more [for] men.”
Solange strives to counter the idea that tech is only for men. Every year, she goes on a road show all over the country to talk to young girls, telling them about powerful women who run big firms, and encouraging them to follow that career path.
“I want to encourage women in tech, and break the stigmas,” Solange said. “I want to show these girls that women can be in technology.”
Additionally, Solange started a program called the “Lingal digital Challenge.” “Lingal” means powerful women in the local language, and the challenge creates startups lead by women in tech. This has been going on for three years, and each year the number of applicants have increased, going from 20, to 50, to 130.
Solange believes the number of applicants was originally low because “when women don’t see other women in a program, they start to think it’s not for them. They think they don’t have the abilities or skills.” However, now that the program is increasing in popularity and attracting more attention, they are receiving emails from young girls asking about how to get involved. “It’s just the beginning, but I think the only way to have more women in stem is to have a lot of activities, and talk to them to show them all the opportunities we have available to them,” said Solange.
Antequil used this point to transition to the importance of role models. Epic Foundation works with children who are the first in their families to go to college. “If you don’t have those role models, of people or women who have gone to college, or gone into tech jobs, you won’t be as inspired to do that,” she said. “You just have to inform children of these types of career paths from a young age.”
Both Antequil and Solange agree that it is discouraging for women that there are considerably more men in STEM. They both want to show women that this is a realistic career, and they should not be intimidated. “I think a barrier is that a lot of women automatically exclude themselves out of these jobs. In the US, 45 percent of children taking science classes are female, yet only 25 percent in the scientific workforce are female. Because there aren’t as many role models, women are faced with difficult obstacles. We need to find how to better funnel women from these classes into the workplace,” said Antequil. “At this point, there is the funding for so many open positions, and a lot of companies are looking to hire, but women just aren’t going for these types of jobs. We’re trying to figure out how to create this pipeline.”
“In Africa, women need to find a life balance, as wives and mothers. Women must take care of the house, the children and family, and in general, when women are in tech, they feel guilty to not be home early, or work during the weekend. This is something I think companies can work with women on, to make them feel better for taking these sorts of jobs,” Solange said.
Despite geographical differences, there are similar issues regarding women in tech in the US and Senegal. From the information gathered at the event there is a clear need for improvement in the education system: even though near-equal numbers of men and women are in science classes, not as many women pursue scientific and technical career paths. This could be because of a lack of role models, or perceiving that the tech space is too male dominated.
“The content and the quality of the talk between Aude Anquetil and Rokhaya Solange was inspiring, and highlighted the importance of promoting women and young women in tech,” said Brisset. “The contrasts between education in Senegal versus the United States is a topic that’s not really covered.”
Following the success of this event and its predecessor, a December talk focused on health and wellness. Brisset hopes to see these gatherings continue at OSV.