Tech hub in Africa holds les­son for Sil­i­con Val­ley

Rwanda’s em­pha­sis on gen­der di­ver­sity results in women tak­ing lead­er­ship roles at un­prece­dented lev­els across na­tion

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Marissa Lang

KI­GALI, Rwanda — Enough was enough. Af­ter years of watch­ing the Miss Rwanda beauty pageant over­take the na­tion, a group of young women de­cided they were sick of it.

With the pageant play­ing on a TV nearby, they looked around the room at each other. All of them were all suc­cess­ful and smart. Most worked in tech, some had started com­pa­nies.

Why are we still prais­ing peo­ple just be­cause they’re beau­ti­ful, the women asked each other. Frus­trated, they be­gan to brain­storm al­ter­na­tives. “We should have some­one called Miss Geek in­stead,” one said. “We should value them be­cause

Soon, they de­vised their own con­test — a pitch com­pe­ti­tion for fe­male en­trepreneurs they called Ms. Geek Rwanda. It was streamed on YouTube, and they be­gan to build a fol­low­ing.

The idea was to make the no­tion of a tech­nol­ogy ca­reer “real” to young women, said Es­ther Kunda, 27, the pro­grams and op­er­a­tions co­or­di­na­tor at the Next Ein­stein Fo­rum and one of the found­ing mem­bers of Girls in ICT, the group re­spon­si­ble for the Ms. Geek com­pe­ti­tion.

Over the past two decades, Rwan­dan women have risen from the ashes of a na­tion dec­i­mated by geno­cide to as­sume po­si­tions of lead­er­ship in gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try and ed­u­ca­tion. And though there are no na­tional sta­tis­tics on women in the coun­try’s blos­som­ing tech sec­tor, many lead­ing tech com­pa­nies report high fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion, with some clock­ing in at more than 50 per­cent.

Un­like at firms in the U.S. and other de­vel­oped na­tions, be­ing in­clu­sive of women is more than a goal at Rwan­dan com­pa­nies — it is a re­quire­ment. For years, the coun­try has used quo­tas, men­tor­ship pro­grams, in­tern­ships and na­tional cam­paigns as part of the sin­gu­lar mis­sion of get­ting more women into the tech in­dus­try. And it’s work­ing. The coun­try has been so suc­cess­ful that sev­eral U.S. ad­vo­cates of women in tech said Sil­i­con Val­ley would do well to take notes.

“Rwanda has lessons for us,” said Swa­nee Hunt, an ac­tivist and for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Aus­tria who re­cently wrote the book “Rwanda Women Ris­ing.” “They have fig­ured out a lot of things that we haven't.”

Women hold only about a quar­ter of U.S. com­put­ing and math­e­mat­i­cal jobs by most es­ti­mates — a fig­ure that has fallen over the past 15 years. They’re hired less fre­quently and leave tech jobs nearly twice as of­ten as their male coun­ter­parts.

The tech in­dus­try, long mired in its im­age of bros in hood­ies crush­ing code, has made at­tempts over the past sev­eral years to ad­dress its di­ver­sity prob­lem. Com­pa­nies have hired di­ver­sity co­or­di­na­tors, in­vested in men­tor­ship pro­grams, re­leased di­ver­sity sta­tis­tics and re­quired man­agers to un­dergo train­ing.

And yet, four years af­ter the first di­ver­sity re­ports were re­leased, there’s been lit­tle move­ment in the way of fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Mean­while, half a world away, in a tiny East African na­tion, Rwan­dan women are join­ing tech com­pa­nies and sign­ing up for cod­ing classes at un­prece­dented rates.

Com­pa­nies held to gov­ern­ment-is­sued di­ver­sity quo­tas report not only meet­ing those ex­pec­ta­tions, but shat­ter­ing them.

If a woman and a man were equally qual­i­fied for a po­si­tion, sev­eral ex­ec­u­tives said, the job would al­most al­ways go to the woman.

“It’s a re­ally good place to be when you’re a woman and have am­bi­tions, just be­cause there’s a push to get women into all sec­tors,” Kunda said.

Rwanda is land­locked, densely pop­u­lated and sur­rounded by coun­tries that dwarf it in size and re­sources.

In the spring of 1994, the coun­try was con­sumed by unimag­in­able vi­o­lence. Un­der orders from the gov­ern­ment to ex­ter­mi­nate an ethnic mi­nor­ity known as Tut­sis, neigh­bors turned on neigh­bors. Col­leagues killed col­leagues. Fam­ily mem­bers mur­dered their own.

Roughly a sev­enth of the pop­u­la­tion — more than 800,000 peo­ple by some es­ti­mates — was slaugh­tered in just 100 days.

In­fra­struc­ture was rav­aged, homes and busi­nesses ran­sacked. The econ­omy was left in sham­bles. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple were trau­ma­tized, wounded or or­phaned. More than 250,000 women had been raped. Thou­sands of ethnic Hu­tus, the ma­jor­ity group, fled the coun­try. More than 2 mil­lion of those who stayed were in­dicted for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the mas­sacre.

Rwanda had to be­gin again from zero.

In an am­bi­tious turn, Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame set his sights on build­ing a knowl­edge-based econ­omy, the Sil­i­con Val­ley of East Africa.

“When it’s dark, there’s an op­por­tu­nity,” said Pierre Kay­i­tana, 31, di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions for Rwan­daOn­line, a com­pany that works to dig­i­tize gov­ern­ment ser­vices in the coun­try. “Rwanda knew (tech­nol­ogy) would cre­ate hun­dreds of thou­sands of jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties. It was a way for­ward.”

Women made up 70 per­cent of the Rwan­dan pop­u­la­tion when the killing stopped.

Turn­ing decades of pa­tri­ar­chal rule and strictly en­forced gen­der norms on their head, Rwanda thrust women into roles as vil­lage lead­ers, com­mu­nity health work­ers and pur­vey­ors of jus­tice. Soon, women were as­cend­ing to the very top of gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try.

In 2008, women tipped the scale in Par­lia­ment, the coun­try’s elected leg­isla­tive body, be­com­ing the ma­jor­ity.

A rapid over­haul of laws fol­lowed, mak­ing those changes per­ma­nent: Women were granted the right to in­herit and own land. A quota sys­tem was in­sti­tuted for all pub­lic of­fices, man­dat­ing that 30 per­cent of po­si­tions be held by women. Abuse of women and girls was out­lawed. So was dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Today, one of the most fre­quently cited sta­tis­tics about Rwanda is this: Sixty-four per­cent of the seats in Par­lia­ment are held by women.

No other na­tion in the world comes close. In the U.S., women oc­cupy less than 20 per­cent of the seats in Congress.

“If we could do what Rwanda did in their first elec­tion and get 42 per­cent of our Congress to be women, just imag­ine how dif­fer­ent that would be,” Hunt said. “We for­get that we can do this, that this is pos­si­ble for us, too. In­stead, peo­ple say, ‘Oh well, it’s just our so­ci­ety. It’s dif­fer­ent.’ But I think what Rwanda shows us is any so­ci­ety — any so­ci­ety — can fig­ure this out.”

More than 52 per­cent of Rwan­dan stu­dents at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties are fe­male, ac­cord­ing to na­tional sta­tis­tics from 2015. Ad­min­is­tra­tors say that when there’s a gen­der im­bal­ance in tech classes, it’s be­cause more women than men signed up. Ki­gali’s Ak­i­lah In­sti­tute, the first col­lege in the coun­try built ex­clu­sively for women, be­gan of­fer­ing a de­gree in ICT, or in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, in 2014 to a class of 10 women. Now, more than 60 are en­rolled.

The Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment’s un­yield­ing sup­port of women is rooted as much in Pres­i­dent Kagame’s hope for the fu­ture as his fear of re­peat­ing the past.

“He wants women in power be­cause they’re not go­ing to start wars or plot slaugh­ters the way men do,” Hunt said. “Con­text mat­ters. He’s look­ing at women em­pow­er­ment from the view­point of some­one who has seen his coun­try con­sumed by geno­cide.”

Still, life for Rwan­dan women re­mains far from utopian.

Many girls are taught young that be­ing a “good Rwan­dan” means keep­ing quiet, be­ing def­er­en­tial and pli­ant, Rwan­dan women say. Some are taught, too, to fear vi­o­lence if they don’t obey. Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence of­ten goes un­re­ported.

At school, girls can be teased for be­ing too pushy, too bossy, too “muzungu,” a term used to con­note Westerner, for­eigner, some­one who does not be­long.

And women still face pres­sures to marry and have chil­dren, re­gard­less of their ca­reers.

Even so, Rwanda’s gov­ern­ment has used its long reach into pri­vate in­dus­try to pro­mote women in the work­place. It has set manda­tory min­i­mums for fe­male hires that com­pa­nies have been ex­pected to main­tain.

For tech firms like DMM.HeHe, one of Rwanda’s most suc­cess­ful star­tups, the manda­tory tar­get was 13 per­cent. Soon the com­pany had crossed 50 per­cent.

“It’s ac­tu­ally quite in­ter­est­ing that when we saw we were at 53 per­cent fe­male, we were like, ‘Huh? How did we get to that?’ ” DMM.HeHe spokes­woman Brid­get Uwineza said.

Hir­ing quo­tas are, of course, il­le­gal in the United States.

So, in­stead of quo­tas, some com­pa­nies have in­sti­tuted hir­ing goals — with fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives.

In­tel, for ex­am­ple, set a goal of hav­ing 40 per­cent of all new hires in 2015 be fe­male or un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties. Meet­ing that goal meant the Santa Clara com­pany would award a bonus to all its em­ploy­ees.

That year, In­tel not only met, but ex­ceeded its goal: 43 per­cent of new hires were women or un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties. Last year, the com­pany moved the mark to 45 per­cent — and met it again.

In­tel saw its share of fe­male work­ers creep up from 23.5 per­cent in 2014 to 26 per­cent in 2017 — a sig­nif­i­cant shift for a com­pany with a work­force of 100,000 world­wide.

“That’s ef­fec­tive, and that’s great, but there’s also some­thing that needs to be added and that is re­ten­tion,” said Glo­ria Feldt, the pres­i­dent of Take the Lead, a non­profit that aims to get women into po­si­tions of lead­er­ship in the tech sec­tor. “Re­ten­tion is where (com­pa­nies) lose high per­form­ing women who should be mak­ing it into the up­per lead­er­ship ranks.”

At DMM.HeHe, a com­pany that builds on­line strate­gies and mo­bile-friendly web­sites for small busi­nesses, Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Clarisse Irib­a­g­iza, one of Rwanda’s most high-pro­file en­trepreneurs, has drawn from her own ex­pe­ri­ence to build a work­place where women not only feel val­ued but also that their needs are be­ing met.

A gen­er­ous ma­ter­nity leave pol­icy, af­ter-work chats about work-life balance and more help in­still a feel­ing of com­mu­nity, said Fileille Naberwe, 20, a fel­low at DMM.HeHe and stu­dent at the African Lead­er­ship Uni­ver­sity in Ki­gali.

“It’s such a nice en­vi­ron­ment,” Naberwe said. An­other draw “is see­ing (Irib­a­g­iza) in one of the big­gest po­si­tions, and see­ing her han­dling it like a boss.”

Role mod­els and men­tors make a tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ence in the suc­cess of women in busi­ness, tech and other sec­tors, stud­ies have shown. And yet, women tend to have a harder time find­ing men­tors than men do.

That, Kunda said, was the driv­ing force be­hind Ms. Geek — and why it has taken off.

“If you have ca­reer guid­ance plus role mod­els, it shows kids, ‘Hey, you guys, if you want this par­tic­u­lar cool job or this ca­reer, these are the things you should be fo­cus­ing on,’ ” Kunda said. “Most of us al­ways say for us to reach wher­ever we are, we’ve had role mod­els so we want to give back what­ever was given to us when we were young.”

The strat­egy adopted by her or­ga­ni­za­tion, Girls in ICT, is, in many ways, sim­i­lar to ef­forts un­der way in Sil­i­con Val­ley. The group urges young women to spe­cial­ize in math, com­puter science and en­gi­neer­ing in school; sup­ports women al­ready in the work­place; pro­vides men­tor­ship; and cre­ates a path for fe­male pro­fes­sion­als to be­come lead­ers, ex­ec­u­tives and board mem­bers.

To some ad­vo­cates of fe­male in­clu­sion, the no­tion of a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion on the level of Ms. Geek — which has grown into Ms. Geek Africa af­ter its start in Rwanda in 2014 — seems in­spired.

“Those kinds of con­tests high­light peo­ple who’ve done great things,” Feldt said, adding: “Girls are get­ting in­spired by this, and it’s ac­tu­ally mov­ing the nee­dle.”

Ro­sine Mwiseneza, a past Ms. Geek Rwanda vic­tor, said one of the most re­ward­ing as­pects of win­ning is be­ing able to be that role model for young women and girls who may have ideas of their own but no one to show them the way.

See­ing an­other woman achieve things you would like to achieve, “gives you hope, cre­ates a strong con­nec­tion hav­ing that per­son,” Mwiseneza said. “It gives you strength and mo­ti­vates you to think, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I do it?’ ”

“It’s a re­ally good place to be when you’re a woman and have am­bi­tions.” Es­ther Kunda, pro­grams and op­er­a­tions co­or­di­na­tor at Next Ein­stein Fo­rum and found­ing mem­ber of Girls in ICT

Ja­co­bia Dahm / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Stu­dents use lap­tops at the Ak­i­lah In­sti­tute, a non­profit col­lege for women opened in 2014 in Ki­gali, Rwanda. More than 60 women are now en­rolled in its de­gree pro­gram in in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy.

Marissa Lang / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Ro­sine Mwiseneza was named Ms. Geek Rwanda in 2016 af­ter win­ning a pitch com­pe­ti­tion for fe­male tech en­trepreneurs started by Girls in ICT.

Photos by Ja­co­bia Dahm / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

DMM.HeHe, a Rwan­dan startup that cre­ates dig­i­tal ser­vices for small busi­nesses in the coun­try, is led by a woman.

Es­ther Kunda helped found Girls in ICT, which cre­ated Ms. Geek, a com­pe­ti­tion for fe­male en­trepreneurs in Rwanda.

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