Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Pooja Chandrashekar

Interview by Megan Foo


Pooja Chandrashekar is the Founder and CEO of ProjectCSGIRLS, a national competition for middle school girls intended to inspire them to learn more about the exciting opportunities available to them in computer science and STEM. Her biggest passion is encouraging girls in technology and STEM, for which she has founded and leads several initiatives, including the Fairfax Math Circle for Middle School Girls at George Mason University and the NCWIT AspireIT program “Game Programming with Microsoft Kodu”. This year, she was selected as a National Winner of the NCWIT Award of Aspirations in Computing and as a she++ #include Fellow. In the future, Pooja aspires to pursue a career at the nexus of medicine, computer science, and tech entrepreneurship.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Pooja Chandrashekar: I’m currently a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA and my interests lie at the intersection of computer science and medicine, particularly in interdisciplinary fields such as computational neuroscience. I’ve lived in Northern Virginia all my life and have grown up in an environment that has always emphasized the importance of STEM and independent discovery. My parents are both engineers so I’m fortunate enough to have always had role models to look up to. I developed a keen interest in science from a young age tinkering with build-it-yourself kits and watching science documentaries, so in middle school it was only natural for me to start experimenting with different kinds of research. I was lucky to go to a middle school that included computer science in its curriculum, something which sparked my love for programming through web design, robotics, and game programming. I carried my passion over into high school, taking AP Computer Science my freshman year, Artificial Intelligence my junior year, and Parallel Computing my senior year.

In high school, I’ve discovered a real love for research, have worked as a research intern at the MITRE Corporation for two summers working on geolocation research one summer and mild traumatic brain injury research the other, and have conducted extensive independent research as well. However, apart from research and academics, I’m most passionate about encouraging girls in technology and have founded various initiatives to do, including ProjectCSGIRLS, the AspireIT program “Game Programming with Microsoft Kodu”, and the Fairfax Math Circle for Middle School Girls. For my outreach work and computing-related interests, this year I was selected as one of 35 recipients of the 2014 NCWIT National Award for Aspirations in Computing and as one of 30 recipients of the Stanford She++ #include Fellowship. In the future, I intend to pursue a career at the intersection of medicine, computer science, and tech entrepreneurship.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of ProjectCSGIRLS, which aims to inspire more girls to learn and develop a passion for computer science. Can you tell us more about ProjectCSGIRLS and its impact?

Pooja Chandrashekar: I founded ProjectCSGIRLS the summer after my sophomore year as a response to the growing gender gap in the technology fields.ProjectCSGIRLS is a national initiative meant to encourage girls in technology and computer science through a hands-on competition that challenges middle school girls to come up with novel solutions to imminent social problems. Participants can build, code, or prototype their projects and must address one of three themes: global health, security, or intelligent technology. They are then required to submit a technical report of their project components and results, as well as a video describing why their product is innovative and useful. We want to target the critical middle school period and empower the girls who participate in our program by showing them that they can be the innovative technology leaders of tomorrow.

Last year, we held our inaugural competition for middle school girls in only VA, MD, and DC and were able to reach over 100 girls through our program. The projects we saw were incredible, ranging from machine learning algorithms for speech analysis to cybersecurity genetic algorithms. The 2014 ProjectCSGIRLS Awards Gala featured guest speakers, participants’ projects on display, and other activities, attracting over 130 attendees and immense support from the community and from tech companies.

This year, I decided to expand ProjectCSGIRLS to a national scale in order to reach hundreds more middle school girls from all over the country. I now have an Executive Team, Outreach Team, and Board of Directors working with me to reach this goal. In June of 2015, we will be hosting a national gala event to honor the winners of the 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS competition. The event will be in DC and will feature tech company tours, guest speakers, workshops, and other activities to show the girls how incredible computer science can be. We’re also partnering with a number of national and global organizations promoting women in technology to help us bring the program national and host the national gala.

Women LEAD: Why does empowering girls pursuing technology-related paths matter to you?

Pooja Chandrashekar: It was in my freshman APCS class that I realized I was one of three girls in the class and the only freshman girl. And this was in a school as focused on science and tech as mine and which on the overall has a very equal gender ratio. This disturbing observation continued into higher level math and computing classes, making it quite a prominent part of my time in high school and was what motivated my work to empower girls in technology-related paths. My work stems from the fact that I don’t want any girl in future generations to shy away from computing because she feels out of place or incapable. I’ve experienced the gender gap first hand and I know how discouraging it can be.

If women make up 50% of the population, then we should see that same statistic in every field of study, including computer science. Diversity is key to making a product or building a company that can best address the needs of every member in the community and we need to make increasing that diversity a priority. I’m a strong believer in the power of computing to change our world and I want to see more women joining in that movement and becoming a part of the technological revolution.

Women LEAD: In addition, you founded and lead the Fairfax Math Circle for Middle School Girls at George Mason University. Can you tell us more about this project and your experiences?

Pooja Chandrashekar: I co-founded the Fairfax Math Circle for Middle School Girls three years ago and have been leading it since. In high school, I noticed that there were very few girls taking advanced math classes or even who just liked math, so this was a way I could show middle school girls how fun and interesting math could be. We meet every week during the school year at George Mason University to discuss interesting math and computing related topics and different problem-solving approaches. At the end, they come away with a sense of how creative the field is and a real desire to learn more than just what is taught in the traditional school curriculum.

Women LEAD: What motivates you to keep fighting for gender equality in tech industries?

Pooja Chandrashekar: The satisfaction I get from working on ProjectCSGIRLS or in running my AspireIT program is indescribable. Showing these young girls how creative they can be and seeing them go off and use their newly learned skills to develop products, games, or apps is incredible. Computer science is quickly becoming applicable to every field of study so it’s important that every student be equipped with the necessary knowledge. I’m motivated to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s what I’m passionate about and because I know that it will make a difference to so many. It’s so gratifying to have parents come up to me and tell me how much of an impact my work made on their daughter’s life. In addition, it’s also great to see the tech community responding to work like mine by releasing diversity statistics, passing legislation, and starting new initiatives to support women in tech. We’re making progress and that always keeps me motivated.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Pooja Chandrashekar: My mom! She has taught me the importance of hard work and dedication, as well as how critical education is to success. Without her support and encouragement, I couldn’t have been what I am today. She is an incredibly resilient and strong person and constantly reminds me to push myself and think beyond the boundaries. She’s always told me that nothing should stop me from pursuing my dreams and has always been there for me. I don’t think anyone has or will impact me in my life as much as her.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs and women leaders?

Pooja Chandrashekar: Don’t give up. There will certainly be times when it looks like everything won’t work out and it looks like you’re headed towards failure, but trust in your ideas and stay focused. Work as hard as you possibly can and make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Passion is everything to an entrepreneur. Also make sure you surround yourself with great mentors who can guide you and offer valuable advice. And if you fail, remember that it’s absolutely okay. Pick yourself up and keep moving forward. I started ProjectCSGIRLS with no background in founding an organization and I consider it one of the best decisions I ever made. If you’ve got the idea and the drive, nothing can stop you.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Naomi Mwaura

Interview by Megan Foo

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 8.42.11 AM

Naomi Mwaura is a young Kenyan lady passionate about implementing social reforms in Africa among African men and women, because she sees the value and potential in Africa. As a feminist with a Masters in Business Administration, Naomi is a true leader in her field. She is the founder of FloNe Initiatives, a non-profit organization that facilitates program in social change, sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Naomi Mwaura: I grew up in rural Kenya and saw some of the inequalities faced especially by women. The skills gained at University allowed me to start Flone Initiative and address the social issues in my society.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of Flone Initiative, a nonprofit organization that facilitates programs in social change, sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as gender equality. Can you tell us more about Flone Initiative and its impact?

Naomi Mwaura: Flone Initiative through its Sexual and Reproductive Rights has influenced students in the schools we work in to make informed choices about their sexuality. The Gender Equality program has helped public transport operators understand and reduce issues of gender equality, sexual and gender based violence. It is our hope that we will continue to increase our impact in these thematic areas.

Women LEAD: You are also the Kenyan Coordinator of One Billion Rising, a global campaign to end violence against women. Can you tell us more about your role with One Billion Rising?

Naomi Mwaura: The One Billion Rising Campaign is a global campaign that works towards eliminating Gender based violence. My role as the Kenyan Coordinator is to engage Kenyan communities to be a part of One Billion Rising For Justice.

Women LEAD: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges to eliminating gender-based violence?

Naomi Mwaura: GBV, which at its core is the abuse of power, is rooted in gender inequality and discrimination. The greatest challenge of eliminating GBV involves influencing changes in knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors among women and men, young and old, victim and perpetrator, concerning issues of gender and power.

Women LEAD: What does feminism mean to you?

Naomi Mwaura: Feminism to me is the commitment to achieving the equality of the sexes, defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Naomi Mwaura: My grandmother and mother, who showed me that a woman could be her own heroine.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs and women leaders?

Naomi Mwaura: Relentlessly follow your dreams and work towards achieving nothing less than the best in life. Don’t keep waiting for an opportunity to come to you, rather, understand that it is you who must create the opportunities.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality, women’s empowerment, and education?

Naomi Mwaura: Unbowed by Wangari Maathai: In this book, the Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: The book challenges the world and especially women to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what we can do, and serves as a rallying cry for us to work together to create a more equal world.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Michelle Sun

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter


Michelle Sun is the CEO and cofounder of First Code Academy, an education startup that aims to teach creative and logical thinking to pre-university students through coding. Since launch in 2013, the startup has educated over 300 students how to make their mobile applications. She sits on the Technology Advisory Council of The Women’s Foundation. Prior to starting First Code, she held various technical roles in high growth startups in Silicon Valley, including as the first growth hacker at Buffer and Bump Technologies (acquired by Google in 2013). Born and raised in Hong Kong, she graduated from University of Chicago and began her career at Goldman Sachs as an equity analyst.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Michelle Sun: I was born and raised in Hong Kong, went to college in Chicago then moved back to Hong Kong for an investment banking job. There, I was covering tech and media at Goldman as an equity analyst and fell in love with the industry. I was meeting all these executives and entrepreneurs in the Chinese Internet companies like Tencent and Alibaba. From there, I caught the tech entrepreneur bug and started tinkering on different projects.

Along the way, I started learning to code.  Eventually when my first startup failed, I took a one-way ticket to go to San Francisco and learned coding full time. It was a life changing moment for me, and one of the best decisions I made.

It opened doors for me to work in top startups including Bump Technologies (acquired by Google in Oct 2013) and Buffer (named one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley recently) as their first Growth Hacker. When based in Silicon Valley I also started teaching kids to code as a volunteer, and that inspired me to start First Code Academy when I moved back to Hong Kong.

Women LEAD: You are a Co-Founder of First Code Academy, which aims to empower the next generation to be creators using technology. Can you tell us more about First Code Academy and its impact?

Michelle Sun: Kids these days interact with technology from a very young age. They are very good at consuming content, such as videos, games, music etc. However unlike the previous generation, they lack the ability to create in these digital media. I really like how Professor Mitchel Resnick at MIT said, it’s almost as if these Millennials can read but not write.

We believe coding can empower these kids to express themselves and be creative in technology. We have taught over 300 kids since launch in July 2013.

We believe coding is not just a technical skill for better job prospects, but also a fundamental skill set for our next generation, to first build up their logic thinking and then to allow them to think computationally and solve problems systematically.

Women LEAD: Why, to you, is it important that we encourage more women to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?

Michelle Sun: Technology products are all around us, used by both women and men. In some social networking sites like Pinterest, women represent the majority of their users. To create products that suit the needs of more people, it only serves us all to have a more diverse workforce. Having more women in the tech field is a way to increase the diversity and gives us more perspective when designing and creating technology products.

Women LEAD: What needs to change to increase women’s participation in careers in technology?

Michelle Sun:

  • Having a role model – it’s important to have someone to look up to, who you can emulate.
  • Having community support, for example groups including Women Who Code, which provide a network for women to turn to for advice and sharing.
  • Having mentorship.

Women LEAD: On a personal level, what does women’s empowerment mean to you?

Michelle Sun: A lot. In Silicon Valley, I learned coding with a bootcamp called Hackbright Academy, which is a women only training camp. It made a big difference learning with women in such a male dominated field. The amount of support there was amazing.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Michelle Sun: I have met many amazing women entrepreneurs along the way. I really look up to Su-Mei Thompson at The Women’s Foundation for her leadership, as well as Julia Grace, CTO at Tindie for her enthusiasm and energy.

Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective entrepreneurs, and for the next generation of women in STEM?

Michelle Sun:

  • Start small and dream big
  • Build your network early

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Georgina-Kate Adams

Georgina-Kate Adams

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Georgina-Kate Adams is a British freelance journalist, who has published articles in internationally renowned publications like The Daily Telegraph and British Vogue. Passionate about economic development, Georgina-Kate founded The Seed, Africa, a crowdfunding campaign dedicated to supporting girls’ education in Swaziland. Since its founding, The Seed has empowered people to come together to raise over £7,000 to fund one girl’s boarding school tuition.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Georgina-Kate Adams: I started my career volunteering as a human rights journalist on a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. The year before, I left my native UK to spend a month as a volunteer in Swaziland. I was very lucky to grow up in a happy, supportive family and have always cared deeply for children, so loved looking after the kids I met there.

Over the following years, I completed a formal journalism degree and worked in the fashion, sustainability and business sectors. I stayed in touch with a young girl I had met in Swaziland and sponsored her to go to school each year.

Africa never left my mind and I even wrote my dissertation about the representation and cultural identity of women in Swaziland. After revisiting the country after seven years in 2012, I decided I wanted to focus on the development sector and was offered a job working for a social enterprise in Swaziland.

Girls group - week 5

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of The Seed, Africa, a dynamic crowdfunding project that supports girls’ education in Southern Africa. Can you tell us more about The Seed, Africa and its impact?

Georgina-Kate Adams: When I visited Swaziland in 2012, I took the girl I had been sponsoring to sit entrance exams for the two best boarding schools in the country. To her credit, she got in, but unfortunately the fees were beyond my means. I started The Seed, Africa to crowdfund a scholarship, believing that when you educate a girl you plant a seed to change the world.

In just over a month we raised £7,300 ($12,500) from around 200 people and Lelo enrolled at her dream school a few weeks later. The positive impact this had on her was extraordinary. Her confidence blossomed, she learnt to use a computer for the first time and she’s experienced people and places she never had before.

On Day of the Girl 2013, I went on Swaziland’s breakfast television to announce the launch of The Seed Girls Group – a weekly girls empowerment group for 13-21 year olds in the same community where Lelo grew up. This expanded the reach of our work to another 10 outgoing girls, who have been meeting with a coordinator every Saturday since.

The focus of the group is on careers development, confidence building and community alleviation – empowering the girls to live their dreams!

Women LEAD: What motivates you to keep fighting for girls’ education in Africa?

Georgina-Kate Adams: Everyday new baby girls are being born in Africa. (Often to families without the means to look after them.) The issues of poverty and gender inequality are very real, but educating girls represents the best opportunity to secure a better future for the next generation. The future that every girl, every child, deserves.

When you educate a girl she essentially develops a gun in each pocket. One called wisdom and one called choice. With these weapons to protect her, she has a much better chance of avoiding early marriage, premature pregnancy and HIV. And instead to secure a job, become financially independent and reinvest her income back into her family and community.

The Seed has managed to sponsor one girl through school, but what of her two bright infant nieces? If Lelo can graduate into a good job, she can help the next generation to get an education. That is much more empowering for her family than to rely on international aid: and much more sustainable too.

Women LEAD: What, to you, are the biggest challenges that women in business start-ups face? What must change to overcome these challenges?

Georgina-Kate Adams: I think there is generally a perception that women don’t know as much about business and numbers as men. In the developing world, where two thirds of the illiterate population are women, perhaps this is true – but this doesn’t make them any less capable of being good entrepreneurs. Women are resilient and sensitive and persuasive: excellent skills for enterprise.

Starting a business is like having a baby, but one of the challenges for women is that they may also have babies or children at home. Trying to juggle these commitments can be immensely difficult, without sacrificing one for the other. That said, done well, self-employment represents an excellent opportunity for mothers, because of the flexibility it offers.

Bringing up healthy, emotionally-intelligent, educated children is as important for a country’s economy as GDP and it would be great if more governments understood this. Then they could provide more support for mothers to start their own businesses and encourage their development, while respecting the importance of maintaining family life.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Georgina-Kate Adams: Growing up, I thought feminism was an out-dated concept. I went to an all-girls school where we were told we could do and be anything we put our minds to, and we never doubted it. But as I got older, I realized there were many women for whom this wasn’t the case and for who gender inequality was a very real, daily struggle.

Why should I get to enjoy such fortune over my peers, just because they were born in another part of the world? Women have such a powerful contribution to make to the world… In fact, forget that. Women already make an incredibly powerful contribution to the world – and they deserve some credit!

In Swaziland, women are often the breadwinners, head of their households and the glue for society, yet culturally remain subordinate to men. It’s not about placing one sex above another, but if women could just be given an equal place in society, I believe the world would be a much more efficient, productive, fair and happier place.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Georgina-Kate Adams: I come from a family of amazing women, but outside my kin the woman who has impacted me most is Alicia Keys. I was very ill as a teenager, but through Alicia’s example I saw that with wisdom, patience and determination you can overcome any trial and make your dreams a reality.

Her charity Keep A Child Alive is a huge source of inspiration for me and definitely peaked my consciousness about HIV (which ultimately led me to Swaziland). I met Alicia a few times and her humility and compassion for others shines brightly. I continue to admire her immensely.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality?

Georgina-Kate Adams: When I read Half the Sky, I wanted to grab the world with both hands and shake it! I read extracts to anyone who would listen, normally about really appalling atrocities (which wasn’t always appreciated!), but I couldn’t bear to keep these stories to myself. Even for a minute.

When I was travelling recently I listened to I am Malala as an audiobook. I was awe-struck – at times sobbing into my sleeping bag, at others enraged, inspired and energised. If every girl could be Malala, just think where the world would be. Every girl can be Malala!

A favourite of mine is Moving Mountains,the autobiography of Claire Bertschinger, the ICRC nurse who inspired BandAid. The title was taken from an evening spent in dialogue with Afghani warlords. One asked: “How can you, a gentle woman, make a difference in this situation Miss Claire?” She thought for a minute, then responded: “There’s nothing sweeter, gentler or softer than water, but water has the power to move mountains.”

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Marie A. Abanga

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter


Marie A. Abanga, is what many will call a dynamic and determined woman. She goes by the three Ds of Determination-Discipline-Dedication and yes in most of what she does,  she strives to do it to her best thus she says. Marie read Law in the University and got called to the Cameroon Bar as a Lawyer. She practiced for three years and due to some personal and professional challenges, left her country to further her studies in Belgium. She is currently an LL.M Candidate in International Law with International Relations but she is especially a Feminist, a fervent blogger, an author, a mental health advocate, and also the Regional Manager Africa for the Women In Parliament Global Forum.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Marie A. Abanga: I grew up in the city of Douala Cameroon and had dare I say a modest but emotionally charged childhood. I grew up seeing most women around me ‘abused’ regardless of perception that all was well in their households. Maybe that is what kept drawing me towards advocacy for women, the marginalized in general and defence of the most vulnerable during my brief practice in courtrooms. l still remember winning my first case in which l valiantly defended a ‘street kid’ charged with three grievous accusations.

Women LEAD: Why is feminism important to you?

Marie A. Abanga: Feminism is important to me first of all because if my mother hadn’t been ‘whisked’ off to school by her own ‘illiterate’ mother, l wouldn’t be what l am today. In her era and as it still applies in certain areas today, the education of the girl child is considered a ‘waste of resources’. My grandma fought hard and even left her marriage all together so that her daughters could have a better opportunity in life than she did. Today, I don’t have any daughters but l am advocating for equal rights among the sexes and more empowerment for women so that all women and girls should be free to make the choices which impact them most in life.

Women LEAD: You are the Regional Manager for Africa for the Women in Parliaments (WIP) Global Forum, which harnesses the collective strength and abilities of women in Parliaments across the world to address global challenges. Can you tell us more about this role with WIP?

Marie A. Abanga: WIP endeavours to find ways to address global challenges by using the collective strength and ability of women in Parliaments across the world. Women need three things to fulfill their potential: Communication, Connection, Community. At WIP, optimizing the power of communication and connection builds new communities of support for women in politics everywhere. I am in my capacity as regional manager for Africa,  in charge or organizing, coordinating and implementing WIP’s policies for and in Africa.

So far, I have been instrumental in the organization of two major WIP events: the Iceland Study Trip and most especially, the Rwanda Summer Summit. The later was such a remarkable summit with the participation of over 200 delegates from over 45 countries. Africa as expected was ably represented and the women were unanimous in their support of our Forum and other key issues of grave interest to them. Remarkable among such issues was their call to governments to step up their efforts in supporting the search for the girls abducted by Boko Haram a few months ago. Powerful declarations are issued each time and it is my responsibility to liaise with these delegates to keep the network growing. 

Women LEAD: Moreover, up till May, you were a Global Community Champion for the Knowledge Gateway of Women’s Economic Empowerment. Can you share some of your experiences?

Marie A. Abanga: The economic ‘stagnation’ of women has for all time hastened their dependence on men, consequently their, ‘abuse’.  This impacts heavily on their own well being, and of course that of their children and hence the well being of the community as a whole. Yet, today, statistics have proven to all extent how much benefit a society reaps when its women are economically empowered. It is for these reasons, that l volunteered mindful of my schedule, to be one of the pioneer Community Champions for the Knowledge Gateway  for Women’s Economic Empowerment.

I had to champion the Gateway’s cause and help rally as many women, organizations and stake holders to the platform, as I could. The Knowledge Gateway  sure doesn’t provide magic wand solutions or grants for women’s ‘economic waterloo’, but it provides that platform where women can read about others’ views, share ideas, discover networks and learn about opportunities like those free e-courses offered ever so often. The platform even if just for encouraging women to sign up and get acquainted with basic ICT tools (l think particularly of my African Mothers in some of those remote or even difficult ‘terrains’), is one to be supported and championed all the more. To me, the Knowledge Gateway is a more practical platform to better communicate the mission and vision of UN Women as a whole, mutatis mutandis, that of the UN who definitely know that there can be no completion of the MDGs without the full and equal participation of Women.

Women LEAD: What does women’s empowerment mean to you?

Marie A. Abanga: Women’s  Empowerment involves the ability to make social, economic and financial choices, which entails a process of change of all the components of societal structures that shape and reproduce power relations and the subsequent unequal distribution of society’s resources and opportunities .  Empowered women can make those choices while non-empowered women cannot. I state it simply as that. For example, my grandma of whom l often quote, was the first woman in her own village to inherit landed property from her father. This was of course a feat and several legal battles were fought for this to happen.

l mean, we can look at the prejudice suffered by women from all angles and see how this impacts their general well being be it emotional or otherwise. They suffer great abuse because of the patriarchal societies we live in and this impacts even their will to continue the struggle for empowerment. I am thus fighting this battle both from a personal and professional front and I believe the future generation will be grateful the likes of us lived.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Marie A. Abanga: As other inspirational women have said, talking about just one woman is very difficult. I will just mention three or so. My ‘illiterate’ but dynamic and loving Grandma of fond memory, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf first African Female President and my own mother. My Mother does capacity building for women entrepreneurs of S.M.Es and several other ‘projects’. She has been such a support, saving me even from my own self when I almost succumbed to a ‘nervous break down’.

Women LEAD: What advice would you give to those interested in women’s rights advocacy?

Marie A. Abanga: Do it from your heart and not just your head. Half of the world’s population is made up of women and the other half is here thanks to women. It is high time we realize we are damaging our own future if we continue to deny women equal rights.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Marie A. Abanga: I will cite a few:

With regards to books, there are several, and l am an avid reader too. I love most especially the true stories/memoirs of women who made it  in their lives in whatever aspect,  in spite of the numerous ‘challenges’.  A book l am yet to read but is a must for me before this summer is over, is: This Child Will Be Great by H.E Ellen Sirleaf Johnson herself. My other favorite Authors include Maya Angelou, my humble self, Iyanla Vanzart and several others who share their most personal struggles as women and their ‘break through’ aka empowerment, so that other women like them, may not give up the fight.

Feminist Camp Day 5: Bodies and Power


Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

The final day of the Feminist camp began with a small treat for all the campers: some extra time in the morning! Some of us chose to sleep in and relax, while some chose to take time out to reflect on the week or go around the city.

Our first workshop was at the LAVA studio, a space for a troupe of artists who develop and perform original works with a combination of dance, theatre, and acrobatics. Sarah Johnson, the founder and Artistic Director LAVA spoke about how the group did not confirm to the sexualization of females in dance forms. They focus on acrobats, physicality, relationship exploration and connection between the dancers, rather than solely on entertaining the audience. LAVA studio had no mirrors, emphasizing the importance of dance rather than how the dancers looked. Our session then focused on engaging us into their LAVA world. Some of the exercises we did like leading a partner around the studio with their eyes closed, making them lie down and lifting them up from the floor helped build trust between the group members. We also tried scissor kicks, handstands and airplanes to build strength. At the end, we were divided into three groups and asked to create a dance form using any moves we learned during the session or feelings we felt. Our group chose to incorporate feelings of nervousness, resistance, and then of trust through the dance moves.

Energized after the session, we went to The Doughnut Plant to honor the National Doughnut Day, and then headed towards The Paradise Factory in order to watch MOM BABY AND GOD! The show was a one-woman political theatre piece about a rising teenage anti abortion activist. The humorous piece is a result of extensive primary research of the ‘pro-life’ activists. The protagonist, Jessica, is someone many teenagers can relate to: her personal sexual desires intersect and contrast with the idea of chastity and purity promoted by the pro-life movement. After the show, the performer gave us inside scoops on her research that led to this theatre piece.

After the show, we went to Zucker café for a cocktail party with Amy, Jennifer, Carly and some alums of the past Feminist Camps. Cherishing the camp over amazing food and talking about Disney, we also had a chance to interact with alumnae and hear about their work and activism experiences. We all were also honored with Soapbox Feminist badges for completing the program!

I am grateful to Claire Charamnac, my former internship supervisor and co-founder of Women LEAD for recommending me to apply as the program assistant for the Feminist Camp. As our beloved Gloria Steinem says, “Women have two choices: Either she’s a feminist or a masochist.”  All us campers have made the choice, to recognize and strive for equality of all genders. This camp has been an intensive week of meeting passionate and intelligent feminists, nurturing and challenging our knowledge on feminist issues, and building connections. As we return to our daily lives, our views and perspectives might not always be accepted or respected; however, this week of immersion has equipped us with the skills, strength and reasons to stand up and strive for change!


Feminist Camp Day 4: Reproductive Justice


Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

For the first session, we were divided into different groups, each of which would visit an organization that works towards reproductive justice. Our group went to Inwood House, the only organization in New York City focused primarily on comprehensively serving the needs of pregnant and parenting teens. We talked to three members in their staff, and they told us about challenges to fundraising as a non-profit organization, as well as their competing stakeholders’ interest between government and private donors. They talked about vocational and educational training given to the pregnant mothers for a financially sustainable future. Another of their impressive programs is focused on school students by providing afterschool tutoring and leadership development. We also had a mini discussion on cost of living in NYC, and how people manage their standard of living in such an expensive city!

We then went to Judson Memorial Church for a few more sessions; the church itself was an interesting place of convergence of religion, art and activism. We had Lauren Mitchell talk about how she formed the Doula Project, an organization offering holistic support to pregnant women by pairing them with trained doulas for support and help during a woman’s abortion or birth experience. Then Melissa Madera talked about her Abortion Project, where she compiles audio recording of stories of individuals who have had abortions in the past. Her aim is to humanize the politically charged topic of abortion, and encourage sharing as well as healing.

For the most awaited part of the day, we went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to attend the 2014 Sackler Center First Award. At the event, we got a chance to meet with Gloria Steinem, hear her as well as Elizabeth Sackler speak.  We also saw Anita Hill being honored with the 2014 Sackler Center First Award for her stance and work against sexual assault in the workplace. The award was preceded by a documentary Speaking Truth to Power (Anita Hill), which showed how she was a pioneer in fighting against workplace sexual harassment when she spoke against her supervisor the ‘Injustice’ Clarence Thomas. We then toured the Brooklyn Museum quickly, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party stood out the most to me. Amidst the interesting sessions and Sackler Awards, the brief meeting with Gloria Steinem definitely stole the show!

Feminist Camp Day 3: Feminism and Sexuality

Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

How often do we think of gender and sexuality as a broad spectrum rather than limiting labels of male and female? How often do we ask a new person we encounter what their preferred gender pronoun is? These were some of the many questions that came into mind as we sat through the third day’s sessions focused on feminism and sexuality.

The session was held at a very special location: Ms. Foundation for Women, an organization that in its early days was a pioneer in providing access and growth to women philanthropy. The foundation till date focuses on women’s issues that do not get mainstream attention. After a quick recap of yesterday’s gala organized by Sanctuary of Families, we started with the sessions with our first speaker Kristin Russo. Kristin is the co-founder of the website and organization ‘Everyone is Gay’, that works to improve lives of LGBTQ youth using humorous yet informative videos, school tours and working with parents of LGBTQ. She firstly told us about her journey as a theatre undergrad, graduate student gender studies, and the co-founder of the website ‘Everyone is Gay’. She also relayed to us the importance of diversity training as it relates to sexuality and the lack of such model among teachers. She said social media has helped her activism greatly, and shared with us some tips about the various times when specific media might be used more, e.g. Instagram during evenings, etc. She also highlighted the importance of donating, not just in monetary term, but skill sets to the non profit world. Another important take away for me from the session was asking people their preferred gender pronoun, instead of assuming their gender identity.

Amy and Jennifer then shared to us more about their personal moments of realization in feminism, and importance of identifying needs in workplace and initiating change to bridge that gap. Our second panel of speakers was from Choices in Childbirth, a non-profit that works to improve the maternity care and experiences by providing access to range of choices regarding procedure and place of birth to mothers. We started the session with quick introductions of two staff and two interns in the panel. We then watched a half an hour-abridged documentary titled ‘The Business of Being Born’. The documentary focused on the increasing rates of Cesarean sections during delivery, the high usage of drugs and lack of proper knowledge or consent of women during childbirth. The idea of gynecologists intervening, and eventually performing cesarean sections on mothers take away women’s agency or power over her body and choices of childbirth. The documentary proposes and illustrates examples of low risk pregnant women opting for midwifery for delivering their children at their own homes. Our discussion following was focused on the gap of information regarding ways of delivering children, and places. The discussion also focused on the health insurance, and how prevalent class systems affect access and choices in maternity for women. It was interesting to see the statistics of how the US ranked second last among the top 50 most industrialized nations in terms of high maternal mortality rate. Another interesting data was to observe was the rate of delivery done by midwives compared to OB/GYNs in the US and Europe. While midwives in European countries deliver 60-80% children, midwives in the US deliver only about 8%. The idea that mid wives and doulas are generally there for pre and post delivery for mother’s care, and enable women to make educated choices about their pregnancy and childbirth was important. After the session, Amy shared with us her ideas of motherhood, and how motherhood is considered as a validity of women’s identity. She said validating and entitling women just for their motherhood is disempowering.

Next we had speakers from the Sex Workers Project (SWP), which provides client centered legal and social services to individuals who engage in sex work, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion. It was said that SWP was the first organization in New York to work against sex trafficking. There was a discussion on how there is a divide in feminism when it relates to voluntary sex workers. The organization has a great record in helping individuals vacate their prostitution convictions in New York, and lobby for ending employment discrimination issues that arise. The speakers from SWP approved of the Switzerland model, where voluntary sex work is not legalized but is decriminalized. They believe this reduces the stigma around sex work, and empower sex workers by giving them a freedom of occupational choice.

After the interesting sessions, we watched a documentary: Valentine Road. Based on the shooting of Lawrence “Larry” King in a high school California, the very compelling and emotionally moving documentary raises a lot of issues about sexuality, social perceptions and abuse. The documentary helped wrap up the complicated topic of today: feminism and sexuality, while leaving our minds stirred with million questions!

Feminist Camp Day 1: What is Feminist Media?


Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

After yesterday’s wonderful and energizing welcome workshop with Kelly Tsai all of us were excited for the first day of the Feminist Camp. We began our day with an Orientation Breakfast at Amy’s house. Over bagels, fruits and croissants, we talked about yesterday’s session with Kelly when we had to write to a person (real or abstract), who we were in conflict with, first from our perspective then theirs. After the discussion, Amy and Jennifer talked more about themselves, their journey as feminists, and briefly went over our schedule for the week. All of us then shared our personal entry points or aha! moments into feminism. It was inspiring to hear everyone’s journey into feminism. We then headed to the Feminist Press for our afternoon sessions on media.

The first speaker was Wagatwe Wanjuki, Feminist Camp alum, an activist and writer who uses new media primarily to reform sexual assault policy. It was interesting to hear how she uses websites and social media sites like Facebook and Tumbler as tools to advocate for sexual assault policy reforms and other feminist issues. She said her experience in Tufts made her create and use website as a platform to share her survivor story, and encourage other students to share their stories of sexual assault. Through protests in front of Department of Education and online petitions, Wanjuki played a pivotal role in the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Using this as an instance, she told us the importance of linking Internet activism with on-field efforts, and that online activisms alone mostly lose value without an offline initiative to support it. She talked about power dynamics in the mainstream media, and how voices of marginalized groups whether it be in terms of race, gender or immigration status are often unrepresented. She contrasted the mainstream media with feminist media by saying that feminist media does not present information as black or white, but takes into account the different shades of gray. When asked what skill sets were necessary to succeed as a feminist journalist, she mentioned reading, willingness to learn, accept criticism and negotiating your worth (often financially).

Jennifer, along with the staff and interns of the Feminist Press (FP), explained to us in detail about FP’s goals and activities. As a business major, it was interesting to hear about their non profit financial model; whereby they fund one half of their operations through sales of the books, and the other half through fundraising initiatives. Jennifer also talked about the transition Feminist Press was going through from its Second Wave beginnings to better adapt to the world today, where almost every media house publishes feminist books. It was also interesting to know that the Feminist Press did not limit its publications to a specific genre.

Our third speaker was Jodi Kantor, the Washington correspondent for the New York Times. One of the most prominent things she said was that today gender issues and dynamics need less rhetoric and more reporting. She explained to us the difference between opinions and facts while reporting in new media. She emphasized the importance of approaching an issue with a multifaceted approach, by taking the complexity of factors involved into account. Prior to her session, we were asked to read five of her articles from the Times. We then discussed the articles and she shed light into behind the scene aspects of the articles. The articles we read focused on gender gap in pay, class and its affect on breastfeeding, the Obama marriage, changing gender dynamics in Harvard Business School and Mormon churches. She seemed like a reporter who would be most proud when her articles were initiating discussions among the readers, and inspiring them towards solutions.  When asked if she was a feminist journalist or journalist who prioritizes gender issues, she said the latter. She said she does not let her identity as a ‘feminist’- a word with different meaning and connotations throughout various groups- hinder her work of listening and reporting untold stories of various groups. It was inspiring to see her humility and warmth in spite of being so successful.

After the thought provoking sessions, we headed to Tai Thai for dinner before going to the Sadie Nash Annual Garden Party with Janet Mock. Sadie Nash is a leadership project that promotes leadership and activism among young women. After welcome reception and presentation of the Petticoat Award, two young women interviewed Janet Mock. A bestselling author and activist, Janet Mock talked about the importance of sisterhood, and being supporters instead of competitors to women in our lives. After the beautiful garden party, we headed out for some shopping time at SoHo.

Overall, the sessions on media helped us understand the use of social media as feminist tools, the power of addressing nuances in reporting and supporting our fellow feminists. After today’s session, I am inspired to get involved with the newsletter at my university, and use it as a platform to report issues that need to be heard and discussed.


Feminist Camp Day 2: Career Day


Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

As feminist, I have often wondered how to channel my passions as a feminist into practical careers. Today was a day focused on meeting financially successful feminists to receive some practical career advice.

Our sessions today were held in Newman Ferrara LLP office, and our first speaker was Courtney Chenette, alum of the first feminist camp. A social justice lawyer in a real estate firm, Courtney considers herself an ‘undercover agent,’ who is slowly transforming workplace environment for females. Some cases she currently works with are sexual assault cases as they relate to boys, and police conduct carried out by the NYPD. She also talked about the financial ramifications of being sexual assault victims. Another area she focuses on is how institutions while restricting health insurance access to same sex couples ignore equal marriage law. She also talked about importance of creating a community of young women who have similar career interests and choices. One of the most influential things she said was that nothing replaces hard work in a career, and in order to move up the professional ladder, it is important to give your best. She talked about her hardest first year in law school, and that we should surround our lives with passionate people. She said, “Those who ignite passion in you will help you be essential”.

After Courtney’s interesting session, Amy and Carly talked about their experiences as interns, and the necessity to go above and beyond your assigned roles to be noticed by the employers. Carly also talked about identifying our personal goals and working style preferences to align to our prospective jobs.

Our next speaker was Stacey Tisdale, a financial service reporter, and former cash management analyst. She talked about financial issues of our generation, and pointed out how money is the leading cause of depression, abuse and self-image. She talked about importance of transparency in health care sectors, and social media changing financial sectors in years to come. For financial literacy, she focused on setting financial goals, knowing our distractions and knowing how we are perceived in the world (whether it be in a gender, class and race basis). She also mentioned that all of us have different childhood scripts, social scripts, and our perception of money that affects how we relate to money on a daily basis. Another crucial aspect on financial management she talked about is how feminism, and sexist viewpoints affect how women relate to money. She also mentioned the importance of negotiating as working women for better pays and opportunities as work.  It was exciting to receive a signed copy of her book titled The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money.

We then talked to Adrian Granzella, the Editor in Chief at The Daily Muse. She started her career as a PR person, and then moved into event planning, marketing, and communication. Her four major career advice were, negotiating and asking what we want from the job. While 60 percent men negotiated their first salary, only about 6% females do so. Another advice was to have a variety of mentors, and to ask for opportunities when they show up. The advice that most resonated with me was accepting the change, uncertainty, and to accept it if we have not “figured out” our lives yet.

We then departed for our mini internships; Hanna, Asella and I had our mini-internship with Women Make Movies. Kristen Fitzpatrick, the public exhibition and acquisitions director and WMM hosted us. She walked us through the history of Women Make Movies, and explained how they mostly do distributions now. She also gave us practical advice on living in the NYC and some beautiful neighborhoods that are her ideals for living. Over pizza, we then watched Forbidden Lives, a documentary on young girls from Cuba, China and Iran who are raising awareness and initiating social changes through blogging and social media. We also watched another quirky documentary named ‘How to Lose Your Virginity’, which is based on the myths surrounding virginity in a society that does not have just two sexual identities anymore.

In the evening, we volunteered at a gala for Sanctuary for Families, an amazing organization that works to support survivors of domestic violence. It was a glitzy affair, and we got home a little late, but all in all it was fun!