Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Linda To

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

Linda To is a Founding Member and Executive Director of HER Fund, an organization in Hong Kong that mobilizes resources and invests in empowering women and girls to create change in communities for gender equality. With over 20 years of work experience for the advancement of women’s rights, Linda is devoted to the education of young people on gender equality and social justice. She has spent over 15 years supervising social work placement students in various universities, mostly practicing in women’s work settings or community settings.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Linda To: I was a trained social worker many years ago and I’ve been working with the community. Also I’ve worked in a women’s shelter in Hong Kong called Harmony House, a shelter for women facing domestic violence. I have been in the social work field for quite some time and I am now supervising social work students who are practicing fieldwork at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Another part-time job is my role as Executive Director of HER Fund, and I’m also a founding member of the fund. I have been involved with women’s work for over 25 years because I’ve worked with Harmony House and have also worked with the Women Workers’ Association in Hong Kong and also have been working with some low-income women in the Confederation of Trade Unions. I’ve been involved voluntarily as a Board Member and an Executive Committee Member of various women’s organizations too.

Women LEAD: You are the Executive Director of HER Fund, a nonprofit organization in Hong Kong that empowers women and girls to create change in communities for gender equality. Can you tell me more about HER Fund and its impact?

Linda To: HER Fund is a community fund (not a family foundation or corporate foundation) started by a group of women activists. We have been involved with women’s work, in promoting rights and gender equality for some time. We realized that there are not many resources, especially financial resources like funding support to those projects for women’s rights advocacy, particularly advocacy and campaigning work in Hong Kong. In the past, there are some funders from overseas willing to give funding to rights-based work in Hong Kong, but as Hong Kong became more “ economically developed,” these funders do not take Hong Kong as their priority funding geographical area. So it’s not been easy to find funding support. In 2002, the founding members planned to start a local women’s fund, but we didn’t have any money to start with. So we started searching and we realized that there are international women’s funds willing to support the startup of some women’s local funds in different countries and different places. We asked for some startup grants from them and HER Fund started in 2004.

Our main work is to give small grants, raise donations through different means, and run capacity building for our grantees, because there are a lot of small and self-help women’s organizations in Hong Kong and those we supported are from the marginalized sector so they face discrimination or do not have a voice in society. We have also run capacity building for strengthening their organizational capacities so that they learn how to fundraise for their own organization and how to build their organization and develop membership. These kinds of capacities are very important for the group to sustain.

We have given over 90 grants to support projects and small organizations. The money that we have made is over HK$3 million and we also have seen small women’s self-help groups able to develop for a few years and were then able to access more funding from bigger funders. We are also giving seed grants for new initiatives to start up. It is very important in our society to have new initiatives.

Women LEAD: What motivates you to advance women’s and girls’ rights in Hong Kong?

Linda To: I think it’s because I’ve been working with various women’s groups on women’s issues. I’ve seen that there is a need for us to have a local women’s fund so that we can mobilize resources for doing the work. Secondly, in Hong Kong society, women’s issues have not been really taken on board. Although we have a Women’s Commission in place, the Women’s Commissions is a consultative body and has no actual power in decision-making on policies. There aren’t many resources for developing women’s rights works so that’s our motivation to start a women’s fund. We hope that the funds can generate more resources and support more projects to work on defending women’s rights.

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

Linda To: If we are talking about raising women’s status and raising women’s voices, empowerment is the first step. Women have to be sure of themselves, recognizing their own abilities, and also taking control of what’s happening around them – so I think empowerment is very important. Also, I think due to gender stereotypes, women’s roles are mostly very submissive, dependent and secondary, and sometimes we are unsure of our own abilities. Women’s empowerment is a process wherein women realize their abilities and strengths to change.

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

Linda To: When I see this question, I immediately think of my mother. My mother is very close to me; she taught me to care for others. She is a role model. I think that from the way I’ve grown up, my mother has given me a lot of space and autonomy and that’s how I can think out of the box, think in different ways and develop more critical and alternate thinking.

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

Linda To: My advice would be to do what you believe in and you have to dare to change because sometimes we have a lot of blocks not just from society but from within ourselves as well. We have the fear to try new things so daring to change requires determination and commitment.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Jessica Ou

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

Jessica Ou is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in finance, strategy, technology, international relations, and social entrepreneurship. Passionate about women’s empowerment, Jessica has served as Peer Educator at UC Berkeley’s Gender Equity and Resource Center, Head of Marketing in Berkeley Women in Business, and as a Volunteer Intern at the Women’s Economic Agenda Project. Furthermore, she recently founded an organization called Girls Run Tech, which aims to bridge the gap for women (both technical and non-technical) in the technology industry through community, mentorship, and partnerships with technology companies. Jessica was awarded the 2014 Women of Peace Award, which recognizes individuals that are working on cutting edge programs, or have created new ways of thinking about ending domestic violence or waging peace.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Jessica Ou: I am a junior student studying Business, Social Welfare, and Economics at UC Berkeley. My interests lie in finance, strategy, technology, international relations, and social entrepreneurship.

At Berkeley, I’ve been involved in many women’s projects as Head of Marketing in Berkeley Women in Business, a Peer Educator for the Gender Equity Resource Center, and a member of the student government Sexual Assault Task Force.

Outside of my school involvements, I am an Executive Council member of the International Youth Council–founded at the United Nations Youth Assembly–which mobilizes over 5,000 youth from around the world, and an Advisory Board Member for UNICEF’s Chinese Children Initiative. I also serve on the Youth Advisory Council of the Crisis Text Line, a subsidiary of DoSomething.org, the world’s largest youth action organization. Recently, I was chosen to be the National Youth Ambassador for California for Youth Service America, and will work with the California senator’s office to execute a financial literacy program for girls. This past summer, I attended the United Nations Youth Assembly as a delegate, and will be traveling to Moscow in the coming month as a delegate for the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum.

I’m also very passionate about technology, and I currently work at Greylock Partners and am a USA Google Student Ambassador. In the past, I’ve worked at Uber, KPMG, and Euclid Analytics. Recently, I’ve conducted organizational behavioral research for the Haas School of Business and big data crowdfunding research for the MIT Sloan School of Management.

I’ve been designing and coding since I was six years old and run my own web design company. In my free time, I blog for the Huffington Post and am a contributing writer for USA Today.

Women LEAD: You formerly interned at the Women‘s Economic Agenda Project. Can you tell us more about your experiences?

Jessica Ou: Volunteering with the Women’s Economic Agenda Project (WEAP) was one of the most eye-opening experiences for me. As a local non-profit in Oakland, CA, working with a ground-roots organization was a great experience. I had the chance to learn from people have been through great struggles in their lives and overcome them through the teach-ins and workshops that the Women’s Economic Agenda Project holds. I was very close to directly seeing the impact of the organization’s efforts. Working with WEAP set the foundation for my passion in gender equity and human rights, and made me motivated to work even harder to propel change for impoverished women.

What was most inspirational for me was the people I met while volunteering there. One staff member, Carolyn Milligan, spent her entire life fighting for a better life for working people after overcoming some severe personal obstacles in the whole process. She moved to Oakland 20 years ago after becoming blind from inadequate medical care, which also forced her into kidney dialysis. It is women like Carolyn that inspire me to work to relieve women out of poverty and structural discrimination.

Women LEAD: You were also a Peer Educator at the Gender Equity and Resource Center. Can you tell us more about this role?

Jessica Ou: I have been involved at the Gender Equity Resource Center at UC Berkeley as a volunteer intern and peer educator. As a peer educator, I raised discussion about inclusivity, diversity, and anti-bullying on campus. My role was to identify a problem in the LGBTQ and Women’s community on campus. I worked with a team of other peer educators in identifying that there was a gap in communication between LGBTQ and women’s organizations on campus, and planned and held a “Mind the Gap: Cross-Cultural Collaboration” event on campus, inviting all LGBTQ and women’s organizations to join in conversation and networking. As a volunteer intern, I dedicated my time in marketing various women’s programs and empowerment events on campus. My focus and goal working with the Gender Equity Resource Center was to create a more inclusive environment for women and LGBTQ students on campus.

Women LEAD: You served as the Head of Marketing for UC Berkeley Women in Business. Why is empowering women pursuing business-related paths important to you?

Jessica Ou: Women leaders such as Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer are constantly under microscopic scrutiny purely because of their gender, while other males CEOS are less watched and less criticized. It’s stereotypes about leadership that a woman has to overcome in the work place. I think that there are two important things for women in business–the first is mentorship, and the second is having a community of other female businesswomen as a support system.

Women LEAD: Why does empowering women in entrepreneurship matter to you?

Jessica Ou: I think the statistics concerning women in entrepreneurship are startling. 92% of startup founders are male, and only 8% are female. This can be attributed to discrimination within the venture capital industry, stemming with lack of representation of successful female entrepreneurs. Investors are looking for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the Silicon Valley—the clear-cut, white males. Female entrepreneurs run into several obstacles relating to their gender, with some investors even looking to date female entrepreneurs rather than taking their company ideas seriously. It’s a perpetual cycle, because the less representation, the less investors take women seriously, and the more women hesitate to become entrepreneurs. I think it’s something that needs to change, and it has to start at the top with the investors.

Women LEAD: What, to you, are the biggest challenges to achieving gender equality in technology industries?

Jessica Ou: To me, I believe that the biggest challenge is overcoming preconceptions and stereotypes about women in technology. It’s been thought of for centuries that women are not meant to be in technology fields, but rather, men are. We’re still experiencing the ramifications of that type of thinking today, with women representing only one in ten computer science graduates. It’s always intimidating for women to enter into a field that is male-dominated. There is starting to be a slow shift with women’s networking groups and coding programs for girls, but it’s slow.

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

Jessica Ou: One woman that has impacted my life was my Gender and Women Studies professor my freshman year, Professor Barnes. She taught me to look at everything that life throws at you from a critical perspective—to question everything and the situations around us. It made me look at everything differently—and once I started questioning things and understanding inequalities, I was more driven to fix them.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Jenny Bowen

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

Jenny Bowen is the founder and CEO of Half the Sky, an international NGO founded in 1998 in order to better the lives of orphaned and abandoned children living in China’s state-run welfare institutions. A former screenwriter and independent filmmaker, Bowen is a recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and the 2007 American Chamber of Commerce’s Women of Influence Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Hong Kong. Bowen serves on China’s National Committee for Orphans and Disabled Children and on the Consultative Committee of Experts for Beijing Normal University’s Philanthropy Research Institute. She is the author of the memoir, Wish You Happy Forever: What China’s Orphans Taught Me About Moving Mountains, published by Harper Collins in 2014.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Jenny Bowen: I grew up in San Francisco and was an independent filmmaker and screenwriter before I linked up with a small group of adoptive parents of Chinese children to start the Half the Sky Foundation.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder and CEO of the Half the Sky Foundation, an international NGO with the mission of ensuring that every orphaned child has a caring adult in her life and a chance at a bright future. Can you tell us more about the Half the Sky Foundation and its impact?

Jenny Bowen: When Half the Sky Foundation first started working in China, there was no recognition of the fact that institutionalized children – just like children all over the world — can thrive when they are given, more than food and shelter, when they are given the nurturing care that should be their birthright. The programs we established in government-run orphanages all over the country in the last 16 years have proven over and over that institutionalized children can in fact blossom when an adult gives them the patient, loving care – the hugs, the smiles, the encouragement — that is crucial for healthy development. Now the Chinese government not only recognizes that fact but has also made our child-centered programs the standard for the entire public welfare system. We were also honored to be invited by the government to train every child welfare worker in the country about the importance of nurturing care and how to deliver it through our Rainbow Program. We also now have the opportunity to begin to start the process of turning everything we have built over to the Chinese to operate and fund as has always been our intention. In 2011 we helped launch our Chinese sister organization, Chunhui Children, whose mission is to galvanize Chinese citizens and corporations to support the programs we have established and extend them to more institutions and to at-risk children living in the community. Now, in addition to our Western supporters, generous individuals and corporations who have benefited from China’s new prosperity can support the children who have been left behind.

Women LEAD: What inspires you to keep fighting to improve the lives of children in China?

Jenny Bowen: The countless number of children I have met at the 53 Children’s Centers we have established in government-run orphanages throughout China. I never fail to be moved by their magical transformations—shattered, emotionally vacant children become the curious, smiling children they were meant to be after they receive the simple gift of nurturing that is taken for granted in loving families. Those transformations keep me fighting to improve the lives of the children we haven’t yet reached.

Women LEAD: You also authored a new book, Wish You Happy Forever, which chronicles your lives to transform Chinese orphanages positively. Can you tell us more about your book?

Jenny Bowen: I was thrilled to be given the opportunity of writing the story of Half the Sky, but it wasn’t easy. I wrote a draft based on a story I’d been carrying in my heart. My editor said he loved the story, but it didn’t have enough of me in it. So I had to go back and look at my past. I had never thought about what it is in me that’s pushing me to help these kids find love. The “me” came out in very unexpected ways. I didn’t receive enough love as a child and that started coming out. One of the many great pleasures of my book tour has been meeting some of the families whose children have been impacted by our work and receiving photos, notes and handcrafted gifts. One child made a drawing with lots of hearts and wrote, “Dear Half the Sky, Thank you for taking care of me.”

Women LEAD: On a personal level, why does empowering girls matter to you?

Jenny Bowen: My daughter Maya was the inspiration for starting Half the Sky. When we adopted her from a Chinese orphanage in 1997, she suffered the ill effects of institutionalization – she was shut down emotionally and behind developmentally. I saw how Maya blossomed when she was empowered, when she received the love and support she needed. She and my daughter Anya, also adopted from China, have become interesting, engaged, loving young women and they inspire me every day.

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

Jenny Bowen: Zhang Zhirong (“ZZ”). ZZ is the heart and soul of Half the Sky. Without her, Half the Sky would not exist. ZZ was an official interpreter and tour guide and working for the China Population Welfare Foundation when we met, but she soon started working tirelessly for Half the Sky. She quickly became my big sister, my guide, and my Chinese voice.

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

Jenny Bowen: Stay committed to your mission and don’t let the fact that you may not have any experience in the nonprofit world deter you.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Pooja Chandrashekar

Interview by Megan Foo

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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

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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

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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 worked with 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

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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

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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

dipeeka4

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!