“Africa is a really enterprising place….We need alternative ways for girls to fund the routes they want to take in STEM” says Anne-Marie Imafidon of STEMettes.
Her credentials are amazing and you begin to assume this young lady is ‘all work and no play’. However, you quickly discover she is astounded by the fact that people do not have fun during the day and the amount of fun they are afraid to have. At the launch of STEMettes in 2013, the loudest feedback she got was about the lack of PowerPoint slides and the prevalence of girls just having fun. Now, can you beat that? Typical launches are more ‘adult’ and involve being spoken at, in a very formal and dry way.
This is what Anne-Marie Osawemwenze Imafidon MBE, Nigerian-British Computing and Mathematics prodigy and CEO of Stemettes, has been working on through her social enterprise which promotes women in STEM careers. Her work at STEMettes has earned the youngest ever Oxford graduate a merit award as Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), conferred by the Queen of England in May this year. This is a clear definition of black excellence.
Outrepreneurs had a chat with Anne-Marie. An exciting piece of information in all of this is her desire to bring her social enterprise to Africa.
But, really, why does the global press refer to Anne-Marie as a prodigy? A note at the end of this post sheds some light on that.
Tell us about Stemettes
Stemettes is a non-profit social enterprise focused on encouraging girls and young women in what is called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). We work with girls from the age of 5 to 21, in the United Kingdom and across Ireland. The ethos is to make everything free and fun for them and there is always food for them.
Have you ever worked with countries in Africa?
We have not, yet, but we have spoken to a number of different countries. There is appetite for us to do it, but it has not yet come to fruition yet in a lot of the countries that we have spoken to. There is definitely a desire for us to work in Africa.
What countries have you been looking at?
Senegal was one of them, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. These are countries we absolutely have interest in bringing our idea to. For us to move in to any country, we have to do a little bit of feasibility, almost like an eligibility study to know what elements of the program are needed in that country and what is the nature of the problem girls in STEM are facing in that country. For instance, the number of women working in STEM globally are similar and tell the same story, but the nuance is that what is happening in each country is very different. The education system and recruiting practices are also different. It is not like a one-size-fits-all program and we are not arrogant with our solutions.
Where we are trying to increase desire, to create a solution where STEM education is free for the girls, we have realized it is not a problem of desire; it is a problem of access. We have to make sure we are not going to do something in order to have a particular output, but they are not linked together so we eventually end up with a different output.
How much progress have you made in your work?
In four years, we have worked directly with just under fifteen thousand young girls in London, across UK and Ireland and some parts of Europe as well. Indirectly, we have worked with over 30,000 young people as well. With all of them, it is four main areas of impact we are going for. One is their perception about STEM, next is careers in STEM (they have to understand what it is to work in this field and the awareness of the different options that there are across STEM); their personal networking skills within the field (how many people they are connected to) and, finally, their confidence in their own STEM abilities. Those are the four big areas we go for.
Knowledge is important, but it is a small part of what we do, because, of course, if we are running STEM workshops, then there would be a little bit of knowledge there as part of the experience. That is the nature of impact that we have had and that is our measuring stick across all of the girls.
What issues do girls meet with, while participating in STEM activities?
They are not a homogeneous group, so their issues are different. Some of them do not have access to STEM events, because they live remotely. There are loads of events in London, for example, across the industry for girls and a wider population. If you live somewhere really far out, you will not have access, because you have to be at school during those hours. You might not also be able to travel really far out. This is especially rampant for girls within the age bracket we work with. The second issue is even if they do have access, [there is] the issue of being the only girl in the crowd. In a class of 18 or 300 the girl is the only one. For me, that’s not an issue but for many girls, it is a problem that you are going to be the only girl in the class. They do not want to be alone, like the odd one out. And especially at that age, you are looking for a sense of belonging and not to stick out too much. So, that is a big barrier we face, because even if those options are there, the feeling of being socially different and going against a social norm definitely stands.
Other times it is other people imposing their beliefs on them like a parent or teacher telling the girl-child it is not the norm for a girl to get her hands dirty, it is not very ladylike. These sort of things bog down the girl trying to participate in STEM activities.
This is about their psychological disposition. Are you doing anything to help?
That is the nature of what we do. We do not actually focus on knowledge alone, we focus more on the social norm and the girls having a sense of network is them being there with lots of other girls, enjoying STEM and exploring what is available. They are in a space where they feel more normal and do not feel like the odd one out in that environment.
For example, we have had girls do an animation and gaming hackathon, where they are building their own games and animation and they are coding it them by themselves, using Java platform. 50 girls doing that, all at the same time. No one can say it is not a girl’s thing. No one can say they are too young for it, because there will be 5 year olds there. You cannot also complain about being too old too. In that time at least, with pop music playing in the background and food, it makes it normal for these girls to spend a whole weekend building games and coding as well.
What insights do you give to girls with an interest in any of the STEM sectors?
For the girls that already aspire, what we do is we expose them to a network with different people that will help them realize those aspirations and help them understand the steps they need to take. For our older girls, we run a mentoring program where they are matched up with a woman in industry and have a personal, almost like career coach for four months. They gain work experience and are exposed to opportunities to attend industry events. They can also act on their aspiration and understand the environment they want to get involved in.
They are also able to see the different routes they can take in their career that might not necessarily be what they had initially set out to do. The degree, work experience and apprenticeship show them the many different options available to them that still guarantee that they can make an impact in whatever field they choose to study.
Regarding marginalization, how do you think the gap between women in STEM and the men in that field can be reduced?
Across Africa, there is a much more different issue at play, before we come to Desire and, I think that is Access. With a lot of STEM roles and careers, there is a certain pathway that you need to have taken before you can access them. Whether it is a degree or apprenticeships or internships, there is a lot of steps you need to take and precursors that you need, before you are able to start that career and, quite often, from the research that we have done, there are different levels that girls have access to. Which means that if you are from a financially poor background, then taking the university route is going to be slightly tougher, because you do not have much funding to take that degree. That is one particular barrier that we have seen, that impacts a lot of girls. Even if they have had access to primary education, they might not have access to secondary. If they have had access to secondary education and proceed to the university, they might not be able to complete their education. So across Africa, what we need is an alternative way for girls to fund the routes they want to take in STEM and also alternative ways to educate girls on the options available. For example, in the area of technology, there are new jobs that are created every day. The people that are studying now will meet completely different roles from what exists today, by the time they start working in the industry.
So, when you have that cultural element that says you should be an engineer, doctor or lawyer, that doesn’t take into account the opportunity of being a growth hacker and make justice with money or being a growth scientist and make justice with money. So, there is the element of access to knowledge and information. Africa has also been really good at leapfrogging the rest of the world in a number of different areas of access to technology. So, there is a big opportunity now to leapfrog the world and have tech powerhouses and then have spaces where we are able to educate those interested in STEM. Africa is a really enterprising place and there is only so much support that they need to put into the system for there to be a big output.
We need less of trying to replicate what is happening in the rest of the world (which is one of the reasons it has taken STEMettes so long to come over) and more of identifying the resources we have access to, like satellites, Wi-Fi and electricity; start work on the prevailing problems; bring in more money into the system and get locally trained instead of aiming for more scholarships and more degrees which they do not need.
Support, funding and collaborations?
We have really good support. We do not have any money from the government, so all of our financial support comes from sponsorships and partnerships with companies that want to solve one particular problem of girls and STEM. What is great about this is that it is not just money we have access to, but also people time and access to industry and these are worth more than the money. The money just makes sure we have light, workspace and internet access when we are coordinating events.
We have also had a lot of support in terms of carrying the message of what we are trying to do and sharing best practices via a number of research projects that we have been a part of and government initiatives as well. We get called on for advice on best practice in what we have been doing to a point without giving away our operational secrets.
We are constantly collaborating and also looking for collaborations. Unfortunately, none of the projects we wanted to do across Africa has been in collaboration with other organizations that are already there and I think, sometime, collaborations can be tough to do because everybody has got their own ends that they are going for, so if they do not fully align in terms of funding, work sharing and ultimate goal, there might be a mismatch which will not work.
Collaborations we have had are all about sharing resources like laptops, workshop material, sharing our girls network, sharing prizes, hosting and I being physically there to present. These are the types of collaborations we engage in. Every collaboration is different.
Born in 1990, Anne-Marie could speak six languages at the age of 10 (English, Spanish, French, Greek, Mandarin and German). Also at age 10, she won a scholarship to the private school, St Joseph’s Convent School, in Reading, a year younger than usual. When she was 11, she passed two GCSE Examinations (in Mathematics and Information technology). At the Lyceum Institute of Technology in East Ham, London, she became the youngest person ever to obtain a qualification in Information Technology. At 13, in 2003, she received a British scholarship to study mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. At 15, in 2005, she was admitted into a degree program by the University of Oxford. At 17, she started a master’s degree at Oxford University and at 19, in June of 2010,Anne-Marie Imafidon had become the youngest ever graduate with a master’s degree. Imafidon worked briefly for Goldman Sachs, Hewlett Packard, and Deutschebank before launching and becoming CEO of Stemettes in 2013, championing the work of women in STEM. Stemettes runs panel sessions and hackathons supporting girls and young women who are considering a STEM career.
Chiamaka Akuba15 Posts
Chiamaka Akuba is a graduate of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is passionate about emerging markets and entrepreneurship and is actively working with the industry. She loves her conversations challenging and can’t help laughing when you call her ‘Honourable Writer of the Federal Republic'. Chiamaka is a Staff Writer at Outrepreneurs.