Dr. Unoma Okorafor is the founder and CEO of Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Education for African women, and working to ensure that talent is engaged in technology and innovation on the African continent.
A serial and social entrepreneur, Dr. Okorafor is also founder and CEO of Herbal Papaya, a health and wellness company that manufactures organic health beverages and supplements. She is also co-founder of Radicube Technologies Inc, a Big Data Analytics company. Unoma has been a speaker and thought leader at several events including SXSW, WISE Conference, Women’s Forum and Ashoka Foundation Changemakers.
You founded Working to Advance African Women (WAAW) Foundation over a decade ago. What inspired you to take this bold step?
Several factors inspired me to found WAAW Foundation in 2007 while I was completing my Ph.D. degree in Computer Engineering at Texas A & M University. At that time, I was the only woman of color in the program and my graduate education experience had been a very lonely one working mostly amongst men. I knew that I wanted to be an engineer and had the ability to be a great one, but I wished there were more women in STEM to support each other.
Additionally, I saw the huge impact technology could have in lifting entire communities out of poverty. I could see the rapid technological advances that were in the pipeline. For instance, I saw the advent of Google, PayPal and Amazon and some of my research was around the technologies that powered these huge companies and the impact they had on e-commerce, telecommunications, and the financial industry.
The images I saw in the media did not reflect the Africa I grew up in and the Africa I envisioned in the future and I realized at that point that if we could empower African women with education in Science and Technology and teach them to innovate and solve problems in their communities using technology, we could turn around the plight of our entire African continent.
It was a huge dream considering that at the time I was still a graduate student with two young children. However, I decided it was better to start and even if we could only impact one girl in Africa it was better than doing nothing. It has been inspiring to see how WAAW Foundation has grown.
In the last decade, what are some of the major milestones that WAAW has achieved? What impact would you say that WAAW has had on the way that STEM education is delivered in Nigeria and on the number of girls choosing to study STEM?
Like I mentioned WAAW started as a dream while I was a graduate student with no substantial resources to invest and no experience with running a fully-fledged organization. The first year we launched our website, we offered to sponsor one $500 scholarship for an African girl studying a STEM-related discipline at a University in Africa. It was all my husband and I could afford from our meager graduate student stipend. But this experience opened my eyes to the huge need and the relatively small amount of resources and funds needed to bridge this gap.
That first year we received over 400 applications. We were overwhelmed and I recruited my mother to assess the applications and select the one we felt was the most deserving. But there were so many who needed a small lift. Application after application, I shed tears as I read about AIDS orphans, child mothers, abandoned girls who were struggling to make it through school, doing well with excellent grades who just needed a little support. I was inspired to keep pushing.
To date, WAAW has provided over 30 Scholarships to university girls in STEM, reached over 500 girls through our STEM residential camps, trained over 200 university-to-secondary mentors in 17 university chapters across 10 African countries and we impact almost 20,000 youth each year.
In Nigeria, we have continued to engage with the community to push against societal norms that tell girls that a STEM education is not feminine. We have worked with government ministries, secondary school teachers, communities and especially parents of girls to educate them on the huge benefits of STEM education for girls. WAAW is looking to partner with Federal Ministries of Education, Science and Technology to re-invent what STEM education should be and retrain our teachers to incorporate hands on, locally available resources to promote innovation in the classrooms.
For all the girls and young women currently on the fence about whether a career in STEM is the right choice for them, what advice would you give to them?
First of all, let me say that we are not necessarily promoting the idea that a career in STEM is the right choice for every girl. Our broad message is that we are in the middle of a technological revolution where technology is pervasive in every facet of our lives and will be even more so in the future.
Consider the recent research that states that 90% of jobs created in the next 20-30 years will require some sort of skill in STEM. That means that people who have STEM skills will have a huge advantage over those who don’t. Whether they are applying those skills in core technology or in healthcare, finance, agriculture, business, transportation. I think that girls should participate in creating those technologies so we can solve some of the critical issues facing us.
WAAW is currently partnering with African Women Engineering Leadership and Entrepreneurship (AWELE) Academy to launch the She Hacks Africa Initiative. Could you tell the readers more about this initiative, who the target audience is and what the objectives are?
We launched AWELE Academy in 2016 with the desire to empower our WAAW college fellows and provide them with employable skills in software programming. AWELE academy provides a safe environment for direct project based, hands-on tutoring through regular courses, weekly real-life project and market analysis, coding activities and introduction to computer software that will inspire African youths to view software programming as accessible, fun and doable.
She Hacks Africa coding boot camp is a 3-week coding workshop designed to provide fun and engaging software programming training. It will help build the self-confidence of African youths between the ages of 18-35 years as community change makers and technology innovators while giving them relevant skills to build technology enterprises. Our participants will gain globally relevant skills, build their capacity in technology and benefit from leadership, mentoring, and networking events.
We had our first She Hacks Africa boot camp cohort in January 2017 in Abuja, Nigeria. Our Lagos edition started on Monday, April 24th, 2017. The training will also provide entrepreneurship sessions to enable the participants to identify potential areas of interest in Technology.
Outside of your professional work, you are also a successful entrepreneur and have several companies under your belt. The one that stood out most to me is Herbal Papaya, the health and wellness company you founded in 2010.
What sparked your interest in health and wellness? Where is Health Papaya active and how can our readers access your products and services?
Herbal Papaya is a US-based health and wellness company that manufactures herbal teas, supplements, smoothies, dried herbs and spices. It was founded in 2011 after I had quit my job as an Engineering Tech lead to stay home and have my third baby. I was focused on eating healthy for my baby and providing healthier meals for my family so I started researching healthy living. I learnt about the genetically modified foods that had flooded the food industry and their potential impact on our health.
It led me to organic papaya, which is a fruit that is hugely beneficial to healthy skin, digestion and immune system. I thought, if I am looking for this, perhaps someone else might be too. So, I did a quick market test and found there was quite an interest and that is how the company was founded.
Herbal papaya products are available to customers in the US, Canada and Europe via our website and on Amazon. We are also available in several independent retail stores and will keep expanding into stores over the next few years. We have also been discussing the possibility of expanding our brand into the African market but that is very preliminary.
You have been invited to speak at several high-profile events including SXSW, WISE Conference, Women’s Forum and Ashoka Foundation Changemakers.
Considering the target audience of She Leads Africa, which of the speeches you have given would you say is most relevant and inspiring for this group and why?
I would say that the recent speech i gave at the SXSW conference would be most relevant to the target audience of She Leads Africa and here is why. The speech focused on why women in tech matter and highlighted the fact that women need to be encouraged to stand up and lead in every facet of life and especially in technology which is very male dominated. When women lead in tech, in business and other areas, we give others the permission to step up and take up their place.
I particularly stressed the fact that encouraging more women to lead is not a zero-sum equation. It does not mean that we are taking the place of men. I encourage more men to get in on the agenda of supporting female empowerment agendas so that together we can elevate the human experience, solve the global challenges of our times and leave behind a better world for our children.
It is not easy being a successful, black woman but you appear to have mastered the art beautifully and gracefully.
What do you think has been the key to your success? How are you able to find balance in your daily life and juggle the many commitments you have on your plate?
It is a daily commitment to find balance but it all starts with setting boundaries and prioritizing what is important. For me I lose balance if I do not prioritize three key areas of my life which are; my spiritual life (I must find time to connect with God, meditate and attend church), my family life (I need to spend quality time with my husband and be engaged in my children’s’ lives) and find down time to relax (maybe visit friends, go on vacation, read a book, exercise, practice yoga or visit a fun place).
For me once these three core things are in balance, I seem to be able to manage all the others. I have also been blessed to work with super amazing teams who do a lot in the background and are not getting credit for it. I am learning to recruit reliable people and put systems in place that allow me to delegate responsibility. Technology and automation also helps to keep me organized. Ultimately, however, because I am balancing a lot, there are many things I have to say no to or accept that they will not be done perfectly. It’s always give and take.
If you could leave the readers with one key piece of advice to motivate them to take on more challenges and aspire to greater heights what would that advice be?
I would advise readers to delete the words from our vocabulary that stop us from daring to take the next step such as “too busy”, “too tired” or whatever your excuse is. I believe the universe conspires to help us once we decide to focus on accomplishing something. So, I would advise readers to dare greatly and ask the question “How can I?” rather than saying “I can’t”.
Another important piece of advice is to get a mentor and read more books. Invest in self-development. I have never met a great leader who is not a reader.
On that final note, what book is currently on your nightstand?
I am a huge reader so at any point in time I am reading several books. I read a lot of self-development books and autobiographies of great men and women who have served their communities.
Two of the books I am currently reading are: Traction by Gino Wickman – I consider this the #1 book every business owner must read and re-read in order to grow their organization and Daring Greatly (How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead) by Brene Brown.