Sierra Leone: Day 4

Photo Credit to Molly Fiffer of TechWomen and IIE

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Afternoon: Women in #Techpreneurship

I gave a TED talk-style presentation to a roomful of Sierra Leonian entrepreneurs about finding funding. Here’s a recording of another version of that talk if you’re curious:

It went well!

Evening: Pitch Night and Start-Up Exhibition

The youth section (12-18) of this event was co-run by your correspondent, Natsai Mutezo and Jacqueline Scoggins. My Mom and a group of other excellent mentors ran the adult section (19-30). We had 10 girls in our pitch competition.

A group of four girls from 13-16 sit a round a large wooden table; two American women and two Sierra Leonian women sit with them. The girls are answering the question:

“What is the biggest problem in your community and what should your community do to solve it?”

They have 45 minutes to decided on their answers to the above using the Apple design process (Brainstorm->Plan->Prototype->Evaluate), appoint a speaker, develop a pitch (the prototype in this circumstance), practice it, and be ready to go.

One girl is wearing a maroon dress; not a school uniform. She probably changed for the event, which is hosted at one of the few venues we’ve been to with European-native flowers. We had walked into the peaceful outdoor space beneath a great arbor; at first, I thought someone had trailed flower petals along our path, white and richly pink and grey. But then I realized the arbor was covered in at least two fully mature wisteria vines, and the flowers were dropped down from them by their own verdant capriciousness and not by some solicitous host.

The girl in maroon’s voice is quiet, flat, and strong when she answers the question:


She is sixteen.

The women nod to the girls, letting them know it’s ok to talk here. We all know that the parliament of Sierra Leone recently declared that raping q child will carry an automatic life sentence. There’s a hum as the two other groups of girls are having these same conversations, these same quiet declarations of emergency. The next girl is in a cornflower blue uniform, complete with a round-brimmed hat. She answers:

“Lack of electricity.”

She is fourteen.

The next girl is wearing the same uniform and her voice very, very quiet. It is a good thing that Freetown is quiet too; well, quiet for a city with cars, but I can clearly make out her voice:

“Lack of access to clean water.”

She is also fourteen.

The fourth is wearing a nice chartreuse top, the sleeves architectural the way so many West African fashions are:

“I believe the most important issue facing Sierra Leone is global warming. When I tell my parents about the harmful gasses that come from their stoves and their cars, my father says: ‘that doesn’t happen here.’ It is hard for us here in a developing country. We are trying to follow what the Western countries are doing, but it is hard when people do not believe us.”

She is thirteen.

We discuss. I see the group talking more and more about the issue of rape. Usually in these kinds of ideation meetings, one topic will bubble up and up and up. Experienced brainstormers without a chip on their shoulders or an axe to grind will usually go with the flow for the sake of the exercise. But this is the first brainstorming session these young ladies have had, so silence descends, choking off their words as they try to figure out how to negotiate a single topic with the other girls at the table.

We talk about “yes, and…” and the girls are slightly warming up to it as a mode of communication. It’s supportive and kind, which is a good fit for their existing styles. It just adds a bit more structure to what they each wish others would do for them.

Several more issue areas have been added:

  1. Illiteracy
  2. Bad people — when we dug into this one, she talked about feeling unsafe to leave her house in case she was robbed.
  3. Teen pregnancy

One of the mentors, a woman who taught herself to program after college and has held high-ranking positions at a number of top Silicon Valley companies, asks the girls to vote on which issues to remove from the potentials list.

The girls vote to remove electricity shortages, illiteracy, and ‘bad people’ and combine teen pregnancy and rape.

The girl in the chartreuse shirt argues passionately for focusing on climate change. [I’m going to keep referring to her visually since she’s a minor and I didn’t get permission to use her name]. I suggest we try a secret ballot, saying:

“In my country, we often keep our votes secret to protect people from being intimidated during voting.”

I had noticed how anxious the girls were getting, how much they looked at each other with worry about giving offense, feeling a clear urge for social cohesion. They agree to try it and put their heads on the table.

They vote to focus on rape.

Everyone glances at the girl in chartreuse, but she looks ok with the decision. We’d remind them that this was only for this one competition, that they could keep working on anything they liked after tonight. We move forward.

Now we’re at the hard question of who will be the speaker. No matter where I go, it is deeply rare for anyone to compete for this role immediately. People can work themselves up to being competitive about it, but for those first stunning seconds while everyone relives every fear they’ve ever had of public speaking, no one raises their hands.

I’m about to start on my spiel that every group project has variations on the same 5 roles (project manager, researcher, writer, designer, speaker) and that speaker is only one of them, when the girl in the chartreuse top begins to inch her hand up, pointer-finger crooked-up just barely out of her fist, eyes fixedly on the table.

“I think she volunteered!” One of the women says.

Another woman says: “Alright, to the prototype phase. Since the pitch is the prototype, why don’t you looked at her notes,” and she begins gesturing firmly to the other woman’s notes in her carefully-branded red notebook, “And give us a version of the pitch?”

There is some apologizing for handwriting, some discussion of its goodness/badness, American’s schools’ lack of emphasis on handwriting, and the girl’s assurance she can read it.

She gives the pitch as one of the women times her; she takes 1min 26sec. That is both nearly 50% over time and drastically better than the vast majority of adults I’ve gone through this workshop with could have done.

We practice giving supportive, positive feedback.

She tries again: 49 seconds.

The women clap wildly, knowing in our bones how incredibly difficult it is to make live changes to a talk in front of strangers.

To give her a break and because it’s a tip I enjoy, I say:

“One way to slow down when you speak is to take a breath in through your nose in every place you find a period. Your nose because if you breath-in through your mouth, it can make your throat dry, make you cough. This is most important for when you — when each of you — are speaking at the UN or anywhere in a northern, drier climate, and not so relevant here in this warm, tropical climate, but you should know how to publicly speak in northern climates as well.”

“So says the opera singer,” one of the other women say. Earlier in the evening, when two young participants missed what I was saying, I had told the entire assembled group:

“I have a policy — if I see someone distracted when I am speaking, someone on their cellphone, I will assume I am not being entertaining enough, dramatic enough. And because I studied opera in school, my first reaction will to start being more and more dramatic, up-to and including singing loudly in Italian until I have everyone’s attention. I will take it as a sign that I need to do that if I see a plurality of people on their phones.”

The girl in the chartreuse top tries again: 54 seconds.

The time is up; she has to be ready.

I stand, get the microphone and begin to arrange the speakers. I let them choose their order based on who comes down to the low stage area first. The first girl is tall, with thick glasses and wearing a long, tan hijab; she chooses third of three. The second is the girl in the chartreuse shirt confidently asks for position 2, which is a favorite of mine as well. The other group has decided to divide their time between all 3 of there group members. I am dubious they will be able to keep to time, but tell them they’re going first because they lallygagged and they’ll do great.

The judge sits in a smart green blazer, notebook in hand, in single chair in front of the row of nervous girls. She’s a Sierra Leonian woman in STEM and the perfect mix of direct and kind for this role for this age-grou

They present.

The first group of girls spoke about improving waste disposal in their communities:

The girl in the chartreuse top gave the same solid 1-minute pitch.

The third girl spoke confidently and well about her team’s goals for their local environment.

I want the judge to have a few moments to think unobserved by anxious teenaged eyes, so I call all of the teams, their mentors, and their teachers together to take a big group picture. The area I was treating as a stage was a full step lower than the tables where we’d sat, and some of the girl came down a level for the photo — I tell them to go back up, to never give-up the high ground. They laugh and we take a big, smiling picture, the US State Department photographer and the IIE-hired local photographer both doing a great job of getting and holding everyone’s attention.

I check-in with the judge and she’s ready. I call the group to order and remind them they are all winners. This seems weak-sauce in my ears, so I ask them all to raise their hands if they had learned something in the past hour.

They all do, their grins big.

I remind them that, when Natsai Mutezo (one of the other leaders of the youth section of the pitch competition) had asked them at the beginning of the program who knew what a pitch was, none of them had raised their hands.

“And now you are so good, I believe you could pitch your ideas in a huge range of places.” don’t want to overpromise, but I would take listening to any of these ladies over a dealer’s pick of Congressmen any day of the week and twice on Wednesdays

I gesture the judge to step down and she takes the microphone, saying:

“You are all winners, but there has to be a team at the top. I wasn’t here for your planning process, I was in the adult’s section,” [the adults had had their own pitch competition prep session in another room], “But one group hit all of the marks: identifying the problem, arguing for the solution.”

“That group was number two.”

There was a long pause while we tried to figure out who she meant.

Then — it had to be the second speaker, the girl in the chartreuse top!

Here is the moment it was announced, complete with screaming and shimmying and the general explosive joy of teenaged girls everywhere.

Each girl got a certificate. I shook every girl’s hands, telling them they were brilliant. Snacks were served and we started chatting about school.

The first girl said her favorite subject was math; the second said it was drawing; the third said it was engineering science; and fourth, the girl in the chartreuse shirt, said it was science and she didn’t have a lot of science classes yet, because of her grade.

She is thirteen.

Jackie Scoggins, one of the other amazing co-leaders of the youth pitch competition, comes over to our table. She tells the girls that each table had raised-up the same problems and that, if all 10 of them connected, they could make incredible change. I wave then forward, then remember their ages.

I say: “You’re going to be networking. You need give your contact information to any of the other girls you want to stay in contact with. If someone else gives you their contact information, you need to reply within 24 hours.”

I dug into my backpack, pulling out a heap of post-it notes former Sunnyvale City Councilwoman Tara Martin-Milius had left with me after workshop I ran with her. Tara had told me to put them to good use.

I hand one stack to each girl, paired with a pen; these post-its were about to become their first business cards.

“Remember: share your information, ask for information, and follow-up in 24 hours. Now go on!”

They went. All 10 girls spent the remainder of the evening hunched in over the table, eyes bright, smiles quick and rising often. As the sun set, a puppy toddled between the tables, watched by its careful mother. The girls ignored it, faces intent on their conversation. Occasional flashes of green as they exchanged post-it note business cards.

I don’t know if I have ever seen a more beautiful sight.

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: