For most women actively working in the tech sector in Nigeria, one of the major targets is to bring in other women into the tech space. This has seen the launch of many non-governmental organizations focusing on women and tech.
One of the more visible organizations is Oreoluwa Lesi’s Women Technology Empowerment Center (W.Tec). In a comprehensive chat with TechNext, Ore shared her journey towards launching an organization for women that has gone on to impact lives in their thousands and attract international recognition for its efforts.
Tell us about you
I am the eldest of three children, and though born and bred in Lagos, I am from Ogun state. I have a degree in Economics from Essex University. My background in tech was largely influenced by my parents who loved engineering. I remember the first time I came in contact with a computer was when my father bought a computer home. It did not look like what computers look like nowadays, though, but it sparked my interest.
I thought computers were majorly for playing games until I went to a computer school while I was waiting for my JAMB results. I took the longest course that they had to offer because I wanted to kill the time and was tired of staying at home. The course was computer programming and taught me to write programs in COBOL and Q Basic. I learnt about the parts of the computer and really took to writing programs from there on.
I was very interested in programming, and I started asking people if I could write programs for them. I enjoy the process of writing programs, particularly the analytical aspect.
What was your first major program about?
It was an application for my parents’ bookstore. Back then, every record was kept in a notebook. It was not very effective and things often went missing without anyone being able to track them. Because of that, I decided to develop a software that could take care of the record keeping.
It had a lot of bugs at the early stages, which I had to fix, and eventually it was ready to be used. By that time though, I had to leave for school and my parents ended up not using the technology.
Why was the product not used?
My parents thought it was too stressful to use compared to what they had been used to. After my Masters in Information Systems, I learnt about the people aspect of building products. Most of the times, people design devices and products that they can use, while it may not necessarily be the best design for the other person. I had not paid enough attention to that part of the product development, and it showed after.
How did the journey into WTEC begin?
After my first undergraduate degree, I moved to the US to get another degree, this time in Applied Sciences. It was there that I really got to learn about programming and databases. I got my first job working as a researcher for a non-profit organization. I moved to a more technology-focused role which entailed building their website and managed their technology resources.
At the same time, I was also volunteering and doing what I could to give back to the community. I volunteered as help-desk IT personnel and they ask me to help out if any faults developed in their computers.
I started teaching basic digital literacy skills in a community technology center. I taught skills ranging from web design to Microsoft word. What struck me was that after some time, I would meet people I had taught who told me that they had gotten a job because of what they learnt in my class.
I began to think much more on it, and wondered at the impact that could have on women, because I have always had a heart for women.
During my NYSC year after I moved back to Nigeria, I took up a personal project of teaching girls how to blog. That expanded into teaching them how to use the computer. It was while doing that that I came across an email calling for applications for funding for projects that are building communities.
Although unsure at the time, I still applied and after some months I got a response that I had been shortlisted and was invited for a workshop in Uganda. I learnt a lot at the workshop, even though I was scared at first because the other participants came from big organizations and I didn’t even have a team then.
After the workshop, I had the opportunity of reworking my proposal for funding and submitting it again. I was later contacted that I had been selected for funding and that my proposal was the best ranked proposal of all, that was what really gave me the confidence and boost to start WTEC.
What was the first year of running WTEC like?
So, WTEC started fully in 2008, and that was a year that the country was in financial recession. The funding that we had gotten before was $5000, and we were looking for ways to raise more funds. It proved more difficult however, and we were not able to raise funding after the first one, during our first year.
Eventually, I decided with my team to pause our efforts on raising funds, and to concentrate on organizing programs and trainings for our target audience. These programs helped us to build our track record and provide content we could point people to as evidence of our activities on social media.
The passion I had for our work at WTEC kept and helped me and my team get through the early days of Women Technology Empowerment Center.
What are some of the programs and trainings that WTEC organises?
We started with programs that taught women digital skills such as blogging, and building and maintaining a Facebook page. But because part of our goals involves bridging the gender gap in the technology space, we realized that we needed to reach the females when they were still young and had not formed misconceptions about technology.
To achieve that, we held our first bootcamp in 2008 with 15 girls and it was a huge success. We run the camp yearly now and we have increased the number to between 45 to 50 girls. The camp has been expanded beyond Lagos and now holds in Kwara and Anambra states yearly as well.
At the camp, we always set out to inspire girls about technology and to help them get a wider scope that does not limit technology to programming. Most girls think programming is all there is to tech, but it is not, and that is one thing we help them see at the camp.
We also run technology after school clubs to sustain the interest that the girls have developed from the camp. This is particularly helpful for girls who do not have access to computers at home.
The clubs are run in schools and we schedule different activities to implement. The first program in the club was on digital filmmaking and we did that at Aunty Ayo’s International School in Ikoyi. From there, we went on to 10 more schools in Yaba and just went from there. We currently are doing the same thing in Kwara state.
Another of our initiatives is mentoring. We pair girls up with female leaders in fields that they are interested in. This helps them get practical guidance on how to navigate school and come out with their goals achieved and ready for the workplace.
What challenges and milestones have you faced while running WTEC?
We started at the beginning of the financial recession, and one of our major challenges was funding. However, it forced us to be nimble, adaptable and to think on our feet. As a result of that, we learnt to maximize resources and ideas to make the most impact possible.
Another challenge was not having a track record. The space of an NGO is that of trust and credibility. Partners and potential investors will not just want to look at your track record, they also want to know if you will do what you say you will do. These involve implementing projects to the letter, and following up where it is required.
I also had the challenge of nurturing the right relationships. I was more focused on the work in the beginning, and felt it should speak for itself, but at the end of the day I realized that businesses revolved around relationships. Often, people will invest in you usually because of you, not necessarily the idea, and I did not know this when I started out.
Another challenge was finding the right human resources. Getting people who shared the same passion for the job and were willing to learn on the job. It was challenging to get people who were committed to the duty of WTEC as an NGO and did not have money as their major motivation for getting into the field.
One of the challenges I personally had was managing and running my company. I was more comfortable facilitating and laying down programs, and most times I found out that communicating and running the team were aspects I had not really factored in. Taking courses and learning about these areas can help anyone to be better prepared than I was, then.
A major milestone for us is seeing girls decide to study STEM-related courses because of what they picked up at WTEC events. It is huge for us, especially when we see the girls taking on tech projects and making a difference with the skills they learnt at our events.
Another milestone for us is the fact that we have been able to bring the knowledge of technology to children with disabilities. The program came about through a conversation with the Founder of the Children’s Development Center, Dr Yinka Akindare. Through the program, we have been able to use tech to help them learn better, and we have gotten positive feedback for our efforts.
Besides your role in WTEC, what else do you enjoy doing?
I run the bookshop my parents retired from in Surulere, the bookshop is called Patabah. I am married now with children, and having a family has helped me with my work-life balance.
The things I love doing include reading books, watching my favorite movies on Netflix and catching up with my favorite shows on YouTube, besides spending time with my family.
What are your favorite tech products?
That would be my phone and my iPad. I organize everything and handle my communications on my phone and I watch my movies and shows on my iPad.
For softwares, my favorite would be Google Calendar. I use it a lot to plan ahead and schedule my events.
As we wrapped up what was a very interesting and enlightening interview, Ore shared that over the coming years, WTEC would be doing a lot more documentation of its activities, and its mentors. There will be more reach for the organization for its activities and a lot more use of its aluni network.
Even as she keeps working to get a better work-life balance, it is inspiring what she has already achieved and a statement of the fact that women do not need to be perfect or to know it all before they can work at things that make others better.
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