Ladé Araba: Technology and empowerment
Ladé Araba is the co-founder and president of the Visiola Foundation, which educates, trains, and mentors African girls from disadvantaged communities in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, with the goal not only of giving the girls a chance to follow life-changing career paths, but also of supporting individuals, families and communities by nurturing the endless potential of African youth to drive sustainable development in the region.
With a passionate commitment to development finance, Ladé is also the Managing Director for Africa at Convergence Finance, a Non-Executive Director on the Board of African Risk Capacity (ARC) Ltd, and she sits on the Investment Advisory Council of the Equality Fund. For over 18 years, Ladé has built strong partnerships with private and public clients in varying fields such as infrastructure project finance, renewable energy, and the intersection of technology and education to strengthen gender equality and lead Africa’s long-term socio-economic transformation.
We asked Ladé to tell us more about her personal and professional history, and how she got started playing a key role in supporting African girls and young women as they explore the benefits of technology.
Let’s start with your background. What role did STEM play in your childhood, adolescence, and early career?
I was a vivacious kid growing up in Rome, Italy. I had learned to be flexible and adapt to diverse situations. I enjoyed serving as a language and culture interpreter between the adults in my life and my third culture. I seamlessly slipped between languages and created a bridge of understanding between my parents, school, and others in our sphere of influence. However, I never quite fit in anywhere, but my imagination and creativity allowed me the fluidity to switch back and forth as needed.
Like my peers, I enjoyed playing video games and carrying out experiments. I was good in science and I wanted to become a pediatrician. Curiously, I was actively discouraged from pursuing a medical degree because I was a girl and would eventually get married and it would be difficult to combine a family and a career. Unfortunately, I allowed this message to create self-doubt and I dropped my pre-med major in college and switched to business.
You earned a double degree in Management Information Systems and International Business and then an impressive career in global development and finance. What did you see in your work that inspired you to make the connection between community development and STEM education of African girls and young women?
I paired MIS with International Business because I knew that technology would play an increasingly important role in all facets of the future. I did not want to be marginalized. I really enjoyed SQL and database management and thought I would end up working for a multinational performing this role and traveling to work within its global operations.
"Like my peers, I enjoyed playing video games and carrying out experiments. I was good in science and I wanted to become a pediatrician."
Having grown up in Rome, I was the only Black student in my pre-school, and one of only a handful in elementary and middle schools. There were really no role models outside my family who looked like me as I considered career options. Moreover, my family was in a position of privilege in the UN diplomatic corps, and it was sad for me to see how differently African migrants in Rome lived. Although I was young and couldn’t fully fathom the gravity of it, I became aware of young African women being trafficked and I wanted to do something about it. They were visible on the main streets during the hours of darkness, and I came up with plans to help them, which I readily shared with my mother.
Following my MBA degree and an initial start to my career working in the US, I decided to work in international development, as the sense of wanting to make a difference never left me. When I returned to Rome to work, it was very difficult for me to observe that the situation with African migrants had worsened since my early childhood. The stories of some of the young women I met through my Church stirred something within me and I began organizing life workshops in my apartment to share lessons and provide them with knowledge that I felt could help them transform their lives. We discussed spiritual matters, the importance of education, self-esteem, and a host of other issues in a safe, non-judgmental environment. I challenged them to pursue an education and provided modest financial support and scholarships to help those I could.
This proved to be an eye-opener for all of us. For me personally, it helped me realize the life-changing impact of knowledge and education, as I saw them literally move from limited options in life to real career prospects. I also knew the importance of studying subjects with attractive job prospects that would command high wages. I therefore naturally encouraged them to pursue STEM careers, or to combine some aspect of STEM into their studies, regardless of what they chose.
Florence was ultimately my “index case.” She had come to Rome under the pretext of playing professional female soccer with a lucrative contract. Unfortunately, it never materialized, and she found herself struggling to survive, having been abandoned in a farmhouse. Thankfully, she was introduced to an after-school girls’ soccer club; which had been established by a family friend. My friend asked her questions and was mortified to hear her story and her predicament. She immediately drove her back to the farmhouse, packed up her things and brought her to her home. The peril that could befall a young woman living there was unthinkable. She could have been trafficked. My friend called me and told me about Florence, who is also Nigerian. I was initially apprehensive, given the personal risk, but asked her to bring her over. As I listened to Florence, I realized that she was genuinely in search of a better life and was willing to work for it. She had three siblings and an uneducated mother at home in Nigeria who were supported by her mother’s informal stand where she sold charcoal. Florence had been good enough to qualify to play soccer for the national under 17 team, but that dream had also fallen through.
I asked her why she hadn’t applied for an athletic scholarship to earn a bachelor’s degree in the US. She felt that she couldn’t afford to study for four years. She just wanted to make money to send home. However, I persisted. I did the math with her and showed her the starting salary ranges for holders of technical degrees and their future prospects. I eventually wore her out and she agreed to apply. So, I paid for her to take the SAT exam and to apply to a few colleges. She ended up receiving a full, four-year academic scholarship and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She is now a certified nurse and is changing lives in the US and in her home country of Nigeria, where she saved up enough money to build her mother a decent home. She is also involved in other community building projects.
"I was acutely aware of the cultural barriers and gender stereotypes to women’s participation in the STEM fields and I couldn’t fathom why it persisted."
This was part of the inspiration that prompted me to start the Visiola Foundation further down.
When I joined the African Development Bank in October 2007, I felt a deep sense of pride to see Africans in large numbers in a professional setting. I was also personally delighted to meet that many professional African women. This was a new experience for me, and I reveled in it.
However, I soon noticed that many of the infrastructure projects we financed had foreign developers and sponsors. Finding good quality projects was a challenge, as was finding ones that had been developed by African companies. The refrain was that they lacked the capacity and I always wondered why we couldn’t invest in building that capacity. Moreover, I was acutely aware of the cultural barriers and gender stereotypes to women’s participation in the STEM fields and I couldn’t fathom why it persisted. Women are problem solvers and there is no scientific basis for doubting their intellectual ability to excel.
This was the second inspirational factor that led to the creation of the Visiola Foundation in 2014.
Can you tell us the story and mission behind the Visiola Foundation?
I had begun developing the concept of the Visiola Foundation while working in Ethiopia in 2012. I knew I had to invest in African girls and young women and was trying to figure out how exactly to go about it. I subsequently moved to Nigeria in 2013 where I married an amazing man and we jointly incorporated the Visiola Foundation to work on this pernicious challenge.
The Visiola Foundation has the ambitious mission of creating a pipeline of ethical, entrepreneurial, and technically competent female leaders in the STEM fields. We educate, train, and mentor those in marginalized and underserved communities because they form the majority of the population. We seek to normalize access to STEM education and experiential learning opportunities for students in poor and low-income households, who attend poorly resourced government schools. Unfortunately, there is a perplexing (and absolutely false) widely accepted belief that these students lack the intellectual ability to excel. These students continue to demonstrate that, when given the opportunity, they outperform students from middle and upper-income households who attend private schools where they have well equipped facilities.
As an example, students from our programs have received such notable global recognition as being competitively selected for the World Science Scholar Program, UNESCO’s International Youth Deliberation on Energy Futures, the MTN Hack-a-thon, the Technovation Challenge, the National ICT for Girls Competition, as well as gaining admission to college to pursue STEM degrees, and accessing jobs and internships. We have built the confidence of these girls to want to study Computer Science and Engineering because they want to address challenges in healthcare, the poor construction of buildings that often collapse and kill innocent people, the use of fake drugs, and so on.
"I knew I had to invest in African girls and young women and was trying to figure out how exactly to go about it."
We are simultaneously helping to address the low numbers of skilled STEM professionals, while increasing the number of women studying STEM, entering STEM careers, and ultimately overcoming the high rates of unemployment. We do this by strengthening the knowledge and experiential learning gaps in the public education system in Nigeria through our 360-degree Developmental Learning Model. We build the whole person with technical and soft skills, mentoring and coaching, and exposure to industry. Students in our programs acquire the core competencies and foundational skills required for the jobs of the future.
As these girls and young women grow up and pursue their careers, start families, and forge paths, how important is it for them to become leaders in technology and other STEM fields?
We want women to be equally represented in science research, computer science, and engineering. We want to build their confidence, competence, and curiosity to develop solutions and innovations to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
We create a safe space where risk is rewarded, curiosity is encouraged, and creativity is expected. At the end of our programs, students are more confident, have a deeper understanding of core STEM subjects, have developed professional networks, and feel inspired to enter technical fields.
It is critical for them to become leaders in technology and other STEM fields so that they can contribute to the global stock of scientific research and importantly, definitively overcome the developmental challenges in the region. The pace of advancement in disruptive technologies is much too slow. There are incremental improvements, but we need sustained disruption in the region for innovations to be truly transformational. We are already seeing the rapid uptake of financial technology with unicorns being born, but even with that, there is a realization that the gender gap persists. Even in the medical sciences, we see the glaring absence of African genetics, which means that most medicines and treatments are not developed to radically address the disease burden, quality of life, and morbidity rates in Africa. Thankfully, we are starting to see some startups beginning to tackle this. But even with that, only 17% of Nigeria’s science researchers are female.
As they occupy visible positions of leaders, they not only improve the quality of outcomes, they also provide visual representation to inspire the girls and young women who will come after them.
The EQUALS partnership includes African organizations, including governments and financial institutions, committed to bridging the gender digital divide. What roles can national and local governments and the private sector play in this work?
The Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) implemented reforms in 2014 that led to a restructuring of the national curriculum. This requires students to study four mandatory cross-cutting core subjects with a stronger focus on vocational training. However, we know that Nigerian university graduates continue to face high rates of unemployment due to the mismatch between their skills and what employers seek. Therefore, further reforms and revisions are required to modernize the curriculum, introduce computer science from an early age with well-equipped computer labs, science labs, and modern teaching aids. Experiential learning and exposure to industry by partnering with the private sector are critical. Students should learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they work in teams. They should learn to apply theoretical knowledge, and the curriculum should be directly linked to industry. Students should know what jobs they are being trained to occupy. Industry should also deepen and expand internship opportunities to students during their studies, as is successfully done in other countries. We need to completely disavow rote memorization to instead raise competent technical graduates who can build, solve, and create – who are employable.
During your career and through Visiola Foundation, you have built many partnerships with multiple actors in varying fields like finance, infrastructure, education, energy, and technology. Why are partnerships so important to generate solutions and foster change?
Everyone knows the adage that, “If you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together.” Partnerships are critical for driving economic transformation, for achieving the sustainable development goals, and for institutionalizing gender equality and inclusivity in the STEM fields. There are diverse stakeholders who play important roles in advancing this agenda. The very essence of gender equality is partnership. We must therefore continue to build upon one another’s strengths, ensure open communication, shared benefits, and a win-win situation for all. Individuals, families, academic, government, civil society, and financiers all have strengths that complement one another and that facilitate a more gender inclusive world.
You are a role model for girls in Africa and the rest of the world. What advice would you give to girls and young women who want to pursue a STEM career? And how about for those girls who might be reluctant to see technology as “for them”?
Believe in yourself and learn to be your own biggest cheerleader. Be willing to do the work and be persistent in trying. Invest in yourself – it is the greatest investment you can make, and it will yield life-long dividends. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Failure is the greatest teacher, and it will build knowledge and all the “muscle” you need to carry you on your journey. And don’t forget to occupy space whenever you enter a room. Raise your hand and speak up. Always make your presence known. Always speak – even if your voice shakes.
"At the end of our programs, students are more confident, have a deeper understanding of core STEM subjects, have developed professional networks, and feel inspired to enter technical fields."
Along those same lines, if you could go back to talk to yourself as a girl or young woman, what advice would you give in regard to the future of technology and how you engage with it?
Stick it out. I could have spent more time projecting into the future and observing trends to better align myself with the future. I would also have spent more time deepening my understanding of the myriad developmental challenges that could readily be addressed by creating new technologies customized to the local context. This is an important point that we emphasize throughout the Visiola Foundation’s programs.
This article is part of 10 Moments of Girls in ICT (Moment 1: Storytelling). We would like to thank Wikimedia Foundation for allowing us to be a part of Project Rewrite this year and for telling the missing stories of women on Wikipedia and beyond.
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