The Change Agent ABIE Award recognizes international women who have created opportunities for girls and women in technology abroad. This year’s winner is Amanda Gicharu, a native of Kenya and the co-founder of Tech Republic Africa, a startup that creates premier technology education experiences for African youth aged 7-19, to increase capacity, engagement and innovation within the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) fields.
We caught up with Amanda to discuss her endeavors. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide to become involved in STEM at such a young age?
At a young age, I remember exploring new and fascinating worlds through arcade video games. I always wondered how the games worked and what it would take to make one. While there was little-to-no STEM education where I grew up in Kenya, a part of me always knew that I would make my way into the field one day. Despite taking an unconventional route, I’m now working in STEM and helping others get into the field. Tech is always evolving. I believe that’s why it’s so appealing to me — you’re constantly growing and changing. If I’m not learning, I get bored. To live a fulfilling life, you’ve got to dream big by setting yourself seemingly impossible challenges. And then, you have to catch up with them.
In your view, how does art play a role in STEM education and promotion, especially for younger children?
As a top-notch student with a love of drawing and crafting, I spent many years being told art was a nice hobby. Art skills had nothing to do with science or math success, and engineering was something you went into only if you did well in math and science first. Succeeding in STEM subjects (which weren’t called STEM at that point) seemed more important. When I was in high school, there was never much choice between focusing on art or math — if you were clever, you concentrated on the latter, knowing that anything with art in the title was sure to be useless to your career and university aspirations.
In Kenya, arguing that the arts and science should and could remain totally separate misses the point. This is not about cultivating more artists or diluting STEM — it’s about creating STEM students who think creatively and remain engaged in their learning. Not everyone will want to, or should, go into STEM, but the point is to reach those who would contribute in STEM fields but may be turned off by a difficult math class, a boring biology teacher, or not seeing people like them represented in those fields. Rather than focus on rote memorization or mastery of separate topics, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) uses project-based teaching to holistically foster students’ skills in creativity, design thinking, tech literacy, collaboration and problem solving. This sets students up for success in STEM, especially for those who might not seem to be naturally gifted in technical areas.
What is your dream speaking engagement — if you had one venue to speak at, what would it be and why?
TED Talks have become a worldwide phenomenon. It’s a platform where the brightest minds — scientists, designers, inventors — go to spread their ideas. Personally, I have listened to many powerful TED talks that made me think about my life, my dreams and my aspirations.
TED isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be. It’s a venue for exceptional, out-of-the-box thinkers who have ideas that they can’t help but share. It’s for ordinary people who look at life in extraordinary ways. I’m working towards polishing an idea worth sharing.
In your opinion, what is the best way to get young people, especially girls and young women, excited about tech?
Female role models working in tech are key to inspiring girls and young women to get into the field. Seeing more women in tech, and even in leadership positions, persuades young girls that women can run things, and it increases their ambitions. Changing perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on their reality.
What technology trend/emerging technology are you most excited about personally?
Currently, the entire installed generation capacity of Africa’s 48 Sub-Saharan countries is just 68 gigawatts, no more than Spain. I’m very excited about the innovations taking place in the energy field that could have a significant impact in Africa. With sunshine all year round in Africa, solar power will be a real game changer for the continent.
If you had one piece of advice to give to a young woman entering the world of computing or tech, what would it be?
Working in the male-dominated STEM fields isn’t for the faint of heart. Every woman working in computing or tech has faced periods of low self-esteem and lack of confidence, but most importantly, is uncertain of what is next. Am I on the right path? Am I doing the right things to grow my career? Is this normal? Am I panicking too early?
The way to combat this is very simple: set small realistic goals every week and conquer them. It’s amazing how much achieving such small goals can boost your confidence and motivation. As you build on winning small battles, the ultimate feat of winning the war will become real.
In addition to my career advice, I would give this piece of life advice.
The people you surround yourself with have a direct impact on your success and failure. They will affect everything from how much you exercise and what clothing you wear to how much you earn and what values you deem important. So, if you want to live a life full of joy and accomplishment, you need to become masterful at building relationships with good people you respect, and letting go of relationships that have a negative impact. Surround yourself with people who will push you to be better. Always remember that you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. You really are the company you keep.
Meet Amanda at the Speakers Corner at the AnitaB.org Booth (Booth #1420, GRBCC Hall B-D) on Wednesday from 3 – 3:45 p.m.
Watch Amanda accept her award at GHC 16. You can also watch the full video to see our other 2016 winners accept their Abie Awards.