Interview with two of Kenya’s leading female founders: Linda Kamau & Marie Githinji of AkiraChix
Long read: 20 minutes
a not for profit organisation that aims to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology. Founded in April 2010, AkiraChix looks to be the leading women’s network impacting technology in Africa. It’s programs are developed to reach young women at different levels including Primary School, High School, University and those with a career in technology.
I was granted the privilege of interviewing two of the AkiraChix founders (Linda and Marie) for this post, and also a third (Judith) on a separate occasion. Linda & Marie are paving the way for the teaching of tech skills to females in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi. They bring an astounding level of energy to their work and are role models for anyone looking to build an impactful startup.
Hear from them on: their experience growing up in Kenya, how AkiraChix are challenging educational norms, the societal issues facing young girls in Kenya, advice for working in a startup, skills for the future and their ambitions for the organisation.
So what was it like growing up in Kenya as a female looking to work in the tech industry?
Well, everybody in my family expected me to go to university and study something like a bachelors of commerce. Personally, I want to do something involving computers – to which my family didn’t react well to at first. “What?! You just want to type?…How about you combined it with something like Law? or Business?”
I told them no, I want to do programming. After some length of time convincing them, my family agreed.
Where did your interest in programming come from?
I started programming in High School
Was programming something that was normally taught in high schools or was that quite rare?
I believe it was that particular high school – some did and some didn’t.
Yes, it was also taught at my high school but through a very few old boxy computers and to a limited amount of students that were interested. They weren’t pushing people to take the class.
Definitely not, our class was seven students. In Kenya the school system is very exam focussed and everyone is just trying to get good grades in order to get into government sponsored education. This makes people wary of how many subjects they take on – and computer programming didn’t have any examinations which is the main reason a lot of people would choose it as a side subject.
Marie, what about yourself?
I remember when I expressed some interest in programming, my dad asking me to speak to my aunt about pursuing a path in computers. She advised me that nobody was making any money out of it and I was also told that business administration was the way to go. I thought to myself.. ok… sure, I will listen but I won’t do what you’re telling me to do!
Early on we were going to the ihub to work, in the well known casual tech dress code. Our parents used to think that we really weren’t doing anything meaningful (otherwise we would have to wear a suit to work). Many of them still don’t understand what we actually do! Funnily enough, it wasn’t up until we were featured in a newspaper that my family were like “Ohhh they are actually doing something!”.
I know the feeling…
For Kenyan and African parents as long as you are able to provide for yourself and them, thats enough to keep my them satisfied, even if they had no idea what you are doing.
Do you think that the values of work and the motivations behind why people choose a career path are shifting? For many of our parents’ generation the primary purpose of work was to provide stability and security; we are fortunate enough to not have to be as concerned with the practicalities of survival, so instead can point our ambition in the direction of an alternative value. What are the values you instil in the girls who come to AkiraChix?
The values we try to instil in the girls are all about community. We tell then that they aren’t doing this for their own survival or for them to get out of the slum; but instead to think about their progress from a community perspective. We want them to think ‘If I can make it out of here, I will be able to motivate my family, the next generation and maybe even my whole village’. So AkiraChix is about community and not me me me!
We tell them that they need to leave this place better than they found it. As Linda said, many of the girls come into the program thinking that they are doing this for themselves, but over time they begin realising how important what they are doing is for their community and for helping people are them.
Going back to what you said about the expectations people had of you growing up, do you still see the same expectations surfacing today in the girls that come to AkiraChix? If so, what do you to break down these expectations and teach the pupils that its ok to think big, think differently and follow through?
We do something we call ‘deprogramming’, named as such because many of the girls come to us programmed by the education system and society. They are moulded to think they need to pass exams, which means their approach to learning is not learning at all but simply cramming information in order to get a grade.
This thinking also affects the way they perceive us, they see us as though we are school teachers and they have to behave straight and narrow around us. We help them to forget all of this, and teach them that there is no such thing as being wrong at AkiraChix – along with no traditional examinations! We also teach them there is no number one at AkiraChix, everyone is equal.
We are very open to them and act in a way that ensures they don’t see us as authority figures. They know the boundaries of behaviour, but at the same time its easy for them to come to us and talk about anything. We aim for them to feel that someone will listen, as opposed to them thinking they may get expelled for saying something they would’t say in a conventional school.
When a new class of girls start we take time talk to them informally, allowing them to ask us any questions they like. This takes us from being seen as as people they need to be subdued around, to them being relaxed around to the point they are shouting wassup!? to us in the corridor.
Totally! We see this in how their their dress code changes over time as well, from being like a school uniform to being completely informal.
What all of this shows them is that they can be who they are. Be it their dress code, hairstyle or anything that makes them unique; they start thinking ‘Nobody can define what I should look like or who I should be’ which fares them well later in life.
I agree, its very important for a team to be made up of diverse people – not only that, but to be managed or directed in a way that encourages diversity, opposing views and even the occasional conflict. Without the correct management a diverse team can end up becoming a homogenous team as everyone tries to fit in and find common ground; leading to less value creation.
I wanted to ask you about mentors – it seems like you play a part being mentors to the girls at AkiraChix right from the get-go – did you have any mentors growing up?
When we got into business we realised that we needed to be mentored, but growing up? No…
Neither for me. In our culture there is a kind of initiation or right of passage for young men; a moment they are given responsibilities which turn them into men. This kind of thing does not exist for females, for most of us there is very limited guidance on how things will progress as we grow up and the changes that will occur in our lives.
Yes, and this culture prevents young girls from having important conversations with their parents about things such as their bodies. Their parents think that this will be taught by teachers in schools, which often is not the case. This means you end up with girls who are essentially winging it.
I’m guessing this is one of the causes of consequent societal issues that result from a lack of education on things like sexual health and contraception.
Exactly! I recently discussed this with a group of my female friends, asking them how they had this conversation with their parents and they all said that they never did!
As a female, it kind of makes you jealous when you see your brother having a group of men coming over for an initiation ceremony and the same not happening for you. However the good news is that this is changing. There are some churches for example running similar things for girls when they are around the age of 14, which is encouraging for those who it is available to.
We definitely see the effect this has on the boys though, for good and arguably bad. They change the way they act around the house and most even implement a rule to never go into the kitchen! Many fathers wouldn’t even look in the direction of the kitchen. They probably don’t even know its like inside.
Its because of this we teach the girls life skills in addition to the tech skills. We want them to become well rounded individuals with knowledge of whats happening to their body and their mind as well as giving them education on drugs, addiction and reproductive health as part of our mentoring.
This is especially important to the kind of girls that join the program, some of whom are young mothers and see women in their neighbourhoods selling their bodies to put food on the table for their families. I mean… we cant control a human being but the least we can do is show them what is best.
Many of the girls grow up around the expectation that when they reach a certain age they have to have a child. And this isn’t just happening in remote areas of the country – we are talking about neighbourhoods 30 minutes outside of Nairobi where people think like this! So this is happening everywhere, and a big shift in thinking required, and a lot to learn both for us and for them.
As you know, these gender issues also occur in institutions in addition to social and cultural structures. It seems like you are achieving a lot through your training and mentoring to tackle gender discrimination and unconscious bias on the sides of the girls, but do you think there is a shift happening on the side of companies and industries in Kenya? Are girls leaving you and applying for roles suddenly to find they are being met by a wall of discrimination or limited opportunities because of their gender?
I think in our case we see less of this because most of these girls leaving AkiraChix find their way to startups and don’t really end up in the corporate world. We know that in the corporate world they will never move anywhere, compared to startups where people are very open minded. Many startups recognise and seek out female designers and females with tech skills which reflects a big shift in the way companies are being run.
I also think the girls get a better balance in a startup compared to the corporate world, where they would probably be starting from the bottom making tea for people in the office. In startups they are working in small groups where they are responsible for a lot of things and feel part of the team.
For many older and more established tech firms they actually struggle to understand what skills these girls have after coming to Akirachix.
Yes, we see a lot of older tech companies which have had a certain way of doing things for many years and don’t want to change it.
I guess for them innovation and progress is an inconvenience because it would mean everyone in the organisation would have to change the way they are doing things…
Exactly, not only would the girls not fit in, but the company cant utilise their skills. At AkiraChix we are teaching skills that are needed by growing markets. For example, we were talking only yesterday about how people are not building native apps anymore because of the lack of skills in the market. By recognising this we are able to launch courses on mobile development for the next group of girls coming through the program.
So startups and small companies are definitely the best place for our girls, I dont even think I could fit in at a big corporate myself.
I agree, its really hard. I know someone who got a job at Intel and couldn’t last – she told me how they have good money and big budgets but thats not what she wanted. She wasn’t happy. The smaller players don’t have a lot of money but you are going to learn the most with them.
Speaking of early stage companies, I read a lot about the early days of AkiraChix which sounded like it involved a lot of self funded hustle – even something about you guys buying a bus?! Based on your experience of the roller coaster ride involved with launching a business, what are the key pieces of advice you give to the AkiraChix girls going into an early stage company?
Yes, we did have a bus! I think one thing that is important is to manage people’s expectations. Many of the girls come here and think we are doing well but haven’t seen what went on behind the scenes to get us where we are today. They need to know that to get wherever they want will require a lot of hard work and some very long hours. Like most startups this isn’t a 9-5, and fixed working hours really don’t mean s**t! We try to introduce the girls in the program to this way of thinking and help them understand the money wont come as quick as they expect it to, but they should put in a lot of work and not give up.
We help them to understand that in a startup there will be days or weeks when they aren’t required to go into an office, but on the other hand there may be days or weeks when they are required to do an all nighter every day. One of the benefits we have is that the trainers come from a variety of backgrounds in different startups which exposes the girls to what its like in the real world.
For us, one thing that keeps us going as a team when times are tough is to pause and reflect, go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves why it is that we are doing this. It helps us to keep our energy up and deal with whatever we are being faced with. We try to instil this mindset in the girls as well.
Going back to what we discussed around cultural biases against women, how do you set up a young girl for success? It must be a difficult position to be in where you are required to teach them not to think that their gender is a limiting factor, but at the same time give them insight into what they might be up against as women entering the world of work and what unfortunately does occur, to ensure they are aware of it.
We often see the girls coming into the program with generally a very limited view already in place. From talking to them, we realise their dreams don’t shoot very high and one thing we expose them to are female role models. Bringing in great female role models to talk to them is actually one of the first things we do. We want them to see that its not just men that are accomplishing a lot, but women as well – and not just in tech.
One thing that Linda says to them is that they might encounter barriers as females, but they need to remember that nobody can take away what they know. Nobody can take away their skills.
We like to tell them the story of when we first started off working as interns at a startup in a shared working space surrounded by many other tech companies. Most of the men in the space thought we were working as front office staff and that there is no way we could be programmers. That was until one day they came and found us with black coding screens and asked us what we are doing in shock… Turns out that we ended up teaching them some things ourselves.
We let the girls know they are going to be fighting a lot; including competing against people who have been to university for four years vs their one year at a very non-conformist training program like ours. This is something which may work against them if they’re applying for roles at larger companies. Then to add to this, they are of course females! But, what they have working for them is that their level of drive and practical skills are probably higher than everybody who has come from a more traditional higher education.
At the same time you are having some of your courses accredited, right?
Correct, we are getting accreditations through partnering with organisations who certify our courses. We aren’t looking to get accredited by organisations or the government who require us to use their curriculum which is usually big industry driven – this is a big no for us.
We still of course give out AkiraChix certificates because to us they are still credible, and we are hoping that the start-up world will recognise this along with government so it can start to inform policy. As you may have seen we have already had the president come and visit us here.
Well researched! A lot of the early crew from ihub like to call ourselves part of the old ihub, many of us ended up forming companies together after developing good synergies and connections at the hub. In my view if there was no ihub, a lot of existing startups and established companies would never have been born. I don’t know where I would be without it, ihub for us was a catalyst for a lot of things including AkiraChix. We had thought of the idea two years prior to joining ihub but couldn’t actualise it until we were at ihub.
It enabled us to have facilities such as work space and fast internet in addition to bringing us around other techies. It helped us find our tribe, and also gave us exposure to inspirational people who came in to do talks.
Also funding; ihub opened up that door for us. To this they they are still a close partner for our organisation and also for the girls who use it to network, build their confidence in talking about what they are working on, and to develop their curiosity with the tech world. These things have helped transform the girls, you can see it in the way they walk and handle themselves. They own their space with confidence and don’t need us to hand hold them
Thats great! As AkiraChix has grown over the years, how have the goals and milestones changed? I’m guessing the goals you started off with have shifted and evolved a number of times, is this the case?
Yes, they have definitely shifted a lot! When we first started out we were trying to find ourselves. We thought the way to share programming skills is to show up to a place like Dandora with computers and simply teach girls how to program. We then got a bus to teach students on and showed up trying to do the same thing – and it wasn’t until 2013 that we realised we were onto something real. We grew every single year and recognised that our overriding goal is actually to deliver economic empowerment, not just to get more females in tech. We needed to help tackle the huge economic issues facing the population, particularly in the slums.
We now know we are tackling gender and poverty issues as part of socio-economic development. This is what we are now focussed on, in addition to the gender gap in the tech industry.
Aside from the stats on the number of girls that have been through the program and gone on to find employment or start a company, how else are you measuring the impact you are creating? Many organisations working on poverty alleviation and gender equality take some time to nail their impact measurement and goals. What are your ambitions?
This is something we are still trying to get right and its something that is constantly evolving. We’re starting off by trying to document changes that we see in the girls who go through the program. This is of course difficult as it is anecdotal and we are still trying to quantify it. We understand it could negatively impact our ability to obtain more funding in the future if we aren’t able to do this correctly. It gets more difficult when we are tying to influence policy, mainly because we are a social venture and not a school or a university.
At the same time, there are some exciting partnerships that the government are seeking to launch, in particular one between the World Bank and the Ministry of Industry who are looking to fund incubators and hubs to teach tech skills. This program is currently being crafted and they have been talking to us and other non-conventional institutions- not the universities!
The ministry of industry understand they need to empower the people who are already delivering on getting people with these skills into industry and government to change the trajectory of the country. For us, the fact that things have gotten this far for the recognition of tech skills, there is hope. This shows us we are already seeing the switch in thinking around how we educate people in this country, and we hope large scale programs like this become a reality.
We actually received a small grant from the world bank back in 2012 – and for them to come back to us now is quite a privilege. Its spurring us on and helping us refocus on documenting and measuring our impact so we can make the most of the partnership.
What is your ultimate goal for AkiraChix? What is the north star? Aside from your ever changing goals, what do you both dream of AkiraChix achieving?
Its definitely the numbers. We want to look at research on the number of females in tech every year and see it going up. If its not going up then we have a problem. You can already see it in places like ihub where the number of females are growing – so something is definitely changing. We look at these women and consider that they are in the place that AkiraChix was formed – so they have just as much opportunity to get into tech and succeed as we did.
Once we see the numbers change we are going to be satisfied, however there is also the socio-economic issues we discussed. We want to see these girls who are going through the program go on to start their own business, employ people, and be able to come back to the program and inspire their sisters who are still in the slum.
I agree, thats really effective. Its something I have personally seen happen at New Entrepreneurs Foundation which is a program I was on in the UK. You have cohorts that graduate, build businesses and go on to hire people from subsequent next year’s cohorts. In the end you build a network web of interconnected people and companies which has an increased rate of growth at every increment of additional input.
Marie, what would you like to see AkiraChix achieve?
For me I think a lot of what we have wanted to achieve by this point in time has been fulfilled. We have seen some amazing stories of girls who have had their lives transformed and that has brought me a lot of joy. We just ran a conference in which one of the girls from the 2013 program was speaking. Getting to see her command a room full of people like she did was amazing. Ultimately I would want us to increase the number of girls we take on in every cohort – currently we take on 30 per year. I would love to be able to take on 100 every year and not have to turn down as many people. In addition to this I would love us to be able to expand to other parts of the country. I think that would be my 5 year plan.
I guess we can talk again then to see if we did it!
I can’t thank you enough for allowing me to come and speak to you, i’m very grateful.
We are glad this was a different type of interview. Only yesterday I was saying to Linda we would like to be interviewed by people who aren’t just expecting us expected to recite facts and figures about AkiraChix. We have enjoyed talking to you, so thank you!