Women leaders in STEM: Regina Agyare, software developer and social entrepreneur
In Part 2 of her interview, Regina Agyare opened up about the moment that she decided to take the leap and start her own company, Soronko Solutions. She also shared details about the “Tech Needs Girls” initiative and other non-profit work that she has developed, to improve the way Ghanians interact with technology.
While Agyare mentioned that differences in the way young boys and girls interacted with tech was one inspiration behind her decision to launch “Tech Needs Girls,” she cited her own experiences, as the driving factor for her desire to start the program.
“My role models were Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, that was it.” Agyare says about the figures in STEM she looked up to while growing up.”Those two role models were not relatable in my context. They were both white males in America. Their experiences would never be my experiences.”
The lack of female role models in STEM who shared common life experiences with Agyare served as a constant source of doubt for her throughout her journey as a woman in tech. She found herself constantly questioning her abilities and her aspirations, an experience she came to see was common amongst other women in STEM, each time she interacted with them.
“One thing I’ve found,” She says, “is that [as a woman in STEM], there’s always a point and time when you want to stop. Because you don’t see a lot of women [doing what you’re doing]; you don’t have that support system or network. It really feels like, ‘Am I the only one traveling this road?’ You start to have a lot of doubts about whether your dreams are attainable, especially in an environment where you keep hearing that [your goals are] not for women.”
Agyare wanted “Tech Needs Girls” to serve as a driving force in changing this reality for the new generation of girls in STEM. Her goal is that the program can ensure that these young women are surrounded by relatable female role models who can help inspire and mentor them along their journey in tech.
Of course, relatability comes down to far more than gender. Culture, is a major point that Agyare stresses when she discusses her efforts to get young Ghanaian women involved in tech, or even when discussing her own experiences as a woman in tech. Culture is a factor that is often cast aside in conversations about women in STEM as we tend to frame the issue as a clear-cut dichotomy: men in STEM vs. women in STEM. The reality, though, is that talking simply about women in STEM does little to address the complexity of the situation, because each woman’s experiences and obstacles are heavily informed by unique cultural influences.
Agyare has no doubt that her journey as a Ghanaian woman in STEM has been significantly different than what it may have been had she been a woman with the same aspirations in the U.S., for example. Even before considering gender-specific cultural differences, she notes that children’s experiences in general vary greatly around the world.
“In Ghana, there is always a debate about where your role is. Kids in the U.S. dream about being astronauts, and brain surgeons; they dream of the impossible. But you don’t have a lot of kids here who dream about all those types of things because of the culture; the environment around them and the messages that they get.”
Moreover, there are several unique obstacles that Agyare has faced as a Ghanaian woman in STEM that are largely rooted in cultural traditions and values; obstacles that may not be a part of the STEM journey for women from other backgrounds.
“I get people who say to me, ‘You are too ambitious!’ And they mean that in a bad way.” Agyare says, giving one example of the kind of mentality that largely influences women’s roles in Ghana and the attitude with which they are viewed. “Clearly a woman with ambition is a bad thing.”
“[I also get told] that I’m not going to find a husband.” She says, bringing attention to another major cultural priority that informs women’s experiences in Ghana. “That’s another problem because for some parents, they don’t even want their daughters to go into technology because they feel that they are not going to find husbands. They’re going to be sitting in front of the computer the whole day, when are they going to have time to find a man. So it’s really also about telling them that you can [be in tech] and still have a social life; you can still balance it out.”
Thus, identifying cultural influences within the discourse of women and STEM, will frame conversations in a way that inspires young women, and facilitates better lines of communication for your target audience. This is an issue that Agyare has seen exemplified numerous times as visitors from other countries struggle to connect with young women on a personal level when they come to share their stories with participants in the “Tech Needs Girls program.”
“I have observed that while [the girls] are listening to something, they are thinking, ‘This is not our reality.’ They don’t see that ever happening to them, or they don’t understand why that is a priority. Cultural [consideration] is so important for context; to make it relatable. It really has to be something that they get and that they can think, ‘This makes sense to my life now’ or ‘This is something that I can use or see around me.’”
While Agyare believes in the importance of taking culturally-based approaches to getting girls involved in STEM, her experiences have also taught her that inspiring girls is only half of the struggle. The rest of the battle is truly one that comes down to a girl’s own views of herself and her capabilities.
“The only limits are the limits that you set for yourself.” Agyare says. “From my experience, it’s easy for women to set all these limits, or to tell themselves what they can’t do. So any time that you think about something and the first thought is about why you can’t do it, scratch that and then write out all of [the reasons] why you can.”
She also thinks it’s crucial for women to remember that failure is one of the best learning experiences, since so many women — including herself for some time — hold themselves back for fear of failure. “It is okay to fail, but the important thing is what you do when you fail.” She advises. “If you fall, get up and keep going.”
As for Agyare’s final tip for women looking to make the often times intimidating but always rewarding leap into STEM? Simple: “Follow your dreams.”
For more on Agyare’s incredible story and her amazing work with Soronko Solutions and the Soronko Foundation, visit soronkosolutions.com
Check back next week to see who we will be featuring as our next woman leader in STEM!