Juliet Kinya Jason, a Kenyan corporate HR professional living in Washington DC, writes about her experience giving back to the next generation of young African female leaders. Be inspired.

song heartTo empower the lives of young women in Africa has been the song in my heart for a very long time. To believe, respect, love, trust and listen to young women is the most valuable gift you can ever give a young woman. I am so excited that I get to do this again in August 2014 to a group of approximately 1560 teenage girls (grades 9-12) at the Girl Learners program organised by the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.Why Johannesburg? My journey to Johannesburg began while visiting my sister in August 2011. One of the first people I contacted when I got there was a dear friend Grace Olukune. What a gentle spirit and kindhearted person she is. Grace asked me to join her as she spoke to 300 girls at an annual Girl Learners Programorganized by the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. The program encourages young girls to pursue careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (STEM) fields which are primarily dominated by men.

I was honored and thrilled to support her and be there for her.  Little did I know how much would change overnight!  The next morning Grace called me and asked me if I would like to volunteer to speak to the girls, since there were still a few slots available for presenters. I immediately said “of course!” and then I thought to myself,” What did I just agree to?”  I was excited and scared at the same time because my dream was beginning to unfold and because my knowledge of the STEM areas was minimal at best. I told her I could talk to the girls onLeadership. At least I could do that in my sleep.

I had a week to put the presentation together, to a group of girls that I had limited information about, in a country I was visiting. Talk about anxiety. Immediately, though,  my presentation was forming in my head, and by days end I was done. I had spent over 10 years researching on the topic of empowering young women especially in Africa, so it was no surprise that the presentation took a short time to create.

On the day of the presentation I was calm, a little anxious because of lots of unknowns but I was ready. My first presentation was in an auditorium packed with approximately 100 girls and their teachers. I looked up in the audience and most of the girls were slouching in their seats, expressionless, with folded arms and staring at me wondering who I was. I introduced myself and began my presentation, but this did not change their demeanor.  My voice audibly shaking as I began speaking. However, this dissipated as the presentation progressed; and to my relief, so did the skepticism of some of the girls, who began to unfold their arms and crack a smile.

I asked questions and gave them a minute or two to think about their answers. I was even so bold as to walk up to them, which was not part of the original plan, and asked them to share their answers with the group. The lack of confidence and fear of rebuke was pregnant in the room, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. 1 or 2 girls boldly shared their dream out loud.

Speaking to the girls at the Girl Learner Program, Sci-Bono Discovery Center, Johannesburg, South Africa

I had lived in America for so long I was sensitized to the notion of not openly professing one’s faith in God. I debated whether to even say anything.  My faith is at the core of who I am, so I decided to include a point in my vision statement in the last slide. Before I even asked the girls to share their vision statements I shared mine and the first point in my statement said “to live a life that is honorable to God”.

When the slide came up on the screen, there were murmurs in the room and I wondered why. As soon as I finished reading the point the room erupted in cheers. I was taken aback by this unexpected reaction. Every point thereafter on my vision statement was not as important to the girls. I had made a connection. I remember telling them that I was pleasantly surprised with their reaction and if I knew that this was how they would respond, then I would have professed my faith early in the presentation. After all, I was in Africa.

The room was abuzz with whispering chatter, at the end of the first presentation. I took the opportunity to talk individually with some of the girls, asking them what they wanted to be and what they dreamt about. Not surprisingly, the once shy girls began to open up to me; smiling and enthusiastically telling me their stories. They wanted to be lawyers, psychologists, engineers, forensic scientists (I know right?), pilots and the one that stumped me was model! I had to ask the girl twice over, “Do you mean fashion model?” In my mind I was thinking, you are at a STEM program and you want to be a fashion model? But who was I to judge!

I asked her if she would like to demonstrate her runway skills in front of everyone and at first she was hesitant but then I told her I would walk with her so I called the room to attention and told them what we were doing. We walked one way across the stage together.  Then I let her walk her way back to her seat, alone without me. The auditorium erupted in cheers. I know this experience will never leave my memory and I hope hers too. Confidence and belief in one’s dreams is what these girls needed.

Kioko enjoying the exhibits at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre.

I was in a smaller classroom for the second presentation with about 30 girls. My husband took pictures and he and our kids got to sit in and listen for a few minutes to the beginning of my presentation before they went to enjoy the educational exhibits of the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. It was win-win for me. I got to experience my dream as my family enjoyed the exhibits.

Kakii enjoying the exhibits at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre.

15 minutes into the presentation I realised that some of the girls from the first presentation were listening to me a 2nd time. The difference however, was they had big smiles on their faces and they were more animated and involved in the discussion. Without the teachers chaperoning in the room, they confidently asked me questions and told me that they just wanted to listen to the presentation again and to their new role model. I believe the confidence is there in the girls. They just need someone to see them for who they are.

All smiles for the camera as I am setting up for my 2nd presentation.
My kids sitting amongst the girls as I was speaking.

During the panel discussion session all the approximately 300 girls came together and we as presenters, responded to the questions. This was my first ever panel discussion about anything.  A safe space was created for them to be honest about their feelings and what was on their minds. Their questions were very telling of their lives. They asked about careers; relationships with boyfriends, family, and friends; the presenter’s backgrounds and how this influenced our lives and decisions we’ve made in our lives.  Their candour was refreshing and unexpected. Their questions were laced with pain and sorrow. The atmosphere was palpable.

I was no “Oprah”, but that day they treated me like a celebrity and all I did was show up, listen and care for their wellbeing. They took pictures with me using their cellphones, and over and over again said that I was their new role model. So my face is on the cellphones of these girls I just met from South Africa. I hope to reconnect with them one day.

Girls listening intently.

Afterward, my family had lunch with me and the other presenters, that was lovingly prepared and presented by the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre staff.  I explained to the kids what I was doing and why we were there. Kakii was 7.5 years old and Kioko was 3.5 years old at the time and it was obvious that they both understood what was going on because I got lots of hugs and kisses. I am glad that my family was part of the experience.

Girls at lunch.

As the presenters walked up to receive a token of appreciation from the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the room full of girls erupted with loud cheers. It brought tears to my eyes when it was my turn. I knew for sure we had made a huge impact. Though I know I will probably never fully realise the extent of the impact.

Group picture - Presenters & Sci Bono Organizers
Sci-Bono Discovery Centre organisers and presenters posing for a picture after lunch.

As presenters, we experienced first-hand, the immensity of the need to equip young African women to become leaders in lives, in their community and in the wider society globally. We showed up and passed on the torch to the next generation of leaders. We trusted them, believe in them, respected their dreams, and appreciated them for who they are. This was a magnificent life experience that we would never have learned from online research or books or others life experiences. This experience further ignited the fires of my dreams. I was blessed beyond my wildest dreams.

Later that night after everyone had gone to sleep I was still wide awake, deep in thought, journaling my thoughts, full of emotion and lots of questions. Sleep had evaded me. Who could sleep after such a humbling experience? Who was going to help these girls? How was it going to happen?

Presenters chatting and networking after lunch.

These girls need approachable role models and mentors who will roll up their sleeves with them to guide them as they begin to transition into adulthood, and as they shape their destinies.

This is why I am going back to Johannesburg in August 2014 to empower a new group of girls to be leaders and to play the song in my heart all over again. I am humbled just by the thought of it.

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The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre has invited Juliet to speak again this year. The Centre is putting together food packs/gift bags for the girls and her objective is to raise about $1,000 to help fund this effort. If you would like to support the girls so they can know that there is a bigger community that stands with them, you’re invited to donate to via http://www.gofundme.com/c9rt7c.

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