It’s no small accolade to hear Ban-Ki Moon, the Head of the United Nations, describe the organization you helped establish as the best thing he never heard about, the hope of Africa. And then one year later, have the same organization share the stage with Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Barack Obama at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. But you won’t hear Marie Githinji boasting. As a co-founder of not one, but two groundbreaking social startups, this 32-year female founder epitomizes the “pay it forward”, humble change-maker, using her technical abilities and business acumen to impact change in her native Kenya.
“I’m so proud of the girls we’ve trained at AkiraChix. Seeing them venture out to start businesses and get scholarships to further their studies is amazing. And the ground we’re gaining in addressing dropout rates and improving the quality of education with e-Limu is encouraging. I’m grateful to be part of both initiatives and playing a direct role in making a difference.”
Introduced to programming in high school, when Githinji completed her first “Hello world!” coding she was hooked. From there, she went on to get a Bachelors of Business IT from Graffins College in Nairobi and was a software developer for various organizations, such as IBID Labs and SawaSawa.com, before becoming program manager at InfoNET, Kenya’s leading tech development facility.
Often the only woman in the room at work, it’s no surprise that Githinji took every opportunity to connect with fellow female devs. About five years ago, she and others began meeting at iHub, an innovation hub and hacker space for the tech community in Nairobi. What began as networking and a community of like-minded women, quickly evolved into something much bigger. Together with Angela Lungati, Linda Kamau, Judith Owigar, Githinji launched AkiraChix, a social enterprise that works to increase the number of skilled women in tech.
“We were concerned by the small number of women taking up tech-related careers. The community felt isolated and dominated by men, and we felt the need to change the status quo,” Githinji explains. “Our idea was to create a community of women in technology as a means of encouragement for others to participate. The forum generated project ideas and from there we narrowed our focus to create training, mentorship and outreach programs to increase the number of skilled women in tech and positively impact the community.”
Each year, AkiraChix select 30 promising but disadvantaged young women to participate in a one-year intensive course on programming, design, and entrepreneurship, after which they are placed in organizations to do community service or intern. Students are mentored throughout the tech training program and walk away with technical skills but also the confidence and ability to become leaders in their own right … thus the motto “She Builds, She Serves, She Leads.”
Some of the girls who come through AkiraChix’s doors don’t even know how to turn on a computer, but leave with skills in graphic design and programming in both mobile and web. The employment rate for graduates is a remarkable 70%, and the transformation is incredible. Look no further than Fridah Oyalo, who graduated in 2013 and today runs her own design studio, Bigdot.
In the early days, the founders of AkiraChix – a play on the Japanese word for energy and intelligence – self-funded activities, they even pooled resources to help students with transportation fares to come to class. As the organization grew – moving from a bus, to a room given by INFONET to its current location which is home to some of the biggest tech hubs and companies in Kenya – the team worked on custom software development projects to acquire laptops to train the girls and eventually began applying for grant funding from development agencies. Most recently, they’ve been working on a self-sustainability plan, which involves running paid programs targeting young kids in primary school and high school, as well as recent high school graduates, to create revenue to fund all its social impact programs. The organization also hosts a plethora of meetups, hackathons, and events where African women in tech can connect, collaborate, and network. In November, AkiraChix will host its third annual conference.
In addition to AkiraChix, incredibly Githinji splits her time at eLimu, a platform she co-founded to help Kenyan primary school children learn using rich digital content. Piloted in four schools and seven libraries, eLimu is looking to expand and help more children enjoy learning and stay in school through video, animation, music, quizzes, stories, and games.
Although both Githinji’s ventures are running with limited capacity and seeking outside investment to expand, the tech whiz is confident of both teams’ ability to scale the enterprises. And what many in her country might view as a disadvantage, both startups are run by women, a fact Githinji’s sees as a bonus.
“It’s not common to have women in leadership positions. There’s a stereotype that is still hard to get rid of in our society. But attitudes are changing. We’re seeing a lot of amazing initiatives from African women. And many organizations like AkiraChix are at the forefront of encouraging more women to be leaders in their communities. Because when they are, remarkable things happen.”
- Stay connected by reading widely on current affairs.
- Mentorship is key. Invest in one.
- Decide what your niche is, what you will and won’t do (don’t be a jack of all trades – focus)
- Be proactive in seeking what you need. Be curious, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure has encouraged me to do better planning and strategy development.
- Find the right partners and diversify when building a team, allowing for the different skillsets required to run a business.
- Be slow to hire and fast to fire. It’s important to carefully select individuals who will be a good fit for the organization and the vision but be swift in letting people go if they are not beneficial.
You can also watch this NTV interview with the AkiraChix founders.