Oreoluwa Lesi is the Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC). W.TEC is a Nigerian nonprofit organization committed to building a more inclusive technology ecosystem, with the next generation of women technology creators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.
Over recent years, our work has expanded to explore how technology can improve learning outcomes and better integrate students with developmental disabilities and special needs, such as Autism and Down’s syndrome.
Through her work at W.TEC, she has designed high-quality programming for 23,000 girls and women – including camps, afterschool clubs, and workshops. Through these programmes, they have learned to create technology – including applications, games, websites, short films, and other digital content and use technology safely and productively.
Many of these girls have been inspired to pursue technology careers. She has also designed and overseen programmes that support women in their use of technology for entrepreneurship, career development, learning and leadership activities.
During the recent African Women In Technology (AWIT) conference held in Lagos, Nigeria. Innov8tiv got to e-meet with Oreoluwa Lesi and she gave us a walk through her journey to establishing W.TEC. Below is a snippet of that interview:
What does technology represent to you as the founder of a Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre?
Technology represents freedom and possibilities for me.
Technology happens to be a sector that I wound-up in accidentally. It is truly changing the world around us and how we interact with it. Women are vastly under-represented in this sector, so it makes sense for me to do what I do.
While waiting for my JAMB university entrance exams, I took a course in computer programming at a nearby computer school and this is what started my interest in computers and technology. During my undergraduate degree, I started a business typing essays for other students. The opportunity to make money for myself with my technology skills was exciting and I started to think about how more women need to be more actively engaging with technology.
I took the first step towards my career by opting for a Masters degree in Information Systems. After that, I volunteered at community technology centers and – as they say – one thing led to another.
Since I started this journey, I have been able to use the tools that technology makes available to find information relevant to me, create and pool together my knowledge on different subjects, disseminate these, connect with people who share my interests and collaborate with them on a variety of exciting projects.
Technology offers the opportunity to create value and make money, while doing so. All these possibilities are things I share with the girls and women we work with at W.TEC, to let them know that even if they do not end up working in technology careers, most things they do can and often are influenced or enhanced by technology.
How long have you been exposed to the African tech field, and how has this influenced your knowledge of technological advancement in Africa?
In Nigeria, my first job in science and technology was as a training coordinator at an oil and gas consultancy firm. This was in 2005. We organized training programmes for engineers in the oil and gas industry and I would estimate that about 95% of our trainees were men.
When I started W.TEC in 2008, there wasn’t much of a technology ecosystem, aside from a few players like Iroko TV and Paga.
In the years since, we have experienced a surge of technology start-ups, incubators, hackathons and a general growth in the industry. It has been an exciting space to be in, seeing the possibilities of how technology can be used to solve problems in our society.
Recently, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, visited Nigeria and our W.TEC office, where he met with our alumnae who demonstrated the technology solutions they had created. It was extremely exciting and when he left, he told them that “What you do with a computer is limited only by your imagination.”
And that is the truth: the technology advancement in Africa is built on innovations that are solving unique problems that exist here on the continent.
As someone who is predominantly working with women, how would you rate the technological advancement of the African woman in relation to the available resources in Education Technology?
When I started W.TEC in 2008, the gender gap in technology was pervasive (as it still is) and to compound matters, there was little awareness of the existence of this gender gap and why closing it mattered.
I was constantly told that if women were not using or working in technology, then it meant that women were not interested in these fields.
Over the years, with greater focus on this under-representation and increased efforts to make technology more accessible, I have certainly seen more women operating in this space. It is possible that they were there all along, but working out of the spotlight.
Research shows that up till early adolescence, girls are just as interested and perform as well as boys. If girls are encouraged and stay in the technology pipeline, they do just as well – if not better than men. Women bring different perspectives to their work and are generally interested in how technology solves problems more than technology for technology’s sake. This means that solutions designed by women are often highly user-friendly.
As an African woman in tech, what is the most significant challenge you have faced professionally?
In my work, I straddle 2 sectors: the technology sector (which is predominantly male) and the civil society sector (which is fairly mixed, though maybe with a slightly higher percentage of women working in it). So, in my work I have to interact with almost the same number of men and women.
In my early forays into technology and the world wide web, I engaged with others based on the ideas I shared. No one needed know what sex I was.
Moving into the offline world and into the tech industry is different of course. Thankfully, I have not had any horrible experiences.
My not so positive experiences have included some people thinking that I’m someone’s personal assistant and not present in my own right. Or asking me to serve the tea or biscuits.
I actually don’t mind being underestimated. It can be fun sometimes. When I do my work, my skills speak for themselves.
How have you been able to navigate the challenges associated with running a non-governmental organization in Africa?
It has been hard work setting-up and taking W.TEC from the concept stage to an organization with several years of programmes under our belt. We started with an ambitious plan for providing high-level technology workshops, but we quickly realized that our programmes had to meet the needs of the beneficiaries and not the other way around. So, we then started many of our programmes with basics like the introduction to computers. Then, we moved on to the use of Microsoft applications and the use of the Internet and e-mail. Now, our girls are learning to write programmes and the women are gaining experience in using technology for their enterprises.
Running technology-focused programmes is not inexpensive as you need to have access to the hardware and software for training. This meant identifying equipped labs where we could hold our trainings, as we could not afford our own training facilities at the start.
However, all these challenges have led us to identify partners with whom we share similar visions and with whom we can implement programmes together.
W.TEC started during a recession when access to funds was difficult. We were also a little-known organisation, competing against bigger and better-known nonprofits. We needed to look inwards and be creative in how we raised funds. We had to generate income through some training programmes and consultancy. For a few years, we also ran a cyber café and business center, which has been closed for the last year because the lack of electricity and cost of diesel made that business no longer viable.