As a young girl, Regina wanted to build a rocket. Upon presenting a prototype to her physics teacher, she was told, “It’s impossible. Girls don’t build rockets. They end up in the kitchen.” Regina Agyare is now the CEO of her own tech company and launched the inspiring Tech Needs Girls program in Ghana. She was featured on CNN’s African Start-Up and named one of ten female entrepreneurs to watch in emerging economies. Regina’s story was published in Lean In for Graduates by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and the Impatient Optimists blog by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She also has several fellowships including the Mandela Fellowship, through which she met Barack and Michelle Obama.
Ayiba’s Eyitemi Popo spoke with her about Tech Needs Girls and her journey thus far.
How did you get the idea for Tech Needs Girls Ghana?
I studied computer science and in both of the banks I worked for I was the only female in the IT department. At conferences, you could always count the women in the room. I guess I started Tech Needs Girls because it was very lonely in the industry. Initially, I started out with an initiative to promote STEM education in rural areas. I did a pilot and noticed that the boys were very aggressive. As soon as the laptops and equipment came out, the boys would run to it while the girls sat back.
In one of the sessions, a boy and girl walked into the classroom and the girl headed for the computer. The boy hit the girl and said, “This is NOT for girls.” And then the girl said, “But, she is a girl!” referring to me. That was my “aha!” moment. The way to get more girls into tech is to show them role models of women in tech. Role modeling is very important because you can only aspire to what you see.
What made you aspire to more than you saw? Or did you have role models who inspired you?
My parents. As a child, I was very talkative and people always asked my mum, “why do you let this child talk so much?” Her response was, “because I never know when she’ll say something important.” My parents never tried to keep me quiet or hold me back. They encouraged me to study computer science. They supported me when I decided to quit my job. Without them I wouldn’t be who I am. They recognized early on that I was different and allowed me to be unique.
Tell me about Tech Needs Girls.
Tech Needs Girls is a mentorship program run by women in STEM. We teach girls between the ages of six and eighteen how to code and create technology. We work with different groups of girls. One of our largest groups is Muslim girls in a slum area of Accra. The challenge with this group of girls is early child marriage. By teaching them to code, we are giving them a relevant skill. After they finish our program, they have access to internships at software companies. The hope is to have more girls that go on to study computer science at university, more girls that start their own tech companies and just more tech savvy girls regardless of their industry. We currently have 465 mentees and will be working with a senior secondary school soon, which will give us access to over 1,200. We will also be going into five new regions to expand our reach.
Is Tech Needs Girls a full-time job for you?
I have a software company called Soronko Solutions. As a social entrepreneur, I balance the two. I don’t like the idea of the NGO because I’ve seen hundreds of good projects die when they lose funding. The profits from the software company fuel Tech Needs Girls. And I’m training the girls, hoping that they can work in the software company.
I’m intrigued. Tell me more about your software company.
We build software on different channels targeting SMEs primarily. In Ghana, 90% of registered businesses are SMEs, but they don’t really use technology. They also don’t really grow or scale. They operate hand-to-mouth. You don’t really see them going from one shop to a chain around the city. This is because they use a lot of inefficient methods and they aren’t tracking their sales. So we provide technology solutions for them.
Can you tell me a bit about your impact on the girls you’ve worked with?
Firstly, they start to believe in themselves. They see that they are able to do something they once thought impossible. We have some girls who are planning on studying computer science now, and others who want to start their own tech companies after completing the internship. The internship is a really great learning experience for them. For the girls in the slum, initially, junior secondary was as far as they went. Now, some of these girls are enrolled in senior secondary and are excited to study science. It’s one thing to give someone an opportunity, but it’s a whole other thing for them to believe that they can make something of themselves with that opportunity. The girls are now excited about their education!
Do plan on taking this initiative outside of Ghana?
Yes. We plan on coming to Nigeria this year.
How has your success with the girls and the software company impacted you personally?
I was operating on “fake it until you make it” mode previously. I took a huge risk leaving my bank job. However, seeing my impact on the girls has been very important. There were women who came before me that made sacrifices so I could be an independent woman and have my own company. It would be unfair for me to enjoy these privileges and leave nothing for the next generation. I’ve seen myself grow, take on challenges, fail, and succeed on this journey and it has boosted my confidence. I am no longer operating on “fake it until you make it” mode. I now know I can make it.
What was your biggest challenge in making all this a reality?
For the for-profit company, I would say access to funds. I started with my life savings. When I first launched the business, clients never expected me. I called it the five second shock reaction. They would look at me as if “is there somebody else coming?” Because of this I worked on a referral system and always made sure I did a good job so that got referred. This helped me avoid clients wanting me to take a test or questioning my capabilities just because I was a woman.
For Tech Needs Girls, honestly, people didn’t think girls could do it. They thought I was an exception to the rule. Especially with the girls in the slum, people didn’t think they could pick it up. We’ve had to change the narrative because before people really didn’t think it could be done. Now, we get calls from parents who want to enroll their daughters. Even the government is interested.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your journey so far?
To ask for help. In anything you do, an individual effort can never be as impactful as a collective one. There is that African saying “If you want to go far, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.”
Featured photo credit: CNN