Having been mentored by former Google Executive and now Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, it is perhaps no big surprise that Kenya’s very own Catherine Nyambala is among the top three women to win the Sh4.2 million prize money to be split equally.
A member of the Girl Scouts for the past 12 years, Nyambala is adamant that her achievement in writing a winning proposal and starting her own company has been â€œno overnight affairâ€ as some would be inclined to believe.
An electrical engineer by profession, she founded STEM Africa in 2010 shortly after her month-long mentorship in which she literally shadowed Mayer â€“ going with her to work at Google and even staying at her home.
â€œThe mentorship was courtesy of the Fortune Global Women’s Programme and once you go through the programme you are eligible for the Goldman Sachs & Fortune Global Women Leaders Award,â€ said Nyambala just one week before travelling the the States to receive the top honours.
STEM in an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math â€“ the key concepts which Nyambala through her organisation aims to influence young people into pursuing rewarding careers in these fields.
â€œThere’s a mentality especially among young people that leadership can only be achieved in attractive PR jobs and other such jobs in the social sciences but it’s possible also to be a great leader in the more technical field of food science and world technology,â€ Nyambala says.
â€œSome people believe that agriculture is not cool. STEM is about making young people believe that they can actually have a cool career in a technical field.â€
Of her mentorship experience in the US she says in retrospect, â€œI went with Marissa to a lot of high level meetings and society events. I even accompanied her to different Google offices.â€
With tongue-in-cheek, she adds, â€œPeople say that I walk pretty fast but I had to rush to keep up with Marissa who apparently walks faster than I do.â€
Nyambala remembers the day she received news of her one-month mentorship period with a lingering sense of disbelief, â€œI was at the time working at Telcom Centre and the email I got informing me of my merger to Marissa was only two lines long so I at first thought it was a fake email.”
But further investigation revealed the short email as a genuine article and so began an experience Nyambala says has helped make STEM Africa a reality. â€œFor me, it was was more like an Alice in Wonderland experience. I got a chance to go to SETI Institute which focuses on exploratory sciences on life outside earth.â€
Founded with the aim of making a key contribution to the alleviation of poverty in Africa, STEM African also steers young people towards business ownership rather than employment with programmes specifically targeted at girls and women.
â€œAll the millennium development goals require science, technology, engineering and math. Even Konza City is founded on these sciences,â€ Nyambala says.
â€œChina is churning out hundreds of engineers every year but Africa needs more of these engineers for better sanitation, better health care, better infrastructure and a better environment,â€ she says.
Another founding principle of STEM is the belief that engineers and scientists hold the key to development and thus the reduction of poverty on the continent.
Nyambala was honoured for her work alongside two other winners at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit held on Tuesday. The other winners are Precious Simba from Zimbabwe and Madhu Uday from India.
Simba shadowed Xerox CMO Christa Carone and Y&R Worldwide Managing Partner Shelley Diamond in 2011. In Zimbabwe, Precious Simba has launched mentoring clubs to encourage girls to stay in school and with the help of Xerox and Y&R, she has also created a video series, Future Self, about self-empowerment.
Madhu Uday is on the other hand an alumni of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative which provides business and management education to women around the world and is thus building a skills training and mentoring center for underprivileged young mothers. “Empowerment through employment” is her objective.
As for Nyambala, â€œEnergy and Speedâ€ is her motto. â€œIt’s all about getting high level professionals in technical fields to mentor the students by keeping them active and excited about their (potential) careers as scientists.â€ Of her share the Prize Money, Nyambala intends to pour it back into her organisation.