Women in Leadership and Tech | The Link - Season 1, Episode 2
[Sharon] Welcome to "Le Lien" which highlights the entrepreneurial paths of University of Ottawa graduates and students from around the world. Hear how people from a multitude of backgrounds brought their ideas and passions to life. We'll explore the milestones they've taken, the issues they've overcome, and the lessons they've learned.
I'm Sharon Wong, a uOttawa graduate who does marketing consulting for start-ups and businesses and your host for this series. Our guest today is Aminka Belvitt. Aminka's work focuses on diversity and inclusion training as well as female leadership. She is an international speaker and award-winning entrepreneur, founder of ForUsGirls, a new summit in reality technology for girls, and Wofemtech Solutions.
Moreover, Aminka is a champion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she contributes to the economic empowerment of UN Women, she is dedicated to the humanitarian cause and she is also a senior consultant in strategy. Recently, she won the Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Consulate General of Canada to the United States in New York. Aminka obtained her bachelor's degree in public administration and political science from the University of Ottawa Welcome to Aminka to this new series "The Link" thank you for talking to us today. [Aminka] Yes, thank you very much for having me Sharon, it's an honor to be here, it's an honor to be a part of this episode. [Sharon] The leadership of women and women in technology is close to my heart. That's why I'm so excited for this interview.
Let's get right to the point. [Aminka] Yes. [Sharon] You created the "ForUs Girls" foundation, what is the inspiration behind it? [Aminka] I have always been a very active citizen. Citizenship has always been very important to me as we are responsible for our community, our government and the experiences we have in the world.
I still have the feeling that institutions that are public institutions, even though I am a person of color and that sometimes we are linked in spaces that are created for us or that are not so safe for us. I always thought we had a right to these spaces and I think again, based on my upbringing, that these are public entities and our tax money is going there and we should be holding people to account. . I have always had this vision and have volunteered in different organizations. In high school, I worked for the “Heart + Stroke” foundation. and I was engaged with them.
I have carried out campaigns with them. At university, I worked as a volunteer for the “Repaire jeunesse” association in Ottawa and working for different organizations allowed me to understand volunteering, structural organization, the non-profit sector. but also to see the gaps, to see where there was no direct support in terms of development, leadership development and access to opportunities to advance one's position in life, leadership opportunities and a enjoyment of life has not been given to young black and colored girls and immigrant girls where it is a fair space for them. When I went to Montreal and volunteered in different black organizations, I saw that there was no separation between issues that concern gender and those that are based on sex discrimination.
This is what inspired me to launch ForUs Girls based on what I saw, the gaps. [Sharon] It's wonderful. Your work is so important on so many levels.
I love that your logo is fervent and bold. [Aminka] Yes. That's really why you have to be both fervent and daring. [Sharon] Absolutely.
Sometimes it doesn't come naturally for women, so it's good that you teach it and I show it by example too. You must also have drawn on your own youthful experience. What obstacles have you encountered as a member of a female minority in Canada? [Aminka] I certainly had to deal with a lot of things and I know there is this umbrella term sometimes because we are people of color, but I felt like being a person of color and the place where I grew up was even more unique in Canada. I grew up in Kitchener Waterloo, a predominantly white city, but now it's a little more diverse. We have members of Parliament who are of South Asian origin. But when I grew up in Kitchener about 20 years ago, it was very white.
The schools I attended were white. I was the only person of color in my classes until grade four when there was another Jamaican girl and then other students from different minorities. I am black, I came from Jamaica.
I didn't go to daycare here. I didn't necessarily have the time to develop these relationships. When I came here, I really stood out for my skin color, because I was not born here. And also, my natural way of being an assertive person who speaks frankly, things that we consider to be great qualities but 25 years ago and I am sure that even longer, these qualities were not. not necessarily celebrated, especially in a black person. The challenge that I had to face with my teachers was always to find this balance between saying what I think and listening to them.
There was always a fine line between the times when I felt like I was being asked to shut up when I shouldn't have to shut up and the times when I had to learn to shut up because I had so much to keep quiet about. contain. I had a lot of trouble finding my place. Yes, as a black person, but also as a confident and assertive woman, knowing that the world does not celebrate this type of personality. So there was a lot going on, but I think what helped me was finally having high school, having teachers who ...
I had two mentors who saw something special about me and really supported me and reaffirmed that the qualities that I had that were seen as negative were actually positive things. They showed me how to make them constructive. I managed to balance my assertiveness. They also helped me find things about heritage.
My Grade 9 history teacher told me about Africville, Nova Scotia, she brought me literature on the slaves who were brought to Canada and showed me the path by which, even for I was born in Jamaica. My language goes through the Maroons: the Maroons are warriors and fighters in the mountains of Jamaica. There is a connection with them in Nova Scotia. She brought me all this research and I was lucky to have her because she allowed me to clarify a lot of things.
For a long time, I faced many challenges, but I had a very strong mother. Every time I came home she would say: we're gonna go back, we're gonna make sure you're smart, we're gonna make sure you show them your talent. I'm sure you've been through that too, a sort of overcompensation with talent and education to counter racism and discrimination.
[Sharon] It's a great story. I'm glad you shared it because a lot of people can relate to it. Let's go back to when you were an undergraduate student. What course or experience at the University of Ottawa stood out to you the most? [Aminka] I would say that there were a few, there was the pop class, which our students and the public administration have always played on this point. It was ... I don't remember the professor's name, but I do remember that she was of Russian descent and that was during our first semester, in the fall.
I liked it a lot because it gave an introduction to the policies of the institutions and you could see if it was something you wanted to pursue. It laid the foundation for private sector policy in the government sector. I liked that because it explained a little more about what the program really was. A lot of us, to be honest, didn't really know what this program was. Then there were a lot of people at uOttawa who took either a theory in economics or an economics course, it was David Gray. He likes to stand out.
He is one of those unicorn teachers and taking these two courses really marked me and being able to apply them both to apply my basic knowledge in the world had a very big impact on I. [Sharon] It's fantastic. The impact you have had from so many different teachers has a big impact on you. Let's talk about women leaders in the workplace. Do you think there is a difference between women and men who lead? [Aminka] Yes, 100%. As women
we are naturally known to be intuitive and decisive and that may be what we discuss before our natures force us to make these decisions. We often forget that what makes us who we are and how we identify with gender or identity is actually a positive element. I remember giving a talk a few years ago and what I talked about is that our leadership skills need to be based on our natural speaking as a woman. There are great leaders like Jacinda from New Zealand and she talks about it. She says being a woman makes her a stronger person because she relies on her education, on her team, on science, but it doesn't stop the man from caring about her needs.
We saw her in the tragic mosque shooting, where she was present as a human being. I think rightly or wrongly, women have been placed in positions where we naturally had to care for others through a rate of motherhood. And even if you are not carrying children, you must somehow fulfill this role. Women, as leaders, we think of the whole picture. We think about how it affects every individual in the organization, our partners, our supply chains and finally, our sessions. [Sharon] But there are so few female leaders right now and even fewer female business founders.
Why ? In your opinion, why ? [Aminka] There are certainly many reasons, there may be a lack of funding to go further. Certainly we are seeing so many businesses that have boomed in the current COVID-19 pandemic, like the Clubhouse, there are others whose Shopify status has improved over the past year and who have crossed the billion dollar threshold. There are a lot of them, so these and smaller case studies are fundraising. We see a lot of funds allocated to women. And I would say, because I work at the intersection of financing the developmental aspect for me, it starts earlier and it explains to some extent the work I do with my foundation and other things I do, c is that if a person does not see that he can lead, he will not lead. You can provide them with all the funds available, but if they don't feel like they have the mentorship and support they need, it's going to be very difficult.
And although we are talking about this new millennium and feminism, many women do not have the support of their families. We are seeing that over 54 million women have quit their jobs due to COVID-19. The New York Times also reported that this is because they are looking after the children and are professional educated women. So at the end of the day, you can throw money into a situation if you don't tackle the systemic issues, which is the lack of trust, the lack of support until we get it. tackle the situations
in people's homes, nothing is going to change outside, in society, in the board of directors, in politics, because what do you say to a woman who wants to get married and who wants to have children , you make her choose and most likely, they will choose their family. I think if we don't tackle this problem, we lose a lot of potential leaders. [Sharon] I totally agree.
I think having that foundation knowing that your family is in the right place is what gets you out and working and doing or carrying out your own plans, but we have to have that foundation in place. So that is great. I think you've put your finger on the problem. the President and CEO of Wofemtech Solutions.
What prompted you to launch this initiative? [Aminka] Wofemtech Solutions is a videoconferencing platform. I looked at different technologies, the ones that have been developed before, open source, and looked at how I initially thought about something for women and girls. I thought it was 3 or 4 years ago, in 2017 or 2016, when we started discussing the empowerment of women and girls at the general level.
I thought, wouldn't it be great if we had an online platform where a woman could create her own classes and share her knowledge, kind of like a masterclass. Now there are a lot of other competitors and different models that do this. This is how we thought.
It was like we had this portal where women can create classes. When I developed it with my business partner and my CTO, we presented it to different agencies in New York. Some of the comments we received were that they liked the video conferencing platform. It was way before Zoom, before Teams and before the pandemic, and we were like, “This is cool.
"We have deepened the issue and we have created an online video conferencing platform in the cloud where you can connect, participate in a meeting and do the same thing in Teams. With a lot of hesitation and just being busy at the time before I became a full time entrepreneur, I was still working full time as a business marketing professional. So I traveled and ran the foundation that finally launched Wofemtech Solutions in April of last year.
Wofemtech Solutions is the company and Wofemtech is the platform. You can create your video conference calls, workshops and seminars. It is ideal for professional training, meetings and educational purposes.
[Sharon] Let's talk about women in tech. I've seen a statistic that computer engineering is only 14% female in the overall workforce. Why do you think there are so few women in tech? [Aminka] That's a great question. I like to talk about it.
I have done a lot of research myself. About 3 years ago I created a coding program for girls in Montreal. This is not the first coding program in Montreal as learning codes and others have coding programs. But this is the first where it was invented.
This was a leadership development as a lot of coding programs were only one day old. This was a 15 week coding program aimed at low income families of all ethnicities because we wanted to reduce barriers to access. That's why when I developed this program and looked to be part of a school board and reach out to different communities, I did some research. When I read the statistics, I saw that there was a graph that showed when girls were dropping out in science and math. It's funny, because I had similar experiences.
The girls dropped out of science and math before they got to high school. So at 18 and 13, that age, sorry, at 10 and 13 girls start to be noticed by boys and they have this other awareness of the opposite sex and boys start to act stupid and in schools and then studies have shown and even the Kenyan Women's Foundation has written on this subject, that it is in this age group, when they move from primary to secondary school, that they realize that this that we were talking about initially with my personality at school, when you're younger and our society doesn't reward these types of women, that they realize that they don't want to be seen as competing with the men, and that society shows both financially we don't pay them the same and socially we don't treat them the same. So why continue to compete with men? So there are demographics and data that shows the decline of girls in math class when they get to high school. In Grade 11, there aren't enough advanced math and calculus girls to go to computer science.
And even if they take math and advanced calculus classes, they often go into science. They tend to focus more on medicine, nursing and others, but not on IT where competition seems stronger and where men dominate and where there is another branch. In the 1980s, there were at least 30% women in computer science programs and the number of graduates was higher.
Sometimes there were 40, it was very high. But what ended up happening was when it was a flaw and video games started to hit the market. That changed everything, because when you look at Microsoft and Melinda Gates talks about all the time there were more girls in her computer science program. There were a lot more women than men because they took a lot of women who were in the switchboard and said: We have a new system for doing IT.
So they changed them. So there were a lot of women there, but when the games came along, and as you can see, the games were more marketed to boys. When you have that going, and then you have the school board to get a computer science degree, it's hard.
When you get to that point, it's very limited. That's why my foundation runs a coding program and we targeted girls from low income families, shy girls and girls of color. And not only do we teach them how to code and languages like HTML, CCS, Java Script, Python as a beginner. But we also bring in women of color and other women who work in the field as graphic designers or gamers, and who run their own tech companies. They can therefore see that taking these courses is linked to a real career.
[Sharon] Education seems to be the answer, which is why your work is so powerful. Having opportunities, allowing women or girls to be with other girls who are like them in an environment where competition is less strong and where support and collaboration are more important, seems to be a great thing. way to make this experience different from the one we are currently experiencing. You are therefore champion at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Tell us about it.
[Aminka] When was that? In 2019, one of our partners and one of my mentors at SAP in New York. She nominated me for the work I was doing with the new reality with girls in tech and coding and just mentoring in general. So they nominated me to be champion.
I guess that basically means you become a champion of the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and they select less than a hundred people, who come to New York for UN General Assembly Week. . We have in about 3 days of training where you get training from their team on how to best size your projects and how to build teams. They select you to reward you for your work and they send you some good wishes. We all need this development training to do a great job, we appreciate you, keep developing it.
You are part of the ecosystems of their champions and you contribute to their reports and to some of their projects that they carry out around the world. Some see it as a council of decision-makers and opinion leaders on these different issues. The big event you attend is the champion event. It's a little gala with Bill and Melinda Gates reviewing their Report of the Year.
For me, the best time was meeting other great change makers, but Bill Gates is really awesome. For example, we know his job, but when you're there and you listen to him talk, he's really smart, just like Melinda. They are really smart.
I liked this kind of perspective when we talked about international development and humanitarian aid, but now we talk about social entrepreneurship, whatever the term used. What I like about their model is that it is data driven. I think moving forward, we as a society, if this pandemic has shown us anything, the data is so important so I really liked this model. As a champion, it allows you to align with what they do.
Even if you continue to do your own work as a foundation, you can count on them and have access to different opportunities, resources, funding and support. But yes, it really is a great opportunity just to listen to them while looking at their data. It's inspiring because it shows you what you are doing with your organization. How do you quantify your impact? How do you measure the impact? What are the numbers you are showing? These are big questions because I find that in this sector, we do not always teach you that.
It's really nice to be able to be called to order because whether you're doing community, charitable, or for-profit work you need to show your numbers. If someone gives you $ 500, you have to show the impact of that $ 500. And before I give you another $ 500, what will you do with that $ 500? I really appreciated having access to this training knowledge and support. [Sharon] That's good. It is important to have quantitative ROI results when seeking funding.
It's great to be able to benefit from this training and to be with your peers, which allows you to learn from each other. It is very good. With all your experiences, what do you think we can do in our daily life? We are students in our daily life. What can we do to make the difference between equality and equity for women? [Aminka] That's a very good question.
It all starts at university. All of my activism started in college. I was on the board of the Student Federation, I ran different clubs. It's in our individual lives.
How do you treat the women in your life? And secondly, do you see any possibilities of sponsoring women, for example with a fund, a grant or internal work? Don't just send it, do a SEO. Hello, I think this would be a great opportunity for you because ... would you like me to make a recommendation? I have had things thanks to my sponsors or things go faster when with a sponsor and a recommendation. I applied to be a champion at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was selected when someone sponsored me. Good for bad, we know that's what gets things done, what gets what they say, the needle. Show yourself for others and make room for them when you hear comments that are not favorable to what you believe in or what a safe and productive society should be, speak out, but go further when you see opportunities and create opportunities for other people.
I think these are the main points, is to treat people well and how can we do better? How can you be saved? How can you make sure, especially in the college setting, that a girl gets home safe. How can you be a friend, but I know when we went to college that year, there were a lot of rape situations happening during orientation week. There was like an alert being sent. But the way the message was sent was not always the best. It brings us back to what we do as communities. What are you doing as a student to keep people safe? What are you looking to see what's going on? The conversations that are said on your show and that relate to a certain ethnicity.
We laugh about it, but these college conversations go around the boardroom, like the people in the boardroom are young students at one point, which never change. And now they are kind of like a cancer of the world that we are now trying to figure out, but we are hiding this problem years ago. It's like we 've nipped it in the bud, and sponsor people to have opportunities. These are the best things to do and create those opportunities.
When we're all here, we won't need to create organizations, but you could do it in your job. You can say: I noticed that we did not hire any native people. Why ? Are we looking for native candidates? What relationship do we have with the Aboriginal community? Let's go to the association of native students on the various campuses to inform them of the internship. Sometimes you have to be direct and intentional in supporting you want to give, because if you just say, “We want great candidates”. It is very vague.
Sometimes they can be distorted by discrimination. So be intentional, we all have responsibility for it. If you were able to go to college, regardless of your country of origin, whether you came from a low-income or high-income international family , you are always privileged. You can always access education at a higher level.
I think if we are really aware of this role we have and we are paying for it in the world. You have received this education now, what are you going to do with it to make the world a better place? It doesn't mean you won't make money. You can, the world needs money but I don't think that's the talk. The conversation has always been about what you did when you won it or how you won it. Was it a moral way that you made money? Do you rip people off? Are you ripping off the environment? I think it all comes down to an entire ecosystem, how we want to see the world.
I believe that equity towards women is part of it. We cannot destroy the environment and then say that we support women because it also affects women. You can't say, "I like dogs but then don't hire women."
I do not understand that they are not related. It does not make sense. I believe that the students of the University of Ottawa have a great challenge to overcome, but you will have all the resources necessary to find the solutions that you want if you want to do it. [Sharon] I love it. Take a step, speak, support others. It is very good.
It's good to see all the progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done. [Aminka] Yes. [Sharon] Looking back, what would you have said to yourself or what advice would you have given yourself as an undergraduate student? [Aminka] I would have said to travel more abroad. I have certainly traveled, after school we travel more abroad and start earlier, start my project earlier. This is what I tell my young daughters now because what I tell them when we run our entrepreneurship program is that while you don't want to be an entrepreneur or work for the Big Four companies in the world, you still have to start something.
The skills that you acquire by being an entrepreneur or having a side activity make you a better employee, a better manager if you want to be at the executive level. You want to run an organization, but you have to run a department store. It's those things you do outside of school that are important and you need to learn how to translate them on your CV, because what matters most right now is running a reading camp position as a petite entreprise, une petite entreprise qui s'est concentrée sur l'aide à l'éducation. C'est ce que je me dirais, c'est de voyager davantage à l'étranger dans le cadre de mes études universitaires. Il n'y a pas de mal à prendre un congé pendant un semestre, une année.
Car ça vous donne de la clarté et vous permet de lancer votre propre petit projet à l'université et dans une entreprise, même si c'est juste pour l'expérience ou quelque chose que vous voulez porter. Si vous avez commencé quelque chose à 22 ans et que vous en avez 28, ça représente 6 années d'expérience dans l'entreprise que vous pouvez soit ajouter pour vous donner une voie vers l'obtention d'un MBA, soit continuer à vous donner un revenu propre. [Sharon] C'est un excellent conseil. Nous aimons terminer avec des questions rapides. Nous voulons entrer dans la peau d'un entrepreneur. Voir comment vous pensez et comment vous réagiriez.
C'est un tas de questions. La première réponse qui vous vient à l'esprit. SMS ou appel téléphonique ? [Aminka] Des appels téléphoniques si c'est une vraie conversation avec quelqu'un.
[Sharon] Faire de l'exercice ou dormir un peu plus ? [Aminka] J'essaie d'être plus en forme en faisant de l'exercice tôt. [Sharon] Multitâche ou une tâche à la fois ? [Aminka] Je suis un Gémeaux, je suis multitâche. [Sharon] Pensée globale ou souci du détail ? [Aminka] Je peux dire les deux ? Je suis une personne qui a une vue d'ensemble, mais les détails sont importants. [Sharon] J'adore ça. Tu dois faire en sorte que ça arrive, non ? Suivre les règles ou les enfreindre ? [Aminka] Enfreignez ces règles.
[Sharon] Votre mantra personnel. [Aminka] Mon mantra personnel. Je veux vivre la vie avec un peu d'humour et de compassion et faire le bien. C'est une paraphrase de Maya Angelou. [Sharon] Hmm. Quelque chose sur votre liste de choses à faire ? [Aminka] Écrire un livre.
[Sharon] Une activiste qui t'inspire ? [Aminka] Une activiste qui m'inspire? Gretchen. Ce qu'elle a fait avec la lutte contre le changement climatique avec les autres militants. Il y en a un qui vient d'Ouganda aussi.
C'est vraiment inspirant de voir ces jeunes filles faire leur truc. [Sharon] Oui. Décrivez-vous dans un hashtag. [Aminka] #style élévation et humour.
[Sharon] J'adore. Votre meilleur moment. [Aminka] Je crois que c'est quand j'ai fait la scéance photo de Vanity Fair avec Emma Watson. Je ne m'en remets toujours pas. Je pense que c'était juste, c'était glamour. [Sharon] C'est génial.
Le meilleur cadeau que tu te sois offert récemment. [Aminka] J'ai acheté une très belle robe chez Mango. [Sharon] Vous la méritez. Votre façon préférée de relaxer ? [Aminka] Avec des bougies et de la musique. [Sharon] Fantastique.
Aminka, merci d'avoir pris le temps de nous parler aujourd'hui. Nous avons tant appris. Où pouvons-nous en savoir plus sur vous et vos organisations ? [Aminka] De rien. Merci beaucoup Le Lien! Merci beaucoup Sharon. C'est un honneur pour moi d'avoir été présentée.
Merci beaucoup d'avoir partagé mon histoire. Vous pouvez me trouver sur www.aminka AMINKA, belvitt BELVITT.com ou forusgirls.org et wofemtech.com.
[Sharon] Merveilleux. Continuez votre travail. Nous vous encourageons. [Aminka] Merci beaucoup.