Igniting a Passion for STEM in Young Nigerian Women
An entrepreneur herself, Chichi Okafor knows the amount of sweat equity required to run your own company. She is the founder of both a PR firm and an energy company, but she is proudest of the organizations she founded that teaches young girls and boys in Nigeria about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Growing up in Nigeria, Chichi remembers the educational programs she use to watch as a child – programs that have since been replaced by entertainment shows. Chichi felt these new programs put children in Nigeria, particularly girls, at an educational disadvantage.
“I knew I wanted to do something but I was busy with school, work and business,“ said Chichi ”My IVLP program on Women & Entrepreneurship gave me the opportunity I was looking for.”
Chichi participated in the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Visitors’ Leadership Program on Women & Entrepreneurship. It was then that she realized how she could use her own experiences as an entrepreneur to inspire a new generation of STEM entrepreneurs in Nigeria.
“The program was awesome,” said Chichi. “It was a life changing experience for me.”
During IVLP, Chichi met Cathi Rodgveller, CEO and founder of Inspiring Girls Now in Technology, or IGNITE. The U.S.-based organization works to create programs that help young girls learn more about STEM. The goal is to encourage more girls to become engineers and scientists.
After meeting with Rodgveller, Chichi knew she wanted to bring the same programs to Nigeria. With Rodgveller’s support, Chichi Launched IGNITE Nigeria in June 2010.
“IGNITE was started to give the girl child space to know more about STEM,” explained Chichi.
Since its launch, IGNITE Nigeria has organized programs for more than 2,000 girls across Nigeria. Through IGNITE, Chichi has also been able to establish IGNITE STEM clubs in several schools, which focus on connecting girls to STEM. Chichi said she hopes to have 20 IGNITE clubs established by 2020 in each of the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria.
IGNITE Nigeria has helped girls learn about STEM topics, ask questions about STEM careers, shadow successful women in STEM and even work with companies such as Google.
“There is so much going on in technology globally and it is important for the Nigerian girl child be exposed and taught,” said Chichi. “We want a situation where our youths are on par with other youth across the globe.”
For her work, Chichi was nominated in 2014 for the IVLP’s Gold Star award. She also began working with the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Nigeria, which is how she was connected to GIST in May 2016
The U.S. Consulate in Lagos recommend she participate in the GIST Women Villages Workshop in Lagos. The networking workshop worked with 25 science and technology entrepreneurs to promote women’s access to entrepreneurship resources.
During the workshop, women trailblazers like Chichi learned how to network, build successful entrepreneurship ecosystems and leverage resources to benefit women entrepreneurs.
“Before then, I didn’t realize that the people I had around me played a lot of useful roles in my life,” Chichi said about the workshop. “I have learned to appreciate everyone around me and I am able to see what roles they play in my life and business.’
At the end of the workshop, the women who participated were challenged to teach what they had learned to 60 people in 6 months. Chichi took it a step further, and launched a second program to promote STEM in Nigeria, TechTeens.
Through TechTeens, which supports both boys and girls in STEM, Chichi has been able to partner with the local state governments and tech companies in Nigeria. TechTeens has trained over 2,000 students in computer coding and trained another 300 teachers in Nigeria.
Chichi’s work has helped reduce barriers for women in STEM, inspired innovation and likely made a lasting impact in the lives of thousands of young girls hoping to become engineers and scientists.
Chichi also leveraged her experiences with the U.S. Department of State and GIST Initiative to make a difference in her own community, positively impacting the lives of those around her.
But most importantly, Chichi has shown young science and tech innovators in Nigeria that they have a fierce advocate and supporter in their corner.
“Yes there are lots and lots of challenges that test your resolve but you have to keep pushing,” said Chichi. “It helps when you have someone to encourage you, talk to you and who will help you think and see things from a different perspective.”
If you are interested in learning more about IGNITE Nigeria or TechTeens, you can contact Chichi via email at [email protected].