Dr. Chao Mbogo; one woman’s remarkable journey in the Kenyan tech sector

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Women in science and technology are often stereotyped as not being able to excel as much as men despite working twice as hard to get where they are.

In spite of these challenges, there are women who are breaking the barriers and excelling in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers and at the same time mentoring other women to follow their footsteps. A good example is Dr. Chao Mbogo whose achievements in technology precede her. Despite her first encounter with computers being when she was 17 years old, she went on to graduate among the top of her class with a degree in Computer Science at university. After which she carved a name for herself in the male dominated tech industry.

I had a chat with her to find out more about her journey in technology,  how she’s giving back through KamiLimu, and their recent win at the 2017 TechWomen Fellowship in Silicon Valley, California, as well as her current projects.

1. Tell me about yourself, what do you do and what motivated you to pursue a career in computer science?

I am a Computer Scientist, a Researcher, a Teacher, a Mentor and just recently the new Head of Computer Science Department at Kenya Methodist University.

I did not grow up using Computers, except for the occasional visit to the Cyber Cafe. In fact, I was only exposed to the frequent use of computers at 17 years old when I first joined the university. However, the motivation for a career in Computer Science stemmed from my love for Mathematics and my innate ability to think logically, which naturally drew me to Computer Programming. My love for programming influenced my appreciation for Computer Science as a field that can be used to solve problems and innovate interesting products, especially because it is such a dynamic field that is always interesting and challenging. This is why I went on to pursue Computer Science at both Masters and PhD level.

2. Is the Kenyan tech landscape favourable to women? If not, what are some of the challenges that are unique to women and what do you think needs to change for it to be a level playing field?

We are seeing a lot more women in the Kenyan technology industry space, as startup founders, innovators, leaders, and students. Also more and more companies are taking a keen interest in creating unique opportunities for women and girls such as AkiraChix, Andela’s female-only cohort, and Women Techmakers’ spaces all over the country. This is very encouraging! However, when you look at Academia, the story isn’t quite positive. It is not uncommon to have no female professor of Computer Science at most universities or female faculty who hold high-level degrees. It is also not uncommon to have just a handful of female students in most computing classes in comparison to the male students. So the academic space certainly needs more women.

From my interaction with women in the tech industry and academia, some of the most commonly cited challenges include but not limited to; A stereotyped view of Computer Science as male-oriented, lack of mentorship from female leaders in the field, lack of information on available opportunities, limited access to resources, and lack of funds to support innovation and research. Also, sexual harassment of women in the tech industry is a real problem, which has recently made several headlines. One way to begin addressing this issue is through transparent legal and human resource processes in the workplace. Such measures can help to protect and support women while promoting louder and wide-reaching conversations about sexual harassment in the society.

3. Tell me about KamiLimu and the motivation behind it?

KamiLimu (kamilimu.org) is a combination of two words ‘Kamili’ which is Swahili for whole, and ‘limu’ which is a contraction of eLimu, the Swahili word for Education. KamiLimu is a mentorship program for Computer Science students at the university level in order to augment their classroom learning.

This program was motivated by the need to upskill the technical and professional capabilities of students in order to make them globally competitive. This is because numerous reports indicate that the Kenyan education system does not adequately equip computing students with sufficient skills. One of my biggest mandates as a Head of Department is to ensure first-class delivery of training to Computer Science students. However, the strict time allocated to finish syllabi may not allow for the teaching of all necessary skills. Further, skills in professional development, community involvement, and writing award-winning grant and scholarship applications, do not form the core of technical courses. Additionally, we deem it important to mentor both male and female students. This is why KamiLimu was founded. We currently have 42 students in the program, 28 mentees and 14 peer mentors, with an aim to maintain a 50-50 representation of male and female students.

4. What are some of the achievements of KamiLimu since you started it?

The first big achievement is to have my co-founder,  Ms. Krystal Musyoki join the program. She brings on board a rich experience of mentorship, professional development skills, project management, and public policy and administration.

Our second biggest achievement has been the support and contribution from 21 industry experts (and counting) who have given their time and skills towards enriching the learning experience of the mentees.

Since the inception of KamiLimu in September 2016, we have served a total of 63 Computing students from 8 universities. 14 of whom are now peer mentors, demonstrating the impact of the program in developing students’ leadership abilities. We not only train students to develop their professional skills but also how to prepare for interviews through a structure mock interview process, which contributed to KamiLimu’s first-ever direct request of 2 successful internships. Further, more mentees and peer mentors have reported increased job interview offers and job promotions due to increased confidence and professional etiquette. Additionally, 3 female students have won International scholarships after directly benefiting from our training sessions on how to write award-winning scholarship applications.

The mentorship program has also been recognized as one that positively contributes to the society through a ‘Zuri’ award nomination on International Women’s Day in May 2017. Lastly, Kamilimu has also been a recipient of two grant awards from the Anita Borg Institute and recently Google.

5. What is the future for KamiLimu?

We aim to be a premier program that upskills computing students to be globally competitive, and so we will continually improve the program towards meeting this goal. Thus, we envision a mentorship program with enough resources to adequately complement mentee’s classroom learning. We would also like to impact more Kenyan Computer Science students from different universities and encourage/inspire female students to excel in Computer Science. Ultimately we would like to realise our goal of producing highly competitive students who will have benefited both from their university education and an immersive mentorship program.

6. Walk us through your latest project, Digniti and the inspiration behind it?

Project Digniti is a brainchild of five of us who were 2017 TechWomen fellows from Kenya, and participated in the program at Silicon Valley from September to October. These are, Charity Wanjiku (Strauss Energy), Ruth Kaveke (Pwani Teknowgalz), Topy Muga (Visa), Janet Silantoi (ICTA), and Chao Mbogo.

The project was realized as part of Techwomen’s Action Plan model to encourage fellows to solve socioeconomic problems in their societies. Project Digniti was motivated by the current lack of toilets in some rural schools in Kenya. This has led to situations where students as many as 230 students share a single toilet  leading to hygiene-related illnesses. Unclean learning environments ultimately leads to missed school days especially among female students, thus affecting learning and performance of these students.

7. How did it feel to get the winning pitch at TechWomen 2017 and what will winning the award mean for you and your team at Digniti?

We worked very hard on the idea, so winning the pitch was in many ways a reward for our hard work and our shared vision towards the goal. We were over the moon for several days after! Our positive team dynamics and a superb ability to seamlessly work together was a big contribution towards our success. We were also very fortunate to be coached by four incredible impact coaches – Beth Steinberg (Mensch Ventures), Page Crahan (Clarus Power), Paria Rajai (Hackbring Academy) and Andria Jones (Senior Corporate Counsel) – who encouraged and supported us with their ideas and feedback. The win comes with some seed funding that will help us to kickstart the project.

8. What is the future for Digniti?

Our solution involves working with partners to provide new toilets to rural schools. It also aims to  provide training and education on sanitation plus the implementation of an accountability model. Thus, after the pilot phase, we plan to scale through increased partnerships and funding and working with schools that have more students. The aim being to realise a self-sustaining model after a period of time.

9. What are some of the other projects that you’re involved in apart from KamiLimu and Digniti?

My current project is an extension of my PhD research. It is a mobile application that helps students learn programming via mobile phones. I am upgrading the mobile application by introducing a newer version that will be used by my programming students to write Java programs using their mobile phones. This application is designed to support programming on limited devices such as phones. This is in order to encourage students to practically write code even when they might not have access to laptops or desktop computers. The application will be ready for public download at the end of the year or early next year.

10. What more do you think needs to be done in Kenya to encourage young women to take up careers in STEM fields?

Mentorship, access to information and resources. Also better delivery of STEM education within institutions. Recognition of Kenyan women contributors and leaders in STEM. Legal and institutional support that prevents harassment as well as protects victims of harassment.

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