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Corporate Responsibility in Action

Sustainability Spotlight: Helping Rwanda Become Africa's IT Hub

Created: 24 Apr 2014 • Updated: 25 Apr 2014 • 1 comment
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From climate change to cyber security to employee diversity, corporate responsibility (CR) and sustainability touch every aspect of Symantec’s business. We’ve defined our strategy and are continually working toward our goals to operate as a responsible global citizen. In addition to our dedicated global corporate responsibility team, every day Symantec employees across the world are helping us deliver on this, creating value for both our business and our stakeholders.

We are happy to introduce an ongoing feature of the CR in Action blog – the Sustainability Spotlight - that will profile employees and their contribution to Symantec’s CR and sustainability efforts. Some are members of our CR team, others contribute through our Green Teams or volunteering, some have seen an opportunity and developed programs in their function or region -- all are making a difference.

Today we hear from Eileen Brewer, Manager, Program Management, who was joined by Andria Bouskos, Corporate Counsel, Legal and Public Affairs, and Sowmya Simha, Principal Program Manager for Mobile Products, on a recent trip to Rwanda.

While many associate Rwanda with a civil war and genocide that plagued the country in the 90’s, I see a different side. For example, it might surprise you that in 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world to have a majority of women in Parliament. Today, Rwanda’s parliament is 64 percent female and women are encouraged to complete college educations and participate in the economy. They do not tolerate any corruption or bribery in business transactions. Rwandans are optimistic about their current leadership and the direction of their country. And the people themselves are wonderful - a very shy, polite society where I’ve felt safe at all times when I’ve visited.  The streets are clean of litter and there is no smoking allowed in any public setting. And most importantly there is now a culture of unity, without an emphasis on classes or ethnicity, and a focus on all being Rwandan.

Additionally, there is a huge focus on education in Rwanda and the country is working very hard on developing its infrastructure. They want to become the IT hub of Africa and are inviting companies to open offices in Kagili to manufacture and/or sell their products into the African continent from one central point.

This is what I see, a beautiful country that has recovered significantly over the past 20 years, and is full of opportunity for its people. 

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Finding a Way to Support Rwandans

About ten years ago, I decided to take action, to leverage my skills and experience, to serve a personal passion of mine – increasing opportunities for women in developing countries, like Rwanda. 

As a female IT executive, I have always been passionate about increasing the number of women in our field and encouraging women to consider a career in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that offers so many benefits. I feel even more strongly about this in developing regions around the world where women lack the same opportunities that are offered in more developed regions.

Symantec has been a supporter of the TechWomen Program, a US Government funded program, since its inception in 2011. This initiative brings female IT professionals from the Middle East and Africa to Silicon Valley for a month of mentoring. Because Symantec encourages its female employees to apply to this program there have been about a dozen women in Symantec volunteering their time as either a Professional or Cultural Mentor since its inception in 2011.

I have participated since 2012, mentoring two women from the Middle East and Africa, while Symantec overall has hosted many of these mentees since 2011. One of the mentees at Symantec in 2013 was an IT professional from Rwanda, who we were able to reconnect with during our trip there.

Creating a Local STEM Workforce

The Rwandans are very clear that they want to foster a local skilled IT work force and are therefore encouraging high tech companies to hire locals, not bring in their own contingents, to ensure the locals can achieve middle class careers. To support this they are investing in their university system and providing degrees in computer science and all engineering fields. Additionally, they are opening up the channels for new businesses – by clearing the way for corporations to open a new business in less than two days.

Visiting Rwanda was an extension of the TechWomen Program. In addition to hosting and mentoring women from the Middle East and Africa in Silicon Valley, we are also invited to visit two of the 16 participating countries each year to help spread the word about the program and to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM.

I was joined by two other Symantec employees - Andria Bouskos, Corporate Counsel, Legal and Public Affairs, and Sowmya Simha, Principal Program Manager for Mobile Products, and the three of us were part of a group of 30 female ICT professionals on the trip.   

In seven days we covered a lot of ground meeting with multiple non-profits, educational institutions, government agencies and numerous women pursuing STEM careers in Rwanda.  It was an incredible trip, and made me feel so thankful to work for an organization that has given me, and many others, the opportunity to make an impact for females and the IT sector in Rwanda.

I hope you’ll have a chance to read the following highlights of our goals and activities over these impactful seven days.

1. Encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM

On our second day, we visited the Akilah Institute and KLab, both programs in Rwanda promoting the development of STEM skills and opportunity for STEM careers for women. The Akilah Institute operates like a trade school for 200 women aged about 18-30, many of whom have not had the chance to complete their high school degree, and helps them develop skills like general computer use and hospitality which will allow them to enter the work force and become self-sufficient.

“A majority of these women come from extremely underprivileged backgrounds, many of them never finished school, and several of them were impacted by the genocide one way or another,” said Sowmya Simha, Principal Program Manager, Enterprise Mobility Engineering. “They were there with the hope of picking up skills that would help them better their living, as well as of their family, and even their communities. Many of them that we met spoke of taking their learning back to their community and helping improve their conditions. We met with one of their first year classes, and answered many questions about Silicon Valley, life as tech women in the US, work/life balance, and marriage.”

K Labs is a government funded IT innovation hub where community members can come together to work in teams on IT problems facing a broad range of industries from agriculture to education to medical. The government reaches out to KLab when they need solutions to particularly pressing challenges in the nation, and encourage the KLab participants to come up with innovative solutions. This introduced us to women who qualify for the TechWomen program and it is possible one of these women could end up at Symantec later this year.

We also visited Carnegie Mellon University Rwanda. This is a new campus offering classroom settings for students pursuing a Masters in Computer Science or Engineering. We held round table discussions with the students where they talked about how hard the studies were but also about how much they want to succeed to help develop Rwanda’s tech industry.

“This trip really demonstrated to me the resilience of this country and its people,” said Andria Bouskos, Corporate Counsel, Legal and Public Affairs. “Everyone we met with was extremely passionate about advancing their skills in STEM and understanding how best, collectively, to contribute to building the IT industry in Rwanda.”

2. Increasing awareness for women who qualify to apply to the TechWomen Program so they may be mentored for a month in Silicon Valley at a high tech company

TechWomen is an initiative of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It brings young female “emerging leaders” from the Middle East and Africa to the United States for a six-week mentorship program. The program is designed to empower, connect and support the next generation of women leaders in STEM. Last year, six women from Rwanda participated in the program.

The trip to Rwanda was a return visit to help spread the word about TechWomen, and bring awareness of STEM areas to young women and girls in that country. On our second day, we participated in an event called Speed Geek with Silicon Valley TechWomen. Local women working on solutions to problems in the community had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to us and we were asked to provide feedback and insight. Some of the ideas included:  an SMS message that would warn farmers in remote areas of big storms coming so they could harvest or protect their crops, and a voice message in their local language that would be generated after they pick up a prescription that provides needed information.

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3. Meeting with local government agencies and the US Embassy to share the importance of the program and the need for their continued support

On our third day, I spoke on a panel at the first ever Science & Technology Fair hosted at the US Embassy in Kigali to an audience of 130 middle school girls, teachers and Embassy staff. At the fair, Rwandan secondary students have the chance to attend panels, workshops and networking sessions with female IT executives from top Silicon Valley companies such as Twitter, Juniper Networks, Ericsson, and of course, Symantec.

Our panel was about what inspired us to pursue careers in STEM, who our role models were and how we overcame career challenges. There were also a half dozen tables all with different activities for the girls to participate in. I brought a suitcase full of computer components, motherboards, memory sticks, CPU’s, etc. and explained the jobs of each component and how they worked together.

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Eileen Brewer is Manager, Program Management Team, for Symantec’s product engineering group.

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JUSTICE's picture

BRAVO ZULU Symantec. This is awesome!!!!!

Marcus Sebastian Payne
"So cyberspace is real. And so are the risks that come with it."
- President Barack Obama

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