If you live on other people’s agenda, they will dictate to you, but if you have something in your hand , you can choose the activities you want to do
By Catherine Kuria
People become successful by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose. Internalizing a sense of oneself as a conqueror is an iterative process. A person asserts leadership by taking action and taking charge of the situation at hand. Others may affirm or resist action, thus encouraging or discouraging subsequent assertions.
Integrating success and leadership into one’s core identity is challenging, especially for women who must work an extra mile to prove their credibility in a culture that is so male-dominated. Gender bias has been and still is a norm but one that shall come to pass since women are taking charge and proving through their success and achievements that, ‘ what a man can do, a woman can do better.’ Dr. Emily Ngubia Kesse is a success story that goes to prove women can do it too.
Back to school
Dr. Emily Kesse attended Kalimoni Primary school in Kiambu County and emerged the best female student in Thika Municipality in 1994. She got a scholarship to go to Alliance Girls’ High School. After completing high school, she proceeded to the University Of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Science degree in physics. Later she got an opportunity to go as a visiting scholar to Italy at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) to attend a conference. There, she met and interacted with professors from the International School for Advanced Studies which is a graduate school. When she came back to Kenya, she applied to go back there as a visiting scholar for two months. During that trip, she visited a laboratory for Cognitive Neuro Science and became fascinated with brain studies.
At the university, she wanted to have an impact on people’s lives and she therefore founded a women’s peer education group through I Choose Life Africa. She later sat for a scholarship international exam together with 30 other students who had applied and she managed to be among the 4 who won the scholarship to attend the graduate school in Italy and study cognitive neuro science. She became the first African female student to attend that school in 2005 and surprisingly, the only black person in that school to do neuro science since the course was deemed to be for white scholars. Her academic path was nothing short of flawless.
After completing her masters degree, she decided that she would focus on the question of the under representation of women in STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This is an area that she could relate to since back at the University of Nairobi (UON) out of a total of 60 students in her class, only 5 were female. Her desire to fill that gap led her to Germany. While still studying in Italy, she had the opportunity to showcase her work to the world. Someone who had spotted her work got in touch with her and asked if she knew about gender studies. She left for Germany to study gender and see how she could combine that with neuro science. She was enrolled at the Graduate School for Gender Studies which served as a platform to rise and be enrolled in the one of the top medical schools in Europe. There, she studied neuro science with a focus on Gender.
She sees herself as an entrepreneur, innovator and someone who inspires people. Come to think of it. It is true since as she narrates, back while in high school she used to organize community events at her local church that basically focused on people who had no direction in life. The programme engaged young people who reaped massive benefits out of it. That reflects her social life at the University of Nairobi as she was engaged in numerous clubs like the I Choose Life Africa where they were the first to conceive the peer education groups.
Together with some friends from physics, chemistry and maths departments, she co-founded an organization to help create employment opportunities for graduates in similar departments. With no source of funding, they hit the road doing campaigns to raise funds and at one point they failed to go home in order to save every penny they could reach and source for contacts. They organized a conference that was attended by the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of the university among others and it gained massive recognition. That was the beginning of the question: “Are we being trained in the universities for the sake of our economies?”
Their organization became the youth arm for the National Council of Science, Technology and Innovation. She won a prize of 25,000 Dollars to go to Silicon Valley in 2011 to attend the Graduate Studies offered by the Singularity University (SU). The university is a think tank that brings together experts from all walks of life specializing in different fields. They train on exponential technologies. It was founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil at the NASA Reasearch Park in California. They offer a 10-week summer program for training.
How can we provide solutions to our problem locally?
The conference at Singularity University was an eye opener for Dr. Kesse since the things that were discussed involved direct problems that Africans face. The discussion does not even involve Africans who experience these problems first hand. Foreigners may know our problems but they don’t have to find the solution for us . How can we provide solutions locally that are important to us and most importantly made by us?
She was still undertaking her PhD at that time and that is when she came across U-Data Analytics Institute – a group from different parts of Africa with similar thoughts; giving back to Africa. They held meetings in different parts of Germany to see how they could use their expertise learned from studying abroad to give back to their motherland – Africa.
SMART Data Analytics
From the meetings held, ideas shared and discussions chaired, SMART Data Analytics was born. The company came from the thought that in order for them to give back they need monetary funding that will enable them deliver. The company has representations in Germany, Kenya, Cameroon and Cote D’Ivore. Its headquarters is in Dortmund Germany. “If you live on other people’s agenda, they will dictate you, but if you have something in your hand, you can choose the activities that you want to do,” says Dr. Kesse. She continues to say that, “Find something that you are passionate about. Do not do it for the money but because you are passionate about it.”
“Society has expectations of what it wants your career path to be. Everyone has an idea of what you should be, but you should know who you are, what interests you and then pursue it. It is very important to be courageous, to find your true calling and pursue it. Most of the times the paths you take will not be lucrative and people will not understand why you chose what you choose. Just be true to only yourself,” Dr. Kesse advises. She finds a lot of satisfaction in what she does and she doesn’t do it for money but out passion. Currently, she is the chief marketing officer, SMART Data Analytics.
When people say “you cannot make it on your own”, one may think it’s just bluff but Dr. Kesse can attest to that. She says that in order to succeed, people are everything. People are important but what is more important Is those friendships build along the way. When you look at the business sector, people are not looking for who has the most amount of money but people who have integrity and who you can respect. Good relationships are the basic foundation of good businesses.
“No one will do what you want on your behalf, you have to do it yourself. Always be true to your calling. People may try to pull you down but it’s your ability to stand up for what you believe in that makes you achieve your goal. In every success story, one thing always stands out; God. You cannot make it in life without the grace of God by your side,” she avers.
Advice to Ladies
Education is important. If an opportunity presents itself to you, grab it. Young girls especially in Africa have opportunities to get scholarships. They should use them to open doors. “Do not let anyone set standards for you and if you want something go look for it,” she says. “It’s surprising that most of the opportunities I got I went looking for them. I vouched for them and knocked doors, since my high school days until I finished my PhD my parents never paid a penny for my education. I got scholarships and I would say that it was just an answered prayer,” Dr. Emily narrates.
According to her, if you look for what you want, you will find it, but people often wait for things to come their way. “Be aggressive and you will reap maximum benefits out of it, don’t be afraid to test waters that others haven’t tested,” she advises. She continues to say: “I saw a poster in the physics department containing an article inviting lecturers to go to Italy for a seminar. I decided that even though I was a 2nd year student I wanted to go. I told my professor that I wanted to go. Initially my interest was to travel but I said I wanted to learn. It was a conference on space and my professor told me to go prepare a lecture on that topic and come present it to him. I prepared for a month then went back and gave a power point presentation. He asked me to write down an equation on the chalk board and I told him I didn’t know what that was because I was only a second year student. He was surprised and actually thought I was a 4th year student. I told him women were under represented in these subjects and that’s how I got the opportunity to go to Italy.”
Challenges along the way
The track may seem smooth for Dr. Kesse but there have been a few hurdles. When she decided that physics was what she wanted to pursue at the university, a lecturer told her that the field was not for girls. He really discouraged her, but she spoke to her dad about it and the latter advised her to soldier on.
When she went to Europe, that is when it dawned on her that racism does actually exist. People tried to challenge her and put her down due to stereotypes about Africans. “Knowing where you are from and where you are headed is important, irrespective of what other people think about you,” she avers. “ Being open to new learning experiences will broaden your mind and teach you how to handle every situation as it comes,” she ends.
Who thought a woman so serious could dance? Well, Emily says she is an adroit in the dance floor with proficiency in salsa and tango dance. She loves learning new languages and is fluent in English, German, Italian, French and Kiswahili. She also enjoys reading especially novels by African writers. She still loves local delicacies and Ugali with Sukumawiki is her favorite meal. Emily is married to a German from Ivory Coast.