International Women's Day (IWD) celebrates the achievements of women around the world and intends to raise awareness for gender parity and equity. This year's campaign theme is Choose to Challenge -- a message that highlights today’s emphasis on both recognition and a continued commitment to empowering women. This day of celebration is also a call to action for the work we must continue to do to advance equity globally. We happily accept the challenge and hope that this moment inspires you and countless others to keep advocating and pushing for change.
On this special day, I’m so proud to be able to celebrate one of our incredible board members, Larissa Kaze. Larissa is committed to supporting women, especially Black women, in their pursuit of STEM related careers. I hope you are as inspired by her words as I am. I also hope today you are inspired to take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate the amazing women in your own life.
Welcome Larissa. Would you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Burundi and my family moved to Rwanda in 1994 after the genocide against the Tutsi. Upon completion of my high school studies in Kigali, shout out to A.P.E. Rugunga, I moved to the US and attended Michigan Technological University (MTU) where I majored in Mathematics. I was hired at Boeing after college, where I have now worked for the past 16 years. I have held multiple positions and currently serve as a finance manager in the commercial airplanes division. I am passionate about youth education, especially for girls. Being involved with Rwanda Girls Initiative from early on and seeing the impact of Gashora Girls Academy has been fulfilling on many levels.
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global event celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. What does this day mean to you?
To me, IWD provides an opportunity to have positive discussions regarding the importance of gender balance and to celebrate the extraordinary acts of courage and determination by ordinary women. It is unfortunate that no country in the world has achieved gender equality in the 21st century. It is important to reflect on how far we have come, but also think about the long road ahead. On this day, I pay tribute to the women in my life that mean or meant everything to me such as my mother, my grandmother, my daughter, my mentors, and great girlfriends.
You mentioned that in Rwanda IWD is a big deal, how does Rwanda celebrates this day?
In all corners of Rwanda, on March 8th, people appreciate the women in their lives and celebrate their achievements. Women are reminded that they are wonderful and an important asset to the development of the country. There are many events to celebrate and empower women in different sectors of the country and everyone is encouraged to work together to promote gender equality.
Why do you believe we need more women in leadership, especially in STEM fields?
Women are at least 40% of the workforce in most parts of the world, but a much lower ratio in leadership levels. We need women's perspectives to solve our greatest challenges in STEM. I will even go further and say we need more black women in STEM fields. As an example, imagine taking your kid to see a doctor for a skin rash and a particular diagnosis would show a red rash. On a black child, you cannot identify a red rash, which could lead to misdiagnosis. The more we have diverse representation in the medical field, the more medical professionals will be able to identify what diseases look like on different skin colors. There are many similar examples for women too. If only men are able conduct research, women would be left out of scientific studies especially on challenges that are gender-specific. Furthermore, there is a demonstrated correlation between gender diversity and financial returns. Businesses are more profitable when they have more women in leadership.
How can we mentor young girls to dream bigger?
Many girls struggle to believe in themselves and mentors can help bring out the shining star in them. A young girl might not know many female CEOs, doctors or scientists but a mentor will help her see and realize that it is a possibility for her. I think the best way to mentor girls is to create a trusting relationship where a girl can be open and honest. Keep encouraging their ambitions and offering feedback, teaching and guidance.
What advice would you give women struggling in a male-dominated industry?
Be courageous and trust your skills. If you can identify what's unique in your background, use those skills to advance your career. Practice being assertive, know what you are saying and say it with strength. Also, try to find a good mentor who will promote you within your organization, someone who will have your back, who will tell even the most senior leaders how great you are and how much you deserve to be recognized.
You have been instrumental in helping to secure internships for some of our Gashora Girls Academy alumnae through the years. What has that meant to you?
I see myself in every Gashora girl so it is natural for me to assist them in getting internships. As a college student, I had 3 internships and they helped me build confidence as well as a competitive advantage as I pursued permanent positions. I encourage every Gashora alum, wherever they might be, to look for an internship every summer. Reach out to the career counselors at your school, attend career fairs at school or in your area, become members of organizations especially the ones for minorities for example NSBE for Engineers. Network, network, network.
What do you think helped you get where you are today? What progress have you seen on gender equality in your life and work?
I am where I am today because of hard work and taking advantage of available opportunities.
When I was at MTU, I applied online for a summer internship at Boeing and was asked to come interview in Seattle. When I got here, it happened to be a sunny February day. I loved the city and promised myself that I would live here one day. I was offered a full time position after my internship and moved to Seattle not knowing anyone there. Once there, I met other young African professionals working at other companies. We were in the same shoes and we created a phenomenal support system, almost like a family that we have kept up to this day. Later in my career I realized that in addition to being technical, I also like people and enjoy learning from them and finding ways to help them achieve their potential. That’s how I established a goal to get into management. Hard work, supportive mentors and my network helped me get there.
You are a working mom. What is one piece of advice to all women who are juggling between home and work?
What I consider a good harmony between being a mom and career keeps changing as my daughter grows and my job responsibilities shift. The one piece of advice I would give to women is to learn how to organize their time and manage tasks. With the Covid-19 pandemic, being organized is important as we have been working from home and have school from home too. First, let me say that I am grateful to have a job that allows me to work from home. I keep up a visible calendar with daily tasks and try to avoid hectic mornings by preparing things in the evenings. Still, it is hard at times to be fully productive at work with all the distractions that come with being a parent. I’ve tried to be transparent with my team, so they can understand my working from home reality, and I also listen to theirs. On weekends and vacations, I turn off laptops and work cell phones to be present for my family and for self-care too.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
- Don’t be so hard on yourself. Let go of worrying about your weaknesses and strengthen your strengths.
- It’s okay to make mistakes. Learn and move on.
- Start saving for retirement now.
CELEBRATE the women in your life with a one time gift!
To celebrate International Women's Day a give a gift in honor of your loved one! We will email them a special note letting them know about your gift in their honor and the impact it has on girls' education.
- Womens Day