By Christina Bjornstrom
I met Suad Ali this summer, and was immediately drawn to her passion for empowering Africa’s female youth. Well-mannered and soft-spoken, Suad left Kenya to gather support for the African Women’s Leadership Academy that she founded earlier this year. The academy will recruit 125 bright Kenyan girls each year before their senior year of high school to begin a one-year program aimed at starting a “life-long transformational process as individuals and leaders of the African continent.” It aims to provide a pathway to higher education and a career, as an alternative to early marriage and motherhood. In her daily life, Suad is a respected financial analyst. She also comes with a strong background in teaching Kenyan high school students science and math. I sat down with Suad to delve deeper into how she set up AWLA and why.
Rubina Magazine: What led you to do what you’re doing?
Suad Ali: I mainly did this for two reasons. One: women in Africa are still underrepresented. The young ones, the 13-25 year olds, are suffering because they don’t have role models. 60% of Africans are under the age of 24.
We need to nurture that generation, and we need to do it now because it’s time. I’m in my mid-thirties and can take on that responsibility as a role model to make sure that girls don’t take the wrong path. I want to nurture this young and vibrant generation.
I want to get them in their last year of high school, and have them undergo our leadership curriculum. Those coming to my academy will already be educated. In Africa, the problem is that by the time girls do their final year of high school, that year is when girls drop out, get married and get pregnant. We recruit them in their final year of high school to help and encourage them to go to college. My academy offers a one-year program that prepares them for leadership, entrepreneurship, how to succeed in college, and how to avoid the pitfalls of poverty largely seen as “inevitable” in Kenya.
Secondly, because my grandmother and mother weren’t educated, and I see it in our African communities: our grandmothers and mothers aren’t educated. AWLA will help them understand their history, why they’re poor. If you don’t have an educated mother, the chances of you going to school are very slim.
What surprised or challenged you along the way?
What surprised me along the way is that people are still behind in Africa in terms of what they believe girls and women are supposed to do. They see that economically they are not getting better, but it’s because the men in Africa don’t take on leadership roles in the home. What surprises me is that they are still raising our girls how they were raised. The world has changed, but they have not yet changed.
How are you having an impact?
I am impacting other people’s lives because as a young African, and telling others my story, I can see how this organization can be successful, and see how mothers would want to send their daughters to my school.
My passion comes across and allows me to connect with a lot of people, with legislators… by legislators, I mean reformers dedicated to making an impact on policy. I visit and monitor the schools and cities. I want to make sure my organization facilitates what’s going on outside.
What advice would you give to others who are trying to empower women?
Biggest advice… Trust the process, and know that you don’t have to know everything. I would advise them to think big and start small. Look at the world, and go where the world is going.
If you really want to make a difference, you can, but you have to be grounded. You have to develop your niche. You can’t go to Africa and say you’ll save it. Pick a female demographic. You have to pick a specific group instead of saying you’ll transform all women. What I’m doing is targeting a very specific generation.
What was a turning point in your life?
Liberians electing the first African female president. What Ellen Johnson Sirleaf done in Liberia today is unbelievable—a woman in her 60’s, not young, but she’s running the country. When I saw what she’s doing by challenging male leaders to do the right thing, it was a turning point… This woman is fighting battles everyday to make sure Liberian women are treated equally. To see how she’s running the country as an African woman, I look up to her.
On a personal level, looking at my life, I have transformed over the last ten years. I lost my mother in 2004, and when I lost her, that was a turning point for me. I was young… I went for her funeral, and remember vividly that on my way back, I said to myself, “Now what?”
My mother wasn’t educated, but she was a community organizer…there was a sense of community at her funeral. People were just showing up. I think that was a pivotal moment for me because I realized that when I die, I want people to say I really made a difference. She also embodied a strong leadership role for her kids and community.
Who was or is your mentor?
My mother. Although she wasn’t academic, she was very successful as a leader. Also, Condoleeza Rice—she’s a woman who embodies leadership, and is passionate about education. I look up to her.
What do you see as the future of your enterprise?
What I see in the future of my enterprise is that, in 50 years, when I’m on my deathbed, my academy will have helped transform the continent. I want to graduate women who will take on politics, engineering, medicine. Africa will transform. The future is bright. We have young, vibrant girls who don’t need handouts—they need jobs.