“I’d had no access to technology in Nigeria, even with literate parents. It took a year or so to catch up to my peers.”
Name: Njideka Harry
Occupation: Social entrepreneur and thought leader
“I grew up in Nigeria in an upper-middle-class home. I was born to a Nigerian father and an American mother, both academics. Education was super emphasized in my home. My father always said, “They can take everything away from you, but they can’t take your education.”
I moved to the United States in the early 1990s to start college. Like many people moving from developing countries to developed ones, I had a lot of questions. My greatest shock was when I saw the role technology played in education. I’d had no access to technology in Nigeria, even with literate parents. It took a year or so to catch up to my peers.
After I graduated from university, I started a career with General Electric that eventually took me to Florence, Italy. It was the first time I saw technology bringing people and processes together to serve a customer, and it gave me a thirst to learn more about tech. When I was contacted by a recruiter at Microsoft, I jumped at the chance and moved to Seattle.
It was there that I began to reflect on young people growing up in the developing world. In the ’90s it was hard enough for them to catch up, but in the 21st-century economy there was no way they could compete for opportunities without access to technology. That reality became an obsession—I couldn’t sleep until I figured out a way to do something about it.
So, from a cubicle in Building 8 at Microsoft, I founded the Youth for Technology Foundation, a mission-driven technology education nonprofit. I wanted to create learning communities where technology could afford opportunities for youth and women, particularly in low-income and developing-world economies.
Building Youth for Technology has been a journey. Currently we implement programs across five countries in Africa. We work in almost 4,000 communities and have served nearly 1.8 million people over the last 19 years.
Funding and access to capital is a major challenge. We view philanthropy as a systems change—not just dropping off 10 laptops at a school but educating the teachers, administration, and parents; integrating technology into the culture; considering gender norms and making sure women girls have equal access. It can involve a major change in community values. To be able to do our work effectively, we need unrestricted funding.
We have to have bold conversations with our funders to help them understand that we know the culture, language, and needs of these communities better than they ever can. We need them to trust us to make the right decisions with the funding. We need to educate the funders as they educate us, because we’re partners and members of the same changemaking family.
I’m inspired by the young people we work with as well as their mothers, who are the backbone of the communities we serve. As we look at tech as an equalizer and a basic human right, we hear stories of unleashing young people’s potential: 75% of the students we work with pursue STEM-related careers upon graduation, and about 55% of those students are women.
As a mother of three daughters myself, I see the challenges they face from a gender perspective about whether they are able to enjoy science, technology, engineering, and math. I want to ensure that my children see role models so that they can aspire to be role models.”