As our society moves closer to gender equality, women are working to build a more substantial presence in the traditionally male-dominated tech industry. We are now seeing an increasing number of them heading some of the most valuable tech companies in the world, leading technological innovations and working tirelessly to encourage more women to pursue a career in tech.
One of them who stands out in Nigeria is Juliet Ehimuan who sits atop Google Nigeria as the Country Director. An influential figure in the world of tech, she is charged with the responsibility of representing Google in all its business development projects and partnership opportunities in this region. A seemingly difficult task which she handles effortlessly along sides her strong belief for women empowerment, mentoring and support for women in tech.
In this interview with Konye Chelsea Nwabogor, she talks about her journey to the top and why more young girls should consider pursuing a career in tech.
People have called you many things, a Forbes power woman, queen of technology, a first in many spheres. Who would you say is Juliet Ehimuan?
I am someone who believes in living your best life, striving to be the best version of yourself possible. I am passionate about self-leadership and transformation, and I try to practice this in my own life and also share it with others.
You are what one might refer to as a high achiever. How did you get here? Was it all hard work? Luck? The God factor?
All of the above I would say. There’s been a fair amount of hard work, but I have also been incredibly blessed, and I am humbled and grateful. Early on I had a vision to be the best I could be in whatever I was involved in, and I brought that attitude into whatever I did. That drove me to make a first class in Computer Engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Later on, that vision crystallised into a desire to make impactful contributions to Africa and humanity at large in the areas of technology, leadership, and personal development.
Pursuing this vision has meant there’ve been times when I had to take decisions that stretched and challenged me in new ways and shaped my journey. For example leaving the comfort and security of a great job at Shell at the start of my career, to undertake graduate studies at the University of Cambridge; leaving a great job and trajectory at Microsoft to venture into entrepreneurship, going to do an MBA at the London Business School, and relocating back to Nigeria in 2009.
I believe in the power of faith and that God has imbued each of us with the drive, vision, and ability to be successful. Our task is to make decisions that allow us to take advantage of the opportunities that come to us. Our hope and prayer should be that we are inspired to make the right choices at the right time and focus on what really matters; and that God crowns our efforts.
One question that many observers ask is why there are not more women in science, technology, engineering, and math? What’s your take on this?
Interestingly, I wrote an article about this for International women’s Day in 2018. The article was titled: “The Next Bill Gates is Female and African”. The article is available at www.julietehimuan.com. For me that was a bold statement of the possibilities that exist if we encourage/allow women to thrive to their full potential in any field, including technology. The challenge is not ability. Women and Men are equally intellectually capable.
Personally, I think there are 2 major challenges. One is a lack of access. As a society we deny the girl child access to education. According to a UNICEF report, one in five of every out of school child in the world is a Nigerian and about 60% are girls. This is driven by cultural norms that lead to gender roles that make us require that these girls play more domestic roles at a young age, and practices like child marriages that force young girls out of the classroom.
Secondly, there is still a gender bias in the way many societies consider career options for young women and jobs in fields like engineering, science, and technology which are sometimes thought of as being the domain of men. The reality is that women do extremely well in STEM subjects.
We do ourselves a grave disservice if we obstruct girls from maximising their potential, push them into marriage too quickly or limit their ability to enter freely into careers that interest them. If we allow girls to be unencumbered, make their choices freely, and get a full education leaning towards whatever subjects they have an affinity for, we would increase the number that eventually bubble to the top as leaders in technology, business, and entrepreneurship.
There are problems that are specific to our own experience in Africa, which stops young girls from pursuing careers in technology? What are you personally doing to help?
I do agree that our communities and cultures in parts of Africa that should protect, and nurture young girls do a disservice to them. We should all champion education for the girl child, and advocate for girls to be given the freedom to develop themselves to their full capacity in body and mind.
The pervasiveness of the problems means that the solutions must be intentional. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had to make personal and corporate contributions to helping young women develop themselves and realize their full potential. As part of our commitment as Google to provide free digital skills training to 10 million Africans, we ensure a good representation of women. We also have some initiatives targeting women – such as “Women Will” and “I am Remarkable” – which help women develop more confidence and deeper appreciation of themselves. We have female developer groups and run annual events called “Women Techmakers” encouraging current and aspiring women in technology.
On a personal note, I run an initiative called Beyond limits aimed at capacity building particularly in the areas of leadership and personal effectiveness. The initiative is for both men and women and through it I run masterclass and coaching sessions. There have been a good representation of women including an all-female boot camp I ran a few years ago. We’ve just concluded the Beyond Limits Transformational Series, a 6-weeks online program of instructional videos, exercises, and webinars. The program was designed to ignite the spark of effective self-leadership and personal effectiveness, helping participants to unlock potential, enhance performance, and grow their impact at work, the community and the nation at large. The feedback from participants has been very positive.
Now, we just announced the Beyond Limits Think Tank and a N1M Grant where participants of the series have the chance to apply for a group mentoring session with a group of experienced and highly accomplished CEOs and leaders.
In addition, 3 participants from the Think Tank mentorship sessions will win a total of 1 Million Naira in grants to support their businesses or projects.
Participants with innovative, impactful and scalable initiatives can apply for free at bit.ly/beyondthinktank
In the technology space, there is a lot of competition among the giants for market share, and Africa is the new frontier. Do you think more collaboration among you will benefit us as Africans? Especially in critical areas like access to the internet and other tech infrastructure?
Collaboration is common in the technology space. While it is true that some technology companies might have overlapping products and services, the reality is that the technology space is one that thrives on ecosystems that provide a platform for companies with different skills and resources to come together.
For instance, at Google, our focus is mostly on software products and services that help people to access information easily, connect people with opportunities and help organizations connect with their customers. In most markets, we rely on the infrastructure provided by other players in the ecosystem. Our android system powers many smartphone devices from other tech providers. In Nigeria, Google and another large global technology provider are invested in local players like Andela.
All the major players realize that a rising digital tide will lift all boats, and that there is a need for alignment in driving affordable access for all and skills development. There is collaboration in this regard with stakeholders in the private sector and government.
Are we seeing enough innovation in the ict/tech space in Nigeria? What challenges do you face under the current economic climate?
Yes, there have been some great innovations in the tech space particularly around tech entrepreneurship. I am impressed by the activity taking place in areas like Fintech, Agriculture, Education, and Healthcare.
Clearly more entrepreneurial activity and participation is needed. This is important because entrepreneurship is key to job creation and national development. However, there are two major challenges that have to be addressed. The first is developing the skills and competencies needed for entrepreneurs to be able to create viable products and successfully take them to market, and the second, is gaining access to capital.
At Google, we are helping to close these gaps through our launchpad accelerator Africa program which is a three-month program of mentoring and support for early stage tech entrepreneurs. To date, we have graduated 47 startups from the program who have created hundreds of jobs and raised over $19M in funding.
Nigerian youth are very talented and creative, and once they have the tools and opportunity, they do amazing things.
The capital problem is increasingly being resolved. Africa is seeing more tech investments. While FDI is falling in other areas, investments are increasing in the tech space. Right in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic in May 2020, a Nigerian startup Tomato Jos raised $4.2M in funding.
Talk to us more about impact. We’re living in a day when a global pandemic has essentially shut down the world economy, including the education system. How is google providing support in Nigeria?
At Google, we’ve adapted our initiatives and products to be helpful in this period. We’re pivoting our digital skills training to the Education sector given the need for e-learning and SMBs given the growth challenges a lot of them have experienced as a result of Covid.
During the lockdown we launched YouTube Stay Home with Me content as a call to action for people around the world to #StayHomeandSaveLives, by sharing playlists
and videos to stay informed, entertained, and connected.
Our Grow with Google website was also updated with information on how to work, teach, and learn remotely with training courses and certifications.
Globally we committed over $800 million towards covid-19 relief to support small businesses, crisis response, provision of grants to publishers to help fight coronavirus misinformation, and community mobility reports for governments to track the effectiveness of lockdown policies.
Many Nigerians, educational institutions, and corporate entities also started making more use of Google’s teleconference and webinar platforms like Google Meets and Google Classroom.
The pandemic has made digital access essential. In what way is this going to shape the future post covid-19?
Every challenge presents an opportunity to grow and evolve. COVID-19 has disrupted regular business operations in many industries from education to healthcare, hospitality, travel, and more; and lots of businesses are struggling to stay afloat and maintain some form of business continuity. Even in the midst of uncertainty, there are some winners. The organisations that have been more resilient and even thrived, are those that embraced digital transformation, or have been able to successfully pivot. Depending on your industry, some losses are inevitable, but you can find ways to minimize loss and target new opportunities.
The defining feature of the post covid-19 world will be the use of digital platforms to drive many aspects of business – such as customer engagement, work streams, business processes, supply chain management and human resources.
In each of these areas, leaders should assess – based on the current trends, what needs to change and how to leverage technology to create more robustness. Imagine there’s a lockdown for one year, what steps would you need to take to ensure your business runs successfully? The ideas you come up with, that’s what you must do in the medium and long term.
As a woman in tech, how has the pandemic affected your work/that of your organisation?
The beauty of being in the tech space and my org in particular is that we were already well set up to work remotely. As a global organisation, video conferencing with colleagues around the world, virtual collaboration tools, synchronised access to documents, are all part of our DNA. Our first priority in the pandemic was the health and safety of all employees and so we were among the first to mandate working from home globally. We also provided support to aid people in setting up their home working.
A lot of our work has been business as usual. I find myself incredibly busy most days, working full on to meet the demands of the workplace and the home. In addition to my core job, I have had to provide input to discussions about navigating the new normal, digital transformation, and business continuity; supporting organisations through the disruptions of this time.
What do you think is the best part of being a female leader in the tech industry and what advice would you give to women looking to break into the tech field?
The technology space is an ever evolving, impactful field, and it is a blessing to be involved in it, and to be able to participate in shaping its trajectory and growth in Nigeria and across Africa.
As a female tech leader, I am well aware that my role is one that makes many young women realize that they can have thriving careers in the technology field.
Women looking to break into the tech field should continue to work hard at their vision. Competency is important. They should work hard to upskill or re-skill, so they stay ahead of the game
How do you maintain work-life balance and what are your views on goals, timelines, and measuring success?
It is important to have a clear vision and goals because that sets your compass and helps you to allocate your time effectively. Self-evaluation is key on an ongoing basis to ensure that you are making intended progress. Success is a journey and as long as you’re moving forward, you’re making progress. When some people think about vision, they only think of the career aspect of their lives. Work is just one part of what we do and who we are. Life exists in multiple domains – work, family, health, physical fitness, relationships, social well-being, emotional well-being, and spiritual growth. Do we have goals and visions for these areas as well? To achieve work/life balance, it is important to be clear about what we want to achieve in each of those domains and be conscious about investing time to make them happen.
I do share these in detail in my upcoming beyond limits transformational series starting this month; so, I invite everyone to connect with me online @jehimuan to participate in the journey.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about working in the tech sector as a woman today?
These are old misconceptions but may still be the perception of some people.
a. That you need a computer science degree or a technical background to work in tech. You don’t. There are many fields in tech and also lots of specialised short courses and certifications you can take to get you started. The need for tech workers is not confined to a single city, country, or even industry.
b. That women in tech are masculine and geeky. There are many beautiful, smart, trendy, and sophisticated women in the industry.
c. You can’t rise to leadership as a woman in tech because it is a male dominated industry. There are an increasing number of great female leaders in tech in Africa and globally.
d. Many people associate technical jobs with not being creative. This is another misconception. In reality, tech is all about finding creative ways to solve problems and build things.
e. It’s primarily for millennials. Sure, there are people in their 20s who grew up with technology being the norm. But there are also those in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s that are making great contributions in tech.
Is there one piece of advice you wish somebody gave you at the beginning of your career?
Embrace uncertainty and enjoy every bit of the journey – the tasks, the people, the places.
Tell us something about Juliet that most people don’t know?
I am a great dancer. Yes, I say that confidently! I love music and I can’t stay still when there’s a great beat. I’m also a writer and enjoy writing poems.