Freda Yawson’s Bio
Freda is a development professional who is passionate about economic transformation in Africa. She received her Master in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University; and her B.Sc.E in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan where she focused on product and automotive design working with General Motors and Toyota. Her passion lies in the application of engineering and technology to drive innovation and solve nagging development problems in Africa. She has worked towards this through policy and in practice from a few different angles. From a policy perspective, as the Senior Programs Manager at Accra-based think tank, The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), she has worked with government, development partners and other stakeholders to address key challenges in skills and manufacturing. Her international development experience has also given her the opportunity to work in a number of African countries including Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. In practice, she has worked in the automotive industry (with two US OEMS), Columbia University Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project, Engineers Without Borders, and Blue-Lab Michigan focusing on water purification in the Dominican Republic, Ghana and Honduras. In 2013, realizing the needed to develop skills in engineering in Ghana, she started the Innovate Ghana Workshop and Design Competition to encourage Ghanaian students to apply practical engineering knowledge to national development issues. Under GREMKAY International, a company started by her father, this program focuses on concepts of Design for Development, Engineering and Entrepreneurship to empower the youth to create solutions to the needs of today. To date the program has exposed over 200 high school and tertiary students to practical problem solving and innovation. Ms. Yawson believes that through training, critical thinking, and practical Application, we as Africans, can transform our economies through innovation in our own backyard. She is grateful for God’s grace and the support received from many partners (GREMKAY, SIA, Levers In Heels, Takoradi Polytechnic, University of Ghana and others) along the way.
Why did you get into STEM?
I was fortunate to have parents who were both scientists, so I grew up with a love and curiosity for science as well as the arts. While I explored both, I found that I enjoyed the challenge of problem solving, and math and science came easy to me. I was also encouraged by the role models I learned about and the exposure I received in extracurricular programs I was enrolled in. By the age of 9, I had already decided that I wanted to become an astronaut, an engineer and a doctor like Mae Jemison (the first black female astronaut). I also got involved in the Young Astronauts club at my school, pre-college engineering programs at local universities and applied for high school internships also exposed me to engineering in the real world. All these experiences exposed me to the practical applications of engineering, its impact to society, and I found that I really enjoyed it.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
First of all getting through engineering school… but after that, starting the Innovate Ghana Competition. One of my biggest burdens has been to share the knowledge I had received and empower the next generation with the tools to make a meaningful impact to Ghana and Africa with STEM as a tool. I’m grateful to God for the opportunity to have started that in 2013 and to see it blossom over the years.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Thankfully, I was blessed to have grown up and studied in an environment where I had the support of my parents, women role models who urged me on, and the opportunity to explore the field through internships in the real world. With all the moral support I needed behind me, my next challenge was the difficulty of the field of Mechanical Engineering itself. As an undergraduate studying at the University of Michigan, I was one of 3 black girls in a class which had less than 30% women overall. Even though I was a minority, it felt great to be able to know that I could do engineering just like any of the guys as long as I applied myself to it. The fact that I was one of few women made it even more special. Mechanical engineering at the nation’s #4 ranked school was in itself a feat, and for the first time I was not at the top of my class. It required a re-set in my mentality, I realized that it wasn’t about being smart, because all of us there were smart. It was about how hard you worked. Whether or not I felt like studying I learned that in order to succeed, I would need discipline to accomplish my goal. This lesson was one of the most important lessons I learned and has helped me throughout my career even into the international development field.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
Don’t be afraid of math and science. The world needs problem solvers and STEM gives you the tools, mindset and approach to tackling them. Africa especially needs people who are curious and interested in applying these skills to our infrastructure needs. If you see something that needs to be fixed, figure out how, don’t wait for someone to do it for you. It’s not about what men can study and what women can’t, it’s about all of us together working to solve our own problems. If you are curious about engineering or any other STEM field, find someone who works in that position, ask questions, go and see what they do, and find out how they got there. You can achieve whatever you put your mind to. The sky is no longer the limit, the universe is, so what are you waiting for? Go for it!
Innovate Ghana website: innovategh.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/innovategh/ Twitter: @innovateghana