Jessica Manhiça is a 25-year-old Mozambican who is passionate about disrupting systems. She has a background in Marketing and PR, professional skills development, business development, and job creation. She is currently the Managing Partner of a community-based social business accelerator, IDEÁRIO Hub, where she co-founded the first women-only tech marketplace, TEKLA, as a gender-inclusive employment tool. Throughout her career, she has trained and mentored over 500 young women in entry-level ICT and professional skills. She is motivated by the potential to create equal and inclusive employment opportunities. Jessica was also awarded as one of Africa’s brightest minds by the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Mandela Washington Fellowship 2019 – an initiative sponsored by the United States Department of State.
Why did you get into STEM?
Truth to be told, I was never a science person. Growing up, I always leaned more towards Public Relations. Anything that had human interaction involved was my thing!! The belief that STEM is a masculine area too complicated for girls also deterred me from going into STEM. Therefore, I was very surprised when I started interacting with technology for the first time. This happened at my very first job as customer service personnel at a well-known e-commerce platform, where I used excel spreadsheets and order tracking systems. This was definitely an opportunity for me to experience STEM.
However, I had to navigate that world alone. I was fearful that I couldn’t make mistakes or ask for help because it would all come down to statements such as, “because you are a woman” or “of course you don’t know this, you are a girl” – as if my gender was some sort of physical disability or stupidity certificate. That made me realize that I needed to work three times harder to earn the same paycheck and half of the respect of my workmates. That was when my story with STEM started. I said to myself, “Yes, I will become great at this”. But I wondered, “What about the next Jéssica? Who will prepare her for this gender imbalanced market?” That was when I met the 30 girls that changed my life. Through IDEÁRIO Hub, the plan was to equip them with simple ICT tools (MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint) that could help them navigate the workplace. To our surprise, these young women had never touched a computer before. Most of them were scared of it and we realised we had to change our methodology for helping girls overcome the fear of not only using a computer but the fear of being a woman in the tech space. We had to help them feel worthy of accessing all that knowledge.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
I could say that my greatest achievement was when I impacted 500 young women through my organization’s training program. It is my greatest achievement, but this is not just an achievement but also a motivation for me because they are the reason why I do what I do. I used to think that by training and mentoring them, I was breaking the barriers between them and the tech marketplace. I even started the women-only freelance tech marketplace — TEKLA — so they could depend on me and I could feel validated. But then I realized that if I insisted on that mindset I would just be replicating the patriarchal system, limiting them from making choices, and echoing that they are not capable without me. Another of my greatest achievements is becoming an enabler. I have done this by creating a safe space for young women to interact with tech, a safe space for trial and error, and most importantly a safe space for them to make their own career/life choices.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
In my perspective, being a woman is the biggest challenge you can face in STEM or in the marketplace in general. You get all types of stereotypes thrown at you, you get judged for liking “men activities”. If you are too good, people might say, “You are not woman enough, you are trying to be a man”. If you are not that good, people might say, “We knew it, you are a woman and that is not for you”. To answer this question, I would say that the two challenges that really helped me grow as a female in STEM were:
- Becoming Great: This is basically about dedicating a few extra hours in learning and research. There is a lot of content out there and you have to be okay with nobody helping you but not allowing that to frustrate you. STEM is very broad — position yourself strategically. In other words, find your niche in STEM. What can you do better than anybody else? In my case, it has been with helping women match soft & hard tech skills in order to be better qualified in the marketplace.
- Taking up Space: As I said in the beginning, being a woman in STEM is challenging. The stereotypes that you hear might deter you from pursuing a career. But that’s exactly when we need to make a stand. Do not be afraid to occupy spaces. Go to that conference, speak at that workshop, and facilitate that training. I am telling you: I heard the stereotypes, and later, people learned who I was because I was always there but most importantly I was always better prepared.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
Life is about trial and error. It shouldn’t be any different for women in STEM. We try, we fail, we learn and we do it again. No shame! We are on this journey together. That “other girl” is not a competition. She should be an inspiration. We might be in different STEM tracks. Some of us code, some are tech enthusiasts, some are engineers, some are math experts, some of us know how to combine all of it and create jobs, but that doesn’t make us better than one another. We should leverage our differences, connect to one another and disrupt the norms. So let’s step into that elevator, climb as high as possible and once we get there, we should send it back. That’s what empowerment is all about. Oh, and get yourself mental headphones. They basically translate any stereotype into an encouraging message. Wear them every time you have to take up space in a STEM scenario. They are known for boosting confidence so be prepared to hear things like, “She is so Bossy” whenever you wear them. You are not your traumas. You are not your past. You are who you decide to be today – a Powerful, Strong and Wise Woman. Make no apologies. OWN IT.