Unoma Okorafor

Unoma Okorafor

Founder and Chief Executive of WAAW Foundation

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During the week of August 6, Unoma Okorafor will be sharing her experience working to advance African Women and promoting STEM education. Join the conversation!

Dr. Unoma Okorafor is the founder and Chief Executive of WAAW Foundation. Born in Nigeria, she received her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Lagos. She obtained the M.Sc. degree from Rice University, Houston, TX, and her Ph.D. at Texas A & M University, College Station, TX both in Electrical and Computer Engineering. She is a graduate of INSEAD’s Social Entrepreneurship program and Stanford University Business School’s Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship.

Her industry experience includes software developer and team lead at the Education Technology Division at Texas Instruments, Dallas Texas. She has worked at Intel, HP and IBM research lab. Dr. Okorafor is a member of IEEE, ACM, SWE, NSBE and SPIE and has been the recipient of the Sloan Foundation Fellowship, the AAUW Engineering Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship for promoting STEM education. She is an entrepreneur and founding partner at Herbal Papaya, and acts as a visiting professor at the African University of Science and Technology (AUST), Abuja Nigeria where she teaches courses at the Computer Science department.

  1. 742 days ago

    Marzena Zukowska

    That is a striking statistic: “80% of new jobs will require skills related to STEM education.” Keeping in mind that female education has been so undervalued not only in Africa but also all over the world, what are some of the greatest barriers you have encountered in trying to pursue the vision of the WAAW Foundation? Are any of these challenges universal?

    Thank you for the insights!



    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      One of the major challenge we have faced at WAAW is due to the fact that many Technology companies do not do business in Africa and therefore do not have compelling reasons to support our mission. In addition to that fact that this limits corporate sponsorships we can access, we also have to deal with brain drain. Many of the bright minds end up in Western countries in order to pursue exposure to the latest and greatest technology and education. Once well trained, returning to Africa becomes a problem as there are hardly any companies to absorb their talent. Once of our goals at WAAW is the reverse this trend by emphasizing innovation for Africa and entrepreneurship. Finding ways to do this has proved challenging and I would think that this may also be applicable in many of the world’s emerging economies where the penetration of technology is low. On the other hand, this may also prove an advantage as we are finding ways to leapfrog into emerging trends. We have especially seen the impact that the advent of smart phones is having on education and technology innovation. As one of our scholars told me recently, the cyber cafes have become their modern day libraries where almost all their school research work is now done over the internet or on their phones. In many emerging economies, we are seeing huge innovations in mobile technology because of this trend. This is at the core of what we do at WAAW foundation and that is exciting to see.

      739 days ago


  2. 742 days ago

    Dani Matielo

    Dear Unoma, thank you so much for sharing your insights. Like Marzena, I would love to know more about WAAW and the work that it is doing – what is vision that you have to enrich the lives of girls and women in Africa and what is the role of technology in this process. Thank you!



    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      Hello Dani and thank you for your question. WAAW Foundation is a social enterprise that works to empower African girls by promoting education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Fields.

      742 days ago


    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      It is well known that Female Education and Science and Technology Innovation are two of the crucial components for poverty alleviation and rapid development in emerging economies. Research and experience shows that female education yields the best return on investment in developing nations. It has a multiplier effect because a woman is the pivot of the family and the family is the pivot of the community. Educated women are healthier, have fewer, more educated children, can resist physical abuse, have a greater choice in whom/when they marry, and engage in community leadership and service.

      742 days ago


    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      Our Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) focus is driven by the fact that Technology creates innovation which accelerates economic growth. Over the next decade, 80% of new jobs will require skills related to STEM. In Africa, female education and Technology innovation are two area that are significantly lagging behind. Two out of three African girls who should be in school are not. Part of the problem is economic but much of the reason is rooted in societies that undervalue female education; this is even more so in male dominated STEM related fields. With few role models, many African girls are discouraged even before they start! WAAW Foundation’s mission is to build a pipe line of highly qualified African female Scientists, providing support which starts at the secondary school level all the way through professional career. With our STEM camps, we provide encouragement for these 12 – 15 year old girls by exposing them to role models they can emulate, expanded and integrated curricula that will promote inquiry based learning and peer networks. At the college level, we provide financial support as well as mentoring and peer network. For professional women, we are working to launch the African Women in Technology conferences to bring together women to share industry best practices and facilitate networking. WAAW is run by female Africans now excelling in careers in Technology or Education. Each executive grew up in Africa, is passionate about the potential of our continent, and understand through personal experience, the challenges that African girls face. Read more about WAAW at http://www.waawfoundation.org

      742 days ago


  3. 742 days ago

    ThienVinh Nguyen

    Hello Unoma! Thank you for being available for this discussion. I’d also love to hear your story about how you got involved in technology and the sciences. My question is what do you think needs to happen in order for girls and women to be more involved in STEM-related fields?



    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      Hello ThienVinh,

      742 days ago


    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      Thank you for your question. I have talked about my story and how I got involved in Science and TEchnology in response to Marzena’s question. In terms of what needs to happen for girls and women to become more involved in STEM I believe there are 2 crucial catalysts: 1. Exposure to role models and formation of peer networks. This is because of two reasons. First the best inspiration is a role model. It is easy to see ourselves and the possibilities in others and to emulated women who has gone ahead and become successful in their careers in technology. Secondly, women in general are more communual, people oriented and nurturing. We thrive in environments where we can related to other people and form relationships. Currently, male dominated Technical careers tend to be isolating for women and finally often drive girls to quit. Peer networks will help girls in technology grow together and provide this community. The second thing I believe will help girls become more involved in STEM fields is hands on teaching that is applicable to their everyday lives. If we incorporate issues that girls are dealing with in classroom learning as well as local content, girls can make connections more easily. For example, in Africa we should not teach math by using apples as an analogy, because many have not seen an apple which often does not grow apples in Africa. Similarly if we discuss technology in terms that girls care about such as”family relationships” or “the length of hair” I believe that we will send a strong sub conscious message to girls that they are involved.

      742 days ago


  4. 743 days ago

    Marzena Zukowska

    Dr. Okorafor, thank you so much for not only sharing your insights in this important discussion, but also for inspiring girls and women hoping to pursue STEM education. Being a former physics major, I understand that the road you have pursued has not been easy! Could you tell us a little bit about what drove you to study Engineering? And even more importantly, what was it that pushed you start the WAAW Foundation, and what challenges have you encountered along the way?



    • Unoma Ndili Okorafor

      I grew up in a small University town called Nsukka in Nigeria. My father was a professor in Nuclear Physics and my mother was the principal of a high school. My mother, the first of four children was the first college educated woman in her entire village. Her father who worked as a chef for Missionaries, was hugely criticized for wasting resources to send my mother to college. Many warned that it would be detrimental because she would become “open-eyed” and too enlightened to marry. With all the resistance from his community, my grandfather insisted and stood behind her education even though when it came time to go to college, he could not afford the school fees. However, my mother had tasted the excitement of learning and the empowerment that education gives to a woman. She worked hard and obtained scholarships to finish her education and contribute immensely to her community. My parents’ commitment to providing us with a good education in whichever career we wanted to pursue, in addition to the role model I was exposed to from my brother who was a Mechanical Engineer ignited my excitement for a career in Engineering. After my undergraduate degree in Electrical/Electronics Engineering at the University of Lagos, I arrived at Rice University in Houston for my Masters. It became immediately obvious to me that my Engineering degree, as with many Technology focused degrees from Africa was hugely inadequate. In college we were taught to pass exams and not think critically. For an industry which is moving so fast, our 1960′s text books were obsolete, our computer labs were non-existent or empty at best. There was little breadth, innovation, research or application of knowledge gained. I heard this story again and again from friends and colleagues coming out of African colleges. Being female was even worse. My first year in college, a male friend warned me of being too vocal because it a girl’s place to be seen and not heard. A female student who seemed too smart was annoying to the guys! My culture taught me not to ask questions or talk in class! Coming from this background, to compete in a global economy was almost impossible. Many of us quit! As I advanced to my Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, the ratio of women in general and African women in particular dwindled even further. The challenges I face as an African woman include dealing with the loneliness of often being the only one in a male dominated field, traditional Stereotypes about a strong African woman pursuing a technical career (you hear statements like “if you get a Ph.D. in Engineering you will be over qualified for marriage”) to balancing family life with a demanding career in a culture where men are perceived as weak when then help with domestic chores. The most important lesson that helped me immensely in my journey was when I become comfortable, and even celebrated my different background and perspective.Having experienced firsthand how difficult it may be to push ahead as an African woman studying STEM in Africa, I was moved to found WAAW foundation while I was a Ph.D. Student. I firmly believe that putting globally relevant Science and Technology education into the hands of African girls will foster innovation on the continent and serve to eradicate poverty. I have been helped along this journey by so many teachers and have benefitted from financial support, without which I would not be where I am today. I am very grateful for the opportunities I have received in life, and extremely passionate about helping other African girls achieve their dreams. At WAAW foundation we say that if we could help just one girl achieve her dream, it would have all be worth it!

      742 days ago


    • Marzena Zukowska

      That is one of the most inspiring stories I have ever read, Unoma. Thank you for sharing with us in this space. The points you make about loneliness and balancing family life while trying to pursue this type of a career are so important, but often understated. It seems that sometimes here in the United States, we take for granted the privileges we have in being able to choose our educational path, having ourselves as the only obstacle. Thank you for remembering about that one girl — about the power of a single changemaker. Your work is truly extraordinary.

      741 days ago