Entrepreneurship requires bold action especially making a difference for girls and women involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
Ladies in Helmets is an organisation that seeks to mentor young Kenyan women in STEM by mentoring them to take up their space in the male dominated field.
Sue Wairimu, the founder and a graduate civil engineer from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), is making it her mission to promote STEM education and ‘encourage, empower and mentor more women to enter into the construction industry.’
Then, serving as the Society of Engineering Students Chair in JKUAT, she experienced first-hand the struggles of being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated field. It was a challenge getting students in civil and technical courses to join the club.
“We always had electrical, telecommunications, and mechanical students around and so all the activities were based on their interests and so I felt left out,” says Sue and now she has made it her mission to continue driving forward gender equity.
We caught up with Sue to share more about Ladies in Helmet and how it is making a difference.
Ladies in Helmets is quite a catchy phrase, how did you come up with it? And why not ladies in pants or ladies in reflectors?
End of the year 2015, I attended the first International Construction Research Conference and Exhibition (ICORCE). Part of the conference was a scheduled site visit at Upper Hill Towers which was still under construction. Out of 30 people, we were only 5 ladies. This inspired me, but I didn’t know what exactly.
The following day we went to the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) site and we were given helmets. I was excited to own my own helmet that I ended up hanging it in the house. That is how Ladies in Helmets was born. The Helmet part is a representation of the technical fields.
There are already women in STEM, and there are bodies for women in STEM, what motivated you to start and what gap does Ladies in Helmets fill?
When you look around, so many organisations or agencies are focused on empowering women in STEM, but the focus is mostly in IT, programmers, data analysts and the ‘soft’ part of STEM as I call it. I’ve attended numerous conferences and every time I would want to meet a mentor who was in the fields of construction, I never found one.
So when the idea came to me, I knew this is it!
To create a community of women in these professions where we often find ourselves being the only lady in huge construction site, where you are the one running the excavator, or the one making the decisions on why that machine should perform in a particular way.
There are many challenges we face and the achievements we have made. Our goal is to be the ultimate organisation for such women where they come to share their challenges and learn how to better themselves professionally and grow, both in number and positively impact their businesses.
How do you push the agenda of getting more women actively involved in stem? Are there trainings, workshops, accredited EBK training courses?
There are some misconceptions of women being actively involved in the field. Some of these are: it is difficult to have a balanced life. For us, we drive this agenda by raising the visibility of women in these fields.
We are currently documenting stories where we are targeting 100 women in male-dominated fields to tell their story in the hope that someone will be inspired by them and pursue their career in STEM. We are calling it #LIHers #LIHfeaturestories.
We drive this agenda through training in the technical fields and doing site visits. The training we have are tailor-made especially for the professionals to improve their skills to make them competent and the students to prepare for the job market.
The site visits create awareness of the technologies being implemented in the field and improve their experience in handling projects.
Our dream is to have EBK and other internationally recognized courses being implemented through LIH.
How do you build your contacts and networks?
Build relationships! That’s the secret. I always try and see how we can collaborate with everyone I meet. There is an impact when you propose a project, idea or just an article someone would be interested in.
How do you know they’d be interested in it in the first place?
Listen to them and be keen to observe what they like. Building relationships is thinking less about yourself and more about the other person and seeing how you can propose something of value. By doing this, that person is likely to reciprocate by being resourceful.
Maintaining relationships can also range from making that call to inviting the person for coffee or a workout or dinner together.
Something that is also useful is doing a post-event reaching out to those who took their time to attend and get feedback. This I’ve found to be an effective way of appreciating and maintaining that relationship.
What are the challenges you encounter running the organization and how you solve them?
Most times, I wish my day had 48 hours! There is just so much to do and so little time.
First, I prioritise important tasks. I am the kind of person who likes doing everything I put my mind to, all the ideas I have, (Trust me, they are plenty) I want to implement them fast. What I have learned is to write a to-do list every day, a maximum of 5 things is ideal for me. This has helped.
Second is managing and maintaining a team. Most of my team members are either in school or working so they have less time to commit themselves. This leads to a backlog of activities. I am yet to get a tangible solution, but I am open for advice from experienced managers out there.
What are the highs of Ladies in Helmets so far that you are proud of as an initiator since the beginning?
It’s been quite a journey running LIH. When I began it, my vision was to do professional trainings in the technical fields. This became a reality in November 2018 where we partnered with Water CAP and KCIC to offer a 3-day training course in water resources, enterprises, and innovations. This has been the greatest achievement so far.
Our joint partnership with the National Construction Authority (NCA), saw us visit 4 projects: SGR at section 8, Northern Collector Water Tunnel in Murang’a, Britam Towers, Koto Housing and KeTRACO at Konza. This was a major milestone for us.
The most recent was the unveiling of our new logo, it’s inspiring and represents what we do.
How has the reception been to the community? Have there been people who are curious to know what you do? How do you let prospective members know you exist?
Many women and men equally have shown interest in what we do and are looking to join us. The events we have done have equally attracted the males which we definitely encourage as much as the name states otherwise.
We believe in the empowerment of women, but also encouraging and involving the men in it. This is the only way to drive the agenda of bridging the gender disparity in these fields.
We are interactive with our members through our social media channels. In addition, we do events and invite people to join in and interact with the rest of us. We are also involved with outreach activities where we do mentorship talks to high school students. The last we did was with KCIC where we had about 550 students from different schools joining us.
For now, we are working on creating a sustainable way for our members to join and be part of the organization. But we consider all those who follow us and interact with us in any way our members.
LIH is for the 20-30 and 40-year-olds who are trying to balance their life in construction and technical fields with the pressures of being a lady in the modern world.
LIHs main focus is to help you elevate to a higher level professionally, we link you up with the best in the field as well as give you the tools you need to stay at the top of your game.
Our vision is to be the biggest organization in Africa, to reach out to the women in marginalized societies and empower them to join the industry and improve their economic situations.
We hope to achieve this dream of reaching out to the women in these areas.
To get in touch with the team: Phone: +254710544915 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org