Kumba Musa: Leading STEM movement to Her Majesty

Liliana Musa with Queen 2Kumba Musa has come a long way — from an insecure graduate who knew little about the practical aspects of her 4 years engineering degree, to the woman leading a STEM movement in her country Sierra Leone. Last month, she stood confidently in the presence of the Queen of England, and with a broad smile she received Her Majesty the Queen’s Young Leaders Award for 2017. She was one of 59 recipients from 35 Commonwealth countries, including five from Africa, recognised for their leadership role in their country.

This week, she contacted us, writing: “SHE Leads Africa changes the narrative of how African women are regarded and celebrates the ground-breaking work women are doing. Given that my work involves improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and getting more women to participate in STEM fields, your platform is the most suitable for sharing my experience. Hopefully it will be able to inspire other women or girls who shy away from STEM careers.”

She has chronicled her journey during the 9 days residential programme in United Kingdom (UK) — from 20th – 30th of June — leading up to the awards night. We share her story under our i-Lead-Africa@ campaign, which encourages women leaders to tell their own story. Read on:

My Journey to Her Majesty the Queen of England

By Kumba Liliana Musa

Picture this: You are a 23-year-old female and a fresh graduate from university with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Electrical and Electronics. You just landed your first job as the Base Station Sub-system Engineer in your country’s national security telecommunication agency. You start work and realize you are the youngest staff and the only female engineer. On your first assignment to investigate a fault in the field you are standing in front of the equipment clueless — under the heavy gaze of the male technicians you are supposed to be instructing. “

At that precise moment, I longed for a comforting hand squeeze from another female engineer, to assure me that she knew exactly what I was going through and that I would figure it out eventually.”  

As I stood there mentally flipping through my university notes, I realised that my 4 years at university did not prepare me for a practical career in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. At that precise moment, I longed for a comforting hand squeeze from another female engineer, to assure me that she knew exactly what I was going through and that I would figure it out eventually. This is how my journey to Her Majesty the Queen of England began.

I started an organisation to lend a hand to young women interested in STEM and to attract more women into the field.

Fast forward to five years later and I am standing in front of Her Majesty the Queen of England receiving an award for my work in improving STEM education and inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers.

I have transitioned from the fresh insecure graduate lost in front of that equipment to the confident woman leading a STEM movement in my country.

In this piece, however, I do not want to talk about the transition, but rather about my 9-day experience at a residential programme in the United Kingdom, which was crowned with an award ceremLiliana At Buckingham Palace 1ony, during which I received Her Majesty the Queen’s Young Leaders Award.

An exciting learning trip
The first four days were spent at the University of Cambridge. For the remaining days we were hosted at Goodenough College in London. We had collaborative sessions everyday where award recipients who expressed interest in the same topics were grouped and encouraged to hold discussions around the topics to device best practices.

Oli Barrett, a Social Entrepreneur, spoke to us about the benefits of maintaining a network and being brave enough to ask for help

In addition to that, we had guest speakers who gave us leadership lectures on diverse areas. Among all the informative lectures, there were three that I found particularly educative: Oli Barrett, a Social Entrepreneur, spoke to us about the benefits of maintaining a network and being brave enough to ask for help; Dr. Karen Salt, Co-director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights (C3R) at the University of Nottingham, challenged us to address issues that society shies away from and Fredrik Härén, author and speaker on business creativity, inspired us to intelligently combine existing creations to produce something more creative.

Barrett said we are surrounded by problems worth solving and the people who will solve these problems are people with energy, determination, and passion. We as Queen’s Young Leaders were encouraged to not be afraid to step outside our comfort zones and areas of specialisation to join forces with people from different backgrounds who want to make a difference. He urged us to be prepared to put in a call or an email to someone who might say no and might ignore us.

A personal relationship is not required with everyone in our network, Barrett advised. However, he explained that effort should be made to communicate periodically as a contact who could not help today, might be in a position to help one day.

On her part, Salt challenged us to think about how and why change happens within particular communities; whether or not it is something like emancipation from slavery or independence in a particular location, or other sorts of collaborative or shared governance.

My take away from her presentation is that changes are not just mysteries, and they don’t just appear without any kind of influence and efforts within the process. Consideration needs to be given to the interplay between the past and the present; the conversations that emerge between who has and who does not have; and whose voice can be included in those moments of interaction or policy making or negotiation around different events.

We soon learnt the difference between leadership and creativity and how creativity really means turning new and imaginative ideas into reality.  

Because we all undertake leadership roles in our different projects, we were quick to raise our hands when Härén asked for those who thought they are creative. We soon learnt the difference between leadership and creativity and how creativity really means turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. We were reminded that all of our projects are inspirational but not all of them are creative and that was a very humbling and motivational lesson.

Visits to leading UK organisations

We had the opportunity to visit some of UK’s leading institutions and businesses including 10 Downing Street, BBC, Google Deepmind, Standard Charted Bank, Facebook and UpRising. If you think that all we did at these locations was to take an extensive tour of the premises and listen to them give us an overview of the objectives and activities of the organisation, you are farther from the truth.

At each of these organisations, we had group sessions during which we were coached on different leadership skills including the use of social media as a tool to promote our projects, effective elevator pitch, one-on-one mentoring, sketching a business plan with the use of a lean canvas, among others.

I must single out the address we received from the Secretary General of the Commonwealth,

Kumba with Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland

Kumba with Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland

Patricia Scotland, at 10 Downing Street. Given that all the award recipients came from Commonwealth countries and have experienced its benefits and shortcomings, she asked us all to make suggestions on how the youth could improve the values held by the Commonwealth Charter. There were very interesting suggestions and she patiently responded to each one and took note of all of them. I’ll be paying close attention to the activities of the Commonwealth to see if any of our brilliant suggestions will be implemented.

We finally get to meet the Queen

After all the numerous sessions, mentoring and visits, Thursday 29th June finally arrived and none of us could contain our excitement: we finally got to meet the Queen.

At the start of the day we were told that whatever embarrassing reaction we display in Her Majesty’s presence, she has seen much worse. That was very comforting considering that we were all freaking out.

Dinner hosted by Former Prime Minister Sir John MajorThe ceremony started at 18:00 and all the award recipients gracefully filed into the hall where the guests were already seated. As we entered the hall, all the guests immediately responded with thunderous applause. I do not have the words to describe how that spontaneous congratulatory reaction felt. I cat-walked to my chair with my head held high and a smile stretched from ear to ear. Simply put, I was proud of myself.

At that moment my thoughts went back to that 23 years old woman who was frustrated by her lack of practical knowledge after spending years at university studying theoretical engineering. I was happy that I did not cower under my fear, instead decided to play my part in ensuring that STEM graduates in Sierra Leone are more qualified for the workforce and also to increase the female participation in STEM careers.

After the addresses from the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, and His Royal Highness Prince Harry, we were called to receive our award from Her Majesty. As expected, some of us were really nervous and exhibited unexpected reactions when we met Her Majesty. One awardee forgot to shake Her Majesty’s hand, others forgot when and how to show courtesy and others left her presence in tears — yes, we were that overwhelmed. Pictures and interviews came after that and everyone was very excited to share their stories about the amazing journey we have had.

“They taught me that it is okay to be afraid, frustrated, angry and even lonely when we take up these big challenges in our communities.”     

Lessons learnt

With the Former Prime Minister on the British prime time show The One Show 2I learnt a lot from all the sessions and guest speakers during the 8 days leading to the Big Day but the lesson that will always stay with me came from my fellow Queen’s Young Leaders. They taught me that it is okay to be afraid, frustrated, angry and even lonely when we take up these big challenges in our communities. They were too. What is not okay is to let those emotions cloud the purpose for which we are working. The work we do improve lives and there is no greater accomplishment.

“Most importantly, they taught me that we cannot do it alone.”  

I also learnt that it is very important to rest. When we start our projects, all we want to do is work and expand but it is very important to take some time out, unwind and re strategise. During those moments we might find a better way to make our projects more impactful.

Most importantly, they taught me that we cannot do it alone. We need teams that we could rely on, people who share our vision and we must respect their contribution. Effective teamwork is key to a successful project as it fosters creativity and learning, blends complementary strengths, builds trust, encourages healthy risk-taking and provides a support network. – Credit: SLAFRICA

Kumba Liliana Musa 
is Founder & Executive Director of STEM Women SL, an organisation that is improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in Sierra Leone and inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers.

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