Kenya

The Hidden Value of Detours: How a serendipitous stumble into a cyber-cafe catalyzed Gladys Maina’s IT career

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina wasn’t always going to be an IT professional. A dutiful daughter, she initially obeyed her parents’ directions and pursued a medical laboratory certification, following in her medic father’s footsteps.

“Then during a long holiday, a friend introduced me to a cyber-cafe. These had just started coming up in Nairobi, Kenya in 2004. They said, ‘Here, you can pay a bit of money and then you can access the internet.’ I came from Nyahururu, a village, so I was very impressed. I remembered thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Gladys describes the halcyon days of the early internet with fondness, reminiscing on MSN and chatting with people around the world. The feelings of liberation and connectedness that the early days of the internet provided proved to be alluring distractions from the career opportunities that awaited her in the medical field. She got her opportunity to switch sectors when a friend recommended her for a sales position at a newly opened a cyber cafe. After working in that role for three months, she became a cyber cafe attendant.

“That meant internet was free. I could research as much as I wanted, and had a computer at my disposal.”

Later, she studied information of management systems at Kenya Methodist University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Now, she’s optimistic that young women from similar backgrounds as her, who haven’t grown up in Kenya’s biggest cities, will have a more direct path to tech access. She points to innovations like the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) communications protocol, which enables information and money transfer over basic phones.

“For instance, you can use a standard phone to enroll in M-Shule [mobile learning management platform delivering educational content via SMS]. You don’t really need to have a smartphone for you to access technology. The government of Kenya is trying to digitize a lot of schools and services, from issuing tablets to students to establishing walk-in centers such as Huduma where you can access internet and get government services.”

Access isn’t everything, though; it’s always helpful to have somebody model what success looks like and encourage you throughout your journey. That’s why Gladys is active in mentoring young women pursuing STEM paths, working closely with African Women in Technology since 2016, and mentoring girls through the Ghana-based Nsesa Foundation. The experience of working with young women has left her with strong beliefs about the importance of lifelong learning and letting youth choose their own paths.

“Mentorship is a symbiotic journey where you are both learning. I believe you are never too old to be taught and never too young to learn. I would tell [parents and educators] to let their young ones pursue their dreams.”

She alludes to her own decision to switch fields as one of the reasons she feels strongly about giving young people the freedom to decide their vocations, and says that choices about work can cause friction in relationships between parents and children. In such situations, all is not lost.

“You can finish the degree that your parents are paying for, get a job, and then work toward what you want to do. That’s what I did. My parents finished paying for the medical laboratory school, but for my diploma, bachelors and masters, I paid using my own money.”

Her story is a testament to the value of flexibility and risk-taking, starting small and working your way up. Today, technology has advanced from the days when Gladys worked as an attendant in a cyber-cafe and chatted on MSN. So too have public perceptions of women in tech.

“Now people can celebrate women like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. Here in Kenya I look up to Dr. Chao Mbogho, who has been changing the narrative and showing that women can make it. We aren’t born with a male brain or a female brain. You can achieve what you want, you just have to put in the hours, then keep on going. Sometimes it will get tough, but you have to keep going, keep learning, and keep developing yourself.”