Mutesi Rose is the Founder and Chair of the Young Women Mentors Network (YWMNet) in Rwanda, an organization that promotes the empowerment and leadership of young women. Rose coaches and mentors a variety of young women including those in higher learning institutions, vendors and women in co-operatives. She has mentored Kenyan youth with physical disabilities and facilitated behaviour change interventions as well as peace building efforts with survivors and perpetrators of the genocide.
The Young Women Mentoring Network (YWMNet) is about Women’s empowerment. How do you define empowerment in your context?
I define empowerment as a state where all citizens are economically independent, innovative, feel included and able to participate in decision making within society. In the YWMNet, we promote this through career guidance, mentorship and role modeling, business skills training etc.
In many cases women who found networks such as yours don’t stay on to lead it as their day job, but you lead the YWMNet full time. Who drove that decision?
I was interested in seeing the evolution of my initiative. I had learnt from the experience of others who started initiatives and when they left to go and do other things saw their organisations collapse. I wanted to establish the vision properly rather than leave it with other people who might not take it in the right direction. I wanted to structure all levels of the network properly so that it would operate on a good footing and get the attention it needs.
Your country, Rwanda is known for advancing women’s leadership and participation in public life. What are some of the specific things in your view Rwanda has done to attract this accolade?
Rwanda has taken the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment seriously especially the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Rwanda has worked closely with its development partners to define national priorities focusing on several critical areas including fighting poverty, improving women’s access to social services such as education and health and protecting the development of the girl child. We have also focussed on education and training for women and gender budgeting which has ensured that resources are made available to support activities promoting women.
Generally, the push for more women into leadership has been somewhat slow. Why do you think that’s the case?
I agree that the process of more women getting into leadership has been somewhat slow and in my view this has been because there hasn’t been adequate support. Other reasons are that some women lack self confidence because of the African culture where women are not used to talking in public. Many women also struggle to balance home and workplace responsibilities and end up prioritizing the home. This can result in many women not becoming economically stable because most of their time is spent in activities that are not income generating. There are also few role-models at leadership levels for women which can also be an obstacle as it can discourage women.
Everyone has fears and I am sure you have battled a few on your way to where you are now. How have you handled any fears, challenges you’ve faced?
As a person, I do not put things off or procrastinate no matter what. I don’t leave tasks hanging- I always forge ahead. I avoid bad friends who could discourage me. Instead, I have professional friends and role-models that encourage me in my day to day activities helping me to implement the vision and mission of YWMNet. I also read a lot of books by good leaders and women achievers. Finally I have always used “positive self talk” to keep myself focused on the right things. Using the right language is powerful and I don’t underestimate the effect of such positive talk.
How would you describe yourself as a leader and what would you say are the keys/ingredients that make and keep you effective?
I would define myself as a participatory leader, participating in activities of the organization, providing guidance to colleagues and motivating them to do their work. What makes me and keeps me effective includes understanding the personalities of those I work with, being transparent with people I engage with and being a team player. I also like to learn from my mistakes through self evaluation.
If you could ask one question to a woman leader you really admire, what would that be and why would that question be important?
I would ask what measures she has taken to achieve her dream and what obstacles to her leadership she’s faced and how she’s handled them. This would help me learn from her experience.
What advice would you give to your older self say 10 years from now and what lessons are you learning now that you believe will serve you well then?
My advice would be ‘Exploit your potential to the maximum, focus on building good leadership skills, have the right professional friends and role models, seek advice from people in leadership and even people from other walks of life”. In addition my advice would be to read a lot to obtain knowledge from the books of good leaders who brought positive change to their communities. In terms of what I am learning, it’s the importance of knowing how to tackle challenges and setbacks in leadership and to take good decisions in life.
What is the most important lesson or event you would say has influenced the course of your career and what made it so poignant?
When I was young and in school I could see my fellow girls dropping out of school and others would not even go to school for reasons like poverty, culture, peer pressure, pregnancy, etc. This is when I started thinking of what I could do when I completed my studies to help those victims and starting pursuing plans towards this goal. I am starting to see the positive impact of activities in this regard, where many university women and girls I mentored are now leaders at their universities. Others are leaders in their social settings and work places.
What would you say is your favourite quote and why?
My favourite quote is from H.E Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda which is “Women and girls are a key pillar in the national social-economic transformation. Fighting poverty should begin with empowering women, since a poor woman can always have a negative impact not only on her family but on the country at large”. Another quote is from USA Anthropologist, Margaret mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizen can change the world”.
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