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Change: On Resigning from the University of San Francisco

July 30, 2015
As part of my transitions in 2014 I also resigned from my tenure-track faculty position at the University of San Francisco.  This was a heart-rending decision made even harder by the fact that the University had bent over backwards to support my passion for growing Akili Dada first with a sabbatical then by extending my employment with two years unpaid leave.  I really struggled with the decision to leave a well paying job with fantastic colleagues, great benefits, in a city that I love.
The resignation letter I wrote to my then Dean from Kenya came from the heart:

Its with a very heavy heart that I share with you my intention to resign from my tenure-track faculty position at USF.

After months of agonising I have come to the conclusion that I’m no longer going to be able to remain on a tenure track at USF while pursuing what I feel is my life’s calling to return to the African continent and be a part of the ongoing social transformation here.

As you know, for the last 10 years I have been at the helm of Akili Dada.  You have supported me in this work and because of your encouragement Akili Dada has grown to reach over 20,000 people in communities across Kenya by investing in young women social changemakers like 13 year old Elyne and Akili Dada fellow Caroline.

You had generously allowed me a leave of absence so that I could come to Kenya and devote my efforts to getting Akili Dada ready to outgrow me, its founder.

After 2 years of hard work I’m proud to say that this week was my last week of actively heading Akili Dada.

We have a strong Board of Directors and a dedicated staff team who are passionate about Akili Dada’s mission. After a rigorous interview process the Board of Directors has appointed our own Purity Kagwiria to be the next Executive Director and to ensure that Akili Dada’s work will continue and outgrow its founding vision.  I am excited, and I consider myself lucky that this work chose me. I have given my all and I’m ready to move on.

So, if not Akili Dada then why not return to USF?

The process of deciding to move on from Akili Dada has had me thinking deeply about my life’s calling.  I live an incredibly fortunate life and have had access to privileges and opportunities that so many of my fellow Africans, and especially African women, never get to access.  I started Akili Dada to create opportunities African women whose class backgrounds and life herstories reminded me of my own.  That work is not yet complete.

My years in the U.S., first at Overland High School,  Whitman College, then in grad school at the University of Minnesota, at USF and with Akili Dada have helped me earn skills that are much needed here on the continent.

I love USF, I have grown tremendously at USF. I am deeply drawn to the USF mission and the ways that rigorous academic analysis is rooted in a commitment to create a more just world all while having fun.  These are the things that brought me to San Francisco and they are the things I will miss the most.  And of course you, who have nurtured and supported me and taught me what true leadership looks like.  I will remain in deepest gratitude for the ways you have mentored me, advocated for me, and invested in me.


Change: On leaving Akili Dada

July 29, 2015

Its been more than a year since I decided to make the transition from leading Akili Dada, an organisation that I founded and still love.  The decision was a difficult and emotional one but one also based in my belief that leaders must practice what they preach:  Akili Dada is a young women’s organisation and it must continue to be run by young women. I had aged out :)

Also important is that successful leadership transitions must be modelled and become more common as they are critical to effective social change for Africa.

Its been a while but in case you missed it, below is the message that I sent out to friends and supporters of Akili Dada:

Dear Akili Dada Community,

Over the past decade, I have had the tremendous blessing of working with you to build Akili Dada’s vibrant and joyous community. Together, we have built a home for young African women that nurtures them as they grow into strong, vibrant, dedicated leaders. Together, we have transformed what began as a small scholarship fund into the leading girls’ leadership incubator in Kenya and on the African continent.

I know that you understand the strength of Akili Dada and the abundance of leadership in our ecosystem. Because I, too, know and trust that strength, I have decided that it is time for me to move on from the position of Executive Director of Akili Dada.

My decision to step down as Executive Director is one that we have been working toward for quite some time, in open conversation with Akili Dada’s staff and senior leadership. This transparency has allowed us to plan accordingly to strengthen the organization to withstand my transition. Among other actions taken, my family and I moved to Nairobi two years ago, so that I could be more present in developing the infrastructure of Akili Dada.

The past two years have seen a tremendous amount of growth for Akili Dada. Our Board of Directors, which includes both new faces and old, provides strong leadership from women who are passionate about Akili Dada’s mission today and who carry a powerful vision for Akili Dada’s future. They are truly my dream team. We also have an incredible staff team comprised of the best, brightest, and most passionate advocates for young African women’s futures. Working in a synergy that can only be drawn from shared passion and sense of mission, we have led Akili Dada to numerous international awards including recognition from the U.S. White House. Although many of these awards recognized me as the face of Akili Dada, they were never about me as an individual; they were about the work that the Akili Dada community has and will continue to perform. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with such an amazing community and have full confidence that they will thrive even in my absence.

I have given my all to Akili Dada and feel that the strongest and most innovative ideas I’ve had for us have been shared, implemented, or added to our future plans. An organization’s strength is best proved by its ability to outlive its founder, and I know, beyond the measure of doubt, that Akili Dada will grow far beyond me. I feel it is my responsibility to take a step back and watch it flourish under new leadership. I believe that the best founders know when to hand over leadership.

I am especially confident in a smooth transition because the Board of Directors has already appointed my successor. It is our very own Purity Kagwiria! I feel so fortunate to be able to hand over leadership of Akili Dada to such an incredible woman, whose mind and heart are devoted to this work and who knows first-hand the struggles that African women face. For the next two months, I will be on leave and Purity will serve as interim Executive Director, assuming full responsibilities upon my official departure at the end of March.

Purity knows this organization, community, and the landscape of our work better than anyone. In the three years since she joined Akili Dada, I have been keen to prepare her to take on increasing levels of responsibility. From the start, I knew that she had a bright future in global leadership. We are incredibly lucky that she has chosen to stay with Akili Dada.

Over the past six months, I have been even more intentional in sharing every part of the Executive Director role with her in order to prepare her to lead this organization.

Still, this is not leadership bequeathed to her. Akili Dada’s Board of Directors undertook an intense and rigorous two-day interview process to satisfy themselves that Purity is the best next leader for Akili Dada. Throughout that process, Purity’s passion for working with young women, her extensive knowledge of the organization, and her fresh vision for Akili Dada’s future shone through.

As I pass the torch to Purity, I invite your active support of her as the new Executive Director. The strength of this community lies in our shared dedication to nurturing the next generation of African women leaders. Purity is a sterling example of the type of leader that Akili Dada seeks to send forth into the world. We are lucky that she has chosen us.

Even as I step down from my official position at Akili Dada, I remain committed to this institution’s growth, and I hope you’ll join me in celebrating what Akili Dada has been and will become. Indeed, I shall remain a vociferous advocate and ambassador of Akili Dada’s work, even as I work hard to give Purity the time and the space she needs to develop her own leadership style and vision for Akili Dada’s future.

Akili Dada’s greatest asset is the community of women and men who have worked so hard to make Akili Dada into what it is today. I will always be a proud founder of Akili Dada, and I am confident that together we shall propel Akili Dada to the next level of its spectacular growth.

With love and in deepest gratitude for an incredible decade, 

Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg
Founder and Outgoing Executive Director
Akili Dada

Interview with Sheila Mwanyiga on NTV AM Live

July 28, 2015

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to meet Sheila Mwanyiga on this NTV interview.

Among the highlights:

  • I think there is a difference between the terms “Going back” to help those in your community vs “Paying it Forward” Posture maters.
  • When you walk through a door, hold it open for others
  • Agricultural innovation is  key to Africa’s prosperity
  • Africa needs to re-think our definitions of leadership
  • On gender roles: need to raise boys and girls who can both nurture and serve as well as defend and protect
  • It’s not true that ‘women are their own worst enemies’


Kenyan Women’s Tech Agenda

May 10, 2013

What happens when you put women at the center of examining Kenya’s booming technology scene?  Specifically, what should Kenyan women’s agenda for the ongoing tech revolution look like?

I believe that Kenyan women’s technology agenda should focus on freedom.  But not freedom in the conventional sense; the women’s agenda for technology should focus on both freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’.

Conventional understandings of freedom center on freedom from oppression: freedom from others harming us.  An innovative approach to women’s participation in the tech space should focus on both women’s freedom ‘from’ current impediments but it should, more importantly, also focus on women’s freedom ‘to’ use technology and to transform the way tech is used in Kenya.

To explain, Kenyan women’s tech agenda should focus on three key elements of freedom that are critical in the current context in Kenya: Access, Security, and Empowerment


Traditional understandings of women’s access to technology rely on just counting the numbers of women using technology.  Indeed numerous reports and studies have focused on how many Kenyan women own mobile phones and how many women are regularly online.  The question of access has been reduced to bean counting.

A cutting edge agenda for Kenyan women and technology must also be concerned with ‘which’ women are coming online and conversely which ones are being left behind.  It is not enough to merely count female bodies in the tech space.

Concern for the issue of women’s access to technology needs to ensure that technology does not remain the preserve of wealthy women.  Indeed if we’re not careful, imbalanced access to technology can exacerbate existing Kenya’s class, ethnic and other differences between women.

When we think about access as an important component of women’s access to technology, we must pay attention to the wealth differences between women.  For women to have true freedom ‘to’ be online we must fight for poor women’s access and knowledge of technology.

If we don’t ensure poor women’s access to technology we risk a situation where wealthy women take over speaking ‘for’ poor women with dire consequences for democracy.

Indeed the biggest promise of technology is in enhancing Kenya’s burgeoning democracy is arming the voting public with tools to keep their elected officials and governments accountable. Access to technology is key to this and women’s access particularly so. We cannot then afford to turn this promise on its head for poor women who end up lacking the tools and who are then unable to participate in critical democratic conversations.

Security and Safety

A second element of women’s agenda for technology is safety.  Conventional understandings of safety and security in the tech space often focus on viruses, terrorism, and identity theft.

Kenya women’s agenda for technology needs to look beyond these conventional understandings to again embrace issues of both freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’.

The most critical agenda item for Kenyan women when it comes to security in technology is actually creating safe spaces for women and girls.  Indeed even as we struggle for all women’s access to the web we must continue the struggle to secure safe spaces for women and girls both online and offline.

A recent study of Internet safety for Kenyan women by KICTANET shows that going online can expose women and especially girls to greater risk. A cursory glance on facebook reveals the many ways that women, especially successful women who have broken outside the mold of convention are under continuous attack by Kenya’s cyber bullies.  Perhaps the most striking examples of this are the ways that female media personalities including reporters like Caroline Mutoko are continually harassed on social media.  If we are not careful, we may fight for women’s access to technology only to expose the same women to various forms of violence, especially psychological violence meted out by Kenya’s home grown cyber bullies.


The third and most important element of Kenyan women’s tech agenda needs to be empowerment.   Again we must move beyond thinking of empowerment in the traditional sense.  Kenyan women must embrace the ways that our use of technology is not just changing us but also how we as women are shaping technology itself.

Conventional understandings of how technology empowers women are mostly concerned with women’s economic empowerment: we worry most about how women can make money using technology.  Organizations like SamaSource have found ways to create work for women using technology. While some argue that such work is merely glorified sweatshop labour, proponents maintain that the income that women generate is truly empowering.

Jobs in tech are not the holy grail for women.

I argue that Kenyan women should ask more of technology.  Income is good but we can, and should, have more.

The way to achieve this ‘more’ is to ask what difference it fundamentally makes to have Kenyan women engaged with technology.  Do we, as women, bring about a fundamentally different structure of relationships by using technology?

Kenyan society is inherently hierarchial.  A cursory look at our politics at the national scale (ill-behaved waheshimiwa) and all the way down to our behavior behind the closed doors of our homes (the ill treatment metted out on our domestic workers).   Women, Kenyan women especially, do very poorly in hierarchies.  We tend to remain at the bottom.

Indeed, women, some argue, tend to think and live in ways that are anti-hierarchy.  That Chamas are a women’s phenomenon only serves to strengthen this argument.

I believe that the web is one place where women hold tremendous potential to bring about grand transformation because the Web offers tremendous potential for a restructuring of power relations from hierarchy and into a web of interconnectedness.

Unlike Kenyan society, and very much as a mirror to women’s lives, the web is ‘flat’ in very fundamental ways.  Interconnection is key.  Hierarchies don’t work so well on the web and success, as especially highlighted in social media, is dependent on one’s interconnectedness.

Women enter this encounter with an upper hand.  We have had lifetimes of training and socialization to build ‘flat’ and connected communities.  Indeed numerous studies on women in the corporate sector now highlight the ways that women bring stronger collaboration skills to workplaces.   And as globalization continues full steam ahead, women’s abilities to collaborate and build communities of sharing represent an increasingly advantageous resource.  Kenyan women are already empowered in this sense.

Kenyan women’s continued engagement with technology from this position of strength is not only good for technology, its good for Kenyan society.  The more that women thrive in a field where they hold competitive advantage, the more the values of a less hierarchical and more ‘flat’ society will become apparent in the broader society.  Women’s lives and ways of living can make Kenya a better place.

As such, Kenyan women’s tech agenda must embrace empowerment not just from a perspective of the money that women make by engaging technology.  The women’s agenda must seek to understand the ways that women can, and are already empowered to transform technology and to transform society as well.

Learn more:

Women Who Tech:

Take Back the Tech:

Weaving with Chrystal Simeoni, Wambui Mwangi, & other FemTech sisters :)

Children living in fear: Newtown to Pakistan

December 16, 2012

I’m watching a live broadcast of the memorial service from Newtown Connecticut in the aftermath of the devastating massacre at a school.  The stories are devastating. Teachers who placed their bodies in front of the gunman to protect children.  Children who, despite surviving the horror, might never be able to sit in a classroom for the rest of their lives. Lives shattered and ruined.

President Obama is giving a touching eulogy and I stand with him.  I am an American and I mourn for, and with my adopted country.

I grieve for the children who will for years now wake up in terror afraid of death raining down. I grieve for the nightmares being had and those that will be had. For the trauma and fear that is undeserved and unearned.  We HAVE GOT to do this better!!

AND in the midst of this grief I am reminded of the children of Pakistan who, like their peers in Newtown also sleep in nightmares.  Who wake up in the middle of the night to clutch air, seeking mothers long dead.  School, the playground, home, offer no safety.

For years now the United States Government has embarked on a war on Pakistanis.  US drones, personally authorized by the same President Obama who has been shedding tears over dead American children have killed over 3000 people yet only 2% of these people killed in these drone attacks were ‘high value targets’.   President Obama has authorized more drone attacks than President Bush ever did and he personally authorizes each attack.  We, ‘progressives’ especially, need to hold him accountable for that.

Obama’s drone war has had devastating impact on Pakistanis. The war’s impact on the mental health of generations can only be imagined. Think of what its like to be a child in the region, drones overhead 24 hours a day. Never knowing whether you or your family are next. Everyone you know has been impacted.  According to a recent report,

People have to live with the fear that a strike could come down on them at any moment of the day or night, leaving behind dead whose bodies are shattered to pieces, and survivors who must be desperately sped to a hospital.

America’s First Responders are heroes. They earned and deserved special mention in today’s memorial ceremony. Sadly, in Pakistan, first responders get a different treatment. They are killed.

“Based on interviews with witnesses, victims and experts, the report accuses the CIA of “double-striking” a target, moments after the initial hit, thereby killing first responders”

This is confirmed by what we’ve seen in this  Wikileaks video about just how the U.S. attacks first responders in Iraq.

Back to the children.  In New Mexico, American soldiers operating drones and raining death on the unsuspecting humanity half way around the planet are having experiences that seem to have nothing to do with what happened in Newtown.   Bryant’s experiences below seem so removed from young Adam Lanza’s.

Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.

“Did we just kill a kid?” he asked the man sitting next to him.

“Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the pilot replied.

“Was that a kid?” they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.

Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. “No. That was a dog,” the person wrote.

They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?

BUT: What would happen if we started to connect the deaths of these two children?

The right to bear arms is often upheld by enthusiasts and patriots as protecting citizens from an overbearing government. Yet, interestingly, the 2nd amendment actually puts U.S. statehood in danger by ensuring that the U.S. government does not hold a “monopoly on the legitimate use of force”.  A right that my fellow political scientists, led by Max Weber,  have agreed is central to the definition of a state.

So then what do we do with the U.S. state? It does not hold a domestic monopoly on the legitimate use of force so its citizens occasionally go haywire and shoot each other up.  At the same time it steps outside of international law to rain illegitimate violence on victims halfway around the world, a majority of whom are innocent.

I contend that both forms of violence are connected. And in both cases the deaths of children have more in common than not.

So, if you were the therapist and the U.S. was lying on your couch, what advice would you give?  How does a country addicted to violence, almost defined by violence, give up the guns and drones?

And for goodness sake how do we get Americans to see the ways in which the deaths of children in Newtown is very much connected and related to the child dying right now somewhere in Pakistan. Children killed in the name of Americans.

How would American thinking and action change if Americans took the radical stance that the lives of children in Pakistan are worth as much as the lives of children in the U.S.?

And we haven’t even began to discuss the implications of yet another mass shooting by a young White man on America’s racial politics.  As some are beginning to ask, is there a crisis of White masculinity?

What if the main reason these shootings keep occurring is that white men aren’t handling equality very well? There aren’t, I believe, any easy answers. Even so, we can take this perspective with us, and we can work to think of ways to help young white males grow up in a society where the expectation of privilege is never indoctrinated. We can teach them early in life how to cope with rejection. We can realize that pointing fingers and blaming others might feel good in the short term, but in the long term, only working towards positive solutions will really help. And yes, we can absolutely continue to advocate for better mental healthcare. Finally, I think we need to be brave enough to have conversations like this one. We need to admit the possibility that by perpetuating the lie of white male superiority despite strong societal and scientific pressure to change, we may have created our own monster

And that monster is White privilege.  In the case of mass shootings, one blogger argues that,

The freedom to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group, is one of the ultimate, if not in fact most potent, examples of White Privilege in post civil rights era America. Instead of a national conversation where we reflect on what has gone wrong with young white men in our society–a group which apparently possesses a high propensity for committing acts of mass violence–James Holmes will be framed as an outlier.

But thats a whole separate blog post.  Because I think the crisis of masculinity is not just one being experienced by White men. I see it taking its toll on Kenyan society as well and we HAVE GOT to make those links!

AND we also have to talk about mental illness.  Because we are all Adam Lanza’s mother and there are a lot of families living in fear.

The United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

We have got to do better!!

AND we need to talk about guns.  Because on the same day that Adam successfully massacred 26 people, a mentally ill man in china stabbed 22 children and none of them died.  The easy availability of guns in the US is killing Americans!

But again these are separate blog posts :)


To the White House and Back!

May 2, 2012

I’ve been on an incredible journey over the last few months so I thought I’d update with where I’ve been and what I’ve been saying:

The year started with a trip to the White House where I was one of 14 members of the African Diaspora honoured as ‘Champions of Change’ by the Obama White House and State Department. As part of the honor I got to contribute a post to the White House blog about my thoughts on African women’s leadership and my work with Akili Dada!  You can catch a video of my brief speech on Youtube

Before that I also had the honour to speak about the importance of educating girls at the World Affairs Council of Northern California.  I got to share the podium with Ann Cotton, the founder of CAMFED and Joel Samoff of Stanford University.  You can catch an audio recording of the evening’s conversation online.

I have a number of other past speaking engagements to share and new ones coming up including speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California tonight and at Stanford University tomorrow night and I’ll be posting any recordings of what I say when I’m out and about on my blog here.  Its just that I’m realizing that I do so much of my clearest thinking when I speak than when I sit in a quiet room alone with a computer :)

Can Women Lead?

May 2, 2012

I recently wrote a piece for the fabulous UP Nairobi magazine about women’s leadership where I argue that we need to move to a more sophisticated conversation about gender and leadership.
In the piece I identify two fundamental questions we must grapple with: How do we define ‘leadership’? And how does that definition lead to continued waste of one of the country’s most valuable resource: women’s capacity for transformative leadership?

I’m posting my full text below but will be taking it down once its posted on the UP Nairobi website. In the meanwhile be sure to check out the brand new UP Nairobi website.

To ask whether women are capable of leadership is to begin by asking the wrong question. Indeed the question of whether Kenyan women can lead was answered generations ago. YES WE CAN (and we have been)!

Indeed its time we Kenyans moved on to a more sophisticated conversation about gender and leadership. To do this we must address two fundamental questions: How do we define ‘leadership’? And why does Kenyan society insist on continued waste of one of the country’s most valuable resource: Kenyan women’s capacity for transformative leadership?

Leadership with a Capital P
For too long now leadership in Kenya has been understood as merely political kupayuka. Ask most Kenyans to identify a leader and they will point to a myriad of politicians and wannabe politicians. As a society we have failed to appreciate the ways in which leadership transcends the political sphere and includes valuable contributions in the social, education, industry, arts and culture among other sectors.

Our continued obsession with politics as the only venue where one can serve the community and transform society has led us to a race to the bottom. While we certainly have some qualified politicians, there are increasing numbers who, though they might actually be talented to serve in the private, civil society, civil service or other sectors, still shoehorn themselves into politics with disastrous results. So often our politicians live in realm of mediocrity to the country’s detriment.

On the other hand, an expanded perspective on leadership allows us to begin to make the necessary investments in sectors of our society that are indeed transformative. For example, our education system has for long failed to capture the real value that that the arts and culture generate in a society. Paraphrase an example recently offered by Vision 2030 Director General Mr. Mugo Kibati in a speech to Kenya’s emerging researchers, when most people think of America they can rattle off the names of various musical artists, actors, and sporting professionals. Beyond the President, very few people around the world can name as many U.S. members of Congress as they can artists.

While the contributions of some of these American artists might be dubious in terms of social progress, it is safe to say that they generate tremendous social and economic value for their country. Why is it then, that Kenyans have chosen to focus on our political leaders to the marginalization of the tremendous artists, academics, scientists, writers and other producers of knowledge and culture? What are we missing out by failing to recognize these innovative individuals as leaders who are transforming society?

Kenyan society pays a high price for our narrow perspective of leadership. We are failing to see the many ways that women are already contributing to the leadership of the country and doing so in earthshattering ways. For example, it is our narrow perspective on leadership that caused us to fail to recognize the tremendously transformative work of Prof. Wangari Maathai. Why did it take Kenyans so long to recognize and celebrate what the rest of the world already saw of our heroine’s work? What more could she have contributed to society had we embraced her early and deeply and given her the space to freely give of her all gifts to Kenya? We are failing to recognize the leadership of women like Ory Okolloh, one of the co-founders of the internationally recognized Ushahidi platform who now heads policy and government relations for Google in Africa. There are the Weaving Women, the collection of women artists, academics, writers and thinkers behind an exploration of the cultural image of ‘Wanjiku’ in representing the ‘average’ Kenyan citizen. This group of women is generating valuable new knowledge, indigenous knowledge, on the political and social systems of gender power in Kenya. Sadly, in our obsession with politicians, we are failing to see the ways these multidisciplinary women are innovative leaders. How many other Okollohs and Prof. Maathais remain untapped. Which other human resources, talented and dedicated Kenyan women of substance, is the country not benefiting from? Why do we continue with this wanton waste of potential?

In my own work with Akili Dada I am exposed daily to talented young women who, despite their family backgrounds of deep poverty, are passionate about social change. Akili Dada’s young women leaders are, in their teens, already driving projects with deeply transformative impact on their communities. They are not in front of microphones spouting ethnic hatespeech like some of our politicians. They are working diligently under everyone’s radar, imagining new a Kenya and doing the work that it takes to build and transform our societies from the ground. That is leadership. Yes, Kenyan women can lead. The fundamental question is, how can we as a country better tap into the tremendous resource that is Kenyan women’s capacity for transformative leadership?


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