Women today have more opportunities than ever to not only be a part of the fabric of society, but play significant roles in shaping it. Yawa Hansen-Quao is a Ghanaian social entrepreneur that believes in preparing young female leaders to shape society.
Yawa is the oldest daughter of a Ghanaian politician who was forced to flee the country in the early 1980s during the time of political unrest. She lived her early life as a refugee in Togo and then in the United States. Like many African refugees forced to flee the continent, Yawa was raised between two cultures and internalized both. Although she and her family lived as Americans in many ways, strong African values were maintained and of course, the family stayed connected to the culture through it’s food. It was not an easy time for Yawa, living under the hope that they would return home when it was safe, yet this bicultural upbringing shaped who she is today.
Yawa returned home finally in 1996 as a teenager to find a different home than she had left, a home she struggled to fit into. The language and cultural barriers hindered her interactions with other African-born and raised teenagers. The limited development opportunities available for African girls quickly became apparent to Yawa and after her parents separated and the family fell on difficult financial times, she had to support the family and care for her father who became ill with cancer.
Despite these hardships Yawa had a supportive network in her father, a best friend (repatriated from the UK) and her mentor from the US Junior Achievement programme. This mentor saw so much potential in her that she paid Yawa’s school fees during the family’s financial crises so that she could remain in school. School for Yawa was an outlet for her leadership potential and creative energy. Her maturity and responsibility was rewarded with a number of roles in student government. She went to work after high school, unconvinced that higher education in Ghana held promise for her. The leader in her was triggered again when a new university was started by Patrick Awuah, formerly of Microsoft. Ashesi university is dedicated to training Africa’s future leaders. For Yawa it provided a platform where she could become a part of transforming Ghana, and that is what she is doing.
By working several jobs, depending on financial aid and friends’ generosity she entered and gave herself to Ashesi. During her time there she started the Ashesi Business Club and Women of Ashesi student groups. She also became an HIV/AIDS peer educator and was eventually elected in 2006 as the first female to become college-level student government president in Ghana. Yawa also nobly decided to tackle an issue plaguing many African universities today: corruption in all it’s forms. At all educational levels in Ghana, cheating, bribery and trading of sex for grades were common and Yawa sought to introduce an honor code to her school. By adopting the honor code, Ashesi, led by Yawa set the standard within the wider educational system. When the time came for Yawa to leave Ashesi, she wanted to create a community that nurtures leaders, similar to her Ashesi experience. Her strong belief in the intrinsic leadership of African women led to her creating the Leading Ladies Network (LLN), a resource and relationship base for young women as they take leadership roles in government, civil society, corporate organizations and others. Through it’s Female Leadership Advancement, Mentoring and Empowerment Series or FLAMES, LLN trains young women to instruments of social change, supporting them in all areas and preparing them to be servant leaders in their chosen field. These women carry out projects to improve their societies and are prepared to take on further leadership roles.
Yawa was changed and shaped in her youth by many good and some negative influences. Realizing that her journey did not need to be so difficult she strives today to make it easier for other young women to excel and play their part in shaping Africa. We look forward to hearing good things from the Leading Ladies!
Image via World Economic Forum