Sacagawea. Eleanor Roosevelt. Maya Angelou. Hillary Clinton. Beyoncé Knowles. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Women throughout history have had an enormous impact on science, innovation, policy, art, human rights, and more. In recent history, more women have taken office, positions of leadership, and become an increasingly prominent voice on the world’s stage. But despite the progress that women have made, there is still a lot of work left to do to achieve full equality.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we’d like to share a couple of our customers who are doing great things — both with and for women — and contributing to the ongoing work to elevate women. Today’s story is about the Akilah Institute.
What is the Akilah Institute?
The Akilah Institute is Rwanda’s only college for women. It provides a market-relevant education that prepares women for meaningful careers and leadership roles through a two-year diploma program in Entrepreneurship and Business Management, Hospitality Management, or Information Systems.
Akilah’s diploma programs were specifically designed to align with Rwanda’s fastest-growing sectors and in partnership with private sector employers to ensure students graduate with in-demand expertise. Their programs enable young women to achieve economic independence and obtain leadership roles in the workplace and in society.
Today, Akilah has over 60 employees spread across their main campus in Kigali, Rwanda; offices in Brooklyn, New York, and Hong Kong; and remote workers in three additional cities. We spoke to Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, Akilah’s Co-Founder and CEO, as well as Lauren Everitt, their Director of Communications, to learn more about what they do and how they empower women.
Why their work matters
The Akilah Institute strives to develop the next generation of women leaders in East Africa. They incorporate leadership development into their curriculum to ensure their students graduate with the confidence to effect positive change in their homes, workplaces, and communities.
The best part is that their work is paying off: Elizabeth shared that 88% of Akilah alumnae secure jobs within six months of graduation and earn incomes averaging 12 times the national per-capita median income in Rwanda. “Our graduates go on to become supervisors and managers or start their own businesses and employ other women,” says Elizabeth. “Many serve as mentors or community leaders, and 90 percent financially support at least one family member or individual.”
“Our graduates go on to become supervisors and managers or start their own businesses and employ other women,” says Elizabeth. “Many serve as mentors or community leaders, and 90 percent financially support at least one family member or individual.”
But the work the Akilah Institute does extends beyond improving the lives of its graduates: When you educate and empower a woman, there’s a ripple effect. Women typically reinvest 90 percent of their earnings back into their families, compared with just 30–40 percent for men, and it increases their future earning potential. Education gives women more money to spend in the local economy. Lauren Everitt, Akilah’s Director of Communications, explains that “It’s not only women who benefit from increased opportunities — their families, communities, and countries benefit too.”
“It’s not only women who benefit from increased opportunities — their families, communities, and countries benefit too.”
The Akilah Institute has also seen the effects of education and empowerment firsthand on an individual level. One of their oldest graduates, Jackie, was 35 when she started at Akilah. She was embarrassed to go back to school because of her age, and her husband wanted her to stay at home. But she persisted, and after graduating from Akilah, she used her newly acquired business skills to purchase and gradually grow a farm.
She now employs full-time and seasonal workers and has earned enough to send her daughters to a private school. In her own words: “I would not have bought this farm without Akilah. I would have still been a housewife. My kids would not be in a good school. Seeing how much I’ve grown through Akilah zipped my husband’s mouth and changed his mindset. We’re partners now. We’re running this business together.”
How the Akilah Institute works across time zones
Working across time zones and continents means Akilah Institute teammates can’t always walk over to a colleague’s desk or call them. But “Asana makes it possible for each person to respond during their workday, and the question, idea, or assignment doesn’t get buried in an email inbox,” says Elizabeth.
Perhaps more important than facilitating international communication, “Asana also allows for organizational transparency,” says Elizabeth. “It’s enabled everyone at our organization to become better project managers.”
“Asana also allows for organizational transparency”
— Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes, Co-Founder and CEO, Akilah Institute for Women
By breaking big projects down into tasks, team members know the steps they need to take to achieve a big goal, such as setting up a series of open houses for prospective Akilah students or arranging the annual Akilah Entrepreneurship Fund Competition.
To keep everything running smoothly, they use Asana for everything from setting the agenda for calls to managing large-scale campaigns and projects. And their Executive Team uses it to develop the agenda for its weekly calls — members add topics they want to discuss on Friday before the Monday discussion. They use the same strategy for weekly check-ins between managers and their direct reports. “This helps us stay on track and maximize our call time,” says Elizabeth. “Plus, it’s simple to assign tasks after the call.”
To keep everything running smoothly, they use Asana for everything from setting the agenda for calls to managing large-scale campaigns and projects.
Lauren gave us a look inside how their communications team uses Asana to set its editorial and social media calendars, among many other things. “We’ve found the public calendar is hugely helpful in letting other teams see what stories and outreach are in the pipeline, and it allows them to add in their own contributions,” says Lauren.
Further, Akilah’s recruitment team uses Asana to keep the entire organization informed of how many applications are received for each program and where they’re coming from, which helps them assess if they’re reaching the right women with the right messages.
Continuing to bridge the gender gap in education in 2017
“While enrollment rates are growing faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, there are still only 64 women for every 100 men enrolled in tertiary education in the region,” Lauren explains.
“So there’s still a lot of work to do to bridge the gender gap. There are limited opportunities for young women in Africa to gain the skills and education necessary for employment and financial independence. And there are plenty of factors standing in their way, whether it’s culture norms, early pregnancy, or competing responsibilities.”
Akilah will welcome its largest class ever, with 400 new students, in July 2017. They have also laid the groundwork for a new campus in 2018 in Kenya and plan to establish a network of eight campuses throughout sub-Saharan Africa by 2031, allowing them to serve 54,000 women.
Akilah will welcome its largest class ever, with 400 new students, in July 2017.
As we reflect on women’s accomplishments throughout history this month, as well as the work that’s left to be done, we’re excited to celebrate an organization that is doing so much to improve the lives of so many women.