On World Refuge Day 2019, Techfugees Australia hosted a talk by Jamila Gordon, Founder and CEO of Lumachain.
Jamila began her talk by diving deep into life of a young village girl in eastern Ethiopia, area that could equally have been West Somalia — a nomadic desert where due to a chance fall of rain her family had stopped, set down roots and built a village. But Jamila went further, and over the next ten minutes introduced us to the village architecture, the sun shelters, the kitchens, the education system, the interplay between siblings and, heart-breakingly, her familial responsibilities as the eldest of daughter in a family of sixteen children. This was important, because while it is hard for us, sitting in a tech hub in Sydney, to imagine Ethiopia — everyone one of us had a childhood and everyone could immediately see how different our lives already were.
Next we heard of her family’s move to Mogadishu, Somalia, the arrival of civil war and an escape into Kenya. From there came a sequence of events that led to Jamila struggling as a young person through various foreign cities before finding refuge in Australia, gaining an education, finding employment and most recently, building Lumachain an investible tech company adding transparency, safety and trust to global supply chains through emerging technologies.
Jamila’s story deserves to be told in full, but throughout it emerge a few consistent themes and important messages.
You decide who you are
“In a new country, you can be whoever you like” ~As Jamila escaped alone across the Kenyan border, these parting words were all her father could offer his eldest daughter. Jamila’s story is one of constant reinvention as a means to cope with new circumstances. There were at least a half-dozen times where she was forced to start from scratch, to build a new community around herself and find whatever image would do the job of giving her the credibility and opportunities needed to survive.
Confidence breeds confidence
“No one liked me when I was sad, so I faked it” ~ After experiencing civil war, separation from her family and the disruption of constant movement — Jamila had every right to be upset. However she recognised that giving in wasn’t going to achieve what she needed to make it through the next stage. People simply do not gravitate to sad and distressed people — despite the best of intentions, they make us uncomfortable. So Jamila faked happiness, and in doing so found that small community that would adopt her into her new community. (Then later ran to the toilets and cried her heart out in private).
A series of small deeds can change a life
The story of Jamila arriving in Kenya without possessions or a home, eeking out a life with a distant relative, meeting a backpacker and then finding funding and support from a sympathetic government official is remarkable in itself. However what’s even more amazing is how fragile that sequence of events was — there were at least four or five things in that story that could have gone either way with radically different outcomes for Jamila. The point here is that if you are in a position to help, do it, there is every chance your small efforts could be part of a much larger chain of chance that could change someone’s life.
Diversity of role models is important
Jamila’s professional ambitions began when, while working as a dishwasher, she met another women who was graduating university to become an accountant. This set in motion a train of ambition that saw Jamila learn English and enrol in university to study accounting before ultimately becoming a software engineer. The important takeaway here was that Jamila was blown away that a women could first, attend and graduate from university, second, successfully pursue a professional career. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
Don’t settle on the first offer
This one takes courage. An important part of Jamila’s professional career was early on when a cousin sat her down to give her advice on job interviews. Pulling heavily from his repertoire of dubious dating tactics, the cousin gave Jamila the advice to play hard to get, the confidence to know her worth and ultimately the courage to wait for the right opportunities to come along. This is tough, as often we have other pressures in our lives pushing us to make a decision.
Jamila’s story jumped quickly from successfully finding her first software job to the tale end of a career working in corporate tech around the world. However the parts that she left out of the story are as amazing everything that she included. A quick look at Jamila’s LinkedIn profile shows her time was spent with GIO, Deloitte, IBM and as Group CIO to both Qantas and Leightons — two of Australia’s largest players in the transportation and infrastructure sectors. This was coupled with numerous roles on boards supporting community causes, startups and government science bodies.
Techfugees as an organisation is important because it shines a light on stories like Jamila’s. These stories show what is possible. With a few things falling the right way, a bit of empathy and a network of supporters there is no reason why others can’t succeed in the ways that Jamila, and every other speaker at a Techfugees event have shown is possible. It all starts with a community and a belief that this is possible.
(This event was hosted by Microsoft at their facilities in the Sydney Startup Hub)