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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Cecilia Chapiro of UNICEF On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cecilia Chapiro.

Cecilia is a humanitarian leader using technology and innovative financing to enable entrepreneurial ecosystems to grow and progress the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Cecilia Chapiro joined the United Nations in 2017, where she structured their first investment vehicle that invests in emerging tech startups that improve the lives of children. In 2019, she launched the U.N.’s first CryptoFund, an innovative investment tool that allows the organization to explore the use of crypto currencies for humanitarian projects. She is also the founder of Yunus & Youth a platform endorsed by Nobel Peace Prize Muhammad Yunus, that empowers young people to build, develop and expand social enterprises with technology to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born and raised in Argentina, a country with more than 40 percent of people below the poverty line. Seeing poor children in the streets was unfortunately a common thing. Wanting to change this reality, I joined several nonprofits from a young age. While I was inspired by their mission, I saw the shortcomings in the charitable model — when the money dries up, projects get discontinued. I wanted to create a model that delivered social value without being dependent on perpetual external funding. Interested in alleviating the financial stress of charities in my country, I discovered the work of Muhammad Yunus. Reading about his framework to use social businesses to empower people out of poverty led me to build Yunus & Youth, an organization that leverages technology to remove educational barriers between countries and generations to empower young people to build sustainable solutions to solve their community needs. Through Y&Y I got to work with thousands of social entrepreneurs in developing countries and one thing was clear: they needed funding to grow.

But as I got more involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, another thing was clear: there is a lot of money available, but it is mostly available in developed markets. It is very difficult, however, for minorities and founders from developing countries to connect with the funding sources.

So when the opportunity to develop an investment vehicle for social entrepreneurs within the United Nations came about, I jumped right to it. As I was getting more involved in the funding of humanitarian projects, I was also exposed to the challenges of the funding process and that is how I started to explore the use of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

I sometimes think that I didn’t choose a career path, but that I saw injustices that I wanted to solve and I’ve been working on new tools and structures to help humanitarian programs be more effective and long-lasting.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Launching UNICEF’s CryptoFund’s first investments was incredibly interesting as it was the first initiative of that sort in the United Nations (and in the humanitarian space in general). As we grow into a digital world, it is key that global and influential institutions like the U.N. learn and understand how to operate with and leverage digital assets to maximize impact and financial inclusion and the CryptoFund was a major milestone to take us there.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think that one of the things that makes UNICEF’s Innovation Fund stand out is the fact that it invests in emerging open source technology solutions that improve the lives of children. From using drones to transport blood samples in remote locations, to a blockchain that helps refugees receive remittances, to satellite imagery to map informal settlements and an artificial intelligence model to forecast their future expansion and a virtual reality application to make education more engaging, the solutions the Fund invests in and grows are important explorations to improve opportunity and access to everyone.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the exciting things I’m working on is a framework to track the performance and impact of technology applications in the humanitarian sector. Impact measurement has long been an area without clear guidelines and report mechanisms. This generates that generally, social innovations are exclusively measured around the number of beneficiaries they have. While this is a useful metric, it is absolutely insufficient. A more comprehensive measurement system can help innovations improve their solution to maximize their impact and it can help investors support the innovations that have the biggest social return.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I don’t think anyone is satisfied with the representation of women in STEM which is disproportionately lower than that of men. First, there is the cultural issue. In many communities, it is still not encouraged to pursue a career in STEM if you are a girl. I remember when I went to school and all the examples of technologists and entrepreneurs were men. Understanding that girls have the same innate skills to pursue this career and talking about the women in the space (especially to children and adolescents) can go a long way. Second, corporations should be taking further actions to recruit and retain women (especially towards senior levels) being women only take 20% of these jobs. Third, investors should revise their due diligence, being that women get less than 10% of the VC funding. Overall, we all have a role to play to increase gender equality in STEM. Whether it is raising our children, educating, sharing stories, recruiting, training, supervising, mentoring — it’s important to acknowledge that we are not satisfied with the status quo and we can all contribute to improving it.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The two most relevant downsides for women in STEM are 1) the proven lower salaries for women vs men on equivalent roles, and 2) the misunderstanding of maternity needs that result in women not having the benefits required when they have a baby (and even before, during pregnancy and fertility treatments). While some countries and companies are more advanced, being the STEM field so heavily male-dominated, these two are still pressing challenges existing today.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

A big myth is that women are not drawn to STEM careers so there aren’t enough women capable of occupying those roles. While it’s true the pool is smaller, it’s bigger than what we see in the corporate world. Many studies have proven this, but a recent McKinsey study comes to mind that evidenced that while women earn half of science and engineering degrees, they make up less than 20 percent of the employees in those fields.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Build networks: Women (and many men) really want to see more women in the space, so don’t be afraid to reach out as I experienced there to be a very encouraging community of those in it already.
  2. Use the numbers to your advantage: The STEM field and the male-dominated field can feel overwhelming but there is a growing understanding on the importance of having women and diversity in the space so position your uniqueness as an advantage to the team.
  3. You don’t have to be a long-term expert to excel: As a rising industry (or multiple industries), it is a growing and evolving field where even without experience, you can find a way to add value, simply because the innovations are new.
  4. Stay curious: It’s many times difficult to find the time and space to explore the space beyond your role/company. With technology growing so rapidly, make sure you allocate time to understand the progress in your industry as a whole and you update your knowledge around that.
  5. Make sure you don’t limit yourself: A former supervisor would tell me this, noticing I would not believe in my potential as much as he did. Later in my career, I supervised several women and noticed this was quite a repetitive pattern. The system is today still limiting enough, so make sure you believe in yourself first!

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

An important thing in building a thriving team is making it diverse. Today there are so many studies about this topic showing how diverse teams perform better. Nonetheless, humans are inclined to hire those that are more similar to themselves. Diverse teams and points of view can address blind spots, can solve more problems, can complement each other better and can innovate more rapidly to build stronger outcomes.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Key to managing a large team is ensuring that it’s members feel that their contribution is meaningful. The larger the team, the more difficult it is to see a direct correlation between one’s work and the overall outcome but this correlation exists and it is important to ensure that every member is aware about how their contributions help drive success. A culture of appreciation and managers speaking up about their teams can go a long way to achieve this.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely! So many people helped me along the way, and without them, I would not be where I am today. I am very much thankful to Professor Yunus for his work to revolutionize the financial opportunities poor people have. His work really changed my professional trajectory and I was honored to receive his trust and support when I decided to build an organization to support youth in their journey of social entrepreneurs, Yunus & Youth. A story not many know about my time in Bangladesh is that when I went there there were national riots due to politics to the point that I was told that an ambulance would pick me up from the airport to avoid the bombings in the streets. But when Prof. Yunus confirmed our first meeting, I didn’t hesitate to go.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

A few months ago, we did a round of investment from the UNICEF Innovation Fund and CryptoFund in a group of startups using blockchain technology to improve financial inclusion. 100% of the cohort was led by minorities and >50% by women. The group of startups that received funding from UNICEF will use the funds to grow their solutions, generate more evidence of impact with the ultimate goal of including more people in the financial world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see governments speeding up their technology adoption and the corresponding legislation. The cost of the delay here has many negative ramifications, very evident for example with social media and the lack of updated legislation allowing companies to decide important matters to their discretion.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think we grow up learning that careers are linear. When we are kids for example, we talk about wanting to become a doctor or a lawyer. Just one thing. But things change, our passions change or the theory of a role or a project doesn’t match reality. Life, as I learned, is not linear. And when things don’t work out the way we thought they would, it is easy to feel disappointed. It is in those moments that I remind myself that “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” to move on and move onwards.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Jewel Burks Solomon! An entrepreneur, investor, and corporate leader. She has a long trajectory supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs and a strong commitment to helping minority founders to succeed. I would love to have breakfast with her and exchange visions for the future.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.