My eight years as Lensational CEO and our next chapter
by Bonnie Chiu
After eight years of serving Lensational as its CEO, I have decided that I will be stepping down this year. Although it has been a heartfelt decision, I believe that my stepping down will bring fresh thinking and energy to the global movement we have built. I also believe that the movement will benefit from our teams being closer to the women we serve.
I am very excited to announce that Lydia Wanjiku, Lensational’s global programmes manager, based in Nairobi, Kenya, will become Lensational’s CEO.
In recent years, we at Lensational have been working towards a collective, bottom-up leadership approach, which we feel best serves Lensational’s mission.
Lydia first reached out to Lensational at the back of our win at the Hivos Social Innovation Award. That was back in 2014, and Lensational was just 18 months old. Lydia jumped straight in, and started our photography and digital storytelling programme in Mathare slums, Nairobi, Kenya. I got to know her through our many Skype calls, and of course, through the images, which came out of the programme she ran with women and girls based in Mathare.
After Lensational’s pilot programme in Mathare, Lydia told me that programme participants particularly loved the colour theory part of our training, because it helped them understand more about themselves, and explore their individuality. Through the photos Lydia coached our students to take, I saw a world where women and girls are boldly asserting themselves, and choosing to challenge gender stereotypes.
As I got to know more about Lydia, I learnt that her passion from photography stemmed from a young age — as a shy teenage girl, she discovered how, through photography, young girls and women have an opportunity to express themselves, and explore the world. In so many places today, women and girls are still told to be silent, and not expected to think for themselves, but photography — and digital storytelling — can challenge this.
A few years later, I met Faye Cuevas, who was leading programmes at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Kenya, when travelling to Nairobi. Faye was running this fantastic programme empowering Masai women to lead conservation efforts in Masai Mara, and loved the idea of Lensational getting involved to teach the women to document their lives. Faye worked with Lydia to launch Lensational’s first training programme with Masai women, and their work helped our organisation deepen an important stream of work, at the nexus between gender and climate.
When I look at the photographs that were produced during this programme, I am reminded of the African proverb, which inspired the founding of Lensational. If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
In 2019, I finally met with Lydia in person in Nairobi, as my day job brought me there. Lydia and Faye were just coming back from Amboseli, where training programmes were taking place, and they told me about the story of Joyce Seriamo, a then 23-year-old Masai woman who had been learning photography with us.
They told me that learning how to use a digital camera has demystified technology for Joyce, and that she had now taught herself how to use a phone, too. Before meeting our teams, she would ask her husband to help her use the phone, but how, she didn’t need to anymore.
Lydia and I met a couple of times after that during my stay in Nairobi, and we went to visit the girls (or rather young women), whom Lydia had trained back in 2015. Our partner, Eric Nehemiah, the Founder of the Mathare Foundation, has recently become a father, and had brought his little daughter to our meeting.
Our meetings have reminded me that Lensational should always be about the women we seek to serve. But as we grew and got funding, I feel that, as CEO, based in London, I have been getting further and further away from impacting the women’s lives and stories. And I felt that I was too far away from the impact on the ground, and that, as an organisation, we needed to change this urgently.
In March 2020, we announced our conscious decision to take a collective leadership approach, rather than an heropreneurship (or Founder-centric) approach, which is so pervasive in the social entrepreneurship community. We also asserted our desire for the global movement to be driven from the ground-up, rather than top down. A year on, I feel so proud that we have succeeded in implementing this vision.
I have always felt that the best legacy, which founders can give, is to ensure that the organisation outlives them. Within the social change sector, I believe that founders should always try to make themselves redundant as quickly as possible, as it means that you are truly creating change, and that change is not dependent on you. It is not a view shared by many, but at least, it is relevant in the case of Lensational — which is about empowering women.
Personally, I have been empowered so much by Lensational. I am so different from the 20-year-old girl who naively created a Facebook page eight years ago. We say that Lensational provides women with a voice, a base of strength, and a source of income. While I have been a volunteer CEO, so the source of income doesn’t necessarily apply, I have grown so much in my voice, and my base of strength.
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent” — Madeline Albright
Now it is time for me to pass the baton onto Lydia to lead Lensational to the next new heights.
Bonnie Chiu is the Founder of Lensational and was CEO from 2013–2021. She will be staying on the Board of Trustees of Lensational, and an active member of Lensational Hong Kong.