On June 16, 2015, my life changed forever. I felt like I had been running non-stop on a mission to change the world--not just one person at a time, but two. I was trying to change the life of a youth and a woman living in a developing country. As a young child, I was inspired by my mother, Frances Cash-Ugwuegbu, to dream big and to always question the status quo.
Over a decade ago, I was working for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. My mother visited often and even moved out to Seattle to be closer to my sister and I. We had an amazing time traveling and learning about the Pacific Northwest. I remember snatching an hour or two at a time from my incredibly long days at Microsoft and taking trips with her down to Pike's Place Market or to Portland, Oregon. With a few extra hours available on the weekends, we would sneak in a drive to Vancouver. My mother was my biggest cheerleader, encouraging me in my career and taking every opportunity to exclaim, "My daughter works for Bill Gates." Well, I worked for Microsoft... it's all about perspective, right?
When I decided to leave Microsoft in 2004 to focus all my energy on building Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF), my mother was the only one who asked me the really hard questions: Why are you doing this? Do you understand the risks? Will you miss the comfortable salary? The window office? What will you do for health insurance? Talking to her about the pros and cons of my choice, though difficult, was a great test of my conviction. She encouraged me every step of the way, and when it sounded like I was taking on too much, she would put everything into perspective. "Tell me again why you think you need to do this?" she would ask. My mother reminded me that just because I thought I had a solution to a problem didn't mean I was the person to solve it.
My mother was the first female entrepreneur I knew, and I learned at her feet. A global educator, entrepreneur and culinary arts specialist, she opened and owned Nigeria's first French outdoor restaurant, La Pâtisserie and hired 15 francophone speaking frontline staff. I worked there starting at age 10, greeting guests and helping the hostesses run errands. As a young girl growing up in Nigeria, I saw first-hand the impact her successful business had on our immediate and extended family and in our community. She was able to create jobs, change the lives of women, and make a difference. Seeing her realize her ambitions and affect positive change encouraged me to become a leader. I learned from her that it was possible to build great things and that the only limit was your imagination and the ability to execute.
I recall occasionally waking up in the middle of the night and noticing that the light in my mother's studio was on. I would wander down there to find her deep in work, focusing on the creation of what would eventually become the centerpiece of an event; a wedding or birthday cake surrounded by her elaborate finishings. She told me that being an entrepreneur is about having an idea that intrigues you, one that increasingly pulls you in until you can no longer ignore it.
Thanks to my mother, I simply cannot remember a time when I didn't want to be an entrepreneur. In the early '80s, when my mother first opened La Pâtisserie, things were extremely difficult in Nigeria, mostly because of political instability. Citizens did not have much opportunity to develop socio-economically under the country's military/authoritarian rule, as the economy reeled from one crisis to another. Austerity measures, like the Structural Adjustment Program, were introduced under the kleptocratic regime of General Babangida in the late '80s and '90s. These years were characterized by mal-administration, mismanagement of resources, mal-development and mal-integration in the country.
As the Founder of Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF), I am surrounded by entrepreneurs on a daily basis, the kind who want to change the world and won't stop until the industry is revolutionized--social entrepreneurs. This is also my journey. It's why I founded YTF.
It was 1993 when I relocated from Nigeria to Boston in pursuit of a college education. Fortunately, I was met here by my mother, who at that time was pursuing her Master's Degree and Doctorate at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Once I arrived, one of the very first things my mom recommended was that I attend the Katharine Gibbs School in Boston while I awaited admission into college in the Fall. Katharine Gibbs was formed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The founder wanted to train young women--the type who never had to work before--for places in the business world. She developed a program that produced quality women professionals, and also surveyed prospective employers to discover exactly what they were looking for in employees. My mother felt that Katharine Gibbs would give me a strong foundation for going to college in America and for the world of work, which it did. Eventually, this foray into the American educational system would take me to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Stanford University, and finally to Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, where I earned my MBA. None of this would have been possible without my mother's unwavering support and belief that girls, like boys, should be afforded equal opportunity to lead.
My mother's communication skills were impeccable; she could stand in front of a room full of people from all walks of life and speak confidently on any topic. Having traveled in over 40 countries during her life, she spoke several languages fluently and wasn't shy about letting people know it. She knew so much about so many different things, often to the amazement of strangers and even other members of her family.
My mother's doctoral thesis centered on the implementation of an International Education Center for Media Literacy, one that would concern itself with the co-production of Sesame Street for Nigerian youngsters. Her work explored the historical position of woman in the scheme of all things Nigerian, and how her key role in the implementation of a co-production of Sesame Street may be dulled by weak skills, a result of her own denial of access to educational opportunity. She believed that a co-production with interactive features, one that was appropriate for mothers and their children, would encourage co-viewing and would improve mothers' literacy, numeracy, and social skills. Her thesis also suggested incentivizing more girls to pursue job opportunities in challenging areas such as media and entrepreneurship.
As it is frequently the mother who plays the most significant role in shaping the values of her children, it is in her lap that the burden of responsibility falls. An illiterate, ill-informed mother passes ignorance on to her offspring. Her lack of knowledge spans generations, for not only is she lacking awareness of her past and present, but it is highly likely she will see only the continued reutilization of her oppression.
In 2005, YTF began working with women entrepreneurs in Nigeria. With initial support from UN Women, we provided training to women across three states in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria: Rivers, Cross Rivers, and Delta. Incorporating the outcomes of focus group discussions and careful to include content that women deemed useful to hear frequently, YTF created an entrepreneurship guide that participants could listen to on audio or watch in their homes and businesses. That initial project impacted 400 women. Today in partnership with multi-stakeholders including private sector, public sector and other foundations, YTF's work spans 36 states including the Federal Capital Territory, has impacted over 40,000 women entrepreneurs and has inspired the creation of over 9,500 women-led new businesses. It was when my team established the slogan for the women entrepreneurs we work with, the ShEntrepreneur My mother frequently emphasized the correct pronunciation, ensuring we acknowledged the French intonation.
YTF builds and supports women entrepreneurs by providing leadership, entrepreneurship, and technology training. We recognize that illiterate women suffer many disadvantages in a modern economy, disadvantages which are compounded by the limited facilities available. The inadequacy of measures taken for their benefit, the many time-consuming occupations with which they are burdened, and the discrimination to which they are subjected puts these women on the defensive. The literate woman, on the other hand, is more able to creatively manage scarcity.
My mother frequently compared her business philosophy with her baking, something she loved to do. While it is one thing to propose baking a cake, it is quite another to actually set about the task: first, one must gather the ingredients, then proceed through the actual process of baking. Finally, you present the delicacy for admiration and consumption. Similarly, policy-making and implementation are different entities. While policy may court our particular interests for some desired end, it's as good as raw batter until implemented. As a budding entrepreneur, my mother recognized that embarking on a business venture requires support--an "entrepreneurship ecosystem" --from several different arenas to achieve even moderate success.
Many of the women entrepreneurs we work with at YTF remind me of my mother because they are pursuing their business ambitions as a vehicle to achieve a bigger dream: to give their children more opportunities than they were afforded.
My mother was my mentor, my guide and a true example of how to hold your own with courage, dignity and grace, regardless of what life throws at you. She taught me to pray always, and provided the best example of unconditional love I have ever known.
In January, my mother visited with me. During that visit, she handed me a binder containing two papers she wrote while at Harvard. The first was called, "Education as a Social Goal; Access in Defining Women's Role," while the second was entitled, "Educational Media in the Development of National Unity." She didn't ask me to read the papers, but rather just handed them to me. Mentally, I added the material to my bucket list of things to read--soon.
On June 16th, my mother passed away unexpectedly. To wake up knowing that someone who has always been there isn't there anymore is about as devastating as life gets. I flew down to her home this week to help handle some of her final wishes, and I brought the binder along. On the flight, I began reading and didn't stop until I completed all 300 pages.
In the early '90s, while at Harvard, my mother communicated ideas about education very similar to the ones we work with today at YTF: the idea that education is a basic human right, the need to educate women entrepreneurs as part of development, and the importance of community media literacy centers. Without realizing it, I have spent the last 15 years of my life putting my mother's dreams into practice, and she got to watch me do it. As the Igbo's would say: "Oyiri nne ya," meaning "Like Mother, Like Daughter."
Knowing this gives me comfort and an understanding that while she is no longer on this Earth, my mother is watching over me and will continue to guide and give direction to our work at Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF). Though I feel that I still need her to help me through this life, her work, with me, is complete.
In celebration of her life and legacy, we announce today, July 17th, on what would have been her 67th birthday, the Madame Frances Pearl Cash-Ugwuegbu Memorial Fund for Women Entrepreneurs.
She lives on. She does.