Happiness Tillya grew up near Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Her mother was a primary school teacher and her father, a farmer. Happiness' mother spent her life helping others and sharing with her daughter the power harnessed by educated women. Buoyed by her mother's lessons, Happiness became a primary school teacher like her mother. She was then afforded the opportunity to become a full time mentor for girls supported by Room to Read's Girls' Education program. At age 26, Happiness now devotes her days to charting academic performance and teaching life skills, such as critical thinking and decision making, to dozens of girls in rural outskirts of Tanzania's Morogoro region.
Her duties as a "social mobilizer," Room to Read's title for the female mentors we employ, often lead her down roads six miles long on foot across a flooded river, in order to conduct home visits for the young women she is responsible for to ensure their life outside the classroom allows them to prioritize their studies. But despite these arduous travels, Happiness remains true to her name and perseveres with a smile, relishing in the journey to build self-confidence and ensure success for her protégés.
Nearly 8,000 miles away in the U.S., Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In highlights how women and girls are dissuaded from pursuing their goals and becoming leaders in the workforce, their aspirations unsponsored and their voices silenced. Sandberg is shining a light on the need for both women and men to nurture high-potential female peers, eradicating barriers to success. The continuing global dialogue that is ensuing and the nuggets of wisdom and reflection present in related articles, while they may fail to deliver a silver bullet, promises to lead us closer to a solution.
It's exciting to hear the healthy debates about women's leadership and mentorship in conversations I hear during my travels, from San Francisco to London to Johannesburg to Japan. I remember well my years working in the male-dominated field of investment banking and the dearth of much-needed female leadership and mentors. That lack of guidance eventually contributed to my decision to leave the industry and seek a different career path, a common theme for many of my talented female coworkers at the time.
In societies such as sub-Saharan Africa where women are struggling to access their most basic right, education, a different type of "Lean In" circle is surfacing -- a camaraderie that does not play out in boardrooms, but rather in school rooms. The result: thousands of young women working together in their communities to gain an education and explore their professional and personal dreams, proving that when women support women, the world change that we all seek begins to happen.
One of the girls that Happiness mentors is named Anna. Anna is 15 years old, in the 9th grade and being supported by Room to Read's Girls' Education program. Anna has lived with her great aunt and great uncle since she was three years old. Anna's mother, who was 13 years of age when Anna was born, was unable to care for her baby. In addition to attending school, a typical day for Anna includes helping her great aunt make bread buns to sell at the market, cleaning the house, doing laundry, preparing dinner, feeding the family pigs and washing dishes. However, Anna's aspirations lie far beyond her rural home. Bolstered by support and guidance from Happiness, Anna has found a way to see beyond the vision of many family members and her community. She has charted a clear and ambitious plan for her future -- to continue on to university, become a lawyer and advocate for the rights of street children and widows.
"I love helping girls solve their problems through our mentoring sessions," says Happiness. "When a girl I work with like Anna gains self-confidence, makes good choices and gets better grades at school, I feel very proud."
Anna is just one of thousands of girls finding solidarity through sisterhood in societies where glass ceilings are an upgrade from the steel roofs currently in place. For those who are looking to "have it all" as discussed in Anne-Marie Slaughter's article, it is hard to find role models. But I can bet that Anna -- who now has a strong female role model in Happiness, a dream for her future, and the confidence to find success despite unfathomable odds--will have plenty to teach a younger generation, including her future children, when she reaches the "boardroom" stage of her life. After all, "having it all" bears no universal definition. For the 20,000 girls Room to Read supports across Asia and Africa, just being able to step inside a classroom each day offers the freedom for them to even dream of a work-life balance -- a conundrum that so many of us write, lecture and debate about while rarely stopping to realize that there are millions of women that have not been granted that opportunity.
There will always be myriad opinions regarding the ability and access women have to climb the career ladder. The debates and discussions happening are a sign that this is top of mind, that we genuinely recognize the importance of diversity in leadership. I have faith that these conversations will continue to spur much-needed change, so I welcome the discussion as we explore the answers. And, let's always remember to learn something from Happiness and walk that extra mile to help, guide, advise, teach or mentor our fellow womankind. Let's always lean in and lean on each other, by finding our own Happiness.