Patricia Obo-Nai: How Can Women Overcome Bias and Prejudice in STEM?
‘Perspectives’ is a joint project of The Beautiful Truth and Leaders on Purpose. During the 5th annual Leaders on Purpose CEO Summit this year, The Beautiful Truth conducted interviews with influential corporate leaders and thought leaders. The goal was to gain insight into their perspectives on purposeful business and answer the question: what actions should our businesses take in the current historical context?
Patricia Obo-Nai is the first Ghanaian woman to be appointed CEO of Vodafone Ghana after 22 years in information technology and telecommunications. Vodafone is committed to delivering telecommunications solutions to help drive change, and Vodafone Ghana has a strongly embedded corporate social responsibility wing, the Vodafone Ghana Foundation, which delivers socially relevant and economically impactful investment programmes on a sustainable basis.
Much of Obo-Nai’s work involves supporting women through technology and financial inclusion to improve their lives. Having studied engineering, she also acts as a role model, encouraging women to follow in her footsteps by pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, while offering work experience and scholarships at Vodafone Ghana.
“If you operate in a community, the survival of the economy and the survival of that community depends on what you do, and it’s so linked to your business and how it thrives.”
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
How does Vodafone Ghana support the communities it covers?
When we deliver mobile services, we bring connectivity to a community. But our impact goes beyond that – we also get devices into the hands of the citizens and show the potential that they offer. We encourage the learning of digital skills and create jobs, while enabling companies to use technology to their advantage through a variety of impactful schemes.
If you operate in a community, the survival of the economy and the survival of that community depends on your actions as a business. It’s a shared concern.
How is Vodafone Ghana supporting women in the community?
There are horrifying maternal mortality rates in our area. We wanted to change that. It costs a woman in Ghana $6 to travel from one town to another to be able to get a pregnancy scan – something that many people take for granted. A lot of women can’t afford this.
We had an idea: by using our communications technology, we could enable women to have a scan done locally and send the results to a specialist doctor elsewhere, without them having to leave their hometown. That’s a basic use of technology. This is not about profits for Vodafone; this is about impacting lives.
How is the company bolstering financial inclusion in Ghana, especially for women?
So often, I see women work hard throughout their life only to have their savings inherited by their husband’s family when he dies. The woman is then left with no income.
By giving women a mobile device and educating them about healthy finances, they can begin to save electronically and build their credit score. This allows them access to microcredit, which provides multiple opportunities for those who are building a family or trying to educate their children. And that’s phenomenal. This is a change we’ve personally seen happen by giving these women access to technology.
“People can copy your products, but nobody can copy the way you drive emotion.”
Alongside the support you provide for the community, you also support women internally at Vodafone. Can you tell us about that?
I am an engineer by profession. I see young girls come straight from primary school, loving science and maths. But as they grow, people put all sorts of social pressure on them to choose a more stereotypically ‘feminine’ career, and so I position myself as a role model. I was born in, grew up and worked in Ghana, and I’m now leading one of the biggest telecom companies in the country.
For women who want to make a difference, there’s no better place to be than STEM. Jobs are being created in STEM without the human capital to be able to drive it – I want to inspire young girls who have the motivation to fill this gap. For example, we’ve begun to introduce students to women already working at Vodafone and now offer scholarships to those who are ready to begin working.
Who inspired you to overcome your barriers?
Girls face so much external noise that tries to pull them down, dictate societal norms and define cultural values. My mother taught me that, as a woman, I come with a lot of strength and am defined by more than my gender. She told me that I was competent, capable and that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to – that there are many people who have done it before me, and I could do it too. What you say to your children stays with them. That was the encouragement my mother gave me, and it is what drives me still.
Particularly for the next generation of female leaders, what would be your advice about overcoming barriers?
It’s okay to be vulnerable; it’s okay to show empathy. I think this is what female leaders are able to bring to the table and I would always advise them to embrace it as a quality and a strength. The fact we’re all talking about purpose is so encouraging because it brings a human side out in all of us.
Nobody can copy the way you make people feel. People can copy your products, but when you connect with your stakeholders and customers, you build loyalty, retention and a better reputation for your company.