Company: Yaa W.
Founder: Diana Wilson
Interviewers: Jack Freed and Michael Eaton Byrd (Entrepreneurship and Innovation Co-Chairs)
Tell me a little bit about how your background has influenced you to start Yaa W.
My name is Diana Wilson and I am a fourth-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in Sociology and Women, Gender, Sexuality studies. I have a strong background in liberal arts that has allowed me to understand and analyze social issues, which is particularly relevant for Yaa W. I have also had the opportunity to have some great professional experiences with JP Morgan Chase & Co, McKinsey & Co., Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Google, PwC, etc. Overall, I feel like the best opportunities in my life have come through my education and through my professional experiences, which have equipped me with the skills needed to be successful. I felt it on my spirit that, there must be a way to impart these same experiences and lessons to college women in my homeland of Ghana. I know that in Ghana, there are some professional pipelines, but they are usually extremely male and upper-class dominated. The people that needed the help the most were not getting it. I came up with the idea for Yielding Accomplished African Women (Yaa W.) to make sure that women in Ghana who need help the most are being reached, and that marginalized people have access to opportunities and the knowledge needed to be successful in finance and technology careers.
What is the problem Yaa W. addresses? What are some of the cultural/societal barriers women face in Ghana?
A quote that is the basis for the program is by Adrienne Rich. She says, “the most notable fact that culture imprints on women and girls is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one women can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of possibility.” And so, in Ghana, there are less amounts of women in STEM as a result of societal and cultural barriers. There was a recent study done saying that less than 30% of STEM professionals in Ghana are women. And most women in Ghana work in jobs in agriculture, the domestic workforce, and informal jobs. If women participated in the economy on an equal basis as men, there would be huge increases in overall productivity and living standards. And although this is a global issue, it is especially relevant to Ghana, as women are precluded from certain financial and technical industries as a result of the patriarchal society. If Yaa W. can help women in Ghana learn how to get jobs and opportunities with the help of our corporate sponsors, we would be able to start breaking down these barriers bit by bit. Of course, this is a huge social issue, but if we can help just a few girls, it would impact entire communities and in the future hopefully impact the entire nation.
How did Yaa W. get started? Who has been most impactful on your venture?
I started Yaa W. after I went on a UVA study abroad program to Ghana and Morocco. While there, I thought to myself that there was so much I could be doing for my country. From that point, I felt a nagging in my spirit to find a solution, to do something about it. Once I got back to UVA, I spoke with another fourth-year student and we started brainstorming ideas. We came up with an initial program that was way too broad because we were trying to fix the entire education system in Ghana. It wasn’t working. After iterations, we boiled it down to a more focused program that prepares young women from universities in Ghana to pursue careers in finance and technology. The most influential advisor towards Yaa W. has been Kwadwo Sarpong. He started a nonprofit called African Research Academy in Ghana in his senior year at Emory University. He has been guiding me on his initial steps, how to market, get grants etc.
What does the program consist of?
The program is split into four main phases. The first phase is the professional toolkit, where students are taught how to build resumes, cover letters and make online profiles on LinkedIn. The second phase is technical training, where women are split into finance and tech tracks and are taught the fundamental skills to be successful in these industries. The third phases is the women’s empowerment phase. We have amazing people lined up to speak during this week, including the Ghanaian Minister of Civic Education. The primary goal will be to inspire hope and belief in these women that they are capable of pursuing careers in traditionally male dominated industries. The last phase is the innovation challenge. We are partnering with local hospitals and small businesses to allow participants to use the skills they have gained over the summer to do small projects that will enhance their community. For example, we are partnering with a Ghanaian marketing firm to place a finance intern on their team for the summer.
What are some of the organizations you have partnered with?
Our partners are the University of Ghana Legon. We are working with them to conduct our program. Our partners for the tech track are Mobile Web Ghana and Ghana Code Club. Through these organizations, we are ensuring our curriculum is culturally relevant and we will use their expertise to fine tune the curriculum. Lastly, our business track partner is Care Investments, an organization started by a student at Howard University to help students understand personal finance, investment principles and market opportunities.
What personal experiences or character traits have helped you most with Yaa W.? How do you think your experience as a first gen Ghanaian American has helped you with Yaa W.?
Both of my parents are immigrants from Ghana, and they instilled in my siblings and me a love for Ghanaian culture and for our homeland. I believe the millennial generation of Ghanaians’ are privileged because our parents made enormous sacrifices to immigrate to the United States in order to give us the opportunities that we have today, such as attending a school like UVA. It is our duty to use the knowledge we have acquired to go back to our homeland and use our gifts and talents. Along with my Ghanaian culture and background, my status as a lower income student has been extremely influential to my success with Yaa W. I was born and raised in Newark, NJ and what I believe saved me was my education. I had guidance counselors and teachers go out of their way to help me apply for scholarships, choose classes, and to guide my educational experience. With that, I was able to come to UVA and have been privileged to learn so much here and network with people at internationally recognized Fortune 100 companies. Ultimately, I believe that my identity as a Ghanaian-American and my education (specifically my teachers and guidance counselors) have been the most impactful on me.
What are you most proud of with Yaa W., what has been your biggest accomplishment?
The responses I have received about Yaa W. from individuals in Ghana is something I am really proud of, as they are all very excited about the program. We have talked with the Minister of Civic Engagement in Ghana, the Attorney General in Ghana, the CFO for IBM Middle East and Africa, all just by sending them an email. From the responses we have received, it is exciting to know that you are doing the right thing. The fact that we will be running the program this summer with such great people is something I am extremely proud of our team for.
As a founder, what are your long-term goals for Yaa W.?
Create Yaa W. institutions across Africa
Establish Partnerships with undergrad institutions in Africa to gain more participants
Close gender gap in economic participation
Build a strong, resourceful network for African women
Develop the next generation of female leaders in Africa
Enhance Africa’s economic productivity by pushing more women into STEM jobs
Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs at UVA? What do you think makes a successful entrepreneur?
You should just do it. Take the time to plan, but don’t worry or obsess over the plan. Things will fall in line once you put sufficient effort into it. Failure is predictable, success is also predictable. Make decisions that will set up your venture for success. Be confident, work hard and be persistent.