Planting the Seeds of STEM

We like pushing boundaries, in our work, in our lives, and in our communities. So when we learned about the State Department’s TechWomen program—which empowers emerging female leaders from Africa and the Middle East in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)— we jumped at the chance to push the boundaries of our geography as well.

Last year, the TechWomen program matched seventy-eight women with companies around the San Francisco Bay Area; three were paired with mentors at Genentech. Hand-picked from a field of nearly 2,000 applicants, the women in the program have ambitious plans for their futures.

Our three candidates—Esther Ewke, Joy Shivo, and Nermin Ahmad—spent several weeks with Genentech mentors at our South San Francisco campus. The program culminated in a trip to Washington D.C., where all participants shared in activities hosted by the State Department.

Tomorrow's Leaders, Today

Esther Ewke, a Medical Officer at the University of Nigeria Teaching hospital, arrived with raw data she’d collected from patients in the field. She was looking for some help analyzing and packaging it in a way that could help policy makers and investors make evidence-based healthcare decisions. She was supported by a team of three mentors from our oncology team, including Melissa Brammer, Group Medical Director and Vinona Bhatia, Associate Medical Director. The trio helped introduce her to the people and technologies that could help transform her data into a compelling package.

Joy Shivo, a Senior Operations Process Engineer at Kenya Petroleum Refineries Ltd, worked with Carla Boragno, Vice President of Site Services. Together they evaluated vendors interested in developing an energy management dashboard and scoreboard for the company. Not only could those tools paint a picture of energy usage, but they could also provide real-time data and trending information crucial to identifying and addressing energy issues. “I was happy to come and make an impact,” she said.

Genentech people are very open to discussion,” she said. “They discuss big issues and they listen to each other.

Nermin Ahmad, a Pharmacy Lecturer at the German University in Cairo, was interested in learning about the practical aspects of the analytical instruments we use in our labs. Her mentor—Bianca Liederer, Scientist, Department of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics—guided her towards the right projects including work on several metabolism studies.

While each woman had a different experience at Genentech, they all wanted to learn more: about the industry, about different cultures, about building their skills, and about developing supportive networks to help with their work back home.

Joy was amazed at the open exchange of ideas at Genentech. She explained that people in Kenya were often afraid their ideas would be stolen rather than encouraged. Despite that concern, she still believes that sharing with others is a crucial component in the development of any idea.

Nermin echoed Joy’s sentiments. “Genentech people are very open to discussion,” she said. “They discuss big issues and they listen to each other.”

Big Dreams, Practical Goals

As part of their involvement in the program, each participant also attended professional development workshops and networking events aimed at preparing them to pursue their goals upon returning home. In addition to their inspiring professional goals, Esther, Joy, and Nermin looked forward to serving as role models and mentors for other young women.

Now back in Nigeria, Esther plans to aggressively pursue funding for a wellness center containing a women’s clinic, mini pharmacy and gymnasium. The center will conduct health screenings, offer health education and promote healthy lifestyles. It will also serve as a center where rural, less-privileged women can learn income-producing skills. She plans to use the data management and packaging skills she learned at Genentech to encourage public policy support of health initiatives. “This is my way to give back to society,” she said.

Joy plans to open an energy sustainability firm that will help Kenyans gain access to renewable energy. She expects to start small, connecting about 20 homes to solar energy. Over time she hopes to expand the program. One goal is to put solar panels on schools, bringing electricity into the classroom and making use of technologies that are already available. Her work will help address energy deficiency and waste that are common problems in Kenya.

Nermin plans to establish an entrepreneurship center in Egypt. Her goal is to help students follow a project from initial brainstorm through final funding and execution. “I want my students to be able to create jobs,” she said. She also hopes that Genentech will someday work with her university on a shared project, and is taking back ideas for experiments that students can replicate on a smaller level.    

Inspiration is a Two-Way Street

The talented TechWomen candidates weren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. Their mentors did as well. Carla felt strongly that, “we work in a global organization now, and this is a great opportunity for women to build competencies around global interactions. Supporting emerging leaders is also consistent with our core values and our commitment to diversity.”

Bianca said the experience helped her “see the company through new eyes and appreciate what we have.” TechWomen events also allowed her to connect with other females in STEM professions throughout the Bay Area including Google and Stanford University.

Melissa sees the program as empowering for women at Genentech “because we can see what has been accomplished by others who face far greater challenges.” Her interaction with Esther also made her more aware of the critical need for early disease detection and screening. She sees this as an area of opportunity for Genentech to demonstrate its commitment to the global community.

We work in a global organization now, and this is a great opportunity for women to build competencies around global interactions. Supporting emerging leaders is also consistent with our core values and our commitment to diversity.

Vinona hopes her group can continue to serve as a resource for Esther going forward. She said the experience helped her “gain some perspective on what it’s like to function with so little.”

The Genentech mentors are hopeful that the relationships they’ve developed with their TechWomen counterparts will continue to grow in years to come. In an effort to further assist female leaders in developing areas, they’ve also expressed interest in joining a State Department trip to Rwanda or Morocco scheduled for later this year.

“This was an opportunity to give back in a unique way,” said Carla. “It’s really inspirational what these women are doing in their home countries.”