Yann Borgstedt: “We want to empower women in male-dominated societies”

‘Womanity’ is a partner of the Julius Baer Foundation and supports women in different parts of the world. Founder Yann Borgstedt talks about the history of his organisation, the ‘Girls can Code’ project in Afghanistan and the ambassadorial role of educated women who, through their professional activities, contribute to a gradual change of mentality in this traditionally male-dominated society.

Yann, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Born and raised in Geneva, I have questioned the meaning of life from an early age and have been interested in a range of spiritual topics. There was a period when I even considered completely immersing myself in religious studies and becoming a priest. In the end I opted for a more common degree in entrepreneurship – yet, in order to better grasp human nature, I combined it with psychology.

Nowadays, I reside in Dubai with my family, because this city is situated within a reasonable commute from my different projects, located predominantly in the Middle East, India and Afghanistan. 

You founded ‘Womanity’ back in 2005. How did it come about?
I have been very fortunate in life including being born in a stable and safe country like Switzerland; I obtained a good and free education and today have a successful career. I strongly believe that if life gives you a lot, you have to give back. A trip to Morocco and a meeting with local NGOs in 2005 made me decide to focus on girl and women empowerment: when I experienced first-hand the precarious living conditions of many women in this male-dominated country, I renamed my charity ‘Womanity’. Since then, I have concentrated on improving the living conditions of female adolescents and young women.

Yann Borgstedt and students in Afghanistan

Your organisation operates in very different and culturally diverse parts of the world, namely Brazil, India, Afghanistan and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Why do you focus precisely on these countries and areas?
Simply because in all of them women are disadvantaged in one way or another: in Saudi Arabia with its comparably good education system, there are challenges for women’s employment, whereas in Afghanistan illiteracy is very high. Brazil suffers from domestic violence and a high crime rate, often enough with women being affected. This is why we run different programmes for different countries to best meet the most pressing local needs.

The Julius Baer Foundation supports one of Womanity’s projects, Girls can Code (GCC), which enables young women in Afghanistan to qualify for employment in web development and database management. How did the collaboration with Julius Baer come into being?
I have known Christoph Schmocker, the General Manager of the Julius Baer Foundation, for a long time, and he is very familiar with my organisation. Since our work is very much a people’s business and strongly based on mutual trust, Julius Baer agreed to establish a three-year cooperation with ‘Womanity’.

Our graduates also contribute to changing the widespread image of women in their regions.

Education levels in Afghanistan are low and illiteracy rates extremely high. Girls are particularly affected, as 60% of them never attend any school. Would it thus not make a much bigger impact to support basic schooling for many rather than higher IT education for the lucky few?
You are making a perfectly valid point; however, we did not consider a nationwide basic education programme merely for security reasons. Whereas in the Kabul region the situation is relatively stable, there are large parts of the country that are no-go areas for my staff and me.

Our initial programme was on girls’ education with more than 30,000 girls going through our programme each year for the last 10 years, but we realised that we also needed to create employment, thus laying our focus on the growing information and communications technology (ICT) sector. A qualification in ICT is attractive also for female professionals, and thanks to partnerships with local companies and businesses, there will be good job opportunities.

What are the particular challenges for your organisation in Afghanistan?
Let me just mention two: the first and foremost is security. Even in Kabul you have to move very carefully, and that’s why we work in safe provinces. It would be simply irresponsible to start a project in other, insecure parts of this huge country and thereby expose my staff to life-threatening risks. The second point is mentality-related: our graduates also contribute to changing the widespread image of women in such regions, as large parts of society still limit them to their traditional roles of housewives and mothers. Insofar, we also want to empower women in male-dominated societies.

How many people are involved in this particular project and what are their roles?
There are five people working onsite for Womanity, all of them locals who underwent thorough training. The team leader is in charge of the group. He is the contact for the different authorities, with the Ministry of Education as the most important partner. Other colleagues deal with the actual curriculum and the organisation of the courses. Finally, the programme coordinator takes care of the relationship with parents, by presenting them our activities and getting their buy-in to encourage their daughter to pursue higher education.

Have there been moments when you considered giving up GCC?
No, not for a second! There are so many needs, and it is great to empower Afghan girls. GCC has a great role to play in changing mindset in what women can be and do. Our goal is to inspire women and for the government to get inspired by our programme to scale it. I see our engagement in Afghanistan as a long-term project anyhow.

Have there been particular success stories over the past 14 years that you fondly recall?
We have many success stories, but my favourite is the one of a young girl who said: “Now that I am educated, I feel that I can be the first female president of Afghanistan!”

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