Today’s STEM WOW, Freda Yawson, received her Master in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University.
She has a B.Sc.E in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan where she focused on product and automotive design working with General Motors and Toyota.
Through policy and in practice, Freda has worked towards her passion, which lies in the application of engineering and technology to drive innovation and solve nagging development problems in Africa.
From a policy perspective, she has worked as Senior Programs Manager at Accra-based think tank, The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), with government, development partners and other stakeholders to address key challenges in skills and manufacturing.
Her international development experience has also given her the opportunity to work in a number of African countries including Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.
In practice, she has worked in the automotive industry (with two US OEMS), Columbia University Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project, Engineers Without Borders, and Blue-Lab Michigan focusing on water purification in the Dominican Republic, Ghana and Honduras.
Speaking to Nsesa Foundation, Freda spoke of how her love for science and encouragement from role models while growing up pushed her into STEM.
“By the age of 9, I had already decided that I wanted to become an astronaut, an engineer and a doctor like Mae Jemison (the first black female astronaut).
“I also got involved in the Young Astronauts club at my school, pre-college engineering programs at local universities and applied for high school internships also exposed me to engineering in the real world.
“All these experiences exposed me to the practical applications of engineering, its impact to society, and I found that I really enjoyed it.”
Freda when asked of her greatest achievement jokingly said “getting through engineering school” but added ” starting the Innovate Ghana Competition.”
“One of my biggest burdens has been to share the knowledge I had received and empower the next generation with the tools to make a meaningful impact to Ghana and Africa with STEM as a tool”, she said.
The Innovate Ghana Workshop and Design Competition began in 2013 to encourage Ghanaian students to apply practical engineering knowledge to national development issues.
Under GREMKAY International, a company started by her father, Innovate Ghana focuses on concepts of Design for Development, Engineering and Entrepreneurship to empower the youth to create solutions to the needs of today.
To date the program has exposed over 200 high school and tertiary students to practical problem solving and innovation.
Freda admitted that although she grew up in a very supportive environment, the difficulty of the field of Mechanical Engineering did challenge her.
“As an undergraduate studying at the University of Michigan, I was one of 3 black girls in a class which had less than 30% women overall. Even though I was a minority, it felt great to be able to know that I could do engineering just like any of the guys as long as I applied myself to it.
“The fact that I was one of few women made it even more special. Mechanical engineering at the nation’s #4 ranked school was in itself a feat, and for the first time I was not at the top of my class. It required a re-set in my mentality, I realized that it wasn’t about being smart, because all of us there were smart. It was about how hard you worked.
“Whether or not I felt like studying I learned that in order to succeed, I would need discipline to accomplish my goal. This lesson was one of the most important lessons I learned and has helped me throughout my career even into the international development field.”
Freda finally encouraged women in STEM to not fear math or science as STEM gives the tools, mindset and approach to solving the world’s problems.
“Africa especially needs people who are curious and interested in applying these skills to our infrastructure needs. If you see something that needs to be fixed, figure out how, don’t wait for someone to do it for you.
“It’s not about what men can study and what women can’t, it’s about all of us together working to solve our own problems.
“If you are curious about engineering or any other STEM field, find someone who works in that position, ask questions, go and see what they do, and find out how they got there. You can achieve whatever you put your mind to.
“The sky is no longer the limit, the universe is, so what are you waiting for? Go for it!”