Meet the Board: Introducing Chantal Kassa

Good afternoon readers! Here at A2E we have decided to give our readers an insight into the board, and team that works behind the scenes and runs the organization. In this first posting in our Meet the board series we spoke with board-member Chantal Kassa, we hope you enjoy it!

How did you come to the US from Cameroon? What is it that you do?

I came to the United States about ten years ago as a Visiting Faculty for a High School Math teaching position. I later pursued two masters degrees; MA in International Development and Social Change, and  MS in Information Technology both from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. I also had the opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations in Worcester, the Greater Boston area and Washington DC. Currently I am a math teacher, volunteer in several programs and run a personal scholarship fund for underprivileged students in my home country of Cameroon. My goal is to create a mentorship program for these youths, so that they can learn how to maximize their talents in an environment where the opportunities are limited.

What brought you to A2Empowerment?

I was moved by A2Empowerment’s commitment to improving the lives of young girls in my home country-Cameroon. Investing in a girl child’s education is investing in a nation and a scholarship program geared for young females in rural and suburban areas is not only strategic but timely. As an Education Specialist by profession, volunteering my time and talents in this amazing initiative is a way of giving back to my community and contributing to a good cause.

My background as a Cameroonian who is living in the United States also gives me a unique ability to understand both sides culturally, socially and systematically. For example, I understand the Cameroonian educational system and therefore I know its need as I was a part of the school system, and on the other hand I am an educator in the United States so I understand the framework of our program and how certain things about it can be applied in other countries like Cameroon. Living in Massachusetts has also given me the opportunity to work closely with Anne Chueng, the President who has an inspiring drive and passion for making sustainable change in the lives of these young girls. It has been humbling to be a board member for two years now and I look forward to many years of collaboration. 

What is your role at A2Empowerment?

It has been two years since I have been working with Anne and A2E. I help as need arises in different program areas such as going through applications and selecting students for the scholarship program, spreading the word about A2E, and brainstorming on different fundraising activities. I also serve as the intern and volunteer coordinator and one long term goals is to lead the efforts on grant writing. So far, collaborating with interns, we have a grant writing template and our next steps will be to tailor it for grants that is within the scope of our work.

Tell us about the AWEP-PAN African Conference in New York that you recently attended?

What is AWEP-Pan Africa? What was the goal of the conference?

African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) is an outreach, education, and engagement initiative that targets African women entrepreneurs to promote business growth, increase trade both regionally and to U.S. markets through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), create better business environments, and empower African women entrepreneurs to become voices of change in their communities.

The program assists African women entrepreneurs in transforming their small and medium businesses by helping in areas of programming, promotion and packaging. AWEP helps women market their products, and also helps them in areas of shipping and distribution. Globally, women make up 50 percent of the global population, 40 percent of the global workforce, yet only own about 1 percent of the world’s wealth. AWEP understands this reality and is striving to provide the platform that will help close the gap with the goal of addressing the millennium development goals of eradicating poverty, and promoting gender equality and empower women.

This Pan-African movement was launched by the Bureau of Education, and U.S. State Department in order to support The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a United States Trade Act that was created to give visibility to African businesses and their leadership. Through this Act the AWEP is making African women aware of the opportunities they have through AGOA.

AWEP Pan-Africa has created a system to connect small business efforts in Africa to a larger entity in an attempt to make use of the AGOA, and maximize opportunities that the US and the global community has given to African women. This conference was running alongside UN conferences, which meant several first ladies and UN officials, Ambassadors and other policy makers were in Africa were in attendance.

The Conference focused on a more holistic approach on how to organize the different AWEP branches in Africa. An organized network and system will undoubtedly help women make efficient use of their resources. Of the critical needs identified, finance appeared to be central to the many challenges African women entrepreneurs face. There needs to be more financial exposure for these women, so that they can access funds necessary to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors. Having public figures like heads of African Central Banks was helpful in this forum, as they committed to pulling their resources to help the best way they can.

Personally, I felt empowered hearing women who use these resources speaking with so much passion. They also expressed how they need their first ladies to help with policy, and help women be better and do better. It was also interesting to see the political and financial aspect of women’s problems and how women lack accountability in the financial sphere, but policy will help them take advantage of this opportunity and build sustainability. Institutional challenges remain an issue, but with better organizing by the female entrepreneurs and more financial literacy skills, they will be in a better position to leverage the opportunity presented by AWEP and AGOA.

AWEP and the opportunities it presents should be directed towards rural women, as they will benefit the most from it. Agrarian women are the ones to look at, as there are more women in rural areas than urban ones. In Africa, women are the backbone of communities and the continent’s greatest potential to unlocking economic growth as they provide the majority of labor with the least amount of resources. AWEP therefore promotes specific industries like textiles, mining, the agriculture business, and craft. It addresses the question of how these African women entrepreneurs can be assisted locally (rural/urban), so that their products can become more visible and exported internationally.

What was A2Empowerment’s role in the conference?

In the A2E Program we have some girls who have pursued higher education, and attending conference like these helps us think of ways we can get our girls to think of income generating activities, and how we can get this mindset to trickle down to girls at the high school level.

It helps us see how we as an organization can tap into AWEP’s resources by preparing our girls and also encourages us to work with rural girls and help them understand financial literacy, as part as our mentoring activities. The idea is to help our girls find passion for something, and then that passion can be translated into an entrepreneurial endeavor so that our girls can capitalize on what they are good at therefore building sustainability.

The conference left me with some questions. How do we get this information to teenagers and help the future generations of women to empower themselves? How do we get the girls to assert themselves and teach them to be proactive? And how we can tap into Cameroon’s own AWEP/AGOA network to see how people have made the most of this opportunity?

Did you meet any interesting people? What was the highlight of the conference?

The highlight of the conference was learning that we can use this opportunity to empower girls and create hope for a young generation of women. We are no longer living in a man’s world so we must create opportunities for women in the most visible fashion.

One of the most interesting people I met was Sheila. She is an Ambassador for Zambia, and believes in women having ‘5-selves’, that is, being accountable for oneself: self-comfort, self-confidence, self-belief, self-esteem, and self-worth. Getting to know all these selves is the journey of knowing oneself, and removing self-doubt and foolishness. We often sell ourselves short and by removing self-doubt this will not happen.

Something I picked up from the conference is that women have always been hardworking, and what they need now is an opportunity to showcase their work. AWEP through AGOA gives great opportunities, but now we must give women the skills and knowledge to take advantage of them. Additionally, AWEP has two seats in the UN, which means their voice can be heard to fight economic injustice with the help of African heads of state.

What piece of advice do you have for young people today who are interested in/want to get involved in Development, Nonprofits and such?

Getting into development requires specific personal values that will make you find your work fulfilling. Those values are based in working for a cause and becoming the agent of change. You also need to be a person with a can-do attitude, whether you intend to work on the ground and in the field or in a more corporate environment. There is no room for a lazy person in development work, and you must know that sometimes you will have to work and not get paid much at all, however the work should be gratifying in itself. You must be a change agent, and try to be part of something bigger than you in order to be part of the development world.