What you need to know:
A pioneer and co-founder of one of the first innovation hubs in Tanzania, Kinu Hub, Catherinerose has been privileged to witness the growth of many careers and start-ups in the technology space
Dar es Salaam. The Tanzania’s Top Techpreneurs series has been a period of learning like I have never experienced. Taking a life of its own and opening doors I never dreamt to be walking through at the beginning, there is perhaps no one whom I have met that lives, embodies and is the very essence of what a woman in leadership, at any given capacity, should be.
Ms Catherinerose Barretto once wrote: “We should not be gatekeepers, but door openers…” and even before meeting her in person, she actively practised this, opening doors for this project to grow to what it is today, purely on the faith that this young ambitious girl would tell stories worth hearing.
Known to many as CR, she describes herself as a woman working at the nexus of talent, innovation and inclusion. A pioneer and co-founder of one of the first innovation hubs in Tanzania, Kinu Hub, Catherinerose has been privileged to witness the growth of many careers and start-ups in the technology space, and has played a lot of key roles in different organisations, both public and private, that work to advance the growth of technology and inclusion in Tanzania.
Today, many of us know of and enjoy the works of some start-ups and companies that begun their journeys at innovation hubs that Catherinerose has helped to nurture like Shule Direct, Ubongo, Magilatech and Tai Tanzania amongst many.
Catherinerose is also the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer for Binary Labs, an institution dedicated towards retooling and upskilling engineering talent to be able to match today’s in-demand tech skills and tap into careers opportunities.
“My mother is an educator but as a young girl, I never thought I would be working in learning and development. She has helped me to grow in my understanding of the value of education and learning, and I now find myself working in skills development and capacity building with individuals and organisations focused on youth, girls and women across Eastern and Southern Africa,” Catherinerose shares.
“I grew up with a very supportive family that encouraged me to be myself, to speak up and use my voice and not be limited by my gender. There are many women in my family who have broken stereotypes -like my grandmother who ran a successful fire equipment business here in Tanzania,” she narrates.
The encouragement that gender is not a limitation has been crucial in shaping her choices and decisions as she grew up and she attests that it is one of the major drives for what she does today.
“I think it’s important that young women and girls believe that there are no limits to what they can achieve and have access to the support and communities they need to be able to do so,” she adds. “This means that it is up to us now to redefine and work to remove structures and social norms that hold back progress for all people, including girls and women.”
Her experience working in human resources helped her identify some of the challenges that young people face and that further helped her understand the importance of support and, as she puts it, “being a door-opener for others.”
In an ecosystem that is so heavily accustomed to working in isolation or secrecy, sharing of information and opportunities is something that many innovators and start-ups should encourage. Sadly, this is not only limited to the tech space, and though at times gatekeeping is helpful, too much of it is more detrimental in the long run as it holds back or delays a lot of potentially ground-breaking innovations.
“I don’t believe in gatekeeping and I struggle with it sometimes because I see it so much and I’ve experienced it, so it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s important that as we move up, we pull others up also. This includes sharing opportunities, making referrals and connecting people,” she shares.
Over the past decade, growing skills, helping to weave networks and supporting young leaders to grow in their journeys and bring their ideas to life has been a constant and intentional activity for her.
“I approach community building as figuring out and understanding what I care about then finding other people who care about the same things that I do to collaborate and join forces and keep bringing other people along with us,” says Catherinerose. “In doing so, we are actively building trust, sharing values, listening, being empathetic and supportive of each other.”
However, in this technologically advanced era, we have the added advantage of being able to use the opportunities that tech presents, and for Catherinerose, this makes technology an opportune enabler. “Everything created by tech and with tech is done for the benefit of the people,” she explains.
“Therefore, we should not be gatekeepers, but door openers and when you open the door, check to see if the person needs any support to enter and navigate that room.”
“It is people, ideas and then technology - in that order. The aim of technology is to amplify or increase human capacities, not to replace them. Technology should ultimately help us to ‘function’ better and improve people’s lives. And this is why we have to put people first when building solutions and products and understand that tech is an enabler,” she emphasises.
Getting to this point where Catherinerose is now able to actively work in her community as a door-opener was not an easy path. She has had to overcome the constant loneliness that came with being the only woman in the space when she and her partners opened the Kinu Hub, a feeling that stretched out even when Binary Labs opened.
She constantly questioned herself and doubted her belonging and now says that her experience is why she believes we need structures in place that enable girls and women to be actively involved in the leadership equation and why she strives to do this through her work.
“I actively coach and mentor but and I know it does not end there. In our coaching and mentoring, we must also be able to actively put forward names of women for opportunities that they would be great at, especially in the tech space,” she explains.
“Mentorship and coaching for me is about supporting people to cultivate and embrace their own leadership or voice and I have mentored both male and female entrepreneurs in tech, leadership and feminist organisations,” she shares, adding that her view of mentorship is that it is a two-way relationship that has also allowed her to learn and grow from the mentorship interactions.
“I believe a ripple can lead to a mighty wave. If I can support one girl or woman, both her and the people close to her will benefit. She will then support someone else - the ripple creates a mighty wave,” she says.
“We must trust women. Achieving gender equality in any space can only happen when we shift norms, change how systems are designed and remove the biases in their functionality. It takes all of us to contribute towards gender equality through our collective actions. These actions must be intentional efforts that are combined to leverage each one’s strengths. The sum is more than one single individual could achieve,” she adds.
Another crucial insight that Catherinerose emphasises on is the fact that we need to understand the unique ways that women are affected by the world around them because of their gender and then recognise and address these differences.
Women need to be involved not just in design, but decision decision-making. Men and women need to be at the centre of developing solutions to advance gender equality. Technology has to be co-created with girls and women having direct input into solutions that affect and impact them.
“We have to speak up against inequality. Use your voice. When you see or experience inequality don’t be afraid to speak up. Sometimes the voice is a loud roar and other times it is a quiet whisper in an ear or two,” she shares.
“It is also very okay to admit when you do not know how to do something or feel stuck somewhere. Ask for the help you need and you might be surprised at how many people are willing to step up and help you,” she says.
“I recognise that change takes time but I must admit that it is exciting to be able to witness it. There is an exciting shift in ICT policies, not just with what is on paper, but also in understanding what it should look like in real life,” she says, emphasising again that it takes a lot of collaborative efforts for us to be able to have the ideal tech ecosystem
It is one thing to listen to what a person does or intends to do and it is another, to watch them walk the talk. I hope the lessons that Catherinerose continues to teach, not just to me but to every young woman who is fortunate enough to meet her, continue to reverberate for generations to come, especially when women work to find their footing in any space they set their minds to.
Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation