We sat down with our CEO, Karen Yelick, an inspiring businesswoman, mother, and leader to hear her insights on global women’s empowerment and why Indego Africa’s mission is so important to her. Below she shares her thoughts and experiences from her time on Wall Street as a working mother, her travels in Rwanda and Ghana, and the values that shape her leadership.
We hope you enjoy the interview and share your stories of empowerment too! Stay tuned for more coming soon, from the words of our partners in Africa.
What motivated you to leave your successful career on Wall Street and join (& lead!) the Indego Africa team?
Before I joined Indego in 2012, I spent 24 years working at Merrill Lynch, where I had a great career. I loved the excitement, teamwork and intellectual demands of the industry, and felt loyal to the company that had given me flexible working hours when my kids were young.
Ever since I can remember, I have been aware of inequity in the world, especially as it relates to women and children. I knew I wanted to transition into the social good sector at some point in my life, and in the autumn of 2011, three years after the financial crisis, I felt it was the right time. I was also impressed by how much the nonprofit space had evolved over the years and the number of innovative social enterprises that were emerging on the scene.
Indego stood out to me because of its focus on financial empowerment and education for women, as well as its entrepreneurial work culture. I was excited about the opportunity to use my experience working at a big business, to help women in the developing world better manage and grow their small businesses.
What inspires you about Indego Africa's mission? Why do you think empowering women in Africa is so important (and what does empowerment mean to you?)
I am so inspired by helping women in Rwanda and Ghana earn steady income to provide for themselves and their families. The saying that “privilege is what you’ve been spared from,” really resonates with me. I can’t imagine the stress of not knowing where your family’s next meal might come from or knowing that, no matter how much you might want it for your children, a secondary school education will be off the table.
By providing our partners with steady employment and education, Indego is helping women achieve financial independence and the confidence that comes with it. When we first started, the majority of our partners were earning around 25¢ a day. Now, almost 10 years later, it’s amazing to see these same women running their own businesses and becoming leaders in their communities.
For me, empowerment is about equal opportunity. Rights, equality, and empowerment for women are deeply important causes in and of themselves, and they are also important for society more broadly. To move our communities and our countries forward, we have to give women—half the population—access to equal education, resources, work opportunities, you name it.
Tell us about one of your favorite moments or stories from your travels in Rwanda and Ghana.
Wow, there are so many. One of my favorite recent moments was a graduation ceremony we held in Rwanda in June for our Vocational Training students, young women from rural communities, and our Leadership Academy students, who are older, more experienced artisans.
During the ceremony, we alternated between awarding diplomas to the Vocational students and then to our Leadership Academy participants. When they met in the middle of the stage, each pair of women—younger and older—hugged one another.
It was such a beautiful moment to see the intergenerational power of Indego’s work in Rwanda and to see the way these women were united in their passion for education, for artistry, and for contributing to the development of their country.
What are your core values as a businesswoman and leader?
Integrity, empathy, excellence, collaboration, and adaptability.
What advice would you give to women who are navigating building a career and being a mom at the same time?
If you establish a career before starting a family, you’re in a better position to negotiate some flexibility with the demands of your job and raising your children.
Keep your foot in the working world after maternity leave. If you want to scale back, try to transition to part-time or transfer to a less-demanding job with the same company while your children are young and ramp it back up whenever you’re ready. If you leave your job or the working world all together, it can be hard to get back in 3-5 years later.
It takes teamwork between you and your partner to cover all the moving pieces of raising children. Maintain an honest and close relationship with the person who is taking care of your children while you are at work – make them a part of your family.
Make being home for dinner with your family a priority, try to really be there—no cell phones at the table! Engage your children in lively conversation. The consistency of dinner as family time makes a difference. You can always come back to your work later in the evening.
Name a woman (or women), past or present, who you admire or look up to.
Diane Von Furstenberg, for so many reasons.
What is your hope for the future of women's empowerment and equality around the world and in the communities of women Indego Africa supports?
Women around the world deserve access to equal opportunities, equal resources, and equal value in society. Women’s voices need to be heard and their rights respected. As a global community, I hope we will continue to make the empowerment of women a priority and push back against those who may try to move us backwards.
For Indego Africa’s partners, I hope these talented, passionate, and determined women will continue to reach even higher and achieve their dreams—for themselves, for their children, and ultimately for the future generations of women and girls to come after them.