In my last Woman in Mobile Spotlight, I featured an edtech teacherpreneur who has devoted the past few years to making mobile learning products with research-based impacts in Ireland and beyond. In this edition, I will share highlights from Amone Gbedemah, a qualified engineer and senior executive in a London-based mobile network operator.
Ronda Zelezny-Green (RZG): How did you come to work in mobile telecommunications?
Amone Gbedemah (AG): I’ve always been very curious about how things work, and specifically how technology works. I remember when I was growing up, without my parents being aware of it, I would dismantle things in my house and then reassemble them. Video players, radios… I was constantly tinkering around with things – so I was always very interested in that. I guess it wasn’t all that surprising that I ended up studying engineering at university. I went to the University of Bristol and did a four-year course there, which also involved the opportunity to study in France.
I remember that there were 10 women in the entire engineering department in the year that I joined; this was 10 out of 70 or 80 students. I was very much in the minority. But I enjoyed the course, I loved Bristol as a city, and I loved studying in Paris. Engineering taught me about logical thinking, the ability to structure information, and the ability to problem solve. It was an early experience learning to collaborate in a largely male environment which set me up very well for working in mobile.
RZG: Can you explain how your career in mobile telecommunications has progressed?
AG: I chose to join Vodafone in 2003 on a technology graduate scheme. It was a two-year program designed to fast-track talent through the organization, and give employees an overview of how business was done. In the end, I worked in engineering for a year before moving into marketing, working as a product manager. This was a good way to transition between technical skills to more commercial skills because you still need to have a good technical understanding as a product manager to be able to translate customers’ requirements into working products. When you’re a woman working in technology, it is an asset if you are able to understand how technology works and you’re able to talk about in the same terms.
After the graduate scheme I moved into product management and worked in that area for about six years total. Then, with Vodafone, I moved out to work in Ghana for two and a half years to help the company introduce their brand to the market. My family are originally from Ghana and although I was born in the UK and had lived half my life in both places, I had never worked in Ghana. I hadn’t had the opportunity, so I jumped at it! That was the first time I became a real senior leader. I went out initially for six months just to dip my toes in. But when I got there, I was made responsible for introducing all the propositions that Vodafone launched the brand with in-market. I was really terrified of the prospect of doing it because, to that point, all of my experience had been putting products together for business customers. I hadn’t had anything to do with proposition management and brand management on the consumer side. I thought about it and said “If I don’t do it, I am sure they will find someone else to do it.” I always say to people “don’t be afraid to jump in at the deep end”. More times than not, you will learn to swim!
RZG: What was it like to move from working in the UK to working in Ghana?
AG: Accepting the role was a pivotal moment because it was an opportunity for me to work in an emerging market for the first time. I find that telecommunications tend to play a much more significant role in emerging markets than it does in more mature markets. In the time that I worked in Ghana, I saw how the introduction of data – the ability of people to use the internet on their phones – really made a difference to people’s lives and communities. The role that I played when I was working for Vodafone at the time allowed me to contribute to shaping that changing landscape, and that was truly energizing – being able to make a difference to help people thrive. That’s why I have continued to work in the emerging markets space since then.
I actually went back to a regional role at the Vodafone Group working as a business manager to the CEO for the Africa, Middle East, and Asia-Pacific regions. That’s another type of role that I recommend people get exposure to because it’s an opportunity to really learn from the learning curve of a CEO firsthand. It’s a chance to get involved in projects across multiple markets, with millions of customers and billions of pounds in revenue. These roles don’t come up very often and they are a lot of hard work. But what I got out of it was early insight into what it’s like to be CEO at a regional level, the kinds of challenges and opportunities faced. It confirmed that this was a path I wanted to continue to follow.
RZG: Can you explain what led you to Millicom (also known as Tigo)?
AG: Forward thinking around the digital space and creating the digital lifestyle. It was also because, importantly for me, the company was very passionate about driving growth in Africa and using telecoms and technology as a platform by which they would do that. The company is very agile, which means that Millicom is more likely to take a look at opportunities that bigger telecommunications companies may not feel as comfortable pushing forward. That was a very attractive recipe for success. I felt that it would be great to work in a company that was that passionate about bringing digital to the forefront in emerging markets.
RZG: A lot of the women who follow my blog come from a non-traditional background in technology. What advice would you give to a woman who doesn’t have the technical background but wants to work with a mobile network operator?
AG: Regardless of what kind of background you have, when you work in a business it is really important to make sure that the consumer is at the heart of what you’re doing and drives the way that you design your products and offerings for customers purchase and engage with. Actually, I think as long as you remain true to who your customer is and what your customer wants, and you’re able to translate that into a product or proposition, and eventually into revenue, then you’re on a good path.
Is an engineering background important? It definitely helps, but I don’t see it as a hindrance if you don’t have an engineering background. As professionals, we’re all constantly evolving. Recently, having not touched any code in over ten years, I did a refresher course on learning how to code in a day. It really reminded me how much I enjoy coding. My advice would be that it is never too late to take on a new skill. Although I don’t think that it is necessarily true, if you really feel that not having an engineering background is a disadvantage, then do a course or get some more exposure to people in the ecosystem. Get more confident with the vocabulary people use when they talk about technology, and that really makes a big difference.
RZG: In your work with Millicom, do you have a moment that stands out as one where you feel like you really made an impact for other women in mobile?
AG: I try to create an environment that is empowering for the teams that I work with. Working at Millicom, I think I did a total of 21 trips last year to six markets in Africa. What was important when I did that was to spend time just meeting customers but also spend time with the team in operations. It was striking that regardless of which market I went to, women were always a minority in the team. So they would say to me that it is really inspiring to see a woman in a telco company at a senior level because they thought that it is actually possible for them to get there themselves. That was really humbling to hear because it’s a lot of responsibility to set an example for others; not just in terms of being in the role but also how I am perceived as a leader. It is important to me that I set a good example.
I would make time on those visits to spend time with the female members of the team and to share my experiences with them. Even interacting with customers, it was important for them to see a bit more diversity in the organizations that they work with because it shows that there is better representation of their own needs within the organization.
RZG: Have you felt that you have been able to bring different perspectives in your commercial role with Millicom because you are a woman?
AG: I like to think so. I think that the importance of building a diverse team is that you try to pull in more opinions and viewpoints, and try to close any blind spots that you may have yourself. My observation is that people tend to build teams in their own image. What I try to consciously avoid doing is building teams that look the same as me. I try to get as many diverse people, viewpoints, and backgrounds on my team. But it is not easy because I believe most people have a natural, unconscious bias towards surrounding themselves with people who are very similar. I know for sure that I don’t have all the answers. So, I like to surround myself with people who can actually help me to see those answers. The best leaders spend 90% of their time listening and 10% of their time talking.
RZG: My last question is what’s next for you? Do you have any idea where you’re headed or what you plan to achieve?
AG: I am definitely very interested in how consumer markets are shifting focus from pure telecoms into an ecosystem that is a lot richer. Really anything that is in the online space is something that I would like to get more exposure to and I’d like to contribute further to. Whether it’s online platforms, social media, or app development, I think that is a really interesting and exciting space. I would like to help to push the boundaries in terms of how technology can continue to transform lives. I would like to try to get exposure to roles that will continue to allow me to influence the ecosystem and work as a leader in a space that is still very largely male-dominated, and to encourage more women to come into that space.
In my last “Woman in Mobile” spotlight, I featured a woman working at the global level on mobile policy with a focus on mobile learning and mobile health. In this edition, we will take a look at a woman named Joanna Norton, who is leading a mobile learning startup called Keywords English. Joanna shares with us some of the ups and downs of being a “teacherpreneur”, and gives advice for others looking to jump into the edtech startup space.
Ronda Zelezny-Green (RZG): I know your work well in mobile learning entrepreneurship from Keywords English. Can you speak more about that for my readers?
Joanna Norton (JN): Keywords English is a research-based approach to STEM literacy. It is based on the premise that the academic language of science is a barrier to approximately 30% of people in the K6-K9 school levels (high primary, low secondary grades). But there is a struggle in engaging science teachers in the area of STEM literacy because it is something they feel the English teachers should be dealing with, and therefore they just get on with the science. I have been doing a lot of capacity building in this area. I have been working attract funding. There’s funding to extend the project and to extend the prototype into a more interactive experience where we incorporate additional activities on pronunciation, gaming and collaborative learning. This will also be supported by a new online service which will be available in January 2016.
The idea here is looking at a concept approach to STEM literacy. We know that many people have a reluctance to learning STEM – not just girls but also boys. They just don’t like it and can’t relate to it. The website will look at how can we rebrand STEM and how can we show that STEM is relevant in music, dance, and maths, and in other subject areas. It will be a cross-curricular approach to STEM literacy.
RZG: How did you come to be involved as an entrepreneur in mobile learning?
JN: My background is as a teacher, and as an entrepreneur – so “teacherpreneur” is the correct term I should be using. I started using mobile technology for teaching and learning around 1994. At the time we were using feature phones and I found it very successful in terms of engaging young learners who had literacy needs and were disengaged from formal classroom teaching. While it was a formal classroom setting, what I used to do was text them, for example, key items of language that I was going to ask them about in class the next day. They were required to learn one or two concepts or spend some time reading. Gradually, they started to get the answers correct because they obviously had researched and they became a lot more open and responsive to using their mobile device in class. When I saw how successful this was, I thought there must be some way of applying this methodology to address the development of STEM literacy given that it is a huge challenge for young people who want to go on and pursue these types of careers. STEM literacy is a huge barrier to this group in terms of making academic progress.
RZG: What kind of challenges have you had as an mLearning teacherpreneur with getting your product out and raising awareness about its benefits?
JN: I think one of the issues, particularly in the developed world, is that teachers are very cynical about technology. We have made massive investments in hardware but the level of investment in teacher training and upskilling is minimal. So in terms of getting people to engage with what I’m doing, it is definitely an uphill struggle. Teachers, once you break through that barrier, can be very receptive. It is the decision makers themselves who are very difficult to reach. To try to bring in any level of innovation or creativity is a massive hurdle that you have to overcome.
RZG: Do you have any recommendations for other entrepreneurs who may be interested in the edtech space?
JN: Personally, I wouldn’t recommend education! The decision makers differ in every single school. The most innovative person in the school also differs. We don’t have a very good history of collaboration within and across schools – not that it doesn’t happen because it does – but we don’t have scales or models in this area. We’re used to working on our own a lot more, you might work with teachers in your own department, but beyond that it [collaboration] doesn’t really go that far. This all makes the introduction of technology an uphill struggle in terms of how you convince people of its efficacy.
There’s also a definitive lack of research-based efforts of what mobile technology can do. When you’re trying to convince decision makers of what technology can do, you really need a one to three year study behind you. That’s really difficult to do because it costs money and investors are not interested in funding research – they want profits. Unless you have some kind of state funding that gives you the breathing space to develop capacity within schools, within teachers, and within networks to actually get some kind of product out there, then get feedback, make changes [to an edtech intervention], come out with version two… and then maybe you have something that people are willing to invest their own time in. But that’s lacking. I think the ecosystem is not joined up. What you have is numerous entrepreneurs going around and getting nowhere, really.
RZG: How would you say the lack of research on mobile learning impact affects your work more broadly? Is it the entrepreneur’s responsibility to get more research?
JN: It definitely needs to be a partnership between research institutes and entrepreneurs. I think we need to step back and collectively think about what we’re trying to do. While there is a lot of research out there – and I’ve read a lot of it myself – you will find that the overwhelming majority of teachers on the ground don’t engage with it. Because technology isn’t really embedded in initial or ongoing teacher training, the opportunity to upskill teachers on an ongoing basis is not really utilized.
When you go to some of these edtech sessions, it’s all about using the tools but not about why you should use them and the research behind the effectiveness of that tech tool. If a school was going to invest a couple of million of state money, then you have to be able to present them with data. We’re not able to do that yet. I think there’s a real deficit in the [edtech entrepreneurship] model because of that. Therefore, many teachers and decision makers don’t trust it. Is it entirely up to the entrepreneurs? No, I don’t think so, because we have so many other things to be doing and there are people who are a lot more qualified to carry out the research. There needs to be long-term studies in what technology and teacher training can achieve.
RZG: Where do you see Keywords English heading in the next few years?
JN: Well we will have a full working model and a full working concept ready by the start of the 2016 academic year. There are schools in the UK and the US that are signed up to use it and give feedback. Then hopefully pending the success of the feedback, we can extend it into other STEM areas. We will start off with biology. The website and teacher training approach, which will start in January, will be followed up by a three-month period of testing, getting feedback from teachers, going into schools, and training teachers in the areas of STEM literacy, creativity, and innovation. We will provide teachers with the tools in terms of how they can extend STEM literacy within their subject area, and also how they can work with their colleagues across disciplines to address these learning issues.
RZG: Do you have any advice to women who might be considering anything related to mobile learning as a career?
JN: It is really interesting because overall, women are the predominant gender involved in education. But yet when you go up through the ranks and to the decision makers, they [women] become fewer in number. I think there’s something that can be done about teachers coming together, even at a very local level, and using technology to get the word out there [about becoming part of the decision makers]. Entrepreneurship, especially in the edtech space, should be more collaborative because there are so many barriers that we need to address. It is very difficult to do that as an individual, whether male or female. People who are interested in doing edtech entrepreneurship should do research on working models because there is a very high failure rate in this area – it is very difficult and expensive.
To access the Keywords English app on an iPhone, please follow these links:
In our first “Woman in Mobile Spotlight,” we featured a computer scientist who created multilingual mobile-based STEM learning tools. In this edition we are proud to feature a woman whose skills in mobile policy were first honed while working for former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Angela Baker, Senior Manager for Qualcomm® Wireless Reach™, shares with us how she leveraged her education in international relations to help shape an exciting career in tech, which includes providing government guidance for mobile health and mobile learning initiatives worldwide. We think she’s amazing because how many people can say they have contributed to improving maternal health in Morocco with mobile ultrasounds?!
How did you get into the mobile industry?
My background is primarily in politics. I worked on political campaigns and in government for 10 years. In 2008, I worked for Secretary Clinton on her presidential campaign. An opportunity opened up about two years later to work for Secretary Clinton at the U.S. State Department in her Innovation and Technology Office – an office she created when she came in as Secretary. It, was a small office, but she was making a big push for the use of technology in diplomacy. I came on board to do planning and project management, and that was when I became really interested in technology. That was in 2011 and during my time there, we did a lot of cool things, like work on internet freedom and building the capacity of NGOs through the use of technology in a program called TechCamp. […]. I co-led a technology delegation to Brazil, which included a woman from Qualcomm with whom I really hit it off. When I decided to leave the State Department in 2012, I reconnected with my Qualcomm contact, who happened to be hiring for a senior position on the Wireless Reach team, which was very serendipitous.
Coming from a non-traditional mobile industry background, how does what you studied apply to what you’re doing now with Qualcomm?
Wireless Reach is a strategic corporate social responsibility program (CSR). It’s unique to other CSR programs, as we’re housed in the Government Affairs division. A lot of our programs are done in conjunction with foreign governments because we’re funding projects around the globe in the areas of education, health, entrepreneurship, public safety and the environment. For the most part, those are issues in which governments are interested. My Bachelor’s degree is in International Relations and my Master’s degree is in International Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
For my Master’s, I studied about the effect of conflict on women, and now I oversee the mWomen vertical at Qualcomm, which focuses on women and mobile. My background and experience are helpful, because when working with different governments, we believe mobile can have a positive impact on the economic and educational issues they are facing. I think there’s a big tie-in to the traditional path of study I took to the work I am doing now.
Do you have a favorite project that you’re working on at Qualcomm?
We have a really great program in Morocco where we trained ultrasound technicians to take ultrasounds, and transmit the images over the 3G network. This enables doctors or ultrasound technicians in rural areas to get second opinions on images in a faster, more cost efficient way. It started as an effort to help prevent placenta previa which is a fairly common condition in pregnancy, but because it often goes untreated, it results in maternal health problems. The only way to detect those issues are with an ultrasound. We ran the first trial in a few rural areas of Morocco. There were a number of successes that came from it, the main one being that the amount of time to share ultrasound images and to get a diagnosis significantly decreased. Because of the success, the Government of Morocco has agreed to scale the project to ten health clinics around Rabat and eventually nationally over the next few years.
What is your favorite mobile learning app, one that you use yourself?
I use a lot of social media to get access to information. I don’t push a lot out on Twitter but it’s where I go for news and information and I follow a lot of mobile leaders. Snapchat is sort of growing in that area and people are sharing information on that platform.
What advice do you have for other women who might be interested in pursuing a career in mobile technology?
We’re trying to do a lot of work at Qualcomm to help build the pipeline of girls and women who study STEM. We’re trying to focus early on because research has shown that girls start to lose interest around middle school.]. For girls and women interested in mobile tech, I would say that there are a lot of real world applications. We have this preconceived idea of an engineer or a coder, sitting in a room, crunching numbers all day or reading lines of code. I love my job because we’re really looking at how we can leverage the benefits of mobile for social good. If you are a girl or a woman and you want to change the world, or you want to help women and girls, the mobile device is going to be the way to do that. What better time to study mobile technology than now?