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Episode 8: Dispelling the Gender Myth
Episode 87th July 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
00:00:00 00:18:36

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Her dad taught her gender equality. Now, entrepreneur and alumna of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program Olive Michele Dol-Somse is training and empowering women in the Central African Republic to help them move past gender as an obstacle.


Olive Dol–Somse

I founded Bekilita in:

When I started Bekilita, I would really- I would really wanted to- to offer services in communication. Because, I- I have a major in marketing and, uh, in communication. So, um, I offer two services, communication services and catering initially.

And then little by little I found myself, uh, overwhelmed with people, uh, asking me for help, women asking me for, uh, uh, to link them to job opportunities. Uh, friends asking me to help them find a good seat for helpers. And I was doing it just naturally. I was just trying to help people around me.

And I ... It was not, uh, a paid service. It was just a help, I was just helping. But, uh, it soon became very overwhelming. Because, uh, when things did not work out, uh, uh, both- both parties were complaining. They will, uh- uh, I was at the center of the complaint. So, I found myself trying to- to help both sides. And, uh, it- it took- it took, like it took a lot of- of my time.

But I didn't really see it as a business opportunity. So when I went to the USA for the- the exchange program, I came to realize that I had the opportunity to turn this as a- a social enterprise. And that's- that's when all started. So when I came back, I decided to- to capitalize on this opportunity to- to help people. But to include this as part of my- my business.

So, I started training the women before linking them to the ... To job opportunities and, uh, redefining the- the- the way we work together with the- the women, the customers. Uh, where I started on my- my communication and pricing strategy. And also, I- I was, um, I- I searched for help to draft the contract.

So, I will have my customers sign the contract. And also my employees how they sign the contract. And, uh, he helped me monitor the relationship between customers and employees, uh, yeah, that's- that's- that's when everything took off.

I spend more time working with these women than doing communication and marketing.

I first started applying for the Regional Program in Nairobi. But, I- I did not complete the application and I missed the deadline. And, uh, a few months later I received an email announcing the Mandela Washington Fellowship application opening. I was still too busy (laughs) to start my application.

wship- Fellowship Alumni from:

And, uh, at some point, I- I really wanted to give it a try also. So, I decided to, uh, dedicate like two, three days of my- my life, uh, to fill the application. And gather all the docu ... Required documents. That's how, that how I- I applied to them in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program.

It was my first time in Virginia. And, um, I was really excited. Because before the fellowship, I studied in the U ... In the USA. Uh, I was at Temple University in Philadelphia. So, I know a little bit about Philadelphia. I went to- to New York. I went to ... I had a chance to go to Washington but I've never been to Virginia before the Fellowship.

So I was really excited. The other thing is one of my friends from high school were also selected as part of the program. And he was going to be at the same university at, uh, in Virginia. So I was really, really excited to meet him again after like almost five years.

It was just awesome to, to be with, uh, different, I will say people from different- different backgrounds, from different parts of Africa. The part of Africa I know is mostly the Francophone Africa. Um, but some of the people I met there from Namibia, uh, I met- met people from Zimbabwe. It was my first time to meet people from this part of Africa.

So it was just like ... It was awesome to me to be part of this, um, journey to get to know, uh, all those brilliant people to- to learn about what they do in their- in their country. And how people are like, um, giving ... I would say, uh, traveling so hard to positively impact other people's lives, uh, in the environment.

The first time, um, I read the profile of the fellows on my campus, I was blown away. I was telling myself how come, like ... I have the feeling that everyone is- is doing something, uh, valuable somewhere. Then I asked myself, "Um, what are you doing?" And uh, like ... I- I- I- it becomes obvious to me that, um, I was not doing enough.

We may all live in different parts of Africa. But at the end of the day, somehow, we all face the same challenges, plus or minus. Like, we all have the same ... Uh, we all have dif ... Uh, challenges. We all, we all have obstacles. It all depends on the degree of those challenges but at the end of the day we all have to go through something.

So ... And despite all of the challenges people, uh, face, um, there are improving things, life and they are positively impacting people and bringing hope in the community. So, as I say, all of a sudden, I- I feel I was not doing enough for- for my country or for people in my community. And, uh, I felt the need to push harder.

Uh, I felt the need to, to strive and to overcome. And, uh, I felt the need to- to work on my resilience to be able to push even when, when it seems impossible. Uh, because, I- I realized I have no reason to accept failure and- and give up. Because somewhere people also do face worse than my challenges. But, um, they are all successful. So, uh, challenges and obstacles are not enough, um, excuse for me not to- to do better, to- to do better than- than what I was doing.

When I came back, I realized I need to push, I need to- to look beyond my- my own, uh, persona. Like I was ... Uh, I started a business, it was just all about me. I wanted to start my business. I wanted to run my business. I wanted to work for myself.

But when I came back, I changed my- my vision of the business. Um, I started putting, um, the- the women program on the, the center of my, my vision. And there is, there is one story I, I think that's, uh, could help you understand my, my motivation.

Um, when I came back it was really difficult. I have to admit. Because I spent ... We spent six, six weeks, uh, abroad. And during this time my business was almost collapsing. So, when I came back, I- I- I- I really was tired mentally. And, um, I needed to make a decision whether to- to pick it up and- and- and- and start over or to- to drop it there. Go find myself a decent job, uh, put money ... Save money and come back later.

So I was, I was thinking, and, uh, I have to make a decision. But, um, I had, uh, some of my employees, women who wanted to talk to me at that time. And during the meeting, they- they remind me why I started this business. So, they testify that, um, the life has changed ... Sorry, since they started working, uh, with me.

Because, um, I help them get a paid job and now they're able to take care of their family, to send their kids to school, uh, to take care of their ... One of them actually told me she's now ... She was now able to,-to take care of her mom who has been, who has been sick, seriously sick.

So, I, I stayed there. I was ... I- I- I couldn't just realize that some people were happy working with me. And what I was doing had a positive impact on some people life. I- I couldn't imag ... I couldn't ... I mean, I couldn't picture that. And right after this conversation, I made that tough decision to pick my business right from where it was and to start working as hard as possible, uh, to grow it. Because it was not about me anymore, it was about people who relied and trust me more than I trusted myself.

So, I didn't want to see ... I didn't want to, uh, I didn't want them to be disappointed, so, (laughs) I- I started working hard, uh, to make sure they will be ... They would be able even in the future to keep taking care of their kids, taking care of their family, and being able to take care of themself. That was my motivation from that day.

And, uh, even today, uh, this is the- the main reason why I still push in that direction. Because I know some people hugely depends on what I do to have a decent life, to- to hope for a better life, uh, for their kids, for, for themselves.

And some people depends also on me, uh, to dare, to dare make right- to dare make the right decision for their own life. Why I'm saying this? Um, women, most of the time depend ... In my country they depend on their husband. So, when someone depends on someone, you can you know ask that someone to- to go against the rule in the house.

So when we talk about, um, uh, sexual violence or- or gender-based violence and so forth or- or gender equality. We're talking about giving the opportunity to those women to- to be heard, to make decisions for their home. But how do you believe someone can make a decision for her own if she's not even able to buy food for herself.

She depends on someone to, to have breakfast or to have lunch. She depends on someone to have a piece of soap to- to- to wash her clothes with. We ... You can ... We ... You cannot ask someone to say no to- to- to her husband or to her father, um, who's abusive if that person still depends on them.

So my solution to that is, let me empower them, let me help them get a job, get money so that they can take care of themself. And then at the end- end of the day they will be able to say no to some of the things we are fighting. Like gender-based ... They will be able to say, "Enough is enough, I am not staying in this house anymore. I am living because I have enough money to rent a house for me and my kids."

Uh, they will be able to say, "I will not tolerate that you don't send my kids to school. I will pay for it. Because I have enough money." Uh, let's give them the opportunity to say, "I ... When I am sick, I can go to the hospital because I have enough money to pay for the fees, to pay for the medicine and so forth."

This is, this is my vision. Empower those women, so they are able to take responsibility from their- their own life and from the ... Their- their family. And, uh, this is, this is the main, uh, goal of everything I'm doing. Of course, it is not easy because I work with uneducated women most of the time. And, uh, to get them to that point, it's not easy.

Uh, but, uh, I didn't say I was going to give up, I didn't say it was going to be easy. I just said I need to push harder. So everyday I try to come up with new s ... New strategy to help, to empower those women, how to- to communicate with them. How to make them understand that, um, uh, what we are doing together is not just about them. But it's also about the- the kids, the children they are raising today. And, uh, the future they want for their children.

I have been appointed, like, some months ago as the Chairperson of the, um, Football Commission in my country which is under the, uh, the, um, Soccer Football Federation Association.

So, I work with women, uh, uh football players. And, uh, this is a new challenge I took on since, uh, uh female soccer is not very developed, uh, here in. But these w ... those women are really serious about what they are doing. They, they are very passionate, passionate about, about football. And, uh, I feel I need to do something to empower them.

So they can actually, uh, take ... I would say benefit from their passion. Because it's a pity that someone is, is working so hard in an area and- and they are not getting, um, the return on investment. Because, because this is a world of men, soccer is a ... Like football is a- a view of men.

I want to change that. I want those women also to be known for what they are doing. I want those also to benefit, to get a - the return on investment. I want them to live from what they're doing. So, I want to change the- the whole, the whole face I would say of- of- of the female soccer here in my country.

I grew up in a family of six. We are, um, four sisters and two brothers, but my parents are just wonderful because the way they raised us is ... Like there is no difference between my brothers and- and- and- and I and my sisters.

Uh, my dad is- is such a gender equality advocate. Like he, he will push. Everything he say, he said ... He used to say, "You are the only obstacles ... The only obstacle between you and your goals- your goals is you. So, no matter what you wanna do, it's not about, uh, being a woman, or being a girl or a boy. It's just being able. Make sure you have the skills, uh, required to do it." So, this is how I grew up.

eturned back to my country in:

In ... With ... In my family, people don't do that to- to me because I- it's a different set, but with the colleague, when I used to work at the hotel, the colleagues, in some of our conversations, I noticed that. So, I was frustrated and, uh, I- I wanted to do something but it was not ... Uh, uh, I wouldn't call it, uh, advocating for gender equality, no. No, no, I just wanted to ... Again to help them. I wanted them to know that it's not normal. This is the way other people do it in the world.

So, maybe they- they- they should, um, also uh see things differently. But when I started my business, I realized this is a serious matter. And if we don't start changing things right now, then the future generation will also suffer from it because it goes from education to education. It is in the family. If the mom b- believes that, uh, "My daughter cannot do this, only my son can do this. My son can go to school because, because ..." then they will transfer this to their children and- and so forth.

So, I wanted for my part to change this with my employees. That's- that's how I can ... I- I could answer this question. It's not one day I woke up in the morning and I say, "Me I am going to advocate for gender equality." Is just that the context, the environment actually pushed me to- to react and- and do something to help.

It is, um, a life experience and uh, there is lots to take from it. And know exactly what you wanna take from, uh, the program.

When you attend the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, you will meet a bunch of people coming from different backgrounds, different countries, you will hear stories from different people, success stories. Uh, and sometimes you get lost, in the midst of all that, you get lost and you get confused. But if you know exactly what you are looking for, then all those stories and those people will help you improve or define better your vision. So, yeah, to recap two things, it's a life experience. Uh, take the most- most, uh- uh from it.