LONDON/NAIROBI: Since earning her doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, 45, has focused on helping other women reach their educational and career goals in fields including agriculture, climate and technology through organizations like the AWARD fellowship program, which has been partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and U.S.A.I.D. Most recently, she has been working with Schmidt Futures to set up Black Women in Executive Leadership, to mentor and connect Black women globally and help organizations like the New York Stock Exchange make boardrooms more diverse. Born in Kenya, she lived, studied and worked in the United States, and now lives again in Kenya.
You have made a career of creating programs that help women and put them on a career path. Why did you found Akili Dada, the girls’ education and mentoring organization?
I was in grad school in Minnesota, and I was feeling like the things we were talking about in class had no relation to the reality that I knew on the ground. And actually, Akili Dada was almost my way of grounding myself. It started off as a small project. The first scholarships my husband and I funded from our wedding money. It was for really bright girls from poor families across Kenya who had been admitted into national schools but whose parents could not afford to pay for them to take those slots.
Any particular women that you helped over your 10 years with Akili Dada that stick out in your mind?
I was in London a few months ago and connected with one of them who’s at Google in Ireland. Just bought her first house. She’s a senior program manager. Another one is in Seattle. She now works as a cybersecurity engineer.
So why did you leave?
I came up in a feminist movement that had founders who weren’t leaving. And those institutions, that had been so robust when I was studying them, were weakened as a result of leadership that hadn’t been handed over intergenerationally. Akili Dada was never a job for me, it was not my career. It was the side hustle that I was doing to keep myself mentally sane and healthy.
After working as an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, you served as the director of two programs — African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) and Rise for the World — that run fellowships. Explain your new project, B-WEL, which focuses on Black women executives.
I’ve spent the last year and a half designing the program within Schmidt Futures [the U.S.-based philanthropy funded by Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, and his wife, Wendy]. We launched officially in September, and gathered our first cohort. Half are Black women in science and technology, with a focus on artificial intelligence. The other Black women are leaders and executives working in the women’s leadership space.B-WEL drives systemic impact by identifying and bringing together Black women in these fields, connecting them to each other, and also cross-fertilizing and widening the scope of impact that each woman has.
What is an example of a project you are working on to bring change to the boardroom?
The New York Stock Exchange has a curated, vetted list of 700 women available to be recruited onto the boards of exchange-listed companies. We are partnering with that program to make sure that they have a pipeline of Black women that they can recommend to their listed companies.
Do you think this will help get companies thinking differently about Black female executives?
It is flipping the narrative on who Black women are and where Black women are. Often the conversation and the narrative about Black women is they are disempowered and in need of rescuing. These women do not need rescuing.
Photo: Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg by Festus Inuvu Olang