The #InterviewSeries is a collection of intimate discussions with people who identify as a woman or a non-binary person in the technical & digital spaces.
Back in November I took the #InterviewSeries to the Web Summit in Lisbon, I was fortunate enough to speak to some incredible women in technology and digital. Next up is the marvellous Mariéme Jamme. Mariéme is a member of the World Economic Forum, sits on the board of the World Wide Web Foundation and founder of iamtheCODE. Her journey, from humble beginnings to teaching thousands of girls how to code, is entirely special. So, obviously, I was honoured to speak with her.
Mariéme & Ella at the WebSummit
Where did it all start? How did all of this come about? What initiated everything?
I don't know I sometimes I ask myself I have no idea. Even being at the WebSummit is like really crazy. I have been coming for quite some time. I'm from Senegal, that's where I was born. I had an extremely terrible childhood. My mother abandoned us as children when I was five years old. At the age of 11, I was raped by my koranic teacher. My country is a Muslim country and he was a predator. Then at 13, I was trafficked from Senegal to France. My life started really, when I was 16.
I ended up in the UK at the YMCA and I began working, doing cleaning jobs, working in bars and hotels. Just trying to survive, I didn't have any identity. I didn't know what I was doing. Coming from a difficult place gives you the drive to go and do better and help other people because you don't want them to end up like you. I was very, very fortunate to work hard and to be mentored by people and to have people who believed in me.
I have never been to school. I started reading and writing when I was 16 years old. When I came to England I couldn't even speak English. I moved to Guildford and was the only black woman there. My local library saved me. I always make jokes about it, people always laugh. I think Guildford really formed me as a person. I felt safe there.
Even though it’s not diverse, I had peace there. When you've been through a traumatic childhood, you need peace and quiet. When you've been traumatized, you need green. You need somewhere to go for a walk. My local riverside is where I go to understand nature.
I couldn't get a job because I don't have diplomas. I don't have A-levels or GCSEs. Every time I wanted to find a job, the lady at the recruitment agency would say, "You know, you're very nice but you don't have any certification." I didn't want to fake it. I just wanted to go and learn. Within two years, I taught myself to code at my local library.
Self-taught seven coding languages, I'm a full-time developer, that's my job in my day-to-day. In the evening, when I'm not running my organizations, I develop websites, I update Wikipedia pages for my friend or help other developers reviewing code, just trying to make the world a better place. I launched iamtheCODE two years ago at the United Nations because I wanted the world to understand that an African woman like myself, now very proud British, of course, has managed to mobilize government, private sector and investors.
I wanted to emphasize how we can educate marginalized communities, not just in Africa but in the UK as well. My local county is a wealthy county where women are left behind. Now I'm advocating for the white middle-class women who are digitally illiterate. I don't think that they should be left behind. I think all of us need to work together, to collaborate. That is what I'm doing right now.
"I have never been to school. I started reading and writing when I was 16 years old. When I came to England I couldn't even speak English. I moved to Guildford and was the only black woman there. My local library saved me." Mariéme Jamme
Wow. That is amazing. My next question was going to be about inspiration but I guess we covered that already. To go a little bit deeper, how did you get that inspiration to go to the library and code? Where did that come from?
I don't think it was inspiration. It was lack of choice. I wanted to do better. I had a very violent childhood and a very lonely childhood, not having any family or anything really. I've got a son who's now 17. I think it come from not knowing what you want to do, but wanting to do better.
So, then I started going to my local library and actually learning. I got a suit and I kept looking for jobs. I started doing cleaning jobs, working in bars and hotels. I realised I could read. I could understand words.
What are you most proud of?
The girls, our girls. I'm really proud of our girls who are safe now. They can code, I can see their future. I can see they will have a better future than I have. They will have a better life than I had. That makes me feel very humbled and proud that by 2030, they will become coders and they will become entrepreneurs and hopefully they will come here (to WebSummit).
My aim with these interviews is to show people that you don't have to have any education to do this stuff. This is why I love tech because it can be empowering to people who don't have access to formal education. What was the best learning resource for you?
I think the learning resource was Wikipedia but also the local library. When I started learning, Google was not born, Facebook was not born, Twitter, all of these social media sites were not born, so I was reading a lot. I was reading excel for dummies, reading books at the local library. Which I never had when I was growing up. I had a different education compared to my son who is now 17. My son has got access to so much information, which I didn't have. So, I guess for me, it was reading but also being a curious person.
You have obviously faced a lot of challenges, but say professionally, do you think as a woman, you faced challenges that a man would not face?
Absolutely. First of all, I have limitations because I don't have Cambridge degrees or Oxford degrees compared to my friends and my male counterparts. But, I know my topics so I do not wait for people to give me permission, I go and sit myself down at the table.
We need to improve the more visibility of women, like what you're doing right now, by giving me this chance to speak to you because there are so many stories that people don't know about. Getting the story out, inspiring other people is so important.
I've got good male friends now, who are pushing us to do better, but in the beginning of my work there was a lot of: "You don't know how to code.", "Did you do that?"
I got credibility by showing my work. Also by showing my code and allowing my peers to review my code to see that actually this woman can code, was quite good. Using GitHub and having your work visual, gives you a creative edge.
"I got credibility by showing my work. Also by showing my code and allowing my peers to review my code to see that actually this woman can code, was quite good. Using GitHub and having your work visual, gives you a creative edge." Mariéme Jamme
What do you believe is our most powerful tool to continue this journey that you're on to make things better? What do you think we can do and how do you feel your businesses and organizations fit into that?
If you asked me this question a couple of years ago, I would have said we need to be kind. We need to be kind and compassionate and also take all our biases away. We are all global citizens. Meditate every morning and just be grateful for what we have. For me to sit here with you and to share my story with you, is an extreme honor.
I think that if we can all be kind and tolerant, that would be wonderful and being able to share your work, because if I'm successful, you are successful. Your success is my success, my success is your success and if we all can share together and become global citizens and love each other more and have compassion and empathy. I think we can have a better world, especially in the tech sector.
I fully agree. It's my honour to be here with you. What do you think is your biggest challenge? What do you think you still need to overcome to continue to spread this message of kindness?
I think we need to overcome barriers. We need to overcome all the biases we have. There are so many poor people out there around the world and so many people don't have access to the internet. The internet has changed my life personally because that's where I could learn.
I just came back from the refugee camp in Kakuma in Kenya, where there are 196,050 refugees. In Africa, iamtheCODE is the first organisation in the world to go into African refugee camp to teach girls how to code. Again, it's about looking into our hearts and finding a way of helping other people. It's not charity. It's humanity. We must be kind, empathetic and compassionate. The more you spread my work the more your content gets out there, more people get access to it and girls get supported.
"Our success is my success, my success is your success and if we all can share together and become global citizens and love each other more and have compassion and empathy. I think we can have a better world, especially in the tech sector." Mariéme Jamme
You’ve obviously done some awesome things and you're incredibly busy. How do you avoid burnout and what keeps you going every day?
I meditate every day. I go running. I live in the South East of England where I am lucky to have fresh air. Wherever I am in the world, I go running for 10 or 20 minutes. I'm very grateful. I'm very grateful for what I have and so I take it slowly. I guess what keeps me going is gratitude. Being grateful for what I have now and being aware of what I didn't have before. I'm still very grounded as a human being.
When you come from the background I came from, you cannot escape from trauma and sometimes, insecurities and vulnerabilities show up. There’s always limitations as I mentioned earlier, but I think if you can be grateful for what you have because there are many people who don't have it.
There are obviously women and young girls who will aspire to be like you are and to do the things you've done. What would you advise them? What's your favourite piece of advice to offer people that aren't yet in your position?
I tell them to take their time. Take their time but learn. You have to educate yourself. Information, doesn’t just come to you. It doesn't appear like that. You have to do the work and take your time. If you do the work, you will see the results. You also need to connect with people, learn from them and listen to them.
Also being courageous. Go and tell the world, “I don't agree with that, how can we make it better?” Change policies, go and tell government, "The policies are not favorable to women and girls. How do we make sure data is accurate? How do we make sure things work like that?" You're going to be rejected. People will push you away but if you put the work and tell the world that you're very passionate about what you do and what you believe in it, usually they do listen. Courage liberates you.
I agree. Thank you so much. Just to wrap up, do you want to tell me a little bit more about iamtheCODE?
Absolutely. iamtheCODE is really very exciting. We are now live in 68 countries.
Wow, 68 countries?
Yes. We’ve taught 18,000 girls how to code. It's a United Nation recognized organization now and it's the first-ever African organization that is having this kind of global impact. We’re not only in Africa, we're now in Brazil, in China, in Japan, everywhere. The idea is to teach one million women and girls how to code by 2030 and that's our mission. We’ve also launched a podcast and wellbeing club. We have so many amazing girls who are learning. Then also, have them be investable and get them into the job market. They're marginalized girls so they'll be different to your average girl but they're passionate, beautiful and strong and they can work for anyone either in your company or outside your company. I’d love by 2030 to see these young women being interviewed by you!