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Carolyn Leighton's Birthday: A Personal Reflection

Winifred Ereyi

April 04, 2021

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I walked into the auditorium just about the time the networking session ended. I was late because It took me forever to find a parking space. Huffing and puffing, I walked quickly into the hotel scanning the lobby for signs to the event. My heels were hurting badly.

"Engineers in heels." I grimaced inwardly as I remembered the theme of a STEM outreach event that Mrs Olu Maduka, the first Nigerian female Engineer had recently done. Mrs Olu Maduka has been building the female tech talent pipeline through STEM outreach for over six decades.

I decided to study Electrical and Electronics Engineering because she came to my school in 1981. Up till then, I had never met a female Engineer. She did the STEM outreach in high heels, exuding confidence and humility. It takes humility to speak truth to juniors in high school in such a way that it is heard, embraced and respected.

Entering the auditorium, I grabbed a seat at the table nearest to the doors, holding onto my purse as if it was my life saver. In actual fact, it is my confidence builder because after nearly two decades as a homemaker and running my nonprofit organization, Think STEM Foundation, I felt so out of place. I had been listening to WITI webinars for some time, and so in August 2019, I decided to go for their 25th anniversary .

I am down on my luck. I have been staying with my Christian sister, Laurie Locklear, in her three bedroom apartment. I cannot stay in the five bedroom marital house because of all the nightmares from years of domestic violence. I am hurt, scared, confused and bewildered. My sleep is always interrupted by horrific vivid nightmares. My waking moments are plagued by the fear-filled thought, "How am I going to begin again?"

In between sleep and waking up, I hear my father's voice clearly.

"Winifred, never ever forget what I am telling you. ... I am giving you the gift of education. You can lose everything in life but you cannot lose the knowledge you have gained from your education and the values that I have instilled in you."

In the midst of those dark days where I was enveloped by the fog of a brain-draining clinical depression, his voice rang out so clearly. It was like a lighthouse shining brightly from a distance to light the way for a weary and lost traveler. "What exactly do these words mean," I ponder in my waking moments.

I had lost everything material in the court system of America. I had lost custody of the children that I had so desired to birth. In the past, death had taken my babies from my open arms, all six of them and now a Judge had taken the two children that I had longed to birth from me.The reason? I had violated a court order, by sending them to boarding school and run out of money to defend my decision.

"Who cared about education?" My father's voice however did not leave me as I tossed and turned in sleep.

So I gathered my wits and hopped on a flight to San José, California for WITI's 25th anniversary conference. I was going to stay with my younger brother, Joseph. I arrived a day early because I volunteered to prepare the swag bags for the event. I also wanted to meet the players behind the scene. And I did! I met the founder, Carolyn Leighton, and the President, David Leighton. I also met a soul sister, Samantha Scully.

For the next 30 minutes in the Auditorium, the keynote speaker enthralled us with her stories. I left the main auditorium with only one thought.

"Where are my black tech sisters?"

As a young adult, I was always irked when I saw so few black females in the tech space. This time was no different. Thirty years had passed and things in the TECH world had not changed.
Although I met Lori Mitchell (the Founder of Black Women in Tech) and a few others later that day, I was not satisfied by the lack of diversity.

I am not one to keep my mouth shut, so I voiced my concerns loud and clear. By the end of the event, David Leighton asked me to be the WITI Charlotte Network director. I accepted, with the intention to use the opportunity to amplify the voices of my black sisters.

"Black girl power!" Right?

So I sent a text on my alma mater's high school (Queen's College, Class of 1983) WhatsApp group chat about the WITI summit and invited my classmates to join WITI.

After over forty years of friendship, my classmates, all 105 of them from different ethnic tribes and religious affiliations are my sisters. We have gone through our weddings, divorces, burials of family members and friends, weddings of our children together. We have laughed, cried and traveled the world together.

Every girl needs a tribe. This is my tribe.

My best friend for life, OluwaTosin Arowojolu joined WITI, followed by six of my sisters. So here we are about to embark on another journey together. We will open doors for our black tech sisters in Africa to be connected to the global WITI network. We will celebrate their talent and give them the stage to show up and show out. As Carolyn Leighton, Founder of WITI said, we will not leave any sister standing alone. The story of US is a story of Sisterhood. The story of WITI is a story of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Thank you, Carolyn Leighton, for your vision to create an inclusive community of Females and their allies that empower innovators and inspires generations of tech professionals.

We are your dream come true.

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