Think equal, build smart and innovate for change

Think equal, build smart and innovate for change

„Think equal, build smart and innovate for change“

… Was the title of a panel discussion on International Women’s Day that I was invited to at the UN Campus in Bonn. Today was the day, Friday 8 March 2019, and from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., I was speaking in the Upper Conference Room, building AAH (Altes Abgeordnetenhaus) in a panel with:

– United Nations: Mr Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
– Government: Dr Heike Kuhn, Head of Division – Human Rights, Gender Equality, Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
– Private Sector: Ms Jill Meiburg, Interim Co-Head Corporate Communications and Responsibility, Deutsche Post DHL Group
– Civil Society: Ms Johanna Schäfer, CEO, BonnLAB UG
– Moderator: Mr Martin Hart-Hansen, Chief of Executive Office and Strategic Planning Advisor, UN Volunteers.

Think equal, build smart and innovate for change

„Think equal, build smart and innovate for change“ is also the overall theme of the sixty-third edition of the International Women’s Day, which was adopted by the UN with activities organized all around the world, including in New York under the Commission on the Status of Women. (Watch the #IWD2019 at the UN in New York here.) This year celebration focuses on innovative ways in which we can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.

To celebrate the 2019 Women’s Day, the UN in Bonn decided to discuss ways in which innovation and technology can create unprecedented opportunities for women and girls to become agents of change in building more inclusive systems, efficient services and sustainable infrastructure to accelerate the achievements of the SDGs and gender equality. That is why the panel was invited to interact with each other and the public attending the event.

A few words about myself:

I studied architecture and founded BonnLAB, a city lab(-oratory), 3 years ago to mobilize the citizens of Bonn. As an urban developer I focus especially on SDG action and citizens participation. My goal is that everybody lives a more sustainable life in Bonn and to empower citizens and as well companies to be more social and ecological. BonnLAB has a strong focus on communication, especially on social media to build a community of change and to provide the space to develop and grow personally and professionally. To do so BonnLAB hosts and offers numerous initiatives to get people involved and to gather partners in Bonn but also all around the world.

My input to the panel discussion – The need of transformational solutions!

First of all I would like to point out that we need „transformational solutions“ to achieve the SDGs. But as long as we don’t unlock the powerful potential of women and girls, we will not be able to realize any of them. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t say that it’s the sole responsibility of women and girls to reach the 17 goals. No! It’s a race against time that we can only win when we unlock our unused potentials and combine them with the abilities that other genders have. The more we progress on SDG 5 which is about gender equality, the better we will benefit from each of the other goals. I will tell you how we can collaborate better and why we should go for it.

I prepared my input in a collaborative way with 12 other smart representatives of civil society here in Bonn, using a group discussion on Twitter. Unfortunately, I cannot share all the great information that we’ve collected and I can also not talk about all their wonderful initiatives. But to sum it up I can share with you the 3 main fields which we have identified as necessary to work on, if we want to achieve this year’s international women’s day theme:

  1. to „think equal“ we need to empower women and girls;
  2. to „build smart“ we have to create the future with female entrepreneurs;
  3. and to „innovate for change“ means we have to involve women and girls into structures where they are missing right now.

You will get a clear picture about these fields (Women Empowerment, Female Entrepreneurship and the Lack of Women and Girls Involvement) while listening to specific examples that I will present and which showcase best practices at 3 different levels of progress in the implementation:

  • Idea;
  • Initiative;
  • Institution.

From the beginning of an idea until it becomes a functioning initiative before moving to an established institution, there are many steps. Let’s also remember that when we want to achieve the SDGs, we also have to improve the support mechanisms at all these 3 levels. But that’s an other topic.

Step 1: Women Empowerment

Let’s start with „think equal“ which means: Empower women and make sure that they are ready to work equal – equally paid for example.

For the „idea“ level I want to bring the example of the „Equal Care Day“. I don’t mean the „Equal Pay Day“ which has become a powerful initiative lead by the BPW women, but the Equal Care Day which will take place on the 29th of February 2020. Almut Schnerring, the co-initiator who is sitting here in the audience is still looking for partners to support. Why is it so important to strengthen the idea of an equal care day? Because 80% of care work in Germany is taken over by women, and there are even higher percentages worldwide. To look after children, to care for those sick and the elderly, to cook, clean, feed, wash is most of the time not payed. This has to be improved and the Equal Care Day is a good move into this direction.

We tried out another idea around one and a half year ago at BonnLAB which was about initiating a Girls Tech Day. The idea didn’t work well because it was too much additional commitment and work for the citizens involved. To organize such an event takes time and we also thought about repeating it frequently so that it becomes a sustainable initiative with long-term impact, but nobody was willing enough to take the lead even if the initiative would have empowered women and girls in this field.

Another example of an initiative empowering women is the Women Barcamp („Frauen Barcamp„) by Trio Medien (which is a female-led agency). Last year they organized it in cooperation with DHL with more than 100 people participating. Given the format of a barcamp which is a conference whose content (workshops, panels, etc.) is created by the participants themselves, they are planning to do it again this year and to convene around 300 women, also in cooperation with DHL.

At BonnLAB, we have another established women’s initiative called “Lionesses of Bonn“. It is a meet up about women empowerment in the city where we organize ourselves to meet once a month since two and a half years at BonnLAB. Our Facebook group gathers over 300 women and men.

I will now share 2 very inspiring examples of well established initiatives which became institutions:

The first one are the Global Digital Women, founded by Tijen Onaran. It’s a network focusing on digital empowerment of women through an Award recognizing their efforts. Additionally, they organize networking events in headquarters of well known companies. They already cooperated with DHL, and during one of their events at the Telekom headquarters in Bonn, I met the co-founder of the Female Innovation Hub which is another wonderful institution, based in Düsseldorf. Women from the GDW is already expanded globally and it is an institution where all participating women are on an eye level.

The Female Hub’s founders are doing a wonderful job too. First of all they understand why women do entrepreneurship differently than other genders. This helps them to better support and strengthen women from the early beginning in their process of becoming entrepreneurs. Furthermore they empower children in general (boys and girls) in the IT and digital fields so they would be the perfect collaboration partner for the Girls Tech Day. If they would have more support to increase their infrastructure, they could bring a whole new perspective on women entrepreneurship. Which leads me to the next category, women entrepreneurs:

Step 2: Build Smart

„Building smart“ doesn’t mean let’s imagine a product, check if we can scale it and let’s throw it on the market. Build smart means, let’s think what do we want to achieve in the long term and let’s create something which will allow us to reach that goal in a sustainable way. I think that women are very good in creating a vision which drives them to become successful entrepreneurs offering products and services with impact. There are many great ideas, initiatives and institutions made by women. Here are very briefly 3 examples from Bonn:

One great idea coming from Pascaleen Peiris who sits also in the audience is „Road2Rights Europe“. It’s already an established initiative in Sri Lanka, and Pascaleen and her team work on setting up programmes to educate children about human rights in schools here in Bonn as well.

Another initiative that I started to develop 2 years ago with 4 female students from the Hochschule Bonn Rhein Sieg is the #bonnisst Club, which means the „Bonn eats Club“. It’s about transforming our food system and offering a physical and a digital space for the citizens and institutions of Bonn to make them aware of how they can contribute and improve their food businesses and lifestyles in a sustainable way. At the moment Tamara Herzberg (also in the audience) and I keep the initiative alive, but to really do it in a professional and financially sustainable way over many years, we would need about 3 Mio € as budget. Empowering 300.000 citizens and our regional food companies to switch into a sustainable production and consumption system would mean each person would have to invest 10€ for that. Which is not a bad investment I think. Hundreds of people already know about #bonnisst, for the next steps we will need more capacity and investment.

As institution I would like to end by giving the example of BonnLAB, which is a registered company since almost 3 years. Since I founded it, I would love to create more impact, mobilize more people, and implement many programmes. But as a self-made entrepreneur without an academic background in business it was not really easy to get where I am now.

And this is also about category 3 on the „lack of women and girls involvement“ which keeps us far away from reaching the level of innovation which is needed for real transformational change.

Step 3: Innovate for Change

There is already a lack and dysfunction on the idea-level. There was not at all existing infrastructures to support startups some years ago. It changed a bit when the Digital Hub opened 2 years ago – I contributed to their work many times, and a nice gesture from them was to involve me as a consultant into finding the perfect location. A development which I see critical is that more than 90% of the startups are led by male founders and almost all have male teams. I like the team behind the Digital Hub a lot, but they seem to struggle in finding female founders (sometimes requirements don’t fit to what women are able to bring on board and to female approaches, which is something I mentioned in category „empowerment“ and „entrepreneurship“). Since last year, we also have in Bonn the Social Impact Lab which promotes startup ideas and tries to make a difference. Besides the fact that there are mainly male-led startups, I have to say that most of the startup ideas still need to align themselves in the spirit of the SDGs in order to create enormous social impacts.

Our society as a whole, has some bigger and much deeper problems limiting women empowerment and innovation. Since decades we tell our girls that they are not „good in maths“, that “programming is only something for boys“, that we as “girls should learn how to cook“ and that „having a family and staying at home to care for relatives is our job“. I could dive very deep into this cultural crisis which has for example not been a problem until the 1990th in the DDR (where my mother has grown up and became a mechanical engineer – which doesn’t mean that she agreed with the system). So the result of this cultural crisis is that we have great initiatives like Code for Bonn, a monthly meet-up which is meeting at BonnLAB since 3 years and the Web-Monday. Both are fantastic event formats inspired by and coming from the Silicon Valley to really make good progress with the potential to initiate small impacts for the citizens or the infrastructure of the city. BUT in each of them, women are missing! Less than 10% of the participants are women and the ambition to create impactful enterprises out of the ideas that men have is not really created.

Let’s move to my last example: the City Council of Bonn:

In average only 30% of our 86 city Councilors in Bonn are female! The political parties of the coalition only have approximately 25% women,  with the opposition reaching around 40% female Councilors. This means in numbers we have only 13 women in the coalition and 13 women in the opposition. Having 26 women when the number of men is 60 is not a good balance at all. Unfortunately, I can provide a number of negative consequences of this constellation, with one example being that when the City of Bonn decided to start the initiative „Digital Bonn“ with the idea to establish a „Digital Advisory Board“ and an „Innovation Board“ women were not really represented in these bodies. That’s NOT how we can innovate for change!

How to move forward?

One way to move forward is to stop underestimating women and girls. We shouldn’t think that people have less knowledge, experiences, talents or abilities just because they are female or from other genders. We have to see men and women, boys and girls, as equal human beings. Each of us has individual potentials and skills, so let’s discover them and enable one another to create impacts and contribute with their own capacities.

I didn’t mention in the panel the existence of the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development which is based in Bonn and could really teach citizens how to use the SDGs as an entrepreneurial foundation with a view on how they, alongside companies and other institutions, can contribute to these goals‘ achievement. Jean Paul Brice Affana Affana & I co-founded a Citizen-driven SDGs Action Network called #BonnFiji in 2017 in order to mobilize citizens all around the world to become SDGs champions on their own. Jean Paul has a very long expertise in the field of sustainable development, civic participation and citizens‘ empowerment. In 2008 he established a non-governmental organization in his native Cameroon named „Vital Actions for Sustainable Development (AVD)“. This was long ago before the SDGs were elaborated and adopted by the UN following the Rio+20 conference in which Jean Paul participated and contributed in various ways.

I am very thankful for the opportunity that I had to join other panelists on the International Women’s Day 2019. It was a honor to speak in such an open-minded conversation in such a special day. It’s really motivating to keep speaking out and being a role model for others. Because we can all make a difference and contribute to a better future when we start collaborating more to tackle the local and global problems of our century.

Watch my full speech here on Youtube. 🙂

Johanna Schäfer
Johanna Schäfer
Johanna Schäfer ist die Gründerin und Geschäftsführerin des BonnLAB. 2015 schloss sie ihr Architekturstudium ab, seitdem widmet sie sich den Themen Stadtentwicklung, Nachhaltigkeit und Partizipation - nicht nur in Bonn, sondern international. Im Laufe der Jahre hat sie sich eine ausgezeichnete Expertise im Bereich Social Media erarbeitet und auch Dank der Neuen Medien eine breitgefächerte und starke Community aus Selbstständigen, Machern, NGOs, Weltverbesserern, Politikern, Journalisten (und vielen anderen Berufen und Leidenschaften) aufgebaut. Social Entrepreneurship ist Johanna eine große Herzensangelegenheit und ihre Mission ist es all die tollen #CityChangers unserer schönen Stadt Bonn sichtbarer zu machen und sie dazu zu mobilisieren sich aktiv für eine lebenswerte(-re) Zukunft einzusetzen.