An Interview with Helinna Ayalew, M.A. African Studies ’14

Yale Woodbridge Fellow, Nadira Abdilahi interviewed Helinna Ayalew who is the Head of Digital Education at Liquid Telecom. Helinna received her M.A. in African Studies from Yale University and B.A. in International Studies from Macalester College. She spoke with us about her passion to educate Africa’s youth, and her vision for the continent. 

1.     Could you tell us more about yourself and where you grew up?

I was born in the United States. My family’s story is more of the reverse immigrant story because my parents came as students to the US, then we move to Ethiopia when I was 10.  I spent my formative years from the age of 10 to 18 in Ethiopia before returning to the US for college.  I identify as an Ethiopian – as an African – but also feel very much at home in the US. I call both Ethiopia and the US home. 

2.     What are you most passionate about and what motivates you?

My passion comes a lot from my own personal story.  Leaving the US at 10 years old and moving back to Ethiopia, I saw the disparities in the types of opportunities one has purely by accident of geography. I questioned this even at a young age, saying ‘this can’t be and can’t remain to be our reality.’  This motivated my career which has been very diverse. I’ve kind of jumped from one thing to another, my north star has always been increasing opportunities for young Africans. I believe that being born in Africa isn’t a curse - there should be ways for young Africans to access the opportunities of the world, so they can not only improve their lives as individuals, but also their countries and the continent as a whole. I believe so deeply that change and improvement on the continent is going to come from educating young Africans -  my passion is making sure that happens. 

3.     Can you tell us about your time at Yale? How did that influence your career and life?

I came to Yale to get a Master of Arts in African Studies with a focus in politics and history, particularly in Ethiopia. Attending Yale was an extremely important time in my life. The institution opened so many doors for me - the people I got to meet and the experiences I got to have were really unparalleled. So much of what I do today came out of  connections I made at Yale, therefore, I will be forever indebted to the institution. 

4. Did you have any mentors or people who inspired you and influenced what you’re committed to in your work?

I’ve always had mentors throughout my life. I had mentors and they didn’t even know they were my mentors. I would pick someone doing something I admired or followed a career path that I thought followed my ambitions. I observed them and asked them questions. I can’t even name these people because there were many along the way that have been so gracious with their time and energy. I asked a lot of questions and was never afraid to ask people about their journey, and to offer any advice they might have. In my opinion, asking questions and  listening to people’s advice has been really helpful for my career. 

5.     As one of the founders of Yale Young African Scholars Program (YYAS), how do you feel about the program today and where it is going?

As I was getting my Master of Arts in African Studies, the Yale Young African Scholars program was founded at Yale (conceived in 2013 by a group of African undergraduate and graduate students). The first program was in Ethiopia and to be frank, they essentially wanted to bring in an Ethiopian – someone familiar with the region - that’s where I came in. I would say getting YYAS from a dream phase to a very established program has been one of my career and life highlights.  Our objective for the program that first year was to fill about 100 spots with students that were academically excellent and who came from underserved communities. We were expecting maybe 50 applications, but we received over 1,200 applications that first year.

Based on the enthusiasm of that first year, the university decided this is a program they wanted to have. I had moved away from New Haven after finishing my master’s, then got a call asking me if I wanted to run the program. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It was a program that I had put so much of my heart into, and I wanted to see it come into its own. 

How do I feel about the program today? I would say I’m happy that it still exists especially given the circumstances surrounding Covid-19. The YYAS team has done an astounding job. It gives me joy and pride in seeing that they’ve been able to carry out the program during a pandemic. 

Coronavirus has changed the world for all of us, and the fact that the YYAS team has been able to find a way to continue to run the program and offer students such rich resources during this time is just incredible. The program opens the door to more discussions about how to make the program available and accessible to more students. 

6.     In your own words, why is it important to invest in educating the youth?

When you invest in young peoples’ education, you are investing in generational change. Educating the youth is especially crucial in Africa – we are talking about the youngest continent in the world with an overwhelming majority of people under the age of 18. In a few years we are going to have the largest workforce in the world. So, what do you do with these young people if they’re not given opportunities, if they’re not given a direction and they’re not given something productive to do – you’re ultimately asking for civil discord. In my opinion, it’s almost like ignoring education at your own peril. I don’t mean to be an alarmist but ultimately that’s the outcome if we, as a continent, don’t take this seriously. Young people are an amazing human resource, we lose so much untapped potential as a continent when we ignore them. 

7.     As someone who is passionate about utilizing technology to educate young Africans, how do you see technology changing the education system? How does your current work reflect that? 

I’ve had great opportunities to attend the best institutions in the world. First, I attended Macalester College then Yale University, so in my thinking, an education is something that’s available in-person. However, my thinking has evolved and changed over the years. I look at where we are on the continent – the number of young people that need an education and the high birth rates. If we define education as something that is only available in-person, we aren’t going to meet the needs of the continent. Brick and mortar schools are not going to get us where we need to go because it’s purely a numbers game. This is why I think technology plays a huge part in helping us scale the needs. I believe that in order to educate everyone in the continent online learning is critical. 

Currently, I’m  serving as the Head of Digital Education at Liquid Telecom – a Pan-African technology and infrastructure company. My road to the tech world has been circuitous to say the least. The position I’m in now really has one leg in education and one leg in technology – it’s the  education leg that brought me here. The idea behind the platform I currently lead, 21C Skills Africa, is how can we, as an African technology company, use our position on the continent to help educate and teach skills that are currently not easily obtainable in the continent. Under this initiative, we have attempted to recreate as much of the university experience as possible. We want our technology to be timely, useful, and most importantly helpful for students, so it’s possible for students to have a meaningful education online – one that resembles the in-person educational experience. We have instituted a mechanism of community learning where we work with innovation hubs and universities that have spare computer labs where students are able to take courses online. Students have been able to form communities because they’re taking online courses with other students in these physical spaces. So, to me technology is exciting and opens many doors on how we are able to educate our young people. 

The pandemic has changed our world and we’ve found ways to stay connected. There are huge opportunities for online education, but it has also pointed out a very deep divide when it comes to connectivity and internet access on the continent. We can hail how exciting it is that technology has enabled many students to continue to learn, but it’s also very disheartening to see how many students, especially students in rural areas that don’t have internet access – so we still have a lot of work to do. 

8.     What is some advice you want to pass along to young people? 

I would say find your personal mission in life. Find what it is that you are excited about - find what it is that keeps you up at night.  

Don’t be so dogmatic to think this will be clear – it’s not like you can only do it this way or only do it that way because honestly you never know which direction you’re going to be taking in life, and that’s a great thing. It’s a beautiful thing and the beauty of life is that you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

Don’t be afraid to try things and don’t shy away from opportunities that present themselves. It might be something you are not exceptionally qualified for, but trust me, you will learn – so be teachable, it’s so important.