Marian Muthui describes herself as an engineer, innovator and educator. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering from the University of Nairobi and is a Young and Emerging Leaders Project (YELP) Fellow. Her passion in engineering design & design thinking led her to start the community based Mekatilili program for young girls. This is her story.
Question: What motivated you to pursue Mechanical Engineering, and why have you stayed in the tech field? Growing up, I was always curious to learn how things worked. I tinkered with anything and everything that I could get my hands on, from the family TV, the radio to the chemically engineering my own personal concoction of household cleaning fluids. This obviously did not go over well with my mother who would always caution me about ‘damaging’ her items but curiosity always got the better of me. Therefore, it was only natural for me to pursue engineering. I specifically chose Mechanical Engineering because of my passion for engineering design and drawing which is a core specialization in the Mechanical Engineering field. It is my passion to become a future innovator in Africa by designing and developing technological solutions for the continent.
Question: How did your interest in design and innovation develop into the passion that you have today? As an undergraduate student, I was a member and volunteer with the University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park (FabLab Nairobi). My time there, under the leadership and mentorship of one of my professor’s, Dr. Kamau Gachigi, really moulded me to be the engineer that I am today. That position sparked my interest in design and innovation because I was given the freedom, resources and mentorship to work on various projects. I learnt about Design Thinking, Engineering Design and Research & Development. I worked on developing user-centred solutions for different challenges. My passion for design and innovation led me to create The Mekatilili Program that holds engineering workshops based on Design Thinking in girls’ high schools in Kenya. My hope is that, soon Research & Development (R&D) will be a bustling and essential field in Africa, similar to the United States, Europe and Asia. It’s high time we Africans develop homegrown solutions and innovations.
“Change in business and in life is inevitable. A person’s success is determined by how he/she adapts to those changes.”
Question: What was your experience working at General Electric, one of the largest innovators of our century? To be honest, when I joined the company, it was a bit intimidating at first. GE is a global powerhouse and I wasn’t sure if or when I would find my footing in the organization. But with time, I began to feel right at home. A lesson that I took away from my time at GE is on proper business acumen. Another is on change. Change in business and in life is inevitable. A person’s success is determined by how he/she adapts to those changes. Life at GE was constantly changing to keep up with new and emerging trends. And this lesson is pertinent in the industrial environment. You need to learn to adapt and be flexible.
Question: What motivated you to start the Mekatilili program and what have you achieved so far? I have been a first-hand witness of the poor representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). Having visited several local high schools in Kenya, one of the key insights I have gathered is, lack of exposure. Frankly, students don’t really know what engineers do! Girls assume it’s some boys’ club that only the smartest and most intelligent young men pursue. Because of the need to create awareness about STEM among young women, I founded the Mekatilili Program with support from International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) and the D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Through conducting hands-on, solution-oriented, design and engineering workshops in girls’ high schools, I hope to break any self-imposed barriers. There is a lack of such programs that target high school students yet it is at that impressionable age that students are beginning to make major decisions that influence their future. My goal is to motivate and spark the creativity of these students and show them that their ideas have the power to create solutions within their communities. Presently, I have worked with over 100 girls with plans of reaching more by the end of the year. For this, I received the Community Leadership Award during the 2016 Women in Energy Awards.
Question: Tell us about the other mentorship project Quengineers that you started. I am the Co-editor of Queengineers, with Martha Wakoli. For young girls considering engineering as a career choice, representation is key. The magazine seeks to showcase various female engineers at different stages of their careers. We profile engineers who currently not only in a purely engineering position but also others who transitioned into sales, fashion, education and other non-technical roles. This is done to show the versatility of the field. The long term purpose of the magazine is to continue as a source of inspiration for young women. It is my hope that in the near future, copies of the magazine will be distributed across Kenya and found in every high school library.
Question: How has networking and mentorship played a role in your current position? I must admit, I used to be dread networking but I have learnt to embrace it because I realized that nobody can successfully work in a bubble. Meeting like-minded people and fostering partnerships is vital to advance your initiatives and also ignite creativity and learning.
Question: How do you find work-life balance and what advice would you give young women in Africa about pursuit of their career dreams? I believe that if something is important to someone, he/she will always make time for it. I try to avoid the phrase, ‘I’m busy’. Therefore, I find time for the things that I am passionate about. My advice to young women is to persevere! Don’t look over at the next person and compare yourself professionally or financially to them. Your dreams will come to fruition at the right time. As long as you are on the right path that you know will lead you to attaining your dreams, don’t fret, be patient and never relent!
Question: What is your favorite quote? When I was younger, I really enjoyed watching The Magic School Bus. It was one of my biggest influences in science as a child. There is a quote that the teacher, Ms. Fizzle would repeat every episode to her students:
“It’s time to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”
An apt statement on how I would like to live my life: full of adventure but with a little hint of chaos.
Question: Any hobbies? Photography, hiking and traveling. Basically, any activity that takes me on an adventure!
Question: Any final advice for women in the technology space in Africa? Though not in the technology space, I am inspired by J.K. Rowling’s journey. Before releasing the global phenomenon, that is the Harry Potter book series, it took her almost 7 years and countless rejections from publishing houses before the book was finally released in 1997. Let’s all embrace failures and instead of treating them as a crutch, it would be prudent to learn and grow from them.