Jessica Posner Odede is the CEO of Girl Effect, an international non-profit that builds media girls want, trust and need — from chatbots to chat shows and TV dramas to tech. Girl Effect’s content helps girls make choices and changes in their lives, so they can be in control of their health, learning and livelihood. An internationally recognised social entrepreneur and thought-leader, Jessica has been CEO of Girl Effect since 2019.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I studied health, society and development at university and as part of my degree, spent time living in Kibera in Nairobi — one of the largests slums in Africa. Whilst there, I was introduced to Kennedy, my now-husband, who was looking to scale an idea of providing critical services, community advocacy platforms and education for girls and women living in urban slums. Together, we co-founded the non-profit Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), and spent 12 years building the organization to over 600 employees in 22 geographies — improving the lives of more than 2 million people across Kenya. I then joined Girl Effect as CEO in 2019, giving me the opportunity to work to combat the challenges girls and women face at a global scale. I am a strong believer that your life should not be defined by where you are born, and in being an ally to broaden access to opportunity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Because I joined just before the pandemic in 2020, I had less than a year as CEO before the world changed and we had to rapidly adapt to a new global reality. During the pandemic, we’ve had to fight to prevent the hard-won gains for girls achieved over the last decades from slipping backwards.
We knew we needed data about how girls were experiencing the pandemic, fast, and did this by adapting our existing work and methodologies to fit this new reality. For example, we run networks of girl-researchers aged 18–24 that collect real-time insights into the lives of their peers via a mobile based research tool. They are paid and trained as digital peer to peer researchers and we call them TEGAs (Technology Enabled Girl Ambassadors). The pandemic made face to face research impossible, so we ran a project called Hear Her Voice where 29 of the TEGAs in six countries shared digital diaries with us — turning the camera on themselves to document their reality, resilience and recommendations for the support they needed, so we could respond.
We also know that myths about vaccines can spread just as fast as a virus itself. We’ve been using knowledge and insight gained from our work with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi and Tanzania — where we used our TV dramas, radio shows, magazines and digital content to improve girls’ knowledge about the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer, including challenging myths about it — as the foundation of our approach to tackle misinformation around vaccine hesitancy when it comes to Covid-19.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Girl Effect currently reaches 20 million, and counting, in 20 countries across Africa and Asia. From chatbots to chat-shows and TV dramas to tech, our content inspires girls to make choices and changes in their lives. We create safe spaces for girls — sharing facts, and answering questions about health, nutrition, education, relationships and so much more. This is expressed in different ways, as we build to accommodate girls’ realities and meet them where they already are with the information they need. We wouldn’t create a new app if we knew we could reach her through WhatsApp, which she is already using to chat with her friends, for instance.
Just one example of our innovative social impact is our use of chatbots. In South Africa, we run an AI-powered chatbot called Big Sis, which enables girls to access a trusted and safe space to get answers about sex, relationships and more on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. By using chat technology, we’ve created this ‘virtual big sister’ that can respond to every girl instantly and privately, and much more directly than in a magazine column or on the radio. So far, more than 75,000 girls have started chats with Big Sis, with over 1.3 million messages sent. After advice from Big Sis, 76% of girls intend to access a health service before starting a new relationship, which is 12% higher than those who have not used it. Recently, Big Sis was also selected as a finalist in the Developing World Technology category as part of FastCo’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.
Following the success of Big Sis, in 2020 we launched a chatbot in India — Bol Behen, meaning “Speak! Sister”. Available on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, Bol Behen speaks in “Hinglish” (Hindi-English) and was built with input from girls at every stage. During our research in the early stages of Bol Behen, we found that girls sometimes feel more comfortable talking to a robot, because they are not afraid of being judged. In other words, they feel empowered to ask questions around topics that might be considered explicit elsewhere. This has led to 98,000 conversations started with, and 1.6 million messages sent to Bol Behen in under two years, and we have found that users exposed to its sexual health content have on average 15% higher scores on Bol Behen quizzes about it than non-users.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We recently shared Rahma’s story after we spoke with her for International Day of the Girl. Rahma lives in Tanzania yet her story is one that women and girls globally can relate to. She is driven by a desire to contribute to her household and earn an income, and wants to become a full-time entrepreneur when she has finished her education. This is where our TEGA project comes in. As a Tech-Enabled Girl Ambassador, Rahma is paid to conduct interviews within her own community — not just with other girls, but with other community members too — to build real-time insights which Girl Effect can use to inform our work.
Every day, Rahma rallies against sexist beliefs in her country to fight for her and her peers’ access to technology. Her community thinks that a boy has more important reasons to use a phone than a girl, but Rahma believes that technology can help break down the barriers that hold girls back. She is using technology to start her own business and take control of her livelihood. Rahma thinks the community should see a girl as a person with power. Because that is the way she sees herself.
“The internet educates. It gives you the opportunities you need. If you want entrepreneurship skills, business. You can get anything that you want from the internet,” says Rahma.
Through these opportunities, Rahma has started her own business, manufacturing and selling liquid soap. She is self-taught from watching videos and content online, and now sells the products within her community.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Do not underestimate the power of girls to change both their own lives, and the lives of those around them. At Girl Effect, we arm girls with the skills to negotiate and redefine what they are told is possible “for a girl”. Because we know that when a girl unlocks her power to make different choices that change her life, it inspires others to do so too. She starts a ripple effect that impacts her family, her community, her country. That’s the Girl Effect.
Be open to the potential that media, social media, and big tech has for positive change, instead of leaning solely into the narrative that it is always “bad for kids”. Digital media and tech has the power to reach girls with educational and entertaining content, where they are, on the channels and platforms they know, trust and love, and at scale. Girl Effect has an essential role to play in making that happen and we do this through collaboration. As an NGO, we know we can’t compete with the big tech and communications companies and the investment they make in their platforms and marketing, so we work through them. For us, this means that innovation is not about using the latest tech, but it’s about using the right tech in a new way.
Actively seek out and partner with organizations that specifically focus on women and girls, because solving gender inequality unlocks at least 10 more Sustainable Development Goals. We are lucky to have a long-standing partnership with amazing organizations like Vodafone Foundation, and look forward to working with many more organizations in the future who share our goals of empowerment and education. In 2018, Vodafone Foundation and Girl Effect partnered and have reached over 13 million girls in seven countries through mobile to date. With their support, we’ve significantly strengthened Girl Effect’s digital infrastructure — when you are connecting with girls you want those spaces to be safe, secure and scalable.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is all about collaboration and ensuring that people with expertise are empowered to do their jobs. Over the last three years at Girl Effect, we have transformed from a UK-headquartered organization to a networked model where resources and decision-making are based closer to where we seek to have impact. This means that we’re even closer to the girls we’re trying to support, and can make better-informed choices every day to build media and technology to educate, support and inspire them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Partner with organizations that share your values and are run by bright minds, so you can build an honest, open relationship, which is vital to success. We’re really lucky to have partnered with a host of such organizations, such as Vodafone Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Hire a team of smart and passionate people, who don’t need telling what to do. They will help you immeasurably more than those that say yes to everything. Being challenged by my team keeps Girl Effect at the forefront of where we need to be, and ensures every voice is heard when it needs to be without hierarchical boundaries stopping those with the information being heard.
Being a young CEO will be the most challenging yet rewarding challenge of your career. By choosing to take a step back from what I had helped build at SHOFCO and forging my own path at Girl Effect, I have learned how to work with a global team and to trust a huge network of brilliant minds to push the work forwards. At the beginning, I was conscious of my age in a room full of individuals with decades of experience, but as I grew I realised that this should not dictate the size of your voice, and this is something I uphold at Girl Effect.
This one is for the parents of young children; take it day by day. Be flexible to their needs and accept the day as it comes — if it’s a bad day, accept that and deal with it the best you can! Not every day has to be a good day.
Sometimes we don’t need to completely reinvent the wheel, but to reimagine how it can be used. This is definitely the case for most of our work reaching girls; we have reimagined everything from TV and radio shows, magazines, social media apps and chatbots to meet girls where they are and share information they want and need.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would have to be realizing gender equality in every aspect of girls and women’s lives. This is Girl Effect’s key aim and we are proud to be working towards it. Research shows that unlocking the true potential of women and girls can and does benefit their wider communities and the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King JR.
I have thought about this quote many times when it felt like there was no path through an issue, or I wasn’t going to be able to achieve what I set out to. Over the years, I have learned that any progress is still worth the work, and sometimes smaller steps are the key to achieving a bigger leap later down the line.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Serena Williams. She’s such a superstar to me! As a mother, tennis champion and wife I would love to sit down and understand how she keeps everything going for ‘brand Serena’ when there are so many moving pieces in her life.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find Girl Effect at @GirlEffect on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. You can find me on Twitter @JessRPosner.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!