Changing the Way People Perceive Women STEM Entrepreneurs: Mireille Toulekima
“Don’t leave anything on the table of life.”
I was born in West Africa in a country called Gabon. Coming from an impoverished family, education has been my power. My father used to say, “Education is the real wealth.” This makes more sense with each passing day of my life. Literacy is what constituted my life’s building blocks. When I was young, I used to think that going to Australia would be like going to the moon, I never imagined my life would take the turn it did. Education made all of this happen!!
My support system has always been my family. My mother had her first baby at seventeen and strived to maintain a balance between studying hard to become a medical practitioner and handling six babies by the time I was born. My father came from a poverty-stricken family and could only go to school with the Church’s aid. He kept pushing himself beyond his comfort zone and ultimately became the first engineer in his family. My father was a strong advocate for education. He was constantly pushing us to become the best at school. He invested most of his income into our education to make sure we study in the best schools. My dad encouraged and inspired me to study a sciences subject. I was sent to France at the age of fourteen, where I first boarded with a native family for 6 years and then shared an apartment with my sister during my university years.
My father suddenly passed away a month before I graduated but I still managed to find the strength to keep going and graduate. However, when my father passed away, along with the grief came a mountain of financial problems. Consequently, I had no choice but to go back to Gabon. After many struggles, I got hired as a petroleum engineer and got the exposure of working with diverse employees all over the world for 20 years.
After 20 years, the corporate life was not offering me any growth opportunities anymore. I reached a plateau and I wasn’t ready to settle. When I finally took the plunge and started my own business, I thought it would be fairly easy, after all I was a skilled and experienced engineer, I had worked around the globe and knew the oil and gas industry very well. However, I quickly found out that running a business required a totally different set of skills on top of the technical skills and expertise I had. The first two years as a full-time entrepreneur were challenging. I failed miserably but learnt a lot. Through this process, I realized that two aspects that are critical to be successful in business are networking and finances. I wasn’t particularly good with budgeting and had to connect with various mentors and advisers to close the skills gaps I had. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an entrepreneur was securing funding. I feel as a female entrepreneur, investors hesitate to put money in our businesses simply because they feel that women will drop out eventually and their investment will be wasted.
My entrepreneurial journey started with the creation the consulting company MT Energy Resources, which is based in Australia and serves clients in Australia, Africa and Asia Pacific. I also founded a social enterprise called STEM Queen to encourage women to venture into the world of STEM. Women have huge potential in this field, it has wonderful benefits and is a key enabler for women economic empowerment. STEM touches all industries, so proposing it as an integrated part of various fields rather than an isolated field is best. As the world develops and we are progressing the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, there will be a lot of jobs created in STEM. We need girls and women in these fields because this will give them a voice and financial independence.
Throughout my journey, I heard the phrase “you can’t have it all”, and as a mother of two beautiful girls, I was constantly reminded that they were my priority and I always strive to be a role model to them. Things were not easy professionally when I became a mother. There was a lot of pressure on me to give up my professional ambitions and stop working. Instead of leaving work altogether, I started working part time to stay at breast with what was happening in the oil and gas indsutry, knowing that one day my girls would grow up and I would be able to have a smooth transition back to full time employment. As my girls grew more independent, I started working more, carry out more empowerment and advocacy work, and later finally started my journey as an entrepreneur. Juggling the two wasn’t easy, but I persisted and built my life while nurturing my kids. Some women can’t do this because of societal pressure. There’s a pre-defined path that society wants women to follow, and this freezes their mindset until it becomes a reality. So many girls simply don’t know that there is an alternative; Through the STEM Queens program, we show them. We teach them that they can do better, and life won’t stop if they don’t follow this path.
Because of domestication, women often don’t step up and say “I can” while lesser-able men seize the opportunities. You must learn to believe in yourselves. Believe in your strengths, regardless of what people say; have a clear and strong vision to follow and create a network of people who you can trust to be there when things get tough. Also, never stop learning because there’s no limit to it. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel if you’re focused. Never forget that!