Pay it forward!

“I want to be an engineer!” The notion of being an engineer always fascinated Binita Shrestha. Despite being told that engineering is not a girl’s forte, she never faltered away from her dreams. Today, she is a proud IT engineer and has established herself as a flourishing social entrepreneur and an educator. Ever passionate about promoting and supporting girls in STEM, she is the chairman and managing director of Women in STEM (WiSTEM) Nepal, a social enterprise established in 2016, that encourages young girls of age group 10–25 to learn and lead in computing fields.

Always a scholar kid, she would bag winner tags in almost every competition she participated in. “I was a natural leader,” She fondly recalls. However, having been born and brought up in a local Newari community in Bhaktapur, Binita was not aware enough of the diverse outside world. When she joined her plus two, she realized that her charm was fading away. She was no more the bright and confident girl she once was.

Her terror began from the very first day of 11th grade when she realized that she was the only girl in her entire class. Although she had heard that girls rarely chose computer science over biology, she was expecting at least a couple of girls in her class. At an age where girls need fellow girl companions the most, she was left with a room full of boys who would constantly make her feel that computer science is not a girl’s thing.

Only to aggravate things further, she started getting bullied because of her Newari accent. Despite her curiosity, she refrained from asking questions to teachers. She had lost her confidence and her grades were falling. Discouraged, she began to question whether she made the right choice. “I should have taken biology or management, just not computer science,” she would think at times.

However, between questioning herself about her lost confidence and her aspiration of becoming an engineer, she began to consolidate herself. She chose to learn from her peers over running away from them. She practiced talking in Nepali and eventually her accent was not a problem. Gradually, she got rid of her imposter syndrome and started regaining her lost confidence. She then joined IT engineering in Nepal College of Information Technology to follow her dreams.

By then, she had realized that gender stereotypes were real. “In our society, people have a set of ideas about how they want men and women to dress, behave, and present themselves. Women are expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be perfect. Men are expected to be strong, aggressive, and brave. Even if you don’t do it deliberately, your upbringing makes you follow the stereotype. It’ll take time but we must break it.” She recognizes the way we are brought up to be responsible for this outcome.

In her college days, she would attend several workshops apart from daily classes. But she would always be disheartened at how she was frequently the only woman in the room. “Women are simply not represented in tech in enough numbers. When you move to decision-makers, entrepreneurs, and above, it is even starker.” she says as she recalls not having any woman in tech to look up to as a young girl.

In 2015, she became one of the winners of EmpowHER, a platform with a mission to create self-radiant women leaders who showcase independence, resilience, and competence. She describes her journey with EmpowHER as transformative. A girl who was into hardcore coding suddenly got socially inclined.

Her own experience as a woman in tech and her concerns towards society constantly pushed her into giving back. So, she mustered all her courage and started conducting small workshops and hour-of-codes for girls with the seed money she won in EmpowHER. After a year of observation as an educator, she decided that girls were ready. She and her team worked towards making it sustainable and finally registered “WiSTEM Nepal” on September 27, 2016.

Throughout the journey of over four years, her team has reached out to several schools in the Kathmandu valley, Palpa, Syangja, Butwal, Karve, Sindupalchowk, and Nepalganj. Although they started with college girls initially, they now train young schoolgirls. “I like to take an instance of a tree. The leaves and all the green parts of the tree are the women leaders in tech, below that, there are undergrad girls. The trunk represents the high school girls. Finally, young schoolgirls are the roots. If we do not tend after the roots and the lower parts, the tree will not stand at all. If girls start believing that they can do anything right from their childhood, all major problems would be solved.”

To encourage young girls to step out of their comfort zones and view computing as a career choice, Binita and her team lean on to art. They believe science and art go hand in hand and shouldn’t be separated. So, they have integrated art in projects like “Adding Arts to STEM” and “STEAM Co-learning”. At present, young girls are experimenting with design thinking to build their imagination and innovation.

Although WiSTEM is primarily focused on empowering girls about STEM through practical means, they believe in inclusion. Even boys don’t have access to STEM learning, and they believe that collaboration between all genders is the key to sustainable development. “It is not right to just educate girls when boys too do not have access,” she explains.

In March 2020, she was the recipient of the Power of Radiance Award. The award honors inspirational women from around the world whose advocacy for women and girl’s education has led to a positive long term impact on lives. The award justifies how Binita has been trying to give radiance back to society through education.

Having come all this way, she has faced many failures and setbacks, but she has learned to always focus on the brighter side. She strongly believes that learning from failures is the key to success. “I am eternally grateful towards my family for putting up with my ‘over-ambitious self’ and believing in me,” she says as she recalls her journey. “Without a great support system, it is difficult to move forward.”

Binita’s advice to young girls in STEM is, “Learning new things is not easy. It takes a lot of consistency, dedication, and patience. Find out what you’re passionate about, believe in yourself, and find yourself a reliable support system. You must learn to accept criticisms constructively, only then you will be a true leader.”

“I believe I have only just begun. In the coming years, I hope to achieve even greater heights. I remember what it felt like to be ‘all alone’, wondering whether I should continue to pursue Computer Science. I also remember being supported and encouraged. I want to pay it forward. I do not want anyone to feel like education is not for them.”

This story was written by Ila Adhikari, the Story Series Manager of Nepali Women in Computing.