It may be difficult for Canadians to imagine what it is like to be a woman manager of a financial institution in a developing country. I met 45 of these women, who shared their challenges and triumphs working in male-dominated societies, when I volunteered from 2008-2010 as a facilitator/trainer in Ottawa with the CCA Women's Mentorship Program. This program is run annually by the Canadian Co-operative Association.
The CCA Women's Mentorship Program offers female credit union managers from Africa and Asia one month of career training in Ottawa and in different parts of Canada. For 10 days, the women participate in workshops about general leadership issues and lending practices. The participants are then matched with credit unions in Canada for 10 days so they can see the day-to-day operations of a Canadian credit union and its work in community. The CCA Women's Mentorship Program is an opportunity for women from co-operatives in developing countries to gain professional skills through Canadian internships and mentoring. It is a mutual learning opportunity for Canadian and international co-operators.
I grew up in Kenya and worked as a middle manager for the Kenya Posts and Telecommunication Corporation after graduation from university. Therefore, I was very familiar with the challenges many of these women co-op managers face. My background enabled me to relate to these women and helped them open up about their experiences. Their challenges include facing conflicting cultural beliefs and stereotypes about the role of women in society, not being taken seriously by their employees and colleagues, and the effort they have to make to win respect.
I was surprised to discover how similar these women were despite having come from different countries. They believed that education was the key to their success and most were either in school and working toward their degree or diploma. Also most of them, despite working full-time at the credit union, also ran a small business, driven by necessity and opportunity. These entrepreneurial endeavours ranged from small-scale farming to owning Boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) or Matatus (taxi vans), to tailoring or running small shops or food kiosks.
The CCA Women's Mentorship Program started in 2002 and has been very successful, having thus far trained 176 women from 18 countries, with more than 200 Canadian credit unions hosting and sharing their knowledge. It has empowered female credit union managers and increased the capacity of the credit unions they are serving and their communities as a whole.
As an aside, it makes me smile to reflect upon one of my contributions to the program, which was to encourage CCA to move it from October, which is Co-op Month, to the summer, when it is warmer in Canada. As a native Kenyan, I had some sympathy for these women from warm climates when I saw them shivering in Ottawa's fall weather.
Although CCA does in-country coaching for both male and female co-op managers, there isn't a formal mentoring program in Canada for men. From experience CCA has learned that women who go through the mentorship program will continue to use the knowledge they receive to build their community. By contrast, many of the men left their community to embark on a career with a commercial bank, which was a loss to their local co-operative.
CCA's international development projects are strengthened by the expertise of hundreds of volunteers from Canada's co-operative sector. Vancity, the credit union I work at in British Columbia, gave me knowledge and training over my 18-year career here to impact the lives of the women in the mentorship program. It means a lot to me that Canadian co-operatives allow their employees to volunteer their time and expertise for life-changing experiences with CCA. In fact, at Vancity alone eighteen employees have donated over two years' worth of time to CCA's international development program, averaging one month of donated time each. To date, a total of 138 Canadian volunteers have donated 2,255 days, worth $1.4 million, to CCA's international development program. For more information visit www.coopscanada.coop and www.vancity.com.
Author Njeri Kontulahti is a Community Investment Portfolio Manager at Vancity, Canada's largest community credit union. Between 2008-2010, she volunteered as a facilitator/trainer for the CCA Women's Mentorship Program in Ottawa.