One to Watch: Sherry-Rose Bih Watts
Tuesday, 10th October 2017 at 8:53 am
Sherry-Rose Bih Watts is the 21-year-old founder of social enterprise, WomenGirl, which aims to see young women and girls, regardless of their background, have access to knowledge and quality resources through which they can be empowered. She is One to Watch.
A total of 60 of Australia’s brightest young changemakers have been selected by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) to take part in the 2017 Young Social Pioneers (YSP) program. It is Australia’s first, and only, national youth entrepreneurship incubator designed exclusively for young people leading initiatives that respond to society’s most pressing challenges. In this mini-series Pro Bono News speaks to a pioneer from each of the nine categories across the program about the differences they are hoping to make.
Bih Watts, who is studying international relations at La Trobe University and is an associate at YLab, was chosen from more than 400 applicants as one of this year’s Young Social Pioneers.
Her project, WomenGirl, focuses on creating opportunities for personal development, and connecting young African women in the diaspora and the African mainland.
She was selected for the Open Stream which is supported by The Dyson Bequest, The Sunshine Foundation, The Nelson Meers Foundation, and Andy Myer and Kerry Gardner.
Here she talks to Pro Bono News about her “life’s work”, creating the world she wants for her future and where she see’s herself in five years time.
What motivated you to start WomanGirl?
The concept and idea started when I was probably about 12 or 13 years old. It is motivated basically by my own experience as well as that of my siblings, my friends and my cousins.
I am from a migrant background. So I was born in Cameroon and then my parents migrated to Australia when I was quite young and just being a young black African woman in Australia, I realised that although I had many privileges of growing up in the society there were also many barriers that existed simultaneously, and many negative perceptions, I would say, about what someone who looked like me, or identified as I did, was capable of or was capable of achieving.
I really wanted to not only challenge those perceptions but build on my nurturing and the mentorship, the opportunities, the access to knowledge and conversations that I had, the encouragement and support that I had, building on those experiences I wanted to create something that would allow other young women, such as myself, or who identified with the same stories, same experience as I did, or who were perceived by society in this way, to have access to those same opportunities, the access to quality resources and knowledge that would allow them to achieve and strive for their full potential.
So that is essentially how it started and what motivated it I guess. If I had to put it simply, WomanGirl is my story as well as that of many others around me, and it is the desire to see every single young woman, regardless of their background have access to the quality resources, the knowledge, different ways of being and thinking, that would allow them to reach their full potential.
How did you move from having the idea to starting your own social enterprise at age 21?
To be honest it is because of that nurturing and encouragement and that mentorship. I had been exposed to different narratives, I had been exposed to role models. Particularly, when I look at my mother and I look at the way she is and how she strives to be and I look at the way so many other women around me are doing life, regardless of what it throws at them, and are doing it exceptionally. I guess to be honest it was that in combination with the dissatisfaction, I would say, towards the other images and the other experiences of young women such as myself that I saw.
So I used that energy basically to drive me. I wanted to do something, I don’t want to just sit and think about it like I have been for the longest time. I actually want to see this happen because I can see how it benefited me. I can see how putting myself out there has benefitted me and I don’t want it to just be me. I don’t want to be the anomaly. Because I’m not. I’m not the anomaly, there are so many young black African women who are talented, who are creative, who are analytical, who are strong, who are capable, who simply have not been given a chance.
I don’t think it is my role or anyone else’s to “empower women”. I don’t think women need to be empowered, and I don’t necessarily think you can empower someone else, but you can facilitate that those barriers are removed so that they are given a chance to be self-empowered. To empower themselves and realise their own dreams, their own potential, their own passion and put that into action, and gift the world what they have to offer.
I feel that it is a disservice to the world if I don’t pursue this initiative and if I don’t try it and I do believe it is my life’s work. It is not just in the form of this project, but I believe it is my life’s work to make sure that every young woman, regardless of their circumstance, has the opportunity to flourish.
How does WomanGirl work?
I have only just started it this year, so I am starting it through the YSP program essentially. I’m basically scaffolding how I want WomanGirl to operate. But essentially it is to connect young women with mentors of other older, young African women.
So part of the whole WomanGirl story is that I feel there is a connection as well as responsibility between older women and young women to lift and support each other. So it is connecting them with role models who look like themselves or who share similar stories, who can demonstrate and encourage a pathway for them to realise their own potential.
It is about connecting young women in diaspora as well. Building their confidence and their skills and linking them and creating community with young women on the African mainland. So not only working with young women here but to build upon them so they can use their skills, their knowledge to work and encourage young women on the African mainland. I think there is something really powerful [in that] and it is well know that connections to country and culture is very important for many diaspora communities. So building upon that further and creating a platform through which they can grow and encourage each other in community and with their own personal development and endeavours.
You talk about connecting the generations. How do you find leading an organisation at a young age?
I feel that it is a real opportunity to do it now at this stage and to be young and doing it, because, like I said, in a sense WomanGirl is me. It’s that place where you know you have the desire and the passion, but perhaps it hasn’t been made clear to you or you don’t know exactly what it is or how to go about it and you need that support, to be able to realise your full potential.
So working on this project now I have a lot of support, I have a lot of encouragement, I have a lot of resources that I didn’t even know I had access to, especially through YSP, even though it is a lot balancing uni and work, as well as building a social enterprise, which no one tells you is a major task.
I know that it means that I do have to make sacrifices, I can’t do all of the things perhaps typical 21 year olds do because I might be working on my business model or whatever else, but like I said this is my life’s work, and I’m happy to sacrifice for it, because it is not just about me. It is much bigger than myself.
So it is not necessarily hard, and I don’t think it is hard doing it at this stage simply because I am in an environment where everyone seems to be wanting to see me, and see this, succeed and is encouraging me in that direction. I think it would be difficult if I was trying to do it by myself but I know I am not doing it alone. I feel thoroughly blessed to be on this journey.
What advice would you give to other young people who wanted to make a difference?
I would say that begin to believe that regardless of where you are now, what your circumstances, what your background is, what your personal history may be, regardless of that, and because of that, you have something to offer to the world. You have something good, something you can bring to the world to make it a better place.
So if there is something that you want to do to make a difference, go ahead and do it. Don’t let anybody, no matter how many years beyond you they may have, not matter how close in family relations they may be to you, don’t let anybody tell you that you are not capable, that you are not able, that you are not allowed to do what it is that you feel that you need to do to help make a difference in the world. Because the world needs each and everyone of us.
If every single person gave what they had, a little bit of their skills, their time or their talent, we could really transform the way in which everybody experiences the world in the way that it is today. If there is something that you want to do and you are a young person who wants to do it, just go ahead and do it. Do what you can with what you have and take it one step at a time and if you need help, ask for help because sometimes that is all it takes. There are so many people out there who are willing and will happily assist and want to see you succeed and want to see you supported because they know it is not just for you, it is for those around you and your community, for your family, or the world at large, and they will help you and they will support you and they will encourage you.
And remove the people from your life or from your space that bring you down, that discourage you and be curious. Be actively and insatiably curious, ask questions and seek knowledge and seek different experiences because you never know when you’re going to meet that person or spark that idea that might actually help you do this thing that you have wanted to do for such a long time. Or bring to you a completely new thing that you never thought could come your way or that you’d be able to do. That’s what I would say.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
In five years time, I anticipate that WomanGirl will be fully up and running and will be an independent, sustainable social enterprise. I anticipate still being connected to it and active within it but I hope it will have built a global community, so WomenGirl will be hundreds of women here and around the world who are connected and benefiting from the projects that come out of it, from the connections, from the mentorships, from the confidence building, from the resource developments, from the personal development that I aim to do through this project. That’s one thing in relation to WomanGirl in particular.
Then I hope to have finished my masters degree. I’m about to finish my undergraduate so I hope to finish my masters degree.
I just hope I am still as motivated and driven as I am now to keep creating the world that I want for my future and future generations. That’s where I want to be. Even though people say it’s “naively optimistic”, I would be happy to be just as optimistic about the world and the potential that I and so many young women have to transform it, as I am now.
Even though I am starting WomanGirl with a focus on young African women, that is because it is the community that I am most connected to, the experience that is most authentic to myself, I do hope it one day expands, and the project expands beyond just my community and the community and diaspora on the mainland that I am connected to. Those are my ambitions and where I see myself in five years time.
I don’t know which part of the world I’ll be in but I hope to be well travelled. I hope I have quite a few stamps on my passport and have visited many places.