Just Go For It Now – Dorcas Njeri Kareithi

I got to know Dorcas through a mutual friend called Gabriel Tuyishimire. The first statement I heard with her name was, “Her name is Dorcas and she is VERY good at what she does”. I immediately wanted to know more about her. Here is our interview about Dorcas’ STEM journey:

Hi Dorcas, thank you for joining us today. I am happy to have you as our guest
Hey Winnie, thank you for the invite. I went through the website and I must say, I don’t know why this is not shared enough in different spaces. There are amazing testimonials and great inspiration from different African women here. I am honoured to share my story.

Please give us a brief introduction about yourself
I always go by Dorcas Kareithi professionally. In another world, I am known as Njeri Kareithi. So my full name is Dorcas Njeri Kareithi. I am from Kenya. I wear quite many hats right now, but the official one is Associate Statistician – Clinical Trials at Newcastle University, UK. I was recently the Study Design and Analysis Manager for a company called Co-creation Hub, which is a tech innovation company based in Nigeria, with offices in Kenya and Rwanda. I used to sit at the Kigali-Rwanda office because that’s where the design lab is.

On the side, I am a statistical consultant for a few companies here and there and a professional mentor to a few young data scientists and statisticians. I am also the interim continental chairperson for Young African Statisticians as it transitions to a program by UNECA.

I know about Cc-Hub and greatly admire what you guys do. I wish to join the team for one of the roles in the future.

Please walk us through your journey into Statistics as a young female African
Did I ever know I wanted to do Statistics? No! Up until my 3rd year at the undergraduate level, I didn’t know I would be a Statistician. Growing up, like in almost all African households, I aspired to either become a pilot or a surgical nurse. I knew I didn’t want to become a medical doctor but then knew I could do well in giving all necessary equipment to the main surgeon. That was cool enough for me.

I was privileged enough to grow up in a household that had a computer. This gave me exposure to technology at a very young age, thanks to my dad who is very pro-technology. He had this computer we could play around with.

Fast forward to primary school; I used to be terrible at Mathematics, Jesus Christ! I was very bad at it until my Mathematics teacher then, Mr. Murungaru, asked me to be serious for 1 or 2 terms and see how that would turn out. I owe my Mathematics journey to him by the way. He gave me tips like how to memorise formulas and all that. I eventually passed my National Examinations as the second-best student in Mathematics, and the first girl. Don’t worry about what I got in other subjects but just know I had a straight-A of 97 in Mathematics, haha.

Moving to high school; I went back to my joker self until I met this other teacher called Mr. Karue during my third year of high school. He taught Mathematics in a fun way and that changed my perspective again. I moved from being a poor performer in Mathematics to becoming one of the top students in Mathematics. It was easy for me to connect with him outside class as well because he was our soccer coach and I was the captain of the team. Bringing Mathematics outside class to the pitch caught my attention and made me enjoy the subject more.

When I finished school, I was selected for a course in Wild Life Management by the Government of Kenya. In as much as I loved traveling and visiting parks, I wasn’t about to become a wildlife manager in any way! My dad knew how I wanted to become a pilot so he took the step to enroll me in an aviation school in Nairobi. We tried to register but the conditions were not so favourable for me! First of all, I was young; only 16 years of age, then the school fees were really high, and the female pilot factor also played negatively against me. All talk about, you know, becoming pregnant at some point and being required to stay on the ground for some time. All this encouraged my dad to push me to do another course. Good enough he had been doing some research and directed me to this Christian university called Kabarak University and asked me to choose a course. I chose Economics and Mathematics and that’s what I majored in.

Like I mentioned before, my journey in Statistics started in 3rd year. We had amazing lecturers, especially the female lecturers in the Mathematics department. Mr. Rwagama was my rock during this level of school. He was our Applied Statistics lecturer. And you know how things were in the old generations; we were taught how to write code on the blackboard; we had no software taught in class. It was a tough way to teach because we only learned how to write code on the board but given a machine we wouldn’t know how to do it. So I approached him and asked him to be taught how to write the SAS code he had written on a computer. He gladly accepted and along the way, I saw one of the codes he was running for a project as a consultant in Tanzania. That’s exactly what I wanted to do because I realised I could contribute to the world by helping people make decisions based on data, and it came with very good money LOL. So whatever we had studied in class, I would go try out on my laptop. This worked so well for me that when we finished school he recommended me for a project with ICIPE. That was the beginning of a career in Applied Statistics. I believe I did a good job there because I started as an intern and grew pretty fast.

My journey so far has been very interesting. I would mainly attribute my interest in Mathematics and Statistics to those 3 teachers. Obviously to my parents too, especially my dad for introducing me to technology when I was really young. And then the mentors I have met along the way. I approached someone called Dr. Kennedy Mutai and asked for mentorship in Medical Statistics during my undergraduate, and he has been my mentor until today.

You have walked an interesting journey in Statistics! What are some of the big challenges you have faced?
I was lucky to be recommended for a job immediately after school but I know this is not the case for everyone young girl out there. I mentor a few people here and there and most of them are ladies but I see how they struggle to get opportunities. Our African education system is not so favourable when it comes to women. Let’s look at trivial examples like nursery books; they usually try to portray the boy as someone doing things and the girl is just being beautiful and pretty, with nothing much going on. This is instilled in us from such a young age that men are better than women.

We started our Economics and Mathematics class around 15 people but only 6 (we also got 3 people from previous classes) were able to graduate. I am proud to say that majority were ladies but we still had to struggle to prove to the universe that we were worth it.

At the workplace, I have encountered situations where we have been in a meeting and I am invited in as a research expert but I say something and it is shamefully turned down. I remember this one time, the person who was chairing the meeting said, “Dorcas I don’t think you are the right person to say this”. So he turned to another guy, who is not even a researcher, and asked for his contribution. At that point, I felt so bad because I was there as a Statistician and research expert but because I am a woman, another person’s contribution was more important. It made me question my own judgment and made me feel like I should keep quiet more during meetings.

See, if you are faint-hearted as a woman, these challenges can really make you lose faith in yourself. You have to quickly remember why you were hired in the first place; you are an expert and this is your field. Generally, I can say that being a woman in STEM is not easy but passion overcomes it all. And the examples of women we have seen in high places are enough proof that we can also get there. Once there, we need to open doors for other women and give them hope.

These are very sad situations you have found yourself in. How have you been able to stand tall?
I will classify them into 2 [as a Statistician, haha]; internal and external factors, have helped me push forward. Internal factors are my own beliefs, like, I have read about women who have done an amazing job, the likes of Catherine Johnson. She and those other women made me believe that if they could take us to the moon, I can take anyone anywhere, haha. That’s the internal belief I mean. I can actually do anything! Another internal factor is about my upbringing; in almost all African cultures, boys are more important than girls. I grew up trying to prove myself to everyone around me, even my family. This made me so exhausted that I at some point chose to do what makes me happy and excel at it. That internal push is what drives me now. Even when someone tries to put me down, I choose to do what makes me happy and excel at it.

External factors are my mentors and teachers. They played a significant role in giving me direction. I have 2 other female mentors; Dr. Martha Musyoka and Dr. Irene. These people are bossing in their fields! Anytime I feel down, I just call them on and they are available. I am also privileged to be surrounded by women doing excellent things in their diverse fields. It’s just motivating to hang around them.

Tell us about your prestigious moments of recognition along this journey.
When I was at ICIPE I was awarded a master’s scholarship. Just being picked out of nowhere was amazing. You can imagine the number of people who had applied, but I was picked as the recipient. Also, in my former work of employment, we were rewarded certificates for doing amazing work. I must have forgotten some of these material awards because honestly, they don’t count so much to me, haha.

My biggest achievement so far is my group of mentees. I currently have 7 mentees; 4 guys and 3 ladies. Looking at these people’s growth and progress in career and general life makes me so proud. Remembering how they were when we had just met, in comparison to where they are now is everything to me. I give them my whole because I know what it feels like to grow up without mentors and what it is to grow up with mentors. I have walked both journeys.

My other achievement is being part of the people who launched the ISIbalo Young African Statisticians Association in Kenya. Early this year [2021], I was nominated by the leaders in the continental body to lead the continental young statisticians. The continental body was being hosted by Statistics South Africa but now UNECA is taking over. So this transition period, which is 2 years, we needed a team to help with the transition. I work with an amazing team of young Africans from all over Africa. I was honored by the nomination.

I am soon starting my Ph.D., so I am considering that as an achievement in advance (lol). In our family, we have; Dr. L Kareithi (mum) and Dr. J Kareithi (paps), haha. I usually joke that it’s time we add another Dr. Kareithi to the family.

You are a very busy person with all the hats you wear! What do you do during your free time – if you get it that is?
I have a very strict schedule; I don’t work on weekends unless it’s an extreme emergency. That’s something I tell my employers beforehand. Outside work, I enjoy taking long drives, watching movies, and spending time with my very neat circle of close friends. I love traveling a lot (live up to my middle name, which means a traveler), playing board games, and collecting memes, haha. I have a goal of visiting at least 3 countries on each continent.

Do you have a favourite quote?
Yes, I do; “Whether you think you can or not, you are right” ~ Henry Ford. I like it because implied it’s basically up to you and your mindset. If you decide you can’t do something, you won’t be able to do it and the reverse is true.

What’s your encouragement for a young girl who is passionate about STEM?
There are endless possibilities; don’t limit yourself. Your interest in STEM is worthy, let no one tell you what you can or can’t do. If there’s something you want to do, just go for it as soon as now because we need you like yesterday.

Seek inspiration from 1. within yourself, 2. from people around you who are in the field and are not struggling. Feel free to reach out to women who do things you admire. I have learned that approaching people makes a difference and it counts. Don’t be afraid to network.

Finally, I want to tell them, “baby girl, you can do this!” Allow me to steal Lupita Nyong’o words, “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”.

Thank you very much, Dorcas, for accepting to spend some time with me. I have had an amazing time with you. I am proud to know you and wish you more success with your future endeavours.

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