Resonate: Empowering women in East Africa through storytelling

Resonate is encouraging women and girls in East Africa to unlock their full leadership potential.

by Julia Migné

Ayla Schlosser Resonate
Ayla Schlosser, co-founder and CEO of Resonate. @Ayla Schlosser

Girls and women around the world are increasingly encouraged to dream big, to fight against the gender pay gap, and to shatter the glass ceiling.

However, when looking at women in leadership roles, a different story emerges. It turns out that women across the globe continue to be largely marginalised from the political sphere due to issues such as discriminatory laws, difficulty to access education, or strong gender stereotypes.

The bigger picture can even seem quite bleak at first with less than 20 percent of women being government ministers in 2017 according to the UN Women despite strong evidence that women politicians are excelling at championing issues such as gender equality, pensions, and parental leave and childcare.

One country, nevertheless, has set itself apart presenting the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide with a staggering 63.8 percent of seats in the parliament lower house being won by women.

This extraordinary percentage of women leaders is what made Rwanda so appealing to a passionate American woman: Ayla Schlosser.

“I came in Rwanda partially because of the unique position of women in leadership. Here, 64 percent of parliament is female, which is higher than anywhere else in the world. But at a local level, you still see challenges with women not being represented at local councils or not having leadership roles.”

With a background in community organising, Ayla was working in Washington D.C. when she realised that despite spending most her time helping people to stand up for themselves, she was actually struggling to apply the concept to herself.

“That was really the turning point for me. It was through that realisation that I thought that those skills I had learnt were something that women and girls everywhere should learn.

Especially in the context where we are relying on women to be the drivers of social and economic change internationally. We are asking them to do something really hard but we are not really necessarily equipping them with the right skills.”

Resonate Storytelling leadership INKLINE
Resonate intends to empower women by teaching them how to reframe their personal stories. © Resonate

Getting access to education and financial literacy is definitely a step in the right direction for girls and women around the globe, but Ayla emphasises the importance of having the internal resources needed to actually be able to take on new responsibilities.

Without this self-confidence and internal power, it is extremely hard for women to stand up for themselves.

Having discovered the uniqueness of Rwanda in terms of women leaders, Ayla knew that it would make the perfect place to pilot a programme to study the factors holding women back.

She explains: “There are good role models [in Rwanda] so then what is holding women back from being able to take that onboard?”

Determined to launch her programme, Ayla headed to Rwanda for six months, having found two organisations that agreed to pilot her idea of using ‘Storytelling for Leadership’ as a tool for women’s empowerment.

Once in the country, she met Solange Impanoyimana, who found the ‘Storytelling for Leadership’ framework extremely useful to help her understand and talk about her own history and experiences.

Convinced of the importance of “empowering others with the strength and courage that comes from the ability to tell one’s own story,” the duo launched Resonate to lift women into becoming leaders of change.

“One of the things that is a bit unique about our programme is that in reality, we are not really trying to teach a new skill,” explains Ayla. “We rely on our partner organisations to provide those hard skills but what we are really trying to do is to shift mindsets.”

“There are good role models [in Rwanda] so then what is holding women back from being able to take that onboard?”

Historical data and psychological research have shown according to Ayla that “the way our brain makes sense of information is through stories,” helping us remember things and communicate effectively.

The way we are defining and telling our own story to others is having a massive impact on defining our identity and that’s why learning to reframe one’s personal story is an incredible way to change that person’s mindset. 

Resonate Leadership INKLINE
Resonate has trained so far more than 4,000 participants. © Resonate

Resonate’s workshops are based on participants reflecting on how they got where they are, and what the important moments in their lives were that propelled them in that direction.

Each of them has to come up with a story explaining how they made a choice that led them to where they are now and they practice that story in front of other participants.

Being able to see peoples’ reaction when they listen to the story is a powerful way to shift the narrative about oneself, according to Ayla.

So far, Resonate has trained more than 4,000 participants and worked with more than 50 partners in East Africa.

The organisation is assessing its impact through rigorous scientific methods using both qualitative and quantitative data and human-centred design which involves actively seeking input and feedback from participants and clients when designing new programmes.

“When I came to Rwanda, I actually made myself a promise that I wouldn’t keep doing the work unless it was proven to be useful,” explains Ayla. “I didn’t want to get Founder’s Syndrome and get attached to my own idea.”

With a total of 45 percent of participants who have taken on a leadership role, Ayla has seen a concrete proof of the impact that storytelling can have on building proactivity and leadership in women.

Resonate Impact INKLINE
© Resonate

One of the things that Ayla believes to be a key factor in the success of Resonate is having built a team of facilitators that participants can relate to.

That’s why she trained Rwandan staff in the methodology shortly after arriving in the country so that they’d be the ones actually delivering the training instead of her.

“I think the biggest way to have gained credibility was just listening to the right people. My co-founder, Solange, was incredible at explaining to me why [some ideas] wouldn’t work.

Rather than just saying ‘that won’t work’ and moving on she’d try to explain the context and how I could adapt our programme to fit those needs.”

“When I came to Rwanda I actually made myself a promise that I wouldn’t keep doing the work unless it was proven to be useful.”

In addition to providing programmes tailored specifically to women, Resonate also offers an Action Leadership Programme designed to allow young people to gain leadership experience and a Professional Development programme to build the fundamental soft skills needed to be successful in a career.

“We have to address gender equality from both sexes,” says Ayla. “They have to be able to see leadership as attainable but it’s also important for boys to know that there are other types of leadership that aren’t the traditionally masculine ways to lead.”

Having proven the positive impact of its programmes, the organisation is now developing a training of facilitators programme. By training staff members from other organisations in the Resonate methodology, Ayla hopes to increase the company’s reach.

“Currently if some large organisation had 8,000 people that they wanted us to work within the next three months we would be scrambling to put our own staff together. If instead, we can train the staff that they already have in place that means that the speed and reach of our impact can really expand exponentially.”

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