SHE CAN: Grooming tomorrow's women leaders

As the women empowerment campaign continues to register milestones in Rwanda, efforts to keep the momentum high are being boosted by individuals and organisations, especially in the area of girl-child education and empowerment.
Scholars posing with the founder of SHE CAN, Barbara Bylenga (far right).
Scholars posing with the founder of SHE CAN, Barbara Bylenga (far right).

As the women empowerment campaign continues to register milestones in Rwanda, efforts to keep the momentum high are being  boosted by individuals and organisations, especially in the area of girl-child education and empowerment.

Supporting Her Education Changes A Nation (SHE CAN) is one of the organisations at the forefront of the girl child campaign through nurturing young girls to become tomorrow’s leaders.


Formerly known as Open a Door, the organisation aims at building female global leadership skills by helping disadvantaged girls from post conflict countries win American scholarships and thereafter, return to their respective countries as change agents.


Barbara Bylenga, the founder and executive director, started the organisation in 2011, when she was doing voluntary work in the country. She met a young woman who asked for her help to apply for a scholarship in The United States of America; this resulted in multiple benefits on the girl’s life.


Her colleagues too had done a similar thing before and seeing how it impacted the young girls’ lives, Bylenga thought of scaling it up to  build something big out of it.

She says, “The idea behind the organisation was to build female leadership in post conflict countries. We, however, not only focus on education, but also concentrate on grooming leaders; education is a stepping stone; that’s why the programme starts with us helping them win scholarships.”

The programme targets girls who excel academically, have strong leadership potential, have potential to inspire others, lack ability to raise college studies and are also sincerely passionate about their country.

Scholars and their mentors. SHE CAN aims at nurturing young girls to become tomorrow’s leaders. (Courtesy photos)

The process of selecting the girls starts with identifying the best and brightest. The students are then given a test - American College Testing (ACT) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL); one-on-one interviews are also done plus an assignment of a leadership project.

After the girls have been selected, each is given a team of six mentors, all of whom are strong professional women advanced in their respective careers, and are well-connected in as far as opportunities for internships or job prospects go.

Mentors support each scholar through every step of her transformative journey- from securing a scholarship to thriving in school. They mentor them in leadership; offer guidance, emotional and financial support-they literally become their family while in America.

Bylenga’s choice of Rwanda was a result of her already established base in the country and besides, Rwanda fell into the context of a post conflict country, a major focus of the organisation. The programme also works with other countries like Cambodia and Afghanistan.

The leadership training includes sessions on goal setting; cultural barriers, interpersonal communication, public speaking training, and attending business meetings with mentors to help scholars navigate their careers, among others.

“Our aim is for the scholars to return home as leaders.”

The programme is indeed creating an impact, “One of our beneficiary scholars, Patricie Uwase, returned and started a mentoring camp for the girls. She is now working with the government, three more scholars are yet to return this January,” Bylenga says.

Bylenga says her biggest challenge is identifying amazing girls that can be helped in winning scholarships. “Some may even have the qualities but not the will to turn into that leader who will help Rwanda; we look for those who aspire to make a change for the country, those who are really smart but are also courageous and caring.”

She says that the future of SHE CAN looks brighter because they have improved on the model. 

“In the beginning, the girls competed for the scholarships against thousands of other applicants, but we have created relationships with schools, we have eight universities that have signed and are committed to taking one of our girls every year for five years, and so we plan to expand that so that we have fifty schools over the next five years that are committed,” Bylenga says.

Ines Simbi (who will be joining college next year)with her mentor Brigit Lamberson.

Raising a global generation of capable and courageous female leaders is critical to systematic change. That’s why SHE CAN seeks smart, ambitious, low income earning young women in post conflict countries such as Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, and provides them with an American college education, mentorship and leadership training.

Scholars get a chance to study from top universities in the States such as Bennington, Bucknell, Harvard and Lafayette, among others.

What the mentors say

Julie Abrams is a philanthropist and works around issues of women leadership around the world. She serves on many boards of influential organisations and has now been on the programme as a mentor for three years.

She says that when she joined the organisation it was still small, but she was certain something big would come out of it.

“It was one of the most exciting new organisations and an opportunity for the world to really build female leadership. We are falling in love with each other yet again learning so much, it’s more of giving back as we are helping the girls, more so, I think these young women are going to be tomorrow’s leaders and stars,” Abrams says.

Brigit Lamberson says that mentoring the girls is an opportunity to directly impact a young woman’s life.

She appreciates the girls’ vigor saying that they are fortunate to have access to such a programme.

“These girls are much more driven than when I was 18 years old, and it’s really inspiring to be able to help them through college. This is something I wish I had when I was in school. I am really glad to be of help to the girls as this will not only change their lives but their future as well.”

What the beneficiaries say

Ines Simbi will be joining university next year; she says SHE CAN has taught her a lot, especially the ability to discover her inner potential.

“We have been taught how to be creative, and with that, we have discovered that with the little resources one has, they can really impact society.

“For instance, there is a project I handled; I had to find Mutuelle de Santé (Community Health Insurance) for sixty people. At first I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had the determination. I used Rwf10, 000 to make jewellery which I sold, and also raised an amount from church which summed up to Rwf100, 000 and it helped me accomplish my project.

“I really realised that we all can do something, but we just don’t know that we can. SHE CAN opened my mind and I learned how to be creative, how to work as a team and right now, I feel like I have a purpose in life,” Simbi says.

Marie Grace Imanariyo is also a high school graduate waiting to join one of the prestigious universities in America next year. She says SHE CAN has been like a bridge between her and a lot of opportunities.

“I’m really grateful for being a part of SHE CAN, and I will always try to make everyone proud so that I get to make a difference in my country. I have already been accepted in college and it’s really exciting,” she says.

In 2011 four girls got scholarships, in 2012 the number slightly increased to six while in 2013, it was eight.

This year the beneficiaries were ten and next year, that number is expected to double.


Mary Murerwa,
Fidela Mutoni

Give girls a platform to interact with women leaders

I believe the best way is to give them a platform where they can interact and share experiences with different leaders, most especially women leaders. Allowing girls to get acquainted inspires them and through their interaction with these leaders, they develop a spirit of leadership, and this paves a way to their future leadership positions.

Mary Murerwa, communications officer

Mentorship will help girls realise that leadership is for all

Girls need to be inspired, motivated and enlightened on their inner abilities and talent. It is through mentorship that young girls will realise that leadership is not only for men, and it’s worth a try. I also believe, mentorship opens their eyes to the world and opportunities around them, and eventually shows them how they can tap all those prospects.

Fidela Mutoni, banker

Alice Umurisa
Leah Mutesi

A chance to lead their peers will boost their confidence

The better way to empower girls to be future leaders is to give them an opportunity to lead their peers, either at school or in their communities. Giving girls a chance to lead will give them a sense of responsibility and maturity, and it is this experience and self-esteem that will empower them to be future leaders. 

Alice Umurisa, student

Girls need access to leadership seminars

Girls should be given more access to leadership seminars, conferences and trainings. Such initiatives give girls necessary knowledge and skills about leadership. Besides, in conferences, girls get an opportunity to meet and network with inspirational young and successful leaders.

Leah Mutesi, therapist

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