I spent two months working on female empowerment for the UN: here’s what I learned.

Dasha Nikolaeva
12 min readMay 23, 2021


I attend a unicorn-person accelerator aka-TKS. In late February, it was announced that we’ll be working with the United Nations. They gave us a task: to empower women in the digital economy. Figure it out! In less than a month!

I made it sound so easy but we went through blood, sweat, and tears to get those materials ready. 12-hour Zoom sessions, no sleep, no food… mmm, yeahhh. Working with the United Nations is tough. They are a big organization with a lot of experience and high expectations. If you want to get support from them —you gotta do the work.

We had 3 challenges to choose from:

  • increasing digital skills,
  • increasing employment in the digital economy,
  • developing policies to support female inclusion.

Finding the problem

Why Rwanda

Our team spent time choosing the right country and the right problem. Rwanda seemed like a very unique place with 60% of the parliamentary seats are taken by women. It’s a broken country being rebuilt after the 1994 Civil War. The government is putting a lot of effort into developing the country. For instance, they made moves towards gender equality and digitalization.

We were considering many different problems like unemployment of people who worked in the tourism sector due to travel bans in Rwanda. Digital tourism? In the end, we ended up focusing on English illiteracy. It’s a problem all of our team members have a personal experience with — English is not our first language.

English illiteracy->Digital illiteracy

One problem that my team has identified is English illiteracy. Why is this such a big problem? 60% of the Internet is in English but only 1% of Rwandans speak the language. They speak Kinyarwanda. Needless to say, it’s far from being a popular language online. Add to that all programming languages being based on English, as well as most educational content being in English.

Teachers can’t teach.

So that’s why Rwanda went through an educational reform in 2008. They obligated schools to teach in English so the next generation of Rwandans speaks the language. However, little to no support was given to teachers in the period of transition. They are still at the bottleneck of the problem —62% of Rwandan teachers lack adequate English skills meaning they can’t teach in English.


SMS-curriculum + peer-to-peer mentoring

We propose to teach teachers English through an SMS-based curriculum + peer-to-peer mentoring. Why SMS? Most people have access to mobile phones when Internet penetration is not that high. Why peer to peer? To actually practice the language.

We can impact 27 000 teachers and 1,600,000 Rwandan kids by 2026. Rwanda has a population of 13 million people.

To sum up:

Our progress

First, we spent 4 weeks on the problem/solution. We went through a number of calls with:

  • our coach Michael Raspuzzi who has advised us on everything, gave feedback, and shared new ideas(thanks, Michael);
  • we spoke to people on the ground to get their unique view on our assumptions — because everything we knew was based on data from the Internet, we never actually experienced being in Rwanda; just like with startups — the most important thing is to talk to your users before you consider building something, you need to know what people really need;
  • and we also met people who made similar projects work — like SMS-based curriculum companies.

We had a meeting with Alice Kangabe, a Rwandan student; also with Jennifer Johnson from Cell-Ed, a company that is developing SMS-curriculums. And counting…

After 4 weeks, the 1st round was over as our directors were reviewing the decks. We spent 12 hours on Zoom getting our deck ready for the deadline and submitted it just on time! The day I went to bed at 8 am…

We had everything ready but kept on improving while we could.

In a few weeks, we found out that our team’s deck was one of the finalists.

Then, our director, Michael, sent us new feedback. We grinded for a couple more days, and then TKS sent our deck straight to the United Nations.

Here are some reflections on the experience and some tips for you.

Your solution to empower women doesn't have to be females-only

When trying to empower women people tend to wear glasses that exclude the male population(spoiler alert: they are still there being 50% of the population).

  1. You don’t have to exclude males from benefiting from your solution as long as women benefit no less than men. Give to all -> women will benefit more.
  2. Figure out how to make sure your product will be inclusive. It will be far less challenging(and far more impactful) than to find a way to target women-only.
  3. Even if your product isn’t for men, research their role there.

‘Give to all’ wouldn’t work for all solutions(ex. female health). But you still have to research the men’s role there —because everything is connected. Males play a huge role in women’s lives. Especially in patriarchal societies where men, in many ways, control women. I know, ugh. Even with things like contraception, husbands may deny it(for whatever reason).

For us, when we are teaching English to teachers so they can teach young students(girls and boys) — we give to all. We believe that young Rwandans learning English will benefit them all, therefore, it will benefit the Rwandan economy. Teaching girls-only or female teachers only doesn’t make sense.

Have multiple decks, copy&paste

Doesn’t matter what you’re working on — female empowerment, uber for dogs, or a rocket company — this tip applies to all. Don’t feel stressed to FIO your deck in the first version. The first one is your rough draft — throw everything in there. Each team member. Play with different designs and templates.

📝Pro-tip: do the slides layout with paper and pen. Put everything you want on paper. Then re-create the presentation. Canva/Google slides give you too many options to choose from — first, you have to know what you need — or else you will get overwhelmed.

Our first version had almost 100 slides. We collected everything we knew there.

Copy your whole deck as a new presentation. Leave your mega-deck in case you need something from it, and mark it in the file name so you know what’s up there. Name files wisely!! (something I often fuck up with)

Our final version had 19 slides, then we extended it to 22 as we developed our plan and solution.

Feel free to cut and edit. You have a full version saved, now you don’t have to be afraid to experiment and cut stuff. Copy&paste slides that you might need(but want to cut for now) to the mega-deck.

Make it personal

You’ve heard it already — people like stories, not numbers. It’s just easier to understand that way. It’s easier to care about something that way.

We added our own stories on why the problem is important to us:

  • it allows people to sympathize with our story and start caring about the problem,
  • it proves that we as a team care about the problem enough to do something about it,
  • for a deeper connection, we made a video to really give viewers a chance to get to know us.

We have also added stories of people on the ground as our experience is not 100% relevant to Rwanda.

Another idea was to use Rwanda’s flag colors as a deck theme but then it turned to be unreadable so we decided:

  • use white/light green background deck for professional purposes internationally,
  • use the green and yellow version for communication with people from Rwanda to establish a personal connection.

Headlines need to hold all crucial information — highlight your points

  • People must get a full understanding of why, how, and what you’re doing just from your headlines(in both pitchdecks, when you talk and slidedecks that people read);
  • it’s your responsibility to allow them to do that;
  • except for the headlines, highlight important information in the text with bolding and colors.

Make it easy for people

Slides for pitching: slide headlines highlight the main points of your pitch. People get distracted, people don’t actually listen, people need it visualized, people want you to do the work for them.

Most importantly, pitches get fucked up. Even if they are, listeners still should be able to learn everything from your slides.

Slidedecks for reading(skimming):

  1. People are busy and lazy. No one is actually gonna read your deck.
  2. If they are, it’s only after they skim through the headlines.
  3. And then highlights in the text, if it seems promising.
  4. If after all that they want even more info because you really got them interested— they might read it.

How to make great headlines

  • make them short and catchy,
  • back up catchy with data,
  • keep them simple.

Except for copywriting there are 2 more tools you can leverage — bolding and colors.

How to highlight

Use 2 colors for your text:

  • important,
  • additional info.

^^Make it obvious what the color stands for. Define colors+purpose when making the deck.

Use bolding(wisely):

  • bold most important points in headlines,
  • bold in small text,
  • don’t bold everything.

Here’s a bad example:

Why bad?

  • unclear if yellow or white is the main color,
  • almost everything is bolded,
  • the wording is not that strong,
  • no dots.


An improved version:

  • better highlighting — most important words are bolded,
  • colors are in place->obvious that yellow is the main one.

Remember to use the same theme throughout the deck.

Thanks to Navid Nathoo who really got this point to me somewhere in November when we had a braindate. I was always a fan of skimming, and making skimming easy for people. But after that BD it’s a rule — put everything important in your headlines.

Also, thanks to Michael Raspuzzi, Navid Nathoo(again;) and Noel Hurst for helping implement the rule in this project.

First layer — one place to keep everything about your project

Every project must have the first layer.

No more:

⛔️ can you send me the link to …?

⛔️ wait, where’s …?

⛔️ what is … working on?

⛔️ can you give me access to …?

⛔️ send your email again, plz…

One team — one link — one place for everything.

A long time ago teams could make a Google folder and throw everything in there. Now, we use tools from multiple companies. For example, our team used Canva, Google docs + spreadsheets, Notion, Zoom, and Miro.

We utilized Miro as our first layer. Every document we had — we linked it on our Miro board. With a little note on what it is.

Insights from research can be also kept on Miro. As well as mindmaps, memes, and everything else that you need. #biggestMirofan

screenshot from another board but it’s a better example

The goal is:

  1. If a new person joins your team — you can give them one(1) link and they will get access to everything. You won’t need to connect them to a million docs that are all over the place. They will spend a day going through your Miro board and they will know everything that happened before they joined.
  2. You yourself can find things quickly. In under 3 minutes, to be exact(open browser, open & load Miro, find a link, open a link).
  3. You can see what other people are doing — anytime and anywhere.
  4. You don’t ever(EVER) again have to hear: send me the X link, please!
  5. If you have a well-structured Miro, it will impress people. Having a meeting and you need to pull out some doc? Don’t leave them in silence — screen share Miro, tell them how you leverage the tool, give them a micro-tour of your board while looking for the right resource.

Must-have rules for Miro users

  • link every document/draft you create on Miro with a little sidenote,
  • spend an hour to try out all the templates Miro has so when you need them you can pull them up and make use of them,
  • put the main info about the project on Miro (why, how, what) and update it so you always have a somewhat relevant pitchdeck/place to go when you forget something,
  • add all the important numbers(and link your sources) on Miro,
  • more ideas: host demo days, stand-ups(people fill out the template before the event and one person screen shares), mindmaps, design thinking sessions, and retrospectives on Miro.
template idea

This challenge opened a conversation

Another cool thing about this challenge. We were forced to talk about problems that women are facing. It was uncomfortable for many, this topic was kinda ignored. I do believe that we at TKS became stronger as a community after this challenge.

Btw people made solutions for many problems ranging from education and employment gap to period poverty and teen pregnancy.

Imagine all the people we can impact. Imagine how our solution can help change lives.

I recall Hung Huynh saying: imagine all the people we can impact. Imagine how our solution can help change lives. And it motivated us to keep going even though we were very very tired pulling a 12-hour Zoom session!

As my last point, I want to mention the team.

People are important. Don’t compromise the quality. There are good people out there.

Mostly how you find them is luck, it was the case for me in this project. There is only one way to increase your luck — understand potential co-founders/teammates: their approach, mindset, work ethic, character, skillset.

Here are a few specific actions you can take to increase your luck:

  • meet people 1on1, do text check-ins, follow their work, ask questions;
  • before jumping into working with someone, do a test run — a hackathon, a challenge — if you jam and don’t want to kill each other after the hack, it’s a good sign;
  • talk to their previous teammates about their experience of working together;
  • try to understand what they care about, how much they care, and why they care.

Integrity is crucial. You can know if someone has it only by working with them. For me, mindset comes before skillset, and honesty(being a significant part of the mindset) comes before the mindset. I can never forgive the lies, and I don’t want that culture in any of my teams.

In good teams, you don’t have a boss who has to ping everyone — people are self-motivated because they care. If someone tunes out, they will be called out by their teammates. CEO is a leader, not a tyrant.

Better to be on your own than with the wrong people. Applies to everything — startups, side projects, friendships, and relationships.

Our final deck can be found here.

Thanks to Qamil Mirza and Hung Huynh for being the most amazing teammates🥺❤️.

Now we are waiting to hear back from the UN!

Go team Rwanda!!!

My website: dashanikolaeva.com



Dasha Nikolaeva

17 year old entrepreneur seeking for innovation dashanikolaeva.com