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Q&A with Betelhem Dessie

Last year's Young Technologist winner Betelhem Dessie talks to us about what it was that inspired her to learn to code, the challenge she is most proud of overcoming and her plans for the future
Winner profile
10 Jan 2020
Last year's Young Technologist winner Betelhem Dessie talks to us about what it was that inspired her to learn to code, the challenge she is most proud of overcoming and her plans for the future

You started coding at 10 years old, what inspired you to learn?

I have had an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age having been raised in a household that was mostly traders.

On my ninth birthday I asked my father for some money, but he was very busy. Instead I made a deal with him to keep any money I could make using the computer I had in our shop. So, I edited some videos, installed some apps on people’s phones and managed to make $90 dollars. With this new-found way of making money I wanted to expand my business. I watched cartoons every day after school and during the adverts, toy brands would promote websites to encourage viewers to find out more or order online. I wanted to apply the same thinking for my business, so I learned how to build a website.

What challenge are you most proud of overcoming, as someone working in technology?

As a young woman in a country where most people don’t think that you can be involved in tech, to try to become successful with little support was a challenge. Overcoming the stereotype of what a young woman should be is the challenge I am most proud of overcoming.

What advice would you offer a student who is considering a tech career, but is unsure? Just try it out. Coding teaches you how to think, problem solving and analytical thinking skills. If you like it, you can pursue it but if not, the skills you will gain from it will serve you in any field you decide to join. And if you decide to pursue a career in technology there are a lot of free open courses where you can access. It’s just a matter of interest, discipline and drive.

As part of your efforts to encourage others to code, how are you and Anyone Can Code (ACC) equipping the next generation of Ethiopians to take advantage of Africa’s opportunities in tech?

At Anyone Can Code we see that there is a lot of pressure from parents on kids to pursue a specific career path. This is because of the lack of success stories out there and the lack of awareness about what a career in tech career looks like. Anyone Can Code (ACC) is about creating the awareness and education for both parents and kids. We have introduced after school programs for 8 – 18 year olds in multiple schools, so parents don’t feel like it’s an additional job for them to come to the training centre. We showcase the projects the kids have made after they finish each level and we then introduce them to successful role models in tech to help showcase what they could potentially achieve. Besides that, we integrate it with their formal education by gamifying what they have learned in their biology, physics, history and other subjects so that the parents don’t feel like their kids are neglecting their formal education.

Money made from after school, summercamp and academy education is then invested in educating other students who are not able to afford to pay for it.

Once parents have a solid understanding of the value this 21st century education can have, we help promote entrepreneurship through our Solve IT competition for those from age 18-28. The competition aims to decentralize and democratize technology tackling real problems at community level.

You were a winner at the 2019 Booking.com Technology Playmaker Awards. What impact has this recognition had on your career? The recognition has helped promote my activities, not only in my country but around the world. The monetary prize has helped me to invest and focus more on the impact that we are making.

Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve in the next year? In five years?

I just finalized working on our five year and annual plan. Our goal is to expand our reach to other countries while ensuring we are making a lasting impact locally in Ethiopia. Last year we implemented a coding bootcamp in Sweden for 68 kids and have attested the value and potential of human resource in the continent. Through our ‘School Bus Project’, a bus that will serve as a mobile coding centre, we plan to create awareness about new and emerging technologies such as coding, robotics, blockchain and AI by traveling throughout the continent and providing education in these areas.

In 5 years’ time we plan to create a network of young, inspired and intelligent individuals who will drive change locally.

We’ll be investing in children as young as 8 years old, following them through life to university and involving them in our Solve IT competition and our Accelerator program. We’ll be launching programs across the world as well as an online platform to enable our participants to launch their own programs, continue their education or start a club in their school.

Betelhem Dessie is an Ethiopian web and mobile technologies developer. She is currently a Founder and CEO of iCog - Anyone Can Code (ACC). She currently owns four patented projects individually and an additional three in collaboration and has been named "the youngest pioneer in Ethiopia's fast emerging tech scene" by CNN. Betelhem was the 2019 Booking.com Technology Playmaker Young Technologist winner.