The Autodesk Foundation welcomes Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg to its board of directors. Autodesk Foundation Executive Director Christine Stoner sat down with Wanjiru to discuss her motivations for joining the board, the unique opportunity for impact in corporate philanthropy, and gender equity in Africa.
Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg is the founding executive director of Black Women in Executive Leadership (B-WEL) and an executive-in-residence at Schmidt Futures. Before that, she was director of AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development), which supports gender-responsive agricultural innovation, and prior to that she founded Akili Dada, a leadership incubator for girls and young women based in Kenya. Wanjiru serves in several board and advisory roles focused on gender equality, agriculture, and climate change. Born in Kenya, she holds a PhD and master’s degree in political science and has been recognized for her work by President Obama’s White House and the United Nations, among others.
We’re thrilled to have you on the Autodesk Foundation board. How did you hear about the Autodesk Foundation and what interested you in contributing your time and energy as a member of the board?
I learned about the Autodesk Foundation from The Boardroom Africa, an incredible organization that connects talented and experienced African women to board service opportunities globally. To me, the Autodesk Foundation’s decision to partner with The Boardroom Africa for this search signaled a commitment to diversity, hence a strong alignment of values.
I’m deeply inspired by the Foundation’s mission and work, aligning philanthropic offerings with design and engineering, and I hope to contribute towards achieving our ambitious goals, especially in our engagement with the African continent.
Corporate philanthropy is a unique space to operate in, with challenges and opportunities of its own. You’ve helped to advise other corporate philanthropies, including the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture as a member of its board. What do you think the unique opportunity of corporate philanthropy is? What are you wanting to bring to this arena?
I’m excited to engage with corporate philanthropies, with both the Syngenta Foundation and now with the Autodesk Foundation, because I think there is a really interesting opportunity to bridge doing well and doing good. Corporate philanthropies such as the Autodesk Foundation have an opportunity to bring more than money to the table, by bringing to bear the background of what the company actually does and its expertise, knowledge, and culture in achieving the philanthropic mandate.
My experiences have been in academia, civil society, and private philanthropy—everything but a corporate background really—so I’m excited to learn from folks who spend their days in the corporate world, and together get to think about and help solve social and environmental issues with the skills and strengths that they bring.
In turn, I’m hoping to contribute my expertise and experience from years spent working on some of the most pressing challenges facing the African continent such as adapting to climate change, strengthening the continent’s science capacities, and enhancing gender equality.
“Corporate philanthropies such as the Autodesk Foundation have an opportunity to bring more than money to the table, by bringing to bear the background of what the company actually does and its expertise, knowledge, and culture in achieving the philanthropic mandate.”— Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg
You advanced gender-responsive agricultural innovation with AWARD, and now with B-WEL you are designing and building initiatives for Black women executives. The gender lens is obviously something you are deeply passionate about—supporting gender equality on the continent of Africa. Where did this passion come from?
I’d say it originated from growing up at the feet of my grandmother, my mother, and her sisters. I grew up among women who were fierce advocates for justice for both themselves and others. I’m pretty sure they did not intentionally set out to raise a young feminist, but some of my earliest memories as a young girl are of these women in my family asserting these rights and challenging a justice system that needed transformation. Those were important moments of formation for me and shaped my decision to study political science and gender studies and informed the topic of my doctoral dissertation and the work that I’ve done since.
Why is gender equality on the continent of Africa important to you?
We have so much work to do as a continent to lift our people out of poverty. It doesn’t make sense to deny ourselves access to 50% of the brains, brilliance, and talent available to solve the challenges we are facing as a continent. From enabling young African women to exercise their full leadership potential to supporting agricultural researchers and their institutions to deliver more gender-responsive innovations for African smallholder farmers, and now convening clusters of Black women executives to design change agendas for some of the most pressing problems facing Black women globally. My career has been spent working to unlock the potential in human talent and especially female talent, which is so often overlooked.
While the Autodesk Foundation has a dedicated strategy aiming to increase diverse representation across our portfolio by supporting BIPOC, women, and proximate leadership, I’m excited to have you help us identify our growth edge and push us further here as a foundation. How might we think about this in our work?
When an organization holds itself accountable on an issue and measures progress, that is when we are going somewhere. Public pronouncements are easy to make, but publishing the numbers means it’s someone’s job to count them, and that’s where the work really is. I’m proud to join the board of an organization that publishes its numbers.
Your roots are in Kenya. We have a handful of portfolio organizations within Kenya, and about a third of our portfolio is in the global south. What advice do you have for philanthropic funders from the global north who are interested in funding early-stage startups and nonprofits in the global south?
Be real partners. The balance of power is so tilted towards those who hold the purse strings. Really good philanthropy on the African continent calls for a level of humility and commitment to actual partnership, knowing that one hand has the money while the other has deep expertise to unlock the impact we want the money to have. Recognizing and working towards a balance of those two is key.
You have a lot on your plate between your daily work obligations, board roles, and family. What keeps you balanced and motivated to continue creating impact every day?
I am blessed and lucky to belong to a beloved community of fellow professionals, mostly women, who have each other’s back. We support each other’s career growth, by balancing our many obligations, and we have built a unique kind of global village within which we are raising all our children. On a personal level I’m working on having a robust filter on what I say ‘yes’ to and to be clear on the impact I seek to have when I enter a space.
With this role on the Autodesk Foundation board, I’m keen to see us increase the quantity and quality of support to African and women-led social enterprises while ensuring that all our investments lead to social transformation in the direction of more equality and justice.
Learn more about the Autodesk Foundation’s impact in our latest impact report.