Wilter Chesang was 14 when she ran away from her home in the village of Kabaruso in rural Kenya.
She had just finished her Grade 8 exams with exceptional marks. While she was looking forward to high school, her father had other plans. He wanted her to be circumcised and married.
Rather than face forced matrimony, she told her family she was headed to the river to collect water and took off. She lived alone in the forest for two months, eating found fruit and sleeping on the ground. A chance encounter with a kind woman who gave her bus fare and told her about Kisaruni, WE’s all girls’ secondary school, led her to the headmistress’s office. She pleaded for a scholarship, and the headmistress admitted her.
Years later, Chesang found herself sitting with a class of nursing students as Kim Campbell, Canada’s 19th prime minister, talked about leadership. Campbell joined me in Narok County for the ribbon cutting at WE College. Touring the campus, she paused to address some students, including Chesang.
Surrounded by two dozen students—all young women who’ve likewise overcome incredible odds to pursue their education—Chesang asked what lessons in leadership the former prime minister drew from her experience breaking the mold.
“Nobody who had been prime minister of Canada looked or sounded like me. When you’re the first person to do a job, there will be pushback,” explained Campbell, the first—and still only—woman to hold the nation’s highest government office. In this very rural corner of the country, many of the young women in the audience were the first in their families to finish primary school, attend secondary school, and continue to college. They will be among the first women from their villages to hold professional positions.
In this rural corner of the country, many of the young women Campbell met were the first in their families to finish primary school, attend secondary school, and continue to college.
“Every time someone new does a job, they change expectations,” Campbell continued.
For Chesang, these words about challenging convention were deeply personal. She thrived in secondary school, finishing at the top of her class, and went on to become president of her student body at university. It took years, but slowly her father began to accept her choice and the two reconciled. It may be uncharted territory in her village, but Chesang is changing expectations for women who will follow her example.
Great leadership is the same around the world—breaking boundaries while paving the way for others. “You are establishing the new normal,” Campbell told the students, thanking them for their courage in stepping up as leaders. The next class of young women to enter WE College with dreams of becoming engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs will aim higher than those who came before them, standing on the shoulders of trailblazers like Chesang.
Women the world over have had to establish a new normal in order to become leaders. They’ve had to be courageous to be first. In Kenya, that may mean becoming the first woman in the village to attend college. In Canada, it may mean the first woman in a certain political office or C-suite. That courage is necessary if we’re to arrive at a day when women leaders are no longer firsts but the norm.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.