Harvard Kennedy School


As important as it is to expand access to education, traditional schooling alone doesn’t guarantee success, especially for young women. Across the globe, women are not only less likely to make a salary equivalent to what men make for the same work, they are also less likely to negotiate for better pay and more likely to be perceived negatively when they do. While the need for change is global, the solution has to happen – in part – locally.

Suadela, a venture currently growing in the Harvard Innovation Labs, is a nonprofit dedicated to building negotiation skills in teenage girls. Suadela trains young, college educated women to become negotiation coaches and role models for teenage girls, who learn vital negotiation skills that can help them achieve their goals in school and beyond. Suadela has piloted its program in Mali, and plans to expand their work to other countries in the region and around the world.

We had a chance to speak with Suadela founders Djénéba Gory and Anne Thibault about what’s behind their venture, and the challenges facing education today.

Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start this venture?

Djénéba Gory: I am fortunate enough to have been born in France and to have parents who have always prioritized education. My late father was a professor and taught us the value of education. He and my mother dedicated all their resources to help myself and my siblings succeed at school. They were so invested in education that our house became a home to help the neighboring children do their homework after school. Unfortunately, I witnessed many situations where smart and talented girls and women had to drop out of school against their will for lack of resources. My mother was one of them; some of my cousins and friends, too. These situations inspired me to find ways to use my education to do some useful work for women in the African continent.

Anne Thibault: As for me, during my year at the HKS in the MC/MPA Program, I took negotiation classes and realized that in my whole professional life, I had never really negotiated salary and working conditions. I had internalized that I should just be thankful for what I was offered. I also discovered a whole body of evidence showing that women systematically negotiate less than men toward their professional goals, which can have long term consequences on their careers. For example, a study on MBA graduates from Carnegie Mellon University showed that about 90% of graduates who were women accepted their initial salary offer without negotiating, whereas only about 40% of graduates who were men did so. And when they do negotiate, they tend to ask for less than men. In a survey of social studies students in Sweden, female students reported asking their potential employer for a consistently lower salary than male students, even though they had exactly the same level of qualification. On top of that, women face different costs than men when they do negotiate. For example, women who negotiate are less likely to be hired than men who do the same, because the women are perceived as too demanding, more aggressive and less “likeable.” It became clear to me that negotiation is a life skill that should be taught at the youngest age. As we do so, taking gender dynamics into account is critical – from the boardroom table to the kitchen table.



HIL: How does learning negotiation skills help to keep girls in school?

DG: Groundbreaking research from Professors at the Harvard Business School performed in Zambia demonstrated that teaching girls to negotiate could improve their capacity to advocate for their educational goals with figures of authority in their lives, and effectively keep them in school. In addition to developing negotiation and a set of transversal skills (communication, problem solving, etc), the negotiation training significantly improved girls’ school attendance rates, national exam test scores and pregnancy rates. It is also very important to mention that girls were able to ask for more resources without negatively affecting relationships with their parents.

HIL: Has your venture changed over time? If so, what has changed, and what prompted those changes?

DG: Our team is happy to have welcomed two new team members: Oumar Sanogo who is a teacher and a specialist in education policies, and Penda Bass, who is in charge of Field operations and community engagement. We have also recently recruited Aminata Samassekou, who is in charge of communication and social media, and Awa Kouassi, who is helping us with our fundraising efforts. They are mostly based in Bamako, Mali, and are used to working with our final beneficiaries. We also have developed partnerships with organizations that have been working on gender issues in Mali for decades. This is very key to us as we do not want to act as disruptors; we do not want to do work that is disconnected from the local context and does not fit the country’s agenda for women’s empowerment.



HIL: What keeps you motivated as you develop your venture?

DG: The impact! Definitely! We have recruited and trained the first cohort of ten Nego’coaches, who are also our beta testers. We received a lot of applications from amazing women. All of them have been featured on our social media pages. It really was motivating to see how Malian women are full of potential. We believe that these women, with appropriate support and training, will do a lot for the future generation.

The support we have from negotiation professors from prestigious institutions like Harvard, Brandeis, Sciences Po, and Oxford, and from local organizations and activists who believe in our mission, is also a great source of motivation. For 2021, our plan is to implement a larger pilot to train 300 girls, conducting a randomized control trial that will help us rigorously evaluate the impact of our activities in the Malian context.

Many programs have tried different strategies to tackle the problem of girls’ unequal access to secondary education [in Mali], with uneven success. We wanted to try a different approach that has already proven effective in another country.

Djénéba Gory
Co-Founder of Suadela

HIL: Why did you choose Mali as a location to launch your pilot?

DG: We wanted to work in a country where indicators related to girls and women’s basic rights can significantly be improved. Before the pandemic, data in Mali were already alarming. As a matter of fact, before the pandemic, two out of three girls of high-school age were out of school. In addition, 41% of adolescent girls were married and the fertility rate of this group was the fourth highest in the world. Many programs have tried different strategies to tackle the problem of girls’ unequal access to secondary education, with uneven success. We wanted to try a different approach that has already proven effective in another country. I have Malian origins, so the personal connection definitely helped too.



HIL: How have people’s education needs changed as we adjust to Covid?

DG: Covid significantly disrupted education. With the social distancing measures necessary to slow the spread of the pandemic, education needs more distance learning solutions. In developing countries, including Mali, distance learning solutions relying on technological devices and stable internet are difficult to implement. The digital divide, insufficient devices, and lack of internet penetration can make education inaccessible for some. That is why it is important to ensure that learners can still have access to resources adapted to them, like offline devices, radio, and tv.

Education is not only about the learning materials themselves but about support. We need teachers, parents and caregivers to adapt. This created an additional need for training and support of learners and their communities. Let’s not forget that Covid is, first of all, a pandemic. For this reason, there is an increased need for schools to be able to provide mental health services and psycho-social support to learners, school leadership, and caregivers.

Education should have a mission to help everyone achieve their potential regardless of their gender, wealth, or health.

Djénéba Gory
Co-Founder of Suadela

HIL: What do you hope to see in education in the future?

DG: We hope to see more inclusion of girls and kids living in rural areas, but also of learners with disabilities. Education should have a mission to help everyone achieve their potential regardless of their gender, wealth, or health. I also hope to see better quality education and teachers’ training, especially in a country like Mali, where – despite spending an average of 5.2 years at school – data show that students’ learning-adjusted years of school are twice as small.


This profile is part of our series on i-lab ventures changing the way we think about and approach education around the world. From teaching negotiation skills to improving students’ mental health, these startups are making sure students succeed in school and after.