Ambassador Yvette Stevens

As Sierra Leone’s first female engineer, Yvette Stevens broke the mould early in her career. Her talent and ambition saw her rise to Director, the highest professional rank possible at the UN, take the lead in developing her country’s first energy policy and be chosen by Sierra Leone’s president as the country’s first Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. She’s not stopping any time soon, but she says writing her memoir is at the top of her ‘to do’ list.  

Yvette Stevens

Studying at Imperial in the 70s

Yvette studied MSc Electrical Power Systems and Machines from 1972 – 1974. Studying at Imperial in the 70s is a very different experience from what students have today. “We used the mainframe computer, called a CDP,” she remembers. “You put all your programming on cards, and you’d have a stack to put into the computer – and hope that something came out at the end. It was very difficult, and woe betide you if you dropped the cards, because they had to be in order! I still remember how delighted I was the first time I got a programme working.”

Yvette stands in the centre of a group of young students in an Imperial lab

Yvette (centre) with colleagues at Imperial in 1973

Yvette (centre) with colleagues at Imperial in 1973

She says, “Our class had people from different nationalities. We had students from Cyprus, Greece, China, and more. Because it was such a diverse group, we all shared our backgrounds. It was a period when I was very busy – I was bringing up four children. But I loved times when we had wine and cheese receptions and field tours to places like power stations. I made the most of the time I had at Imperial.”

You meet alumni from Imperial everywhere – even here in Geneva.

To students today, she wants them to remember, “Being a student at Imperial is an advantage you need to make the most of. And there are other aspects to life at Imperial beyond your degree.” She continues, “Working with people from different cultures was really important for me. Of course, I had no idea I would end up working for the UN, but my time at Imperial prepared me for this. The education you get from Imperial is second to none.”

The other thing that has helped a lot is that, at Imperial I was taught to be ingenious and to work independently. That made me very innovative and has served me well throughout my life.

A lifetime of incredible achievements

After finishing her studies at Imperial in 1974, Yvette returned to Sierra Leone, where she was the first Sierra Leonean woman engineer. She spent six years teaching electrical machines and power systems at the University of Sierra Leone. She was also involved in research on technologies that would benefit people in rural areas. Yvette says, “My knowledge of engineering allowed me to apply this to non-electrical engineering technology such as food processing machines.”

While doing this research, I was approached by the International Labour Office (ILO) and asked to join a project to introduce technologies to benefit women in rural Africa. I started with the ILO at one of the lowest professional levels, as a Village Technology Expert.

Working at the UN

Yvette’s work led her to the United Nations. She worked in the ILO's technology and employment branch in Geneva from 1980, where she was the only engineer and where she developed a passion for solar energy. She clarifies, “I was then seconded from the ILO to the UN High Commission for Refugees in 1986, to work as an Expert in Income Generation with a technical unit that was responsible for building camps and settlements to accommodate refugees. I went on to become Chief of that unit and while there, I pursued my passion for solar energy.” She represented UNHCR in Ethiopia and Kenya between 1995 and 1999.

From Kenya, she was appointed as the Director for Africa at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York in 1999. “This was at the time that the new partnership for Africa's development was adopted,” she explains. “I concentrated on the energy aspect, because we all know that without electricity, you cannot talk about development.”

Back to Sierra Leone

Yvette retired from the UN in 2006, having served as UN Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator, and she moved back to Sierra Leone in 2009, where she was invited to be the Director for Energy and Energy Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources. In this role, she spearheaded the first-ever energy policy for Sierra Leone, as well as a strategic plan for development. She recalls, “We installed solar streetlights in all of Sierra Leone’s provincial capitals. Working with the World Bank, we also designed decentralized solar systems for the country’s chiefdom capitals.”

A special request

However, in 2012 the President requested that Yvette represent Sierra Leone at its first permanent mission to the UN in Geneva. While serving as Ambassador in Geneva, she championed a number of human rights causes and also became a Gender Champion, “Through this initiative, I’d meet, talk to and motivate women who were participating in meetings with the various scientific organisations based in Geneva.”

He wanted me because of my experience working in the UN and because I came "highly recommended" for the post. I wanted to serve my country in whatever capacity I could, and this was the best way for me to do that.

Yvette is currently Executive in Residence at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Here she has been active in providing training and promoting actions for policy makers concerned with international affairs and security in today’s world. She explains, “I started this shortly before the lockdown in March. Everything has been done virtually. I haven’t been idle at all during this time – I’ve had different things happening every week.”

Find out more about some of Yvette's current work in this recent recording for the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Sustaining Peace: The prevention of human rights violations.

Yvette standing at a podium, speaking at the European Parliament

Yvette at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Yvette at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Yvette shaking hands with the Swiss President

Yvette presenting her credentials to the Swiss President in 2012

Yvette presenting her credentials to the Swiss President in 2012

Time to write her memoir

So, what’s next? Yvette admits, “Every time I’m asked to do something, I can’t turn it down. My children know I can’t sign off.”

"My main project for 2021 is to finally write my memoir,” she shares. “The main reason I want to do this is I’ve come a long way from being a little barefoot girl fetching water from a street tap. Every time I tell my story, people encourage me to put it down. People want to know how I did it all and raised my five children single-handedly."

I would like to be remembered as someone who has worked hard in every respect in whatever I do in life. My motto from school was ‘either the best or nothing’. At every place I’ve worked, I’ve tried to do my best and the results show.

“When I look back, I don’t know how I managed. I always say I succeeded not in spite of my children, but because of them. At times when I was thinking about turning down opportunities, they’d say, ‘Oh no Mum, don’t worry about us, we’ll manage’. My children really supported me and of course they were an incentive for me to do well. I am very proud of what my children have achieved. And now I have ten grandchildren!”

Yvette in the centre, smiling to the camera, surrounded by three of her grandchildren

Yvette with some of her grandchildren

Yvette with some of her grandchildren

A role model for the next generation

“Girls growing up in colonial Sierra Leone weren’t taught science at secondary school,” she says. “But we did study general science, which really interested me. I was given provisional entry into sixth form in a boys’ school. There were only two girls in a class of 18 boys and, because not everyone believed in girls doing science, the boys used to tease us. It made us work so hard, and we did better than the boys.”

Persevere and make the most of all the opportunities that come your way to improve yourself and your future.

She wants to tell young women, “Nowadays there is nothing a woman can’t do. But not even that, nothing they can’t beat men at. You should never believe because you’re a woman that you can’t cope. You need to believe in yourself. If you have the talent in science, try to succeed and excel it. Go ahead and do it.”

When you ask Yvette how she felt about winning this award, she replies, “I was excited and very pleased. It wasn’t something I was expecting. Being an Imperial alumnus is special to me so getting this award was a great thing for me.”

I think that for as long as I’m still alive, I’ll be playing any role that I can to encourage young girls to take up engineering. It’s good to be a role model, and show them what you’ve achieved, because you’re not standing there telling them to do something that you didn’t do yourself. I think that’s really important.
Yvette surrounded by her family on a cruise

Yvette with some of her family

Yvette with some of her family

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Yvette standing in front of portraits of her grandchildren