Interviews

“I will not be going back to the kitchen”: activism and enterprise with Joana Baptista

Being stuck indoors during this singularly unusual period has given many of us a lot of time to introspect and consider the world we live in from a slightly shifted lens. The need for greater dynamism and inclusion in all our efforts has become evident; many of us are more eager than ever to constructively influence the world around us. 

To hear about her and to find inspiration in another student’s journey, I sat down with Joana Baptista, a St Hilda’s student involved in running her own successful social ventures and an enthusiastic public speaker. Joana is the winner of this year’s Diana Award – given to young people with exceptional commitment to bringing positive social change – an achievement she cheerfully relayed that she was humbled to have received. Good-humoured and optimistic as ever, she tells me about herself and her efforts in tackling systemic issues such as gender inequality.

She founded her first start-up, SheDot, three years ago with a group of friends, aiming for it to take on gender prejudice by running workshops, campaigns and rewriting traditional fairy tales with modern endings. “For example, Rapunzel, but the roles are reversed, or Princess and the Frog, but the frog turns into a princess,” she explains, “each of our stories is meant to tackle a different form of discrimination.” Their diversity books have been published in six different languages and are widely purchased by local schools for their libraries.

 “From a young age, girls and minorities are often left behind in the work that we do” and are “institutionally more likely to be ignored”, she says, which has made her determined to keep inclusion at the forefront of all her efforts. More recently she co-founded Unipear, a project aimed at tackling Oxford’s diversity problem by pairing disadvantaged and minority potential applicants with existing students in the same subject field. Although still a relatively new venture, she excitedly reports that lots of students are already signing up to help these applicants. Given recent discussions over access and related issues, the success of a project like Unipear could mean more avenues for a wider range of students to see Oxford as within their reach. 

Aware of the merits of public speaking as a way to raise awareness and start necessary discussions, Joana has been involved in numerous conferences, summits and talks at local schools to platform her voice. A strong believer in creating her own opportunities – my motto in life is, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” she says to me with a laugh – she recalls how she got her first TEDx talk by reaching out to the organisers herself and explaining what she wanted to speak about. 

She got to give another TEDx talk in Rome despite her high school teachers’ admonitions that she would not be able to simultaneously prepare for exams and give the talk. Instead of being discouraged, she chose to keep faith in her own competence and wholly disprove her teachers’ apprehensions. “Exam results came and I found myself receiving the highest grade I’d gotten that whole year,” she explains, “I think it just goes to show: listen to other people, but don’t forget to listen to yourself, and have confidence in your abilities.” 

Having received a fair share of skepticism and critique, Joana recalls the primary obstacles she’s faced on her entrepreneurial journey so far. No stranger to personal comments and baseless judgement, she’s learnt to use other people’s hatred and criticism to stay motivated and aim even higher. She’s built a certain resilience over time, and has learnt to sort constructive criticism from petty or ridiculous assertions: “I will certainly not be going back to the kitchen,” she states.

Similarly, she often struggles to be taken seriously because of her age, something that’s often made it difficult to find proper support from existing corporate infrastructure: “my age shouldn’t mean I’m seen as less professional than others in an entrepreneurial capacity. I’m putting it in the same effort, this is as important to me.” 

Undeterred, she acknowledges that while she still has much to learn, her aspirations are in no way trivial just because of her age; being young is an asset, rather than a hindrance, in her quest to bring about positive change. “What’s important about me is the fact that I’m young. It lends me this determination,” she says, “owning who you are and what’s special about you makes you more respected as well.” Nevertheless, her efforts to build organisations mindful of their social responsibility is not always well-received. 

Her projects sometimes struggle to find investors willing to take them seriously, since profit maximisation is not their single, primary aim. “Views are beginning to shift. There’s a bigger rise in ethical consumption, it does seem to be getting better.” But some aspects of the entrepreneurial journey are proving to be more difficult than others. Mindsets may be changing, but in today’s competitive environment, there is still much to do in highlighting social issues and bringing social entrepreneurship into the mainstream.

“When you’re fighting for causes that have been marginalised for so long, it’s especially difficult”, she says, revealing how hard it has been to bring some of SheDot’s work to popular audiences. There almost seems to be a hierarchy of acceptability within social causes; “the first book that we created was one tackling homophobia, which we found so much harder to sell than our second one, which was about feminism and therefore more ‘on trend’.”

Facing adversity hasn’t caused Joana to lose faith in her aims or abilities though. “Sure, there’ve been a lot of challenges,” she acknowledges, “but without challenges, how can we grow?” In addition to using adversity to prosper, and teaching oneself to view failure as a learning opportunity, she advises young entrepreneurs to commit to their projects instead of losing faith at the first sign of difficulty. “You will have low moments and things that go really wrong, and that’s where non-successful entrepreneurs will quit,” she says. Perseverance and positivity are therefore key in cultivating the right mindset. Students looking to start their own ventures shouldn’t be afraid to “find your niche, and stick to it” and to “find your tribe”. 

While surrounding yourself with the right kind of people is essential, it is even more important to acknowledge that you can’t do everything by yourself. “You’ll want to do things alone, you’ll want something to be just yours, but understand that people have different skills and things to offer. In order to grow, you’ll have to entrust various tasks to other people,” she says. 

For now, Joana is excited to enable Unipear to take off and to see SheDot expand even further, reaching more schools and more countries. She plans to continue working towards creating positive impact through social entrepreneurship in the future: “I really believe we all should strive as far as we can to leave the world better than how it was when we came into it”.

Joana Baptista can be contacted on social media through the following accounts:

Twitter: @JoanaDBaptista

Instagram: @jozeeebo, @shedotmovement, @helloUniPear

Websites:  www.shedot.co.uk, www.unipear.co.uk, www.joanabaptista.co.uk

Alina Salahuddin

Alina is a second year History and Economics student at Balliol College, and is from Karachi, Pakistan. Her hobbies include reading, meditating and impromptu fruit photography