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FEATURE STORYMarch 1, 2023

Donina Va’a, Samoa: Authentic, Straightforward, Dedicated

Donina Vaa

World Bank, 2023

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields. 

Donina Va’a has worked as a community program manager, early childhood specialist, and a passionate advocate for including Pacific communities in decision-making. Having served on a range of boards over the last two decades, and with her lifelong appreciation of faith, family, and love, Donina founded the Pacific Women’s Professional and Business Network to nurture and celebrate Pacific women and to open doors of opportunities for young women and girls.

What inspired you to pursue work in your field, particularly in Pacific communities? 

I didn't understand that much when I was younger, but now that I reflect, two things inspired me to enter this line of work. At a young age, seeing overcrowding in matchbox-like cluster homes, my classmates bringing cassava for lunch at school, and the shame of fellow students when their names were called out for outstanding school fees. I wanted to understand why. Could we deal with the causes so everyone can have a better life? My dream was to wave a magic wand so everyone could access the basic needs of life. It was an eye-opening experience. 

Coupled with this was watching my mother toil, day and night, to drive for opportunities to educate women in the Pacific, especially those without access [to education]. My mother continues to advocate for female education and gender equality. When I was very young, my mother would bring students to come and live with us near school and support their learning with tutorials. Later, when she worked at USP, she was part of a group of women who established the association for women graduates in Fiji, then Samoa Women Graduates. My childhood was full of faith, family, and love. Being the eldest of five comes with a lot of responsibility and certainly shaped my leadership today. 

This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?

This takes me back to the mid-90s because, one second, it was all handwritten assignments, the next, we were given three months to learn how to use a computer, and then they abolished handwritten assignments; we had to use the computers to type them. In today's world, children as young as six are now learning how to code.

I look at it in the sense of access and learning opportunities. Digital equity is essential because it affects everyone, regardless of their background or location. It is essential to close the gap between those with access to technology and those without access. It’s also about careers and influence. In the Pacific, girls are expected to help with chores, while boys tend to have the leisure time to play computer games and things like that. It’s important to invest in technologies that target women and girls. 

Something I also think of is using data for better policy decisions. With digital technology, we can collect more data, disaggregate it by gender, and use it to advance gender equality in our policy and planning.

What does your profession mean to you?

I always say I don’t have a profession; I have a mission. I have four words: Service, Purpose, Growth, Sincerity. All these things create the fabric I wear today. Purpose in everything that I do. Growth, meaning every single thing - whether it is amazing or not - has a gift in it; you just need to delve deeper into it. Sincerity is clarity, which can only come when you connect the heart to the mind. We all get frustrated and angry. That's when I pause and question my sincerity. When you see through the eyes of the heart, there will be clarity. Ultimately my mission is when I don't have a mission. Because that will mean everyone is thriving.

In your various roles, how have you seen equality evolve in your field?

Gender equality is truly a complex phenomenon and can be a box-ticking exercise in many organizations. It’s impossible to say it’s ever ‘done,’ but I have worked in some places where there were policies and processes for gender equality. Making it real comes from translating those policies into action, especially at the grassroots level.

An NGO I worked for implemented and reviewed its policies annually. I recalled the inclusion of mums returning to work with their babies. Working towards equality means ensuring an inclusive and safe work environment, providing equal opportunities and pay, and accepting and celebrating everyone for their differences. This should be a constant priority, not just for workplace leaders. 

What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and what did you learn from them?

The digital and technological era we are living in is fascinating. Some of the challenges I remember as a manager include protecting against security data theft and moving to remote work during COVID. The key is keeping up to date, understanding the impact and importance of being internally inclusive in decision-making, and providing staff with the tools, support, and resources.

During COVID, with staff at an organization where I worked, we had to look at the mental health and well-being of colleagues working from home. Being alone at home, trying to manage children, it was really important for us to support people’s mental health daily. Leadership comes with that responsibility, considering the well-being of your staff members for them to thrive in what they do. You're the backbone to give them that kind of support. I have learned that no matter how advanced we are with technology, the heart matters, and connecting in person helps to build trust and create robust relationships. 

In your experience, what have been the key ingredients to succeeding in your career and life in general?

I am still on a learning journey. Understanding the true meaning of sincerity by seeing with the eyes of the heart means you will find a gift in everything. Finally, if your heart is truly at peace and can see everything, it could be an uncomfortable decision, but you learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is also the gift of the in-between space, taking a breath and trying to prepare for the next thing. Using that beautiful space where you can either make it or break it, regulating yourself in between your commitments.

What are some memorable projects or mentors you've encountered in your career?

I remember a young PWPBN executive giving a speech in 2017, saying, ‘I don’t know why young people look far, to celebrities, et cetera for inspirational women because when I look right here in this room, I see all these remarkable women that have and continue to inspire me.’

My first mentor is God, for in him, I continue to be empowered; I have found peace, hope, and love in all I do, whether at home or professionally. 

Hajeh Maha Abdo continues to be an incredible mentor to me. She empowered many as well as me, and for me to permit myself to be uncomfortable and to open the door to the gems that I had grown up with – my family, my homeland of Samoa, and my mother, who is a passionate female education advocate. To serve –tautua, to love –alofa), and to pray – tatalo. My children have also been my teachers.

In 2018 I was truly blessed to have been part of the team that established the Linking Hearts Ambassadors, giving responsibility to the men. It was an alliance of male ambassadors who used their resources, knowledge, and expertise to end domestic and family Violence in Australia.

Seini Afeaki is a motivator who taught me to be straightforward but kind. Together we enabled a safe, shared space for professional women to give back to the Pacific girls and women through the Pacific Women’s Professional and Business Network.

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women are in leadership roles?

It's a collective effort of the government, the private sector, and the community. The core of this is the family, your upbringing, combined with government and organizations and private institutions, and opportunities for upskilling. It is very much the family's responsibility because if a woman doesn't want to go there, it will not happen. 

This is why we have the Pacific Women's Professional and Business Network to try and get down into the primary and school level, to support parents, and to provide career advisory sessions in schools, bringing in lawyers and doctors, and not just more popular pathways like hospitality. To open their eyes to greater possibilities. 

What advice would you give Pacific women still studying or early in their careers?

You don’t have to fill anyone’s shoes. You can walk confidently in your own shoes with clarity in your purpose. Be fearless; just do it and do it well. My mantra is: think with purpose, pray with humility, and act authentically. 

And I would also say having clarity of your purpose in life. It might take more time but work on it. What is important to you now may change tomorrow, but that’s okay because knowing now and tomorrow, when you’ve shifted that bar, you’ll know that you’ve grown. 

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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