By: Tatiana Zilkova, Team Leader, Development Cooperation, Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic, and Svetla Baeva, Communications Lead, UNDP RBEC
Famous American writer and activist James Baldwin once wrote: we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over. That’s just what the women leaders in our 2022 BOOST Women Innovators programme are doing in Europe and Central Asia.
BOOST is a regional acceleration programme for social impact innovation, which launched a Women Innovators edition in 2022, connecting champions that are spearheading change for millions of people in the region – from pioneering new biomaterials, to creating e-learning classes for children and upskilling platforms for women.
According to the World Economic Forum, it will be 132 years before women have the same career prospects as men.  Furthermore, while the age of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies offers new job opportunities and avenues for economic advancement, women face new challenges overlaid on long-established ones. Between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles. 
To close this gaping chasm, women need to be skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy. For this reason, an astounding number of our BOOST graduates are focused on preparing women for the digital future – from shattering stereotypes and changing minds about women in STEM to providing tech & digital literacy courses.
The trailblazing 30+ women-led startups and nonprofits are pushing new frontiers to disrupt the business-as-usual across areas such as education, health, work and economic opportunities to open doors for girls and women across the region. What are some of them doing?
STEM education will shape our future
The all-female team, powering the Kyrgyz Space Program, is set on launching Kyrgyzstan’s first satellite into space one bolt and piece of code at a time. By doing this, they are creating inspiring role models that are changing how society traditionally views women’s roles in a country where only 1 in 3 girls have computer literacy skills.  If that isn’t enough, they are also offering programming and 3D modeling courses to encourage girls and women to foray into the fantastic world of STEM.
All across Europe and Central Asia, we’re seeing a boom in nonprofits and startups working to bridge the gender digital divide, enabling women and girls to equally access and use digital technologies and increase women’s active participation in digitally transformed economies and STEM.
For example, Connect-Ed, a nonprofit in Kazakhstan, is developing a platform to crowdsource IT equipment for children who need it, coupling it with an offer for digital literacy courses, while in Georgia, the Business and Technology University has launched a 500 Women in Tech programme to train women across the country in front-end and back-end, UI/UX, graphic design, software testing, digital marketing and more.
Over in Armenia, Linaster, a promising startup, is developing a virtual assistant training agency to assist those that cannot work full time with unique digital skills to become competitive on the labor market. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Innovation, Technology and Strategy Center and New Algorithm have launched initiatives to equip girls and women with digital literacy and coding skills.
Other BOOST participants are bent on helping women transition into new careers. Female Algorithm, a nonprofit based in Slovakia, provides women with opportunities for a career transition to tech or leadership positions via long-term online education, internships, and hands-on project experience. In the last year alone, they’ve trained close to 4000 people, and are currently developing Code4Purpose, where women develop websites for local nonprofits to cement their tech skills, with the help of experienced mentors.
The dawn of the healthtech revolution
FemTech, which was coined as a term just a couple of years back, largely refers to tech-enabled, consumer-centric solutions addressing women’s health. Some of our BOOST graduates are joining the FemTech revolution.
Spica technology, a SME based out of Kazakhstan, is developing an mHealth solution called Clarity helping women take control of their health. The app improves women’s access to healthcare and diagnosis by allowing them to tap into a verified group of international obstetricians and gynaecologists which provide collective medical opinions to improve the patient’s and their doctor’s diagnosis journey. In addition to that, Clarity also provides virtual sexual health news & resources to help women make informed decision and choices.
Another important solution to emerge from the BOOST cohort is Safe YOU, a mobile app and multi-stakeholder digital platform that aims to prevent and combat violence against women and girls. The Safe YOU app, developed by the Impact Innovation Institute, a social enterprise in Armenia, has three main functions: an emergency help function, discussion forums where women can consult professionals (psychologists, lawyers, social workers, etc), and a database of helpful contacts in the user’s location. In addition, Safe YOU collects vital aggregated data on gender-based violence, which is used to inform policy- and decision-making.
While most solutions categorized as FemTech involve technology, there are also nondigital consumer products harnessing materials science innovations to improve women’s lives. Onwa, a menstrual health startup in Serbia, is transforming period care in the country by introducing affordable and comfortable period underwear, using innovative and sustainable materials that absorb period blood and eliminate humidity.
A collective approach to solving challenges affecting women & girls
Our 2022 cohort of innovators are passionate about creating lasting change and equality for women and girls in the region and beyond. But no one can do this on their own, and too many organizations are working in isolation from one another.
BOOST brought together the changemakers in the region in one digital classroom to break these silos, which is key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and a core component of UNDP’s 2022-25 Strategic Plan. The 17 quite different goals are interconnected, and systems change is too complex for any actor to tackle alone, requiring broad cross-sector exchanges and collaborations.
BOOST is an experimentarium where participants mix with startups, enterprises, universities and nonprofits to learn about the issues each one of them is tackling and how they are doing it. It is a journey through which they learn, exchange ideas and insights and look at the broader needs of their target groups to see beyond silos and think in systems.
The outcome is a collective portfolio of powerful interventions across multiple sectors to benefit the lives of millions of girls and women in the region. Stay tuned as we announce the winners in our BOOST Women Innovators programme!
Boosting innovators in our society wouldn’t be possible without the immense support of the Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic, a long-standing UNDP partner, and Koç Holding. BOOST launched the Women Innovators programme with a special track in Europe & Central Asia for startups, nonprofits and academic institutions, in partnership with the Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic, to leverage the power of innovation and technology to advance gender equality in the region.