When 42 technology-minded women from the Middle East and North Africa were paired up with mentors from the United States, it was hard to tell who learned more from the experience.
TechWomen, a little-known annual initiative, pushed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and just wrapping up its second year, is set up to encourage African and middle-eastern women to pursue technological entrepreneurship.
The program’s applicants—this year there were 550 for 42 fellowships—are paired up with professional and cultural mentors in America and brought to Silicon Valley and Washington, DC for five weeks each fall to work on projects together. Several have found U.S. partners and investors.
TechWomen has not only brought together women in technology from opposite sides of the planet; it’s united them in trying to assert their roles in a historically male-dominated field.
“Everyone knows that there’s a shortage of women in STEM fields in general and in technology in particular,” says Heather Ramsey, who runs TechWomen for the State Department and the Institute for International SEO Services Education.“We wanted to come up with a program that addresses that and meets the needs of individual women by providing them with a network of other women in their field.
And it’s not only the foreign participants who benefit from the program. Their American counterparts have been emboldened as well. There’s talk of starting a more formal women-in-technology initiative across many companies that would seek to encourage American girls in high school to go into science, technology, engineering, and math.
“In many ways the middle-eastern and North African women feel like they have more opportunities for advancement than the American ones,” says Ramsey, who is based in San Francisco. “Truthfully, I hear more often from the American women than from the women in the Middle East that they feel like they’re working in isolation,” Ramsey says. “They go to meetings and they’re the only woman in the room.”
The TechWomen program is a two-way learning experience, full of surprises for both mentors and mentees.
“I never imagined I would learn so much and form the kinds of relationships I did,” says Prachi Gupta, a senior software engineer at LinkedIn who served as a TechWomen mentor. “For me, it was a personal transformation. And now we have this whole alumni network.
“When you think about the Middle East, you think about women taking a backseat in technology and STEM fields, but that is absolutely not true,” says Gupta, who mentored a woman engineer from Jordan who works at a company similar to LinkedIn. “These women are breaking all of the ideas of them I had in my mind.”
The fellows learn new things, too.
“It opened up my eyes,” says one, Evelyn Zoubi, a technology entrepreneur from Jordan who participated in the program.
Inspired by the made-for-TV film Pirates of Silicon Valley, Zoubi has conceived of digitizing wardrobes so people can keep track of what they’ve worn and when. After visiting the real Silicon Valley, she is in negotiations with potential partners, and has a name: eCloset.me.
“Silicon Valley is the innovation kitchen of the world,” says Zoubi. “It opened up my eyes. I learned how successful ideas are implemented.”
She says she also likes to think she taught the Americans she met that middle-eastern women in technology are far from meek.
“Just like in this country, to advance in their careers in a male-dominated field, wherever they are in the world, women have to be pretty tough and assertive,” Ramsey says.
Zoubi adds simply: “We broke a lot of stereotypes.”
There are, of course, legitimate cultural differences that the exchange exposes.
“One of the issues we’ve heard the most about is that it’s much more hierarchical in the Middle East in the corporate world,” Ramsey says. “Here, the women have found themselves in a room with the CEO, and presenting ideas directly to the CEO. That would never happen in their countries.”
TechWomen will expand to 78 fellows next year from 16 countries, including some in sub-Saharan Africa. The program is advertised by word of mouth and through professional associations, universities, non-governmental organizations, and U.S. embassies. The application deadline is February 22; the deadline to apply to be a professional mentor is June 1.
“The media portrays certain images of certain societies, and it’s very important to have cultural bridges between countries, especially in technology,” Zoubi says. “Because it’s a fast-moving field. And it’s changing the world.”
Photo courtesy of TechWomen