“This trip was worth everything I left behind for it. Now I have 36 sisters.” Thekra Dwairi is one of 37 women to participate in the inaugural TechWomen program funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The program paired women in Silicon Valley with their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa for a professional mentorship and exchange program at leading technology companies.
Cisco had the honor of hosting the closing session for this 5 week program at its San Jose, CA headquarters. Each of the mentees presented their key technical and cultural learnings as well as their action plans for when they returned to their home countries: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, West Bank and Gaza.
Loubna Haouam discusses her goals upon returning to Algeria: exchanging knowledge, encouraging women to learn English and providing computer access
The mentees ranged widely in terms of their backgrounds. Some work for international corporations, while others are local start-up founders. Some are world travelers. One woman mentioned that this is her first time out of her hometown! It was humbling to hear about the challenges these women manage on a day-to-day basis. Just applying for the TechWomen program was a challenge for Egyptian participants. The application deadline, February 1, was at the same time that the government shut down the internet—happily, an extension was provided.
Jill Finlayson, senior director of Community at LikeList, and Loubna Lahmici, CEO of Algerian start-up Ideatic, discuss their shared learnings during a video shoot that took place concurrently with the closing session. For more on their experience, click here.
I was able to attend a few of the presentations between logistical duties. A few cultural observations from participants that caught my attention: Americans are very friendly and say hello on the street. Americans love dogs! There are many different recycling bins here—quite confusing. Americans know very little about the Middle East/North African culture. The cultural attitude here: you can do anything and you can change the world.
It was also fun to hear about first experiences: having a Jamba Juice, visiting the San Francisco De Young Museum, the Golden Gate Bridge and even juvenile hall! Usually, as a host, you tend to show the most positive aspects of your home. But, upon reflection, I thought juvenile hall was a very brave thing to share. Surely how we handle troubled youths tells as much about our culture as our museums and corporations.
TechWomen mentees also had many plans for their return home. Among them: starting up local women in tech groups, toastmasters, and literacy campaigns. One woman said that she wanted to pass on a positive image of the US. I was impressed with the progress Rasha Salaheddin had already made: she had kicked off a Techwomen in Palestine group and already has 125 members!
From both mentees and mentors, I heard how much richness this experience has added to their lives. They learned a lot from each other and despite cultural and geographic differences they have a lot in common. As one of the mentees put it: “A geek is a geek wherever you are.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the TechWomen group on July 6, 2011
The Techwomen group traveled to Washington DC after their closing session in Silicon Valley and presented to the US State Department. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the renewal of the program for next year with two additional countries: Tunisia and Yemen. She also announced funding for a TechGirls program to focus on technically- minded Middle East and North African girls in high school. Click here to view Hillary’s address.
TechWomen, a public-private partnership, was developed to implement President Barack Obama’s vision of greater collaboration between the United States and communities with predominantly Muslim populations, as outlined in his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
TechWomen is managed by the Institute of International Education (IIE), and implemented in partnership with the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI).
About Cisco and TechWomen
Four Cisco employees were part of TechWomen: Jan Dukes-Scholssberg and Sima Yazdani served as technical mentors and Caroline Cornely served as a cultural mentor. Dima Khoury served on the evaluation committee for Palestinian candidates.
Cisco provided use of Cisco Telepresence during the program as well as two years of Webex conferencing services for the mentees. Additionally, the mentees have been invited to enroll in entrepreneurship training through the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute conducted at training sites throughout the MENA region. The Cisco Entrepreneur Institute is focused on fostering and enabling entrepreneurship around the globe.
CNN: U.S. helps tech-savvy Mideastern women experience Silicon Valley
San Jose Mercury News: Exchange seeks to build ties between Silicon Valley and the Muslim world