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A geek is a geek wherever you are: TechWomen 2011

“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 of Algeria

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 and Loubna Lahmici

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

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.

About TechWomen

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.

Related articles
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

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  1. A big Thank to everyone who was part of this great day at Cisco…Cisco, who gave us a big opportunity to present our experience within Techwomen program and to exchange ideas between girls… Again, thank you Olivia, for this article and for sharing details about that day.


    Loubna Haouam

  2. Hi Olivia,

    Thanks for the excellent summary and sharing the accomplishments of the TechWomen and in particular,Loubna Lahmici from Algeria who worked with us at LikeList.

    For more evidence on the high caliber of participants in the TechWomen program, see also my blog post where I highlight several Loubna’s “firsts” including that she is starting the first coupon discount website in Algeria.



  3. Hi, I am hania a participant in Techwoman from Lebanon, I would really thank you all for hosting us, and great thank you to Cisco for holding us in the last day that is unforgeatable.
    Olivia, you are great person, I really miss you and thanks for the support you gave during my presentation. 🙂
    have a great time

  4. Great write up, Olivia, thank you. I had the opportunity to be a cultural mentor with TechWomen. Totally loved my role and probably learned more than the TechWomen themselves. What a great program!

  5. Thank you Cisco and Techwomen for this great experience!

  6. Nicely done Olivia!
    Olivia, I appreciate the small details that you captured from their presentations…thanks for sharing.

    Having had the opportunity to listen to a few of these very passionate, talented and technical women, I can attest to how inspiring they all were!! We (Cisco) hope to participate in similar events in the future.

  7. Great blog and shows how much we can do in learning and growing from our technical women across the continent! Thanks for keeping it close and top of mind!

  8. thank you Cisco for this great article 🙂 and for hosting our closing workshop 🙂