Immigrants enrich the countries in which they live by bringing culture, a new worldview, and, as studies show, an entrepreneurial spirit. Immigrants are foundational to entrepreneurship, and are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs than Americans born in the US.
Sepideh Nasiri is no exception. A serial entrepreneur with over 16 years of experience in the high-tech industry, she was born in Iran, then landed in Cupertino, CA, via Germany, with her family as a teen. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine, she co-founded a media startup, then continued in Silicon Valley working at many startups like, Women 2.0, where she advises early-stage startups and consults major companies on improving diversity.
Today, Sepideh heads Women Of MENA In Technology, (previously known as Persian Women In Technology), a Non-Profit 501(c)(3) Organization established in Silicon Valley in 2015 with a mission to close the diversity and gender gap in STEM by connecting, mentoring, educating and elevating Middle Eastern and North African women in STEM globally.
As Nasiri told Forbes, she was motivated to start Persian Women in Technology in 2015 when an Iranian female founder she was advising asked her to recommend an Iranian female engineer. She could not think of a single one. She reached out to her network of contacts at major tech companies like Apple, Cisco, Google, and Oracle if there were any groups consisting of Iranian or MENA women in tech, but there were none. So, she organized her own meetup in an effort to create a community for this exact void. At the first event, seven Persian women showed up. Today, the community has grown to over 35,000 members, while the organization holds presence in 17 cities, globally.
Passionate about advancing diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, and investing in minorities and immigrants, Sepideh advises many programs including the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) on diversity. As a serial entrepreneur who has launched and sold several businesses. She’s been the recipient of numerous awards from government officials like California Senator, Scott Wiener, Toronto Mayor, John Tory, California Assembly Member, David Chiu, and the Mayor of San Francisco, London Breed. And in 2014, Sepideh was featured in the San Francisco Business Times’s “40 Under 40,” list as well as being awarded Diversity Journal’s (print edition) 2014 “Women Worth Watching.”
The Tech macrocosm has a diversity issue: Women make up nearly half of the total workforce, but only hold a quarter of all tech jobs, including 19% of entry-level and mid-level positions, 16% of senior-level positions, and only 10% of executive level positions. That is to say nothing about the equally serious and undeniable diversity problem in tech, which shows only five African-American CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Sepideh a few questions about what it’s like to promote diversity in an industry notorious for its leaky pipeline.
PM: Why did you start Persian Women In Tech and Women of MENA In Tech?
SN: To create a community. We never know what’s possible unless we see someone who looks like us. When there isn’t representation, and all you see is the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezos of the world, even [Iranian-American and former eBay CEO] Pierre Omidyar, you don’t imagine yourself as a woman to be in such positions when there isn’t inspiration through role models in your field. The thing is that we do have many Persian and Middle-Eastern women in tech–enough to elevate and provide resources for them–a community to tap into for knowledge and insights to help Iranian women succeed in tech.
As an organization, we started out on March 29, 2015, in the month where people celebrate Women’s History Month, after International Women’s Day, and also right after the Persian New Year. Our founding represents a new day and a new page for our community.
What motivates you?
The impact I create. People email me and say, “Because of your advice, I changed my career, and I’m happier,” or, “through your events and programs I was able to connect with someone and found a job,” or, “Because of an event I attended I met an investor for my company.” That’s what motivates and inspires me to continue this work.
What barriers have you experienced or heard about as a Persian woman in tech?
I have now heard many stories of challenges Iranian and MENA women in STEM have experienced. Some of us who have succeeded may not recall our struggles, but this generation right now is going through it. These challenges can include not being able to grow within one’s career path due to limitations such as sexism and ageism. The workplace for women, when compounded with the problems faced by minority groups such as the Iranian-American community, can make succeeding in tech very difficult. Women don’t have opportunities that men do in terms of mentorship — being someone’s protege, for instance. It is rare for women to have someone that’s going to bring you up from where you are — someone who will think of you and provide you an open door to achieve your next milestone in your career — that being your manager, company CEO, or someone you dream to be in 5, 10, 15 years.
What are some of the problems you see for Persian women in tech?
Having a sense of belonging in the workplace. When you don’t see many leaders in your company who look like you or understand your challenges or culture, it’s hard to succeed. It can be very isolating to be a Persian woman in tech because we are not very visible as a community. Next time I turn on CNN, I would love to see Christiane Amanpour interviewing a Persian woman doing amazing things in tech or STEM. When Forbes or the New York Times wants to interview someone, I would like it to include our community – and why not? We are doing amazing things. Many Middle Eastern women are working in engineering, developing, building, innovating. We just never hear about them. If we don’t see someone looking like us, how can we imagine being that person?
What is your take on diversity in tech? It’s not great…
When we talk about diversity in tech, we usually only discuss two minorities: Black and Hispanic. The tech industry has not done a great job of amplifying diverse voices, especially in the industry’s highest echelons. There is a lot more work to be done, and that work includes making tech more culturally and ethnically diverse as well as boosting participation from underrepresented minorities. If we want to create an inclusive workplace for women, we need to make space at the table for all minority women, including Middle Eastern and North African women in tech.
What are your best tips for succeeding as a Persian woman in the tech world?
My advice is for all women, but especially for your readers who may be Persian Women. Two things: Invest in yourself and find a mentor. We don’t invest in ourselves as much as we invest in our education. If you’re an engineer, invest in your soft skills; get a career coach; connect with leaders; move the needle in your career path. Today, at my career level, I belong to many different groups (organizations, communities, or resource platforms) to gain support, and to connect with a wide network to advance my career. Mentorship is also important. Find a sponsor who can support you through your career journey.
Our organization, Women Of MENA In Technology, has created a space for MENA Women In Tech to find support in their career journey, connect with a global community without borders, learn, and share their experiences. We are a global brand and offer many different resources – mentorship, programs, events, a job board. Many corporations, firms, and organizations partner with us to learn and engage with the goal of improving diversity and inclusion in their workforce. We know that, to close the diversity and gender gap in STEM, we must all contribute to the solution.
Our community is reminded that they are not alone as a Persian woman in tech (or other scientific and analytical fields, for that matter). There are plenty of successful Persian women in Tech that you may not know about in companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Cisco that are in high-level positions. It’s just that their stories have not been told — tech leaders like Jasmine Farchi, who is the Vice President of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering at Lab126. She is an engineer with a PhD — who holds many innovative patents!
Finally, know that a support system will shorten your journey or challenge. One of our volunteers recently shared her career journey, and how having a lack of mentor delayed her for three years. She was spinning her wheels because she didn’t know what to study or what route to take – she didn’t have anyone to ask for career advice.Today, she leads our mentorship program team to help others so that they don’t have the same challenges.
Have you heard about the statistics on how much women of various races and ethnicities make on the dollar? Where do Persian women fit in there?
Yes. On accounted minorities. There are no statistics for Middle Eastern women, because we aren’t recognized as a minority — we don’t exist on the map. That needs to change. If we’re not existing, there are no resources assigned for us or our challenges are not addressed. That’s a problem…
*Note: 2017 data from the US Department of Labor ranks women’s earnings from greatest to least for Asian (98.5% of male average salary), White (89.2%), Black (70.5%), and Hispanic (61.4%) women. Regarding where Persian women fit in, the census defines Iranian-Americans as “White,” yet many Iranian-Americans are beginning to identify as People of Color. Famous celebrities such as Maz Jobrani urge Persians to self-identify as “Other” on the census, writing in Iranian-American.
How else does Women of MENA In Technology interact with the technology industry?
We’re the only organization, for the past six years, dedicated to Persian women and MENA Women In STEM across the globe. We, as a community, have been invited into the offices of any tech company — Ernst &Young, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, you name it. Cities around the world have also been very receptive to our organization. We’re headquartered in San Francisco and our programs are currently available in 17 global cities in the US, Europe, and Canada. Our plans to expand in 2020 into MENA and many other global cities were put on hold due to the pandemic, but our virtual programs started two weeks after shelter in place started here in California. In 2021, we are planning to expand into 14 cities and welcome collaborations and partnership. If a community member, a firm, or company is interested in supporting our mission and programs, please contact us for details.
What is your approach to running Women of MENA In Technology?
Our approach is a bit innovative–I call it the new structure of non-profit. I believe that if we want to close the diversity and gender gap, it has to start in our own company and culture. As the Founder and CEO, I opted to not get paid until everyone can get paid. I invested my own money into this mission and organization. I could have had a six-figure job at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or somewhere like that, but there is an unmet need here.
Our operation and core values include transparency. Our volunteers and team members are part of our decision making, included in announcements prior to everyone else, and we practice what we preach. Elevating our community, our volunteers, and our supporters. We believe in collaborations instead of competition. Our conference this past year included partnering with over 15 non-profit organizations from many countries and cities to bring our global community of MENA women in Tech together but also shine a light on the community partners activities.
I have helped build for-profit companies, managing hundreds of people in different timezones. Nonprofit is a different beast. We are run like a normal company but are not supposed to be profitable – we cover operation costs and program costs. We are also federally-regulated and audited even more so than normal companies. We have to do the right thing, and we do.
I run Women of MENA In Technology like a startup. I don’t do anything casually. We are a professional organization and have that structure in place. We are honored that many companies in the past year have stepped forward to support us — but it’s not enough to be able to hire a staff, and expand our reach. Our community needs to invest in their daughters, sisters, wives, and significant others’ futures. Yes, they may have a portfolio of non-profit they support, but I wonder if any of them will actually move the needle for our women and girls in STEM. Diversify your donation portfolio, like any other investments you do.
Anything else you’d like to tell Persianesque readers about Women of MENA in Tech?
As a community, we have to come together and show strength and capability. Persians are very singular and siloed. As immigrants, we have learned to do it all by ourselves, but that can no longer be an option. We must do this work together as a community.
*Find Women of MENA In Technology online at: womenofmenaintechnology.com.