Iranian-American women are making inroads into the tech world, bringing expertise, experience and innovation to industries that have traditionally been dominated by men.
Iranian (Persian) women in tech — whether it’s heading up teams at Google or Microsoft, leading new initiatives at Facebook or Yahoo!, or pioneering work in start-ups and artificial intelligence projects — have been spurred on and supported by networks of like-minded professionals and entrepreneurs. It’s just this kind of community building that Persian Women in Tech (PWIT), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in San Francisco by Sepideh Nasiri, is championing.
In its first European event, PWIT brought together people from a wide range of tech industry backgrounds, hosted by Airbnb’s corporate offices in London on October 26. The event, which was open to women and men in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), boasted an inspiring panel with a wealth of skills and talents. It also provided excellent networking opportunities, with some panelists announcing their companies were hiring, and angel investors ready to hear pitches. The event also drew in people from non-technical backgrounds who were interested in learning more about the industries.
Key speakers included artificial intelligence and robotics specialist Bahareh Behzadi, who spoke about overcoming the challenges of being an expat in the UK. She gave career advice to women who may have completed their education in Iran and began their career there, and who are now looking for jobs in the UK. Start-up founder and investor Mia Bennett described her journey in tech, and her experience building websites while living in Iran to save money to study in the UK. Today she is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Citi Ventures, invests in start-ups around the world, and mentors women in tech.
Omid Ashtari is the president of Citymapper, a popular transportation app — in fact, almost everyone in the audience admitted to using it to travel to the event. He gave valuable insight into his career and experiences, as well as giving advice on how companies can include women. Radin Rahimzadeh, PWIT’s Los Angeles team lead, provided valuable knowledge on how those with non-technical backgrounds can enter the tech space. She gave examples of her work as a Smart City and intelligent transportation consultant and working in a male-dominated work environment. Finally, Dan Vahdat talked about his career in healthcare and about what it was like to co-found Medopad, which KPMG named as a $1B HealthTech company in the making. He highlighted the value of experience over perfect resumes or top schools, as well as giving advice on how founders can preserve their shares in a company once they begin growing.
The panel moderator (and co-author of this article), attorney Leila Mansouri sits on the PWIT advisory board and has organized dozens of events for various Iranian-American organizations. With expertise in immigration and business law, she was well placed to drive discussion around Iranian women in the tech workplace now and in the future.
Sepideh Nasiri, the founder of PWIT, remembers co-founding her first start-up in 2003. “Throughout the years working in the tech community, it has been lonely,” she told IranWire. Back then “it was just a couple of us going to events and trying to network,” she said.
Almost a decade on, she joined Women 2.0, which supported women in tech to build careers and start companies, as well as advocate for more equal pay and opportunities. “We had a lot of impact in Latin America, in Europe and Asia and the US and in Canada,” she said, adding that there were over 250,000 people in the Women 2.0 community. “We supported female founded companies that were acquired by Yahoo!, or Google, or received million dollar investments.”
The Missing Link
But when in 2015 Nasiri was asked to recommend an Iranian woman in tech, she was stumped. “A friend of mine who is a founder of a tech start-up wanted to diversify her engineering team, and came to me and said, ‘hey, can you introduce me to a woman who is Iranian and an engineer? I want to support my own people as well by giving them a job.’ I was a little bit set back because I knew women engineers, just generally, but specifically an Iranian woman didn't come to mind at all. And that was a moment for me to think: I don't know my own community.”
So she began to talk to friends who worked at various companies, including Google, Facebook, Cisco, and Oracle, and found that most of these companies had groups for all sorts of ethnic and heritage-focused communities, but nothing for Iranians — let alone Persian women specifically.
Perhaps this says something about the Persian community in the diaspora. As immigrants who left around the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and over the following few years, Iranians not only brought new talent and enthusiasm to the countries they settled in, they knew how to make themselves indispensable to industries, how to integrate, and how to contribute to already-existing communities. But with the Trump administration’s hostilities to immigration and certain communities in the US, and with a trend for insularity taking hold in several countries in Europe and elsewhere, many Iranians have felt moved to demonstrate just how substantially they contribute to their society, and to business and culture.
It was out of this need for Iranian-Americans, and Iranian-American women in particular, to join together as a community and share information, knowledge, contacts and experiences that Nasiri set up Persian Women in Tech. She began organizing monthly meet-ups, and it has grown so successfully that companies are now eager to host or sponsor events, post jobs for them on social media, and recruit at events. Many CEOs are eager to be connected with women they can mentor because they are at a point in their careers where they want to give back.
Earlier this year, Nasiri began expanding to other cities, and there are now PWIT chapters in San Jose, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, and London. Toronto and New York are next. Most of these events are organized on a volunteer basis, and plans for collaborations with other groups are welcome.
Most of those working in this eclectic industry can agree on one thing: There is not one problem in the world that cannot be solved with technology. Whether it is for streamlining communication, connecting people, increasing awareness, preventing crime, improving health, or any other social problem, technology is the solution. And PWIT will undoubtedly be part of this, continuing to expand, and — crucially — ensuring that women are not only controlling the narrative, but playing a key role in writing the script.
If you would like more information or would like to donate to PWIT, please visit www.persianwomenintech.com or contact
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