Tech Women from Across the Globe Discover Strength & Confidence in Silicon Valley

Featuring an introduction by Sheila Jordan, SVP & Chief Information Officer, Symantec

I’m fortunate that I’ve made it as the CIO of a security company in Silicon Valley; my career is not only because of me, it is because of people who helped me along the way, men and women. I can see how they paved the way, and I see why it is important to pay it forward.

That’s why I’m so excited Symantec is one of the host companies for TechWomen, a State Department program that brings 90 women from 20 countries to Silicon Valley for mentoring.

These women are inspirational. Some of them have faced severe challenges to go into STEM fields, and how they got here is important. They’ve been chosen from thousands of applicants in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Each of them is an emerging leader in technology — science, education and business. And they have the personalities to take what they learn here and use that knowledge to make change happen when they go home.

Each year, the TechWomen open my eyes to the passion and the determination they have to enter the world of technology. When you hear about some of the struggles the TechWomen have had to get here — because of their families, their male colleagues, and society at large — it’s incredible that they strive that much more to succeed.

The reach and breadth of the talent around the world is such an inspiration to me. The women arrive, and they just want to absorb. Their passion and intensity is awe-inspiring — they are ready to take on whatever is asked and ready to make a difference.

If there’s a tech company that’s not involved in TechWomen, I’d encourage them to get involved. These women want to make a difference. Why not invite them in?

-Sheila Jordan, SVP & Chief Information Officer, Symantec

Find out more about the TechWomen of 2016 here. We spoke with four of them about their experiences at Symantec, and yes, we were inspired.

From right to left: Nazira Sheraly (Kyrgyzstan), Alfiya Farozova (Tajikistan), Louise Kalisa (Rwanda), Nadia Habsatou (Cameroon).

Q: What is it like being a woman in STEM fields in your home country?

Nazira Sheraly: I’m from Kyrgysztan, where the mindset is that tech is more for men. They have more opportunities and more expectations; women are expected to start a family. In my bachelor’s and master’s programs, only about one-third of my classmates were women.

I’m lucky that my mom — who has two degrees — chose the right way for me and inspired me to try. Now I’m the CEO of my own green tech company, called Agroholding Jashyl Charba. But I know families who don’t allow girls to study, and if that’s where you come from, how are you supposed to speak up?

Alfiya Farozova: That’s some of what it was like for me, though I’m from Tajikistan. Math and English were my favorite subjects, and my mom said, “Don’t choose math because it’s difficult for girls.” But my dad told me I could teach myself English so I should study math in school — and now I’m a university math professor.

Nadia Habsatou: In Cameroon, the government has lots of programs to get women and girls involved in technology. When I was in high school math class, I was one of only five girls among 40 boys. But we were welcomed. Even though there are not many women in my professional life as a program engineer at a telecom company, I don’t really feel that there are challenges for me.

I discovered my strength here. I recognized my ability to make change in my community. I am a learner. I am futuristic. I am powerful. And I will go home more confident.

Louise Kalisa: The government in Rwanda has tried to encourage women with STEM initiatives too. But even when I was studying in college, when I would tell my friends I couldn’t go out because I needed to work, they looked at me like I wasn’t normal. It was hard not to think, why am I doing this?

But my mom was very encouraging. She didn’t go to school because her own mother told her to quit and focus on getting food for her two brothers. So she told me that I had to continue, to excel for both of us. Now I’m the head of the national data center for the Rwandan government.

Q: How does your experience at home contrast with your time in the United States?

Louise: (Rwanda) The first thing I noticed here is there are cycles of women supporting each other in STEM fields. One generation helps the next. During our first week in the TechWomen program, we had a lot of workshops where women in leadership positions came to talk to us. They gave up their free time to show us we have people we can look up to, rely on, go to for advice. That amazed me: They didn’t expect anything back for giving up their time. We don’t have those kinds of opportunities back home. Someone started that cycle here, now we need to be the ones starting it at home.

The technical aspects are so complex here, too. My mentor at Symantec flew me to Tucson to see the data center that supports Symantec’s internal business, which was the highlight of my time here. I couldn’t believe the size — it’s, like, 20 times the size of data center that supports the entire Rwandan government! Again, people were so willing to take time to explain things to me. They showed me some open-source tools that we could use for free at home, which is great. I’ve learned that you should feel free to ask; you can rely on other people and really benefit from their experience that they share with you.

We are 90 women from 20 countries, which is amazing. We are all friends; we are all sisters.

Nazira: (Kyrgysztan) Yes! At home, nobody asks questions. I tell girls to write to me on Facebook, and ask questions. But they say, “Oh, no, you’re too busy.” There are people in the world who want to help and support, but [they can’t if others] are too shy to ask.

That’s why receiving the book Lean In [by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg] was so important to me. I had heard of it but never read it. The idea of having Lean In Circles — to share inside feelings and come together — is so important. Now I’m sure I will go home and create a Circle with my girls. We have sensitive problems and we need to talk about it. So many sides of life are closed, and we have an opportunity to open them up.

Math and English were my favorite subjects, and my mom said, “Don’t choose math because it’s difficult for girls.” But my dad told me I could teach myself English so I should study math in school — and now I’m a university math professor.

Q: What have you learned from the TechWomen program that you will be able to bring back home?

Nadia: (Cameroon) I discovered my strength here. I recognized my ability to make change in my community. I am a learner. I am futuristic. I am powerful. And I will go home more confident.

At home, because we don’t have mentorship programs, when people start out at work they really just focus on doing the task at hand. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. Actually, I had a problem with public speaking in general, and I spent 10 years trying to fix it. Then I came here and met some Toastmasters people, and now I have no problem speaking in front of hundreds of people. After just a few weeks! It just shows the power of people united here. They try to help each other and come together to do more.

Nazira: (Kyrgysztan)That’s what I want to bring home, too. We have good, cheap internet connections at home — we just need to bring the right people together. I want people in tech to speak not just to others in tech; I want programmers sitting with business-people, governmental employees, program managers, potential customers, everyone.

People here care about being part of that conversation. I was amazed by the culture here, with the museums and the parks and people caring about the ocean. All of that comes from a culture of sharing and a dedication to the future, which is important to me since I’m in green tech.

Louise: (Rwanda) I didn’t understand at first why so many women contributed their time and knowledge to spend time with us during their weekends and evenings. Now I understand.

Alfiya: (Tajikistan) We are 90 women from 20 countries, which is amazing. We are all friends; we are all sisters. When I go back to my home I know I can easily call any of these three women, or anyone else in the program, for help or advice. I’m not alone.