Fast Company

Muslim Women Tech Leaders Coming to America

The State Department sets up a mentorship program to empower women technology professionals in the Middle East -- and help reboot U.S. relations with the Arab world.

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Starting next spring, 38 young women from the Muslim world who are emerging technology leaders in their home countries will come to the United States for five-week mentorships at leading technology companies. The State Department set up the program, called TechWomen, earlier this year following President Obama’s Cairo speech, which talked about the need to reboot relations between the U.S. and Muslim-majority countries.

The women, who have not been selected yet, will range in age from 25-42 and will come from countries the U.S. specifically wants to focus on: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the West Bank and Gaza. Though final details haven’t been nailed down yet, companies that have expressed interest in hosting the professionals include Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Yahoo, and HP, as well as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Agilent Technologies, Symantec, and Sandia National Laboratories. The program is being set up and run by the Institute of International Education in partnership with the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

The program, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Professional and Cultural Exchanges Maura Pally told Fast Company, resulted from the convergence of a number of priorities: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s interest in empowering women, the administration’s focus on technology, and President Obama’s interest in building better relations with Muslim countries. Clinton cited the program in a speech in San Francisco last month as an example of ways the tech community is working with the State Department on diplomatic and development goals.

The hope is for long-term impact—"so in ten years, there’s almost a world-wide network of these women who have stronger businesses, are more confident in their business skills and rely on each other and build on each other based on this program,” Pally said. There’s hope too that it will burnish America’s image abroad. “The more people we have who have been to the U.S. who have positive experiences here, return to their home countries and talk about that experience and showcase what they’ve learned and the support that they’ve received—that only strengthens our country’s ability to work collaboratively around the world.”

The learning opportunity may go both ways. As part of the program, experts from the U.S. will travel back to the Middle East to provide additional training and mentoring to women and girls in the region. “It’s not just helping provide these women with the tools they’re going to need to be successful,” IIE executive vice president Peggy Blumenthal told Fast Company, “but also opening the minds of many of the folks in Silicon Valley to the enormous potential and talent that there is among these women and the challenges of working in a very different environment.”

 

[Photo by Steve Evans]

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