Extraordinary women, like those in our July cover story, don’t become extraordinary overnight. They work hard, getting themselves an education, building skills, and working their way up their respective career ladders. But sometimes, if they get lucky, they also get a helping hand from those who have gone before, who see their promise and realize that a little nurturing and mentoring can help great potential go even farther.
That’s the idea behind the State Department’s TechGirls program, a little sister to TechWomen, the program that brought industry leaders from the Arab world to the United States last year. Both initiatives are part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft agenda which champions the use of technology to promote democracy and economic development abroad.
TechGirls pinpoints teenagers in the Middle East and North Africa with demonstrated promise in science and technology and brings them to the U.S. to meet industry leaders, learn new skills, and start forging connections among themselves that, hopefully, Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock tells Fast Company, will bear fruit down the line.
“The girls [in this summer’s program] didn’t know each other before this trip, but we are hoping they become a network and work with each other over the years,” Stock says.
Over the last three weeks, the 25 teenagers from countries like Tunisia, Yemen, and Lebanon have crisscrossed the country, visiting powerhouses like Google and Facebook, digital government pioneers like Michael Bloomberg’s social media team, innovative startups like Frontline SMS, teen-oriented organizations like DoSomething.org, and think tanks like Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. They attended also tech camps where they learned about robotics, game design, and app development.
If it seems surprising that girls from the Arab world would be as gung-ho about tech as their American hacker counterparts, Stock says it shouldn’t. “We had a hundred applications per country,” she says. “Arab Spring gave us an opening to establish new relations in a way we might not have before. We now want to make sure that young women and girls have the opportunity to participate in programs like these.”
So who are these potential future members of the League of Extraordinary Women? Fast Company met three of them.
Lynna Ben Yahya, 16, Morocco
Ben Yahya grew up watching her English teacher father stay up late, alternatively working on his computer and taking it apart and putting it back together. She claims Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as her heroes and says she wants to work on either hardware or software when she grows up.
More immediately, she hopes to use tech to attack illiteracy. “In my country, 50 percent of our community is illiterate,” she says. “The main problem is the educational system. We are digital natives, so why not use technology to help students?”
The kids she knows are big Facebook and Twitter users. But few of her girlfriends think about careers involving computers. “They fear that women cannot achieve something in tech,” Ben Yahya says. “I want to prove them wrong, to prove that tech is not only for men. Women can also do it.”
Sura Mubarak, 17, Jordan
The daughter of a chemistry professor father and an architect mother, Mubarak grew up coloring in her mother’s blueprints. She dreams of double-majoring in engineering and architecture and using her education to construct green buildings. She particularly looked forward to the tech classes the girls would take in the U.S. “Maybe I’ll come up with an app that helps architects use the iPhone more,” she says.
Back in Jordan, Mubarak is part of a youth group, and she says when she returns home, she might explore ways to use SMS technology to inspire kids to get more involved in volunteering. “Many teenagers would like to help and give back,” she says. “Texting is just an easier way to communicate.”
Mai Alaa El-Din Sabry, 16, Egypt
For the last two years, El-Din Sabry has conducted public health surveys in local hospitals, trying to identify the problems patients have and why people die when they could otherwise be cured. Her efforts have garnered her several prizes at science fairs, and one day, she hopes to become a cardiologist.
While in the States, she’s been inspired by the ways maps are being used to visualize data. “We don’t use a lot of social media in political stuff,” El-Din Sabry says. “But here you use technology to visualize numbers and data. You use maps to visualize people in crisis and technology to help people get involved in community service. We don’t have that back in Egypt.”
When she returns home, El-Din Sabry is scheduled to give talks about TechGirls to her school and at the celebrated Library of Alexandria. “My friends said, ‘You’re going to teach us everything you learned,'” she says. “They won’t leave me alone if I don’t.”