Women with a Technological Edge

Last week Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at a town hall meeting in Oman where she called for the inclusion of women in business as vital for the Arab world to thrive according to The Associated Press. President Barack Obama expressed a similar vision in his June 2009 speech in Cairo where he called for a greater collaboration with the United States and Muslim communities and populations. In late April 2010, Secretary Clinton first announced the TechWomen program during President Obama’s Entrepreneurship Summit.

The Institute of International Education (IIE), a not-for-profit founded in 1919, offers a range of excellent support to scholars and students, one of their most well-known being the Fulbright. Heather Ramsey, Director of three women-focused programs designed, initiated, and managed by IIE West Coast Center in San Francisco recently shared how TechWomen, Women in Technology, and E-Mediat: Tools, Technology, and Training are all moving Muslim women closer to being active and successful entrepreneurs. All three programs are sponsored by the US Department of State and focus on both empowerment and capacity building through technological innovation in the Middle East North Africa region (MENA).

In the summer of 2011, TechWomen will match women in Silicon Valley with their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa for a mentorship and exchange program at highly regarded technology companies. The plan is to harness the power of global business, technology, and education. According to Heather, “using innovative technologies, cutting-edge content, and social networking tools, TechWomen will foster and develop the next generation of women leaders in the technology field by providing women and girls with the access and opportunity needed to pursue tech-based careers.”

With Microsoft as one of their strongest private sector supporters, for the past five years, Women in Technology (WIT) also empowered entrepreneurial women by concentrating on three core goals:
(1) To provide substantial capacity building to Partner Organizations to expand their reach, sustainability, and ability to serve low and middle income women in underserved areas.
(2) To create a strong base of women with vital IT, business and professional skills, enabling them to advance personally and professionally.
(3) To empower women to play an integral role in shaping their country’s future.
After launching in September 2005 in Yemen, Heather shares the program exceeded expectations from the start. “By focusing on empowering women and expanding their participation in the workforce and civil society by providing partner organizations, and the women they serve, with cutting-edge training in business planning; professional development; and Information Technology was implemented in collaboration with local partners in nine countries: Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen.”

Currently, WIT has trained more than 10,000 women and helped build the capacity of more than 60 local women’s organizations along with 650 trainers in nine countries in the MENA region. More and more statistics indicate a link between women who are economically and technologically empowered lowering the need for humanitarian aid yet raising elements of community health, economy, and peacekeeping in the countries where they live. Heather cites, “there is strong correlation between women’s education, empowerment and employment and economic and political stability. Through the Women in Technology program, we have seen thousands of women gain new skills, confidence and in many cases, livelihoods. This positively impacts their daughters, families, communities and societies. Knowledge of technology is incredibly powerful, and seemingly innocuous. Women armed with technology are change agents. They use these cutting edge skills to build networks, lead their families, gain employment, start businesses, and build civil societies.”

The story of Rana Hadi, a student at the Science College of Baghad, is one of WIT’s most exemplary. She ascended from bomb survivor to wheelchair to WIT member then returned to college. On the day of the attack, she watched her closest friend die while her other one was torn to pieces. “Today, and after all this time has passed, I still relive the disaster minute by minute. The echoes of our giggles preceding the screams are still resonating in my ears whenever I immerse in my thoughts … And whenever I wake up I find my fist clenched in a bloody fist,” said Rana, in late 2008 when WIT asked her to share her story.

She calls her life after the bomb, “my second life, with hope.”

Heather acknowledges how deeply the programs impact not only the women’s lives who are changed by them but how deeply affecting it is to lead such innovative change. Challenges exist, of course, but Heather shares how great the reward of working on the three programs. “As with many women, balancing work and being a (single) mother continues to be my biggest challenge. And, truly, I am so fortunate to have a supportive employer and to work on projects with many extraordinarily strong women and working mothers around the world. This challenge is also my greatest joy. I am proud that these projects will help pave the way to a better future for the women of my daughter’s generation, many of whom may not be as fortunate as she. Practically speaking, I try to take one day at a time, otherwise I can feel overwhelmed, I value the simple joys of seeing my daughter develop each day, and I always remind myself of the enormous challenges faced by the majority of women around the world and the incredible strength and perseverance they exhibit. They inspire me each and every day.”

IIE West Coast is always looking to take WIT and its model to other regions and countries. If you have ideas, questions, or would like to be involved, please contact: Heather Ramsey, Director, Global Partnership, IIE West Coast Center, at hramsey@iie.org.