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Sepideh Nasiri wants community for MENA women in technology

'It’s time to bring our women on stage': Sepideh Nasiri wants community, not competition, for MENA women in technology
6 min read
28 July, 2023
The New Arab Meets: Sepideh Nasiri, founder of Women of Middle East and North Africa in Technology. The non-profit wants to close the diversity and gender gap in STEM by offering community, mentoring, education and elevation for its members.

Iranian-born Sepideh Nasiri’s father might have been a successful entrepreneur, but that doesn’t mean his daughter escaped the “you should be a lawyer/doctor” conversation as a child. “It’s such a Middle Eastern thing. Everybody needs a lawyer, engineer or doctor. He did support me, but he was worried about my security,” she says.

Thankfully, Sepideh chose to forge her own path and is now an award-winning serial entrepreneur, as well as the CEO and founder of Women of MENA In Technology.

The non-profit is on a mission to close the diversity and gender gap in STEM through facilitating connections, offering mentorship and education and elevating Middle Eastern and North African women in STEM around the world.

Sepideh’s interest in technology came after the family emigrated from Germany to the United States, landing in Silicon Valley. “I went to high school with kids whose parents were CEOs and decision-makers in companies [like Apple and Sun Microsystems], so innovation was around me,” Sepideh remembers, saying she was “in awe” of how innovation can impact your life. 

Recognising that entrepreneurship was a path to creating change, Sepideh studied a double major in business and psychology at the University of California to not only understand good business but to know “the human in front of me who I’m doing business with.”  

After graduating, Sepideh quickly became the youngest founding member of a start-up that was acquired within three years, setting the tone for “what it meant to be part of something bigger.”

Since then, she’s worked for small and large tech companies, from cloud computing to video games, but found herself burnt out after a passionate spell with Women 2.0, a global brand for women in tech that worked with “every woman leader under the sun.” 

After taking a break to recharge, Sepideh knew she wanted to continue her focus on supporting women and advising early-stage start-ups. But the conversation had shifted from bringing more women into technology to considering the diversity of those women too. “I felt lonely that nobody looked or spoke like me,” Sepideh recalls. 

While 3.7 million work in tech in the United States, only 25% of C-suite leaders are women and just 5% are women of colour. Those figures seem to be at odds with each other, especially when you consider that Forbes reported in 2015 that 70% of Iran’s STEM graduates were women (for context, less than a third of women graduate with a STEM degree in the US, dropping to 20% in Europe).

That year, Sepideh decided to do something about it, launching Persian Women in Technology. 

“I thought ‘It’s time to bring our women on stage.’ Within three years we held conferences and events and grew from 2,000 members to 20,000 just before the pandemic. At that point it wasn’t just Iranian women – Middle Eastern women were coming because they didn’t have anywhere else to go, so we rebranded and expanded so we could provide more seats at the table,” Sepideh says. 

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Eight years in, Women of MENA in Technology is in 20 cities, with board members from Google and World Bank. They’ve also partnered with other non-profits “because this mission is too large for just one organisation. Collaboration is the right way to do things, not competition,” says Sepideh.  

So why aren’t MENA women considering tech as a career? According to Sepideh, the barriers are similar no matter what country you’re in. “In the Middle East, we have incredibly smart, talented, educated women, but they don’t have the opportunity to get into tech companies, although this might be changing in some parts of the region. There’s also harassment and the gender pay gap, but it’s more open in London and the US for example. It’s a hush-hush thing in the Middle East, but women are finally talking about it to try and make a change,” she shares.

She also flags that connections are vital, particularly for women who have emigrated to another country. “We connect that to that network that they might not have compared to a native citizen,” she says. 

Building a community is central to Women of MENA in Technology, and it’s a feeling shared by the many successful speakers she hosts. “They mention that if they’d had the community to support and guide them, they may not have had to take the wrong path before getting to their end result. That’s why mentorship is important – it can help eliminate those wrong turns. It’s also important to share knowledge – if we don’t, it goes to waste. As a community,  I truly believe we need to stop being siloed and come together,” Sepideh says. 

That extends to sponsorship, which Sepideh says “needs to happen more” in the MENA community. “We’re shy about providing and opening our network referral because it’s not a cultural thing that we’ve been taught back home. If we want our community to succeed, we need to change some of the ways we’ve been taught. As immigrants, we used to have to go under the radar to get things done. For our generation, it’s time to make noise to be on the global scale, acknowledging who we are and where we came from so that we can inspire the next generation,” she says.    

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But what is next for women of colour in tech? The conversation around diversity and inclusion has been pushed even further, and brands are being held to account for being all talk, no action. “Some brands have invested millions, but the changes still aren’t in place. If we want to be inclusive, all unseen and diverse groups need to be recognised, elevated and supported at an industry and company level,” Sepideh says.

“Seeing how our work impacts people keeps me motivated. Awards and mentions in magazines are nice, but that’s not why I became an entrepreneur. In eight years, the MENA community is more seen, companies are creating affinity groups for the community and that did not exist when I started Persian Women in Technology. We’ve impacted hundreds of thousands of people, catalysing people to further this mission,” she reflects.

Now that is a life-changing innovation.

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks