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The Feministing Five: Sepideh Nasiri

Sepideh Nasiri is an award-winning entrepreneur, former VP at Women 2.0, fierce feminist advocate, and founder and CEO of Persian Women in Tech, a new nonprofit dedicated to supporting Iranian women in the tech and STEM fields. 

Once a month, a group of career-established Persian women in tech/STEM who reside in one of the organization’s event cities come together to connect, mentor, support, and empower each other. Each event showcases unique speakers covering entrepreneurship and technology. Per the organization’s website, “Our technology landscape would not exist without the achievements and contributions of incredible tech women pioneers throughout history—and the communities and teachers who support them. When women support, assist, and encourage each other’s achievements, incredible things happen, and new ground is broken.”

For this week’s Feministing Five, I had the pleasure of catching up with Sepideh Nasiri about the importance of creating women’s spaces in male-dominated fields, her own journey as an advocate for gender equality, and more! Catch this inspiring feminist on Twitter @SepidehN.

Senti Sojwal: Can you tell us about your organization, Persian Women in Tech, and how you came to create it?

Sepideh Nasiri: Persian Women in Tech is a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and supporting Iranian women in STEM fields across the globe. We are engineers, technologists, founders, intraprenuers, entrepreneurs, and investors. We know that the technology industry struggles with a culture of sexism and a lack of diversity—and now more than ever it is important for women and people of color to be given access to opportunities to showcase their talent and entrepreneurial spirit. Persian Women in Tech helps close this gap by supporting Iranian women in STEM fields through organizing and facilitating monthly meetings where members can get together to connect, mentor, support, and empower each other and exchange ideas on entrepreneurship and technology. We create mentorship programs to help further their career growth, and organize conferences to educate and continue the conversation on diversity and inclusion. Our goal is to empower Iranian women to advance in their STEM careers, and open up opportunities for other women of color.

In 2015, when I was a diversity consultant for some of the biggest tech companies Silicon Valley, a friend of mine asked for my help to diversify her engineering team, and asked me if I knew any other Iranian women who would be interested in the job. And at that moment, I realized I didn’t know about any other women in my own community who were leaders in STEM fields. I connected with friends at Google, Facebook, and many other Tech companies and saw that there were many communities for women in tech and women of color in tech, but none that specifically catered to the Iranian community, and none that focused on Iranian women.

So, I reached out and found a few local Iranian women in the tech space, and invited them over for cheese and wine at a friend’s apartment. We decided we wanted to meet again and that we all had friends and coworkers that we wanted to bring. What started as seven women grew into 20 women, then 40 women, and I realized we needed a bigger space to hold our meetings.

That was how Persian Women in Tech got its start.

Sojwal: Why do you think it’s so critical to have communities of women in male dominated fields meeting together? In your experience, what can happen when women have community like that?

Nasiri: There are many women in tech and STEM fields, but they tend to leave the tech workforce due to the company’s environment, lack of support systems, lack of employee support and lack of career growth opportunities. Many companies lack several key components, namely infrastructure to support women and people of color employees, like mentorship programs, clear career growth opportunities, and sponsors. When women aren’t well-represented in STEM fields, the entire world loses out on their talents and innovations. But when women and people of color have opportunities for leadership roles in STEM careers and are given a seat at the table, it will pave the way for a diversity of ideas and talent, and only drive more innovation and workplace equality.  

It is absolutely crucial for women in tech to connect, remain connected and empower one another, particularly in times of frustration with the industry as a whole, and lift each other up with access to resources and opportunities when needed.

Iranian women face additional challenges. Iranian women may face anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States or anti-immigrant sentiment or deep racism and misogyny in Silicon Valley, and a travel ban that has blocked scores of brilliant Iranian STEM female professionals from pursuing their careers. The fact that the majority of our members are immigrants under a Presidential administration that is deeply anti-immigrant is another challenge that we provide a unique space to address. Not to mention, Iranian women in general are deeply misrepresented in the media; we are not simply caricatures—we are among the most highly educated demographic in the United States, and are executives, lawyers, scientists, etc.

And that’s why Persian Women in Tech exists: to organize and facilitate monthly meetings for Iranian women in the technology and STEM fields to connect, mentor, support, and empower each other—providing a space for us to address the unique challenges that face our community in a safe and supportive environment.

Startup founders who have attended our events connected with investors who have funded their startups, and attendees who were job seekers had the opportunity to connect with recruiters of our hosting companies, which then translated in job opportunities.

Sojwal: What was your own journey like as an advocate for gender equity? What drives you?

Nasiri: I’ve been in the tech space for the last 16 years, starting right out of college. And while the last 16 years have been a very exciting time for tech companies, it was awfully lonely going to meetings and to conferences back then, with only a few women ever in the room at once.

I’ve always considered myself a feminist: Before I founded Persian Women in Tech, I worked at a company called Women 2.0. Women 2.0 is a global network and social platform for aspiring and current women founders of tech ventures. During my tenure at Women 2.0, I saw firsthand many of the challenges that some of the smartest women in the tech space experienced, and how they worked to overcome them. That helped shape my perspectives on the problems with gender equity.

Sojwal: What is the greatest joy and what is the greatest challenge of your work?

Nasiri: Persian Women in Tech’s members—over 3000 and counting—give me immeasurable joy and inspiration. PWIT’s members are mostly immigrant women who are making their mark in an industry that is still coming to terms with its ubiquitous culture of sexism and lack of diversity. They are starting successful companies and creating innovative technologies that are quite literally changing the tech industry—challenging negative stereotypes about their community and bringing their own seat to the table.

Sojwal: Who is a feminist that inspires you and why?

Nasiri: I’m inspired by many feminists but one who stands out for me is Emma Watson. Her #HeForShe campaign is a refreshing challenge for men to fight gender stereotypes and advocate for gender equality—underscoring how  gender equality is not a women-only project.

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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