In my senior year of college, I watched as most of my friends frantically faxed their CVs off and checked their answering machines for messages about interviews. People asked me, ‘Why are you so calm?’ I was not rushing about, because I already knew: I was going to Africa. We all have a place where we feel ourselves, a place to which we are drawn, and most of the time there is just no explaining it. My mom believes she was Native American in another life and feels most at home in New Mexico. My dad—an Irish-American through and through—cycles, speaks and drinks cappuccino like a native Italian. I first came to truly know myself sitting under a thorn tree in Namibia.
Twenty years have passed since I lived in Namibia as a volunteer teacher with WorldTeach and I have spent those years creating opportunities to stay connected with what I experienced there. I learned to dance and sing as I hadn’t before. I learned to be resourceful. I learned to be both alone and also to be very much not alone. I learned to not rush. I learned that we are all the same people, with the same concerns and dreams for our families, for our children’s education, for a safe community—despite what the newspapers tell us. I met women—teachers, teenage girls, farm laborers, war orphans, activists—who showed me the strength of women as I had not seen it in my young life. Inspired by them, I began carving out a career path that has enabled me to learn from, support and connect with women in Africa.
This journey has, wonderfully, brought me to this point—the starting point of TechWomen’s expansion to include 36 women from seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I have already had the incredible honor of playing a small part in the first two years of TechWomen, which IIE administers on behalf of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, working alongside an amazing team of women here at IIE and getting to know the 78 Emerging Leaders from the Middle East and North Africa, and the Mentors from the Bay Area. I’ve witnessed firsthand the bonds that develop not only between the pairs of Emerging Leaders and Mentors, but equally importantly across the entire TechWomen community. In the years I’ve worked on women’s programs, from basic education access for girls to training grassroots NGOs to offer women-only IT classes, I have been inspired many times over. However, TechWomen continues to astound me like no other program.
The technical component of TechWomen is critical. If women are to contribute to, and lead, the growth of the global economy, we need these women to continue to deepen their skills and advance in their careers. That is powerful indeed. However, what truly powers this program is the human connection. The women I met in Namibia at my rural school 20 years ago set me on a path. All the women that connect through TechWomen are influencing and enriching each other’s journeys, simultaneously serving as role model, mentor, mentee, inspiration, business partner, strategic advisor, teacher, and friend.
With more than 1850 women applying for 78 TechWomen spots, it’s clear we need to think how we can expand opportunities for women in technology around the world to meet, connect and inspire each other. That is a major priority for our Center for Women’s Leadership Initiatives in the coming year, and we hope many of you will join us on that journey.
[This blog was cross-posted from the TechWomen Blog. Check out the blog for regular updates on the TechWomen Program!]