Iranian Entrepreneur Takes Silicon Valley Diversity Problem With “Persian Women in Tech”
Silicon Valley has a well documented diversity problem. Sepideh Nasiri, often referred to as Sepi, is an entrepreneur from Iran. she founded Persian Women in Technology (PWIT) a little over two years ago, which aims to modify the sad statistics women founders and engineers, in particular those of Iranian origin.
PWIT is a non-profit organization headquartered in Silicon Valley, Nasiri is its CEO. PWIT’s mission is to raise the profile of Iranian women in tech, empower them and provide resources through its network. Next month, on February 10, PWIT is expanding its reach to women in technology in MENA (Middle East North Africa) countries with its first conference, MENA Women in Tech To Oath in Sunnyvale, California.
The exuberant Nasiri is in his mid-30s and her professional life has been steeped in technology. Perhaps it was fate that when she immigrated to the United States with her family via Germany at 11e grade, she landed in Cupertino, Calif., not far from Apple.
Her first job after graduating from UCI was co-founder of an online and offline magazine highlighting successful Iranians as Pierre Omidyar, the founder of Ebay among other startups including First media preview.
From 2011 to 2014, Nasiri worked at Women 2.0, one of the first voices – the “grandma” as she puts it – to bring more women into tech. Nasiri has also advised start-up startups and has been a consultant for companies such as Deloitte, HP, Twitter, Facebook and Google on diversity issues.
The impetus behind PWIT came when an Iranian startup founder, friend of Nasiri, asked him to recommend an Iranian female engineer; she wanted to diversify her team of engineers. “I didn’t know anyone,” Nasiri recalls in disbelief, “I couldn’t say a name by heart.” Taken aback, as Nasiri could easily cite the names, titles and departments of other ethnic groups working in the tech industry, but not his own.
“It was then that I realized that even though I had this amazing network, not just women, but tech people, I wasn’t close to my own community,” says Nasiri. .
Amazed at her own blind spot, Nasiri began contacting friends on Google, Facebook, Apple, Cisco and Oracle to find out if there was some kind of internal Iranian group. With the exception of Apple, which had a mailing list, no company had one. “It was very strange,” Nasiri recalls, “especially when you talk about 2015”. She was particularly surprised by Google, as many high-level employees were of Iranian or Iranian descent, including Omid kordestani, the Chief Business Officer at the time, now on Twitter.
This gaping void inspired Nasiri and a friend to throw a casual wine and cheese party for Iranian women in tech. Seven women showed up. Nasiri has planned additional events and the number of attendees nearly doubled at each rally. “Fast forward to today,” says Nasiri enthusiastically, “we have just over 500 members in the Bay Area. All women, 90% technical training.
Nasiri chose “Persian” over “Iranian” when she named PWIT because she felt that Persian is not associated with religion, politics or politics. “It has to do with the cultural background of who we are,” says Nasiri.
PWIT’s monthly events cover topics such as entrepreneurship, startups, and engineering, from hiring data scientists to corporate legal structures. PWIT now operates in five US cities; London was added in October 2017. Everyone working in the tech field is welcome to attend PWIT events: men and women, Iranians and non-Iranians.
PWIT’s mission coupled with Nasiri’s passion has attracted high-caliber speakers: Twitter’s aforementioned Kordestani, foreign policy analyst Sahar Nowrouzzadeh and entrepreneur / investor Reza Kazemipour, among many others. PWIT events often give attendees face-to-face access to those hard-to-reach people in technology; several speakers and panelists even invested in the startups of PWIT participants or joined their boards of directors.
Of Iranian origin, Cam Kashani is the co-founder of Coaccel, a Los Angeles-based coaching company dedicated to helping female tech entrepreneurs; bringing them to an “imperceptible” level as she puts it.
Kashani is a seasoned speaker and a guest speaker at the upcoming Women Of MENA In Tech conference. But when she spoke at a PWIT panel over the summer, it was the first time she spoke to a female audience focused on Persian.
“Being a Persian woman and being very outspoken like I am, I don’t do bulls – and I don’t edit,” Kashani laughs and continues, “Persian women have always been very competitive with each other”, Kashani says. “It’s time to put that aside,” she says, “and embrace a community ethic as opposed to a competitive ethic. “
Nazli Nadem regularly participates in PWIT events; she is co-founder and CEO of HopRH, a tailor-made data scientist recruitment platform that focuses on both technical and non-technical skills. Unlike many Iranians in the United States who immigrated as children and might have large networks, Nadem came of age in 2012 with only her husband to earn a master’s degree in human resources management.
“I didn’t have any family or friends here,” says Nadem. “I was so alone, looking for some kind of Persian community to get involved,” she recalls. PWIT provides him with a familiar cultural refuge while also addressing the issues that every startup founder faces, often more difficult for new immigrants.
“Our community’s talent pool is precious,” says Nasiri, adding that culturally Iranians value education and are one of the most educated minorities in the United States. She recalls that at a recent PWIT event held in Amazon Laboratory 126, Amazon recruiters were present. Nasiri believes PWIT’s mission benefits both sides of the tech industry. “The businesses,” says Nasiri, “and the individuals who are in our communities.”
Nasiri primarily self-funded PWIT with a small amount of financial assistance from event ticket sales and support for hosting technology companies. However, Nasiri’s vision for PWIT is broad and long-term.
“I thought about it strategically,” says Nasiri. While she plans to keep PWIT’s current incarnation as a non-profit organization, Nasiri is ultimately aiming to add for-profit branches, such as content creation, app and potentially investments. “I mean,” says Nasiri, “there is so much we can do to support this community on a large scale.”