Silicon Valley has a well-documented diversity problem. Sepideh Nasiri, who often goes by Sepi, is an entrepreneur originally from Iran. She founded Persian Women In Tech (PWIT) just over two years ago, which aims to alter tech’s dreary statistics of women founders and engineers, with a focus on those of Iranian descent.
PWIT is a non-profit headquartered in Silicon Valley, Nasiri is its CEO. PWIT’s mission is to elevate the profile of Iranian women in tech, empower them and provide resources through its network. Next month on February 10, PWIT is expanding its purview to women in tech from MENA (Middle East North Africa) countries with its first conference, Women Of MENA In Tech at Oath in Sunnyvale, California.
The ebullient Nasiri is in her mid-30s and her professional life has been steeped in tech. Perhaps it was destiny that when she immigrated to the U.S. with her family by way of Germany in the 11th grade, she landed in Cupertino, CA, not far from Apple.
Her first job upon graduation from UCI was co-founding an on- and off-line magazine highlighting successful Iranians like Pierre Omidyar, the founder of Ebay among other startups including First Look Media.
From 2011 to 2014 Nasiri worked at Women 2.0, one of the earliest voices— the “grandmother” as she puts it—to bring more women into tech. Nasiri also advised early-stage startups and was a consultant to companies like Deloitte, HP, Twitter, Facebook and Google on issues of diversity.
The impetus behind PWIT happened when an Iranian startup founder friend of Nasiri’s asked her to recommend an Iranian female engineer; she wanted to diversify her engineering team. “I didn’t know anyone,” recalls Nasiri in disbelief, “I couldn’t say a name off the top of my head.” Taken aback, as Nasiri could easily rattle off people’s names, titles and departments of other ethnic group working in the tech industry, but not her own.
“That’s when I realized that even though I have this incredible network—not just of women, but people in tech—I wasn’t close to my own community,” says Nasiri.
Astonished by her own blind spot, Nasiri began contacting friends at Google, Facebook, Apple, Cisco and Oracle to inquire if there was some type of internal Iranian group. With the exception of Apple, which had a mailing list, no company had one. “That was very strange,” reflects Nasiri, “especially when you are talking 2015.” She was especially surprised by Google, as many top level employees were Iranian-born or of Iranian descent, including Omid Kordestani, the Chief Business Officer at the time, now at Twitter.
This gaping void inspired Nasiri and a friend to organize a casual wine and cheese gathering for Iranian women in tech. Seven women showed up. Nasiri planned additional events and attendance numbers nearly doubled with each gathering. “Fast forward to today,” says Nasiri enthusiastically, “we have just over 500 members in the Bay Area. All women, 90% technical backgrounds.”
Nasiri chose "Persian" over "Iranian" when naming PWIT because she felt Persian isn’t associated with religion, policies or politics. “It has to do with the cultural background of who we are,” explains Nasiri.
PWIT’s monthly events address topics of entrepreneurship, startups and engineering, from hiring data scientists to business legal structures. PWIT now operates in five U.S. cities; London was added as of October 2017. Everyone working in tech is welcome at PWIT events: males and females, Iranians and non-Iranians.
PWIT’s mission coupled with Nasiri’s passion has attracted high-caliber speakers: the aforementioned Kordestani of Twitter, foreign policy analyst Sahar Nowrouzzadeh and entrepreneur/investor Reza Kazemipour, among many others. PWIT events often give participants face-to-face access to those people in tech difficult to reach; several speakers and panelists have even invested in PWIT attendees’ startups or joined their boards.
Iranian-born Cam Kashani is the co-founder of Coaccel, a Los Angeles-based coaching business geared to help female tech entrepreneurs; bringing them to a level of “unstopability” as she puts it.
Kashani is a seasoned public speaker and is a featured 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 addressed a Persian-centric female audience.
“Being a Persian woman and being very frank as I am, I don’t bulls--t and I don’t edit,” Kashani laughs and continues, “Persian women have historically been very competitive with one another,” states Kashani. “It’s about time to put that aside,” she says, “and embrace a community ethos as opposed to a competitive ethos.”
Photo by Behnaz Khaleghi
Nazli Nadem is the co-founder and CEO of HopHR based in San Francisco.
Nazli Nadem is a regular attendee at PWIT events; she’s the co-founder and CEO of HopHR, a bespoke data scientist hiring platform that focuses on both technical and soft skills. Unlike many Iranians in the U.S. who immigrated as children and might have large networks, Nadem arrived as an adult in 2012 with just her husband to earn a Master’s in Human Resource 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 her a familiar cultural refuge while addressing issues that every startup founder faces, often more challenging for newer immigrants.
“The talent pool that our community has is valuable,” states Nasiri, adding that culturally, Iranians value education and are one of the most educated minorities in the U.S. She recalls that at a recent PWIT event held at Amazon Lab 126, Amazon’s recruiters were present. Nasiri believes PWIT’s mission benefits both sides of the tech industry. “The companies,” says Nasiri, “and the individuals who are in our communities.”
Nasiri has mainly self-funded PWIT with a little financial help from event ticket sales and hosting support from tech companies. However, Nasiri’s vision for PWIT is broad and long-term.
“I thought about it strategically,” Nasiri assures. While she plans to keep the current incarnation of PWIT as a non-profit, Nasiri aims to eventually add for-profit arms, like content creation, an app and potentially, investment. “I mean,” says Nasiri, “there’s so much we can do to support this large-scale community.”