Editor’s Note: Today is the United Nations International Day of Friendship, a day that recognizes the power of establishing strong ties, building bridges and working together for positive change. In celebration, we are sharing three stories of friendship, mentorship and collaboration from the TechWomen fellows and mentors themselves, in their own words. These stories – from Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, the United States and Zimbabwe – show the power of friendship and support, and the impact created when extraordinary women’s stories intersect.
When Student and Teacher Become Friends — Salma Bekkouche
I knew Fatima Zohra Benhamida as an assistant professor at the National High School of Computer Science (ESI) when I joined the school as a student in 2010. I never dared to go to her to introduce myself as a student coming from the same city as her until we met one day by chance in December 2012 at a cosmetics shop in Hassi Messaoud.
At that moment, she commented: “You face is familiar. You are a student at ESI, right?”
I replied: “Exactly, professor.”
She said: “Nice to meet you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need anything.”
Our common interest in volunteering made us meet during the activities of “Sourire à l’Innocence,” the association I led during my final year at ESI. This allowed me to get to know Fatima more and ask her my questions and seek advice regarding the graduation project and scientific research. After my graduation in 2015, she shared job opportunities in my city. One day, she called me to inform me that she recommended me to a recruiter at a multinational company. Thanks to her recommendation letter, I got my first job, and from that day I kept her updated about my career and considered her my mentor.
On November 27, 2017, I received her email: “The TechWomen 2018 application opened, and I’d like to recommend you if you’re interested to apply.”
I replied: “You read my mind, I received a TechWomen newsletter yesterday. Sure, I’m interested. I need your recommendation and advice to write a good application.”
I remember what she told me: “Salma, be authentic. Your small achievements are big. I see you there in TechWomen 2018.”
Even after few days of giving birth to her daughter Sara, she kept answering my questions about the TechWomen application. I submitted my application on January 3, 2018, a day before my dad became comatose. I lost him on January 12, and I forgot about TechWomen until April, when I received the email, “You have been preselected for the TechWomen interview at the U.S. Embassy in Algiers.”
On April 14, I met Fatima coincidently at the airport. She invited me to her home to prepare the interview and practice together. I remember she told me: “No need to book a hotel or a taxi. My husband will drive you to the Embassy. We are your family in Algiers.” Those few words meant the world to me. On May 4, she was the first person I informed that I have been selected for TechWomen 2018. She supported me during four months of pre-departure activities, and she drove me to get my visa to the U.S.
In September, I called her before taking off for the U.S.: “What’s your last advice?” I asked.
She answered, “Believe in yourself. You are an Emerging Leader.”
I was happy to receive her supportive messages that helped me to overcome my challenges and stress during the program. She was the first person I saw when I came back from the program. After TechWomen, we participated in many activities together: a Social Media Camp, the TechWomen/TechGirls Algeria Summit our unforgettable journey to Microsoft Ignite in Orlando, Florida. I can say that our relationship has transformed to peer mentorship, especially when Fatima moved to France. We are using WhatsApp to communicate and exchange tips in different areas. We participated together in virtual events like TEDx Oran Online and Education Camp. Currently, we are focusing on organizing our project, Heya Caravan, an initiative that empowers girls and women through STEM education, through this challenging time.
On the UN International Day of Friendship, I’m writing this to acknowledge Fatima’s contribution to become the person who I am today.
Friendships, Fellowships and Sisterhoods – Edith Mugehu
At the end of the five weeks in the Bay Area after the Techwomen 2018 program, I believed that the best part of my TechWomen journey had ended. As I headed back home, I reflected on my precious experiences, the connections I had made and how Techwomen had changed my perspective on life. Through TechWomen, I had formed networks — I found that really remarkable because growing up, I had always struggled to make friends. In a room full of people, I would find it very hard to take the initiative, walk up to a group and strike up a conversation. Due to my introvertive nature, I have always hoped to make a few but deep and meaningful connections.
The journey was just starting
Little did I know that it was not the five weeks in San Francisco that mattered the most to a TechWomen fellow, but the life after TechWomen. Upon my return from California, I traveled to Kenya in April 2019 through a John Innes Centre UK travel award which I had applied for through the assistance of my TechWomen mentor, Daniella Ushizima. Dani had also facilitated my mentorship experiences to be documented on my host institute’s website, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As I arrived in Kenya, I felt alone and vulnerable even though my fellow African participants and hosts were engaging and gracious. One of the participants, Flora Asibe from Nigeria, was particularly friendly and helpful.
From TechWomen fellowship to sisterhood
Through my conversation with Flora, she told me she recognised me from the Lawrence Berkeley website, the TechWomen 2018 Emerging Leaders’ introductory video and of course the TechWomen Instagram posts. I marveled at the odds of us meeting and got really excited. I eagerly wanted to share my TechWomen experiences with her. We promised each other that she would start preparing her Techwomen application for the subsequent 2020 cohort as soon as possible. I immediately connected with Flora because she is like me in so many ways through her professional track, ambition and the challenges she meets in both her academic and professional STEM experiences. By the end of the three-week training, Flora and I were as thick as thieves. We kept in touch after the training and continued to work on her TechWomen application. We shared other scholarship and grant opportunities. We started to travel the world together.
In 2020, Flora was awarded the 2020-2021 TechWomen fellowship. This has strengthened my bond with her as we keep having more professional experiences in common. My understanding of the culture, traditions and challenges of West Africa has blossomed. Whenever I have rainy days and feel like quitting, I can always depend on Flora to offer professional, spiritual and mental support. Flora and I are currently co-authoring two review manuscripts on plant biotechnology and pathology in Sub-Saharan Africa which we hope to submit for publication in esteemed journals by the end of the year. We are looking forward to utilising every opportunity we get to collaborate on scientific research and social impact for the benefit of the African continent. As we continue to navigate our professional journeys in STEM together and celebrate our friendship, each milestone we reach is ultimately a result of a seed sown through the TechWomen program.
Flora: My friendship with Edith has forged institutional collaboration in the area of scientific publications and research projects. We are co-authors of a review manuscript on pests and diseases of maize in Sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, Edith introduced me to one of her TechWomen mentors who then connected me with a professor at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, (FABI) South Africa for an internship opportunity in the Spring of 2022.
We motivate each other because we are both passionate about our careers, especially agricultural biotechnology and science communication. Through our friendship, we have modeled the fact at there is unity, love and numerous possibilities in diversity. And this transcends country borders or ethnicity.
A Friendship Beyond Differences
Noha: I couldn’t believe it. I was in the U.S. for a life-changing experience. A dream was coming true. Alice was my friend from the TechWomen program, and we were hosted at the same company, GoDaddy. We used to arrive and leave together every day. I had two mentors at GoDaddy and she had two different mentors. Although Laura was Alice’s mentor, we felt a strong bond. We met every day. She told me she felt like she was meant to be my mentor, too.
Laura told me a lot about marketing which was of great value to my business. She arranged meetings for me and Alice with every single subject matter expert at GoDaddy, even the CEO. I had the chance to ask all the questions I had in mind to everyone I met to understand more about the business and the work environment, an experience that I tried my best to benefit from in my business back home.
When we traveled to Washington, DC, Laura was my history book. She taught me a lot about U.S. history, and we visited many historical sites. Our relationship never ended when we traveled back home. We were always in touch through WhatsApp.
And we were able to meet again. We arranged to travel together to Uzbekistan for TechWomen’s delegation trip. We even stayed in the same hotel room. It felt amazing seeing her again. There, we visited many places together. We worked together on delivering a presentation at one of the schools. She always had the ability to encourage me to face the public and talk. I remember her words when I told her it was hard for me to initiate conversation at events where I know no one. She said, “Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen. You will then discover that you can get over your fear because the benefit behind making a new connection goes far more than the embarrassment if someone walked away. And what are the chances of turning their backs on you anyway?!” These words always helped me defeat my fear and start a conversation or engage with new connections.
I have always felt that I have a friend to get back to in U.S. When things got worse with COVID-19, I shared with Laura the problems I was facing at work. She has always been supportive. She has always shared with me her experience, information, feelings, and any updates she had. Although things didn’t work as planned and we couldn’t travel together for the next TechWomen delegation trip we had hoped to go to together, she managed to introduce me to another mentor from GoDaddy that I was able to travel with. And, looking forward to when travel opens up again, Laura and I still have lots of plans to travel together and meet again.
Throughout the TechWomen program, I have always felt like we were one family, accepting each other, embracing our differences, and sharing our culture which had a great impact on my self-confidence and my ability to lead my business. Now, I’m trying to mentor other girls at my country by providing internships during summer to undergraduates. When differences melt and fade away, we become stronger and we lift each other up. Life is a big network that, if fed with love and respect, will become stronger and enlighten the whole world.
Laura: It was my first year as a TechWomen mentor. I didn’t know what to expect from the program. Would I be a helpful mentor? What would the experience be like? Noha was an Emerging Leader that first year that I became a mentor in the program, but she wasn’t assigned to me. We could easily have missed each other – but, luckily, fate didn’t work that way.
Noha was a TechWomen Emerging Leader from Egypt who had started her own company helping companies create technical help in various languages. I first met her because she was assigned to mentors who were with the same company as me. She was thoughtful and kind and she participated in the executive learning sessions I set up. I felt an immediate connection with her and enjoyed her company, but much of my time with her was spent in group settings – that is, until I was a part of a group of mentors who accompanied the TechWomen to Washington, DC to meet with officials from various governmental agencies. In that capacity, I got to spend almost three straight days with Noha – and, wow, what a special woman I found her to be. It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur and run your own business – let alone to do it as a woman in Egypt, where the social norms are quite different regarding women in the workplace. As I left DC, I knew that we would certainly be keeping in touch.
90% of our relationship since then has been developed over WhatsApp. It’s not often that you connect and develop a friendship through a messaging app, but somehow it worked. We chatted about her work and my work and all the goings on of life. I learned about her parents and she learned about my kids. Two years later, I had been accepted on a TechWomen delegation trip to Uzbekistan, where I was going to conduct sessions with university and professional women in Tashkent to give guidance on careers in technology. I texted Noha to let her know and, to my surprise, she expressed an interest in joining the trip. I suggested that she could share a room with me in the hotel in order to make it more financially viable. She accepted and we spent an amazing two weeks traveling around Uzbekistan, meeting with hundreds of women to provide career advice. This is where our friendship transformed from just being a friendship and into a shared passion to make an impact. Noha joined me in one of my lectures – I provided the American viewpoint on entrepreneurship and she provided a perspective of what it was like to be an entrepreneur in Egypt. I know this is a cliché, but, working together, we were so much better than alone. Together, we created a dialogue with a younger generation of Uzbek entrepreneurs and helped them to understand a global viewpoint.
The pandemic has added lots of uncertainty into both of our lives – and we’ve seen each other through it all. Noha’s company saw changes in demand and had to pivot. My team at GoDaddy had to move everyone home and managed through multiple outbreaks. We kept each other apprised and helped each other think through it – on WhatsApp, of course! Once the pandemic is over, we have vowed to meet up somewhere in a new country where we can co-mentor women in technology. We hope to continue providing a global understanding to a new generation of women by utilizing our connection to showcase our passion.
Noha, on this UN Friendship Day, I salute you and want you to know what an important friend you are to me.