When Larissa Shapiro first heard about the TechWomen program, the Arab Spring had already begun to rock the MENA region. A firm believer in the power of technology to change the world and peoples’ lives in positive ways, and inspired by the dynamic role of courageous women in these uprisings, Larissa saw TechWomen as a unique opportunity to contribute to the movement. “I feel such a strong draw toward using technology as a tool for promotion of democratic and open societies,” she explains, adding, “I think that’s what TechWomen is all about.”
Larissa knew the power of mentorship from her own experience. “The mentoring and support I received as a student at a women’s college gave me the confidence to pursue a career in the male-dominated field of software development, and specifically within the open source, software community” Larissa explains. She was immediately drawn to TechWomen as a way to give back. “I really embraced that opportunity from a woman-to-woman perspective and from a technology perspective,” she says.
Yet, Larissa didn’t expect her own life to be so profoundly impacted by the program. She admits, “One of the biggest surprises was that I learned so much about myself, and about working with people from the Middle East and North Africa.”
Larissa says that her Mentee, Sanae, “had a really profound and lovely impact” on her company. “She brought a lot of perspective—fresh perspective—to what we were doing,” she explains. “She would have things to see and say that none of us would’ve thought of,” she adds. Thinking back on the experience, Larissa laments, “We got to know each other so well, and then we missed her so much when she was gone.”
Even a year after her participation in the 2011 program as a Professional Mentor, Larissa’s relationship with Sanae continues to deepen. The two often talk about topics ranging from running a small business to work-life balance to a new topic: motherhood.
In addition to maintaining personal relationships with several TechWomen Mentees, Larissa offers them career advice and collaborates with them professionally. She fields questions from Mentees about everything from coping with gender discrimination, to getting technology jobs, to navigating the projects pool world, to more technical questions about open source software. During her visit to Morocco with the TechWomen delegation last year, she partnered with 2011 Mentee Lamia Ben Hiba to give a speech at Lamia’s alma mater in Morocco. The two also periodically exchange drafts of papers and presentations for peer review, tapping into each other’s different insights and perspective.
“I love it that they know that they can continue to network with us like that,” she says, adding, “That’s one of the real strengths of the project; if they didn’t already have a strong sense of a network of professional women whom they can turn to, I think that they do now, coming out of [TechWomen].”
The program has also opened more doors for Larissa to build lasting relationships and collaborate professionally with other women passionate about technology. She stays in touch with a few of the graduate students she met at Lamia’s university and contributes to various projects related to her area of expertise. She is also partnering with IIE’s Heather Ramsey and fellow Mentor Katy Dickinson to help an organization to set up computer labs for children in Morocco. Larissa is also planning to collaborate with TechWomen Mentees and women’s groups in Morocco to provide web-based training to empower women in the MENA through technology.
For Larissa, the most fulfilling part of being a TechWomen Mentor was seeing the possibilities for future collaboration and the great potential in these creative, ongoing partnerships. She reflects:
TechWomen really inspires all of us to figure out what we can do through our connections. The entire thing is about connecting people, and then when we do that, we just start to have all of these ideas for improving the situation for women and girls, most certainly in MENA, but it ends up improving our situation. It’s hard for me to explain how much it’s impacted me. It’s just one of the most beautiful things I’ve done in my professional life.