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U.S. helps tech-savvy Mideastern women experience Silicon Valley

By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
  • The TechWomen program is a State Department initiative
  • Women from the Middle East and North Africa work with counterparts in the U.S.
  • Clinton says the project has spawned another program for teenage girls

Washington (CNN) -- Reem El-Mograby, a 24-year-old software engineer from Egypt, picked a tough time to apply for the U.S. State Department's TechWomen program. Egypt's "Arab Spring" revolution had just begun, and the Internet was shut down.

"Our deadline was in two days, so I couldn't complete the application. When it came back on again, I opened my e-mails and found that the deadline was extended for two weeks so we had the time to submit the application. This made me feel that applying to the program was meant to be!" she explained.

For the past month, thanks to the TechWomen program, El-Mograby -- a Palestinian refugee who was born in Egypt and grew up in Libya -- has been working at ZaReason, Inc., a company in California's Silicon Valley.

"I'm a software person and I was matched with a hardware company, so it was a challenge at first," she said. "But it was such a valuable experience. I got to see how you could become an entrepreneur because my mentor... had a family, she had a work-life balance. And that's what we want back home, the balance between your family and work. We have very strong families in the Middle East and you spend a lot of time at work, especially when launching a product."

The experience, El-Mograby said, gave her more self-confidence and helped her to believe in herself. Her dream now: "To create a community for refugee women in technology to network."

This is the first group of young women -- 37 of them -- to complete the TechWomen program, which pairs women in Silicon Valley with their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa in a professional mentorship and exchange program at leading technology companies. The aim is to develop the next generation of female leaders in the technology field by providing them with the access and opportunity needed to pursue tech-based careers.

The women, who range in age from 25 to 42, are from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Territories. They spend five weeks, all expenses paid, at 24 U.S.-based technology companies, among them: Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, AT&T and Adobe Systems.

Esra Said, 26, from East Jerusalem, worked with Ericsson in Silicon Valley, looking at the broadband evolution in Middle East and North Africa. She said she learned "how to be productive, how to accomplish a big task at the end of the day." When she returns to her full-time job with the International Committee for the Red Cross, she said, "I think now I can make a link between my project and my work in East Jerusalem, how to improve technology in the Middle East."

At a luncheon at the State Department Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the women -- some of whom were wearing headscarves -- that "being a woman in the field of technology is not always easy. Being a woman in any field is not always easy." The comment drew knowing laughs from the group.

"But there are so many opportunities in technology that we just have to forge ahead," Clinton said, "and we're doing so around the world because we want to make sure that all the tools that technology has made available are just as open to women as they are to men."

Kyna Sah was a mentor for three women who were from Egypt and Lebanon. She's an American who works as the director of the Strategic Partnership Program for Huawei, a Chinese company that has a center for innovation in Santa Clara, California.

"They had the opportunity to see our latest, greatest research and technology projects," she told CNN. "And on the cultural side they got to see how we interact with colleagues, male executives in Silicon Valley."

"I told them just to elbow your way in -- don't be shy! Voice your opinions, otherwise you won't be heard," Sah said. "They will become agents of change in their own countries, their own cultures, they see how women work here in America, they see how advanced higher education helps us along the way. And I think this is a life-changing experience for them."

Thekra Al-Dwairi, 26, works as a project specialist with Hewlett-Packard in Jordan and during the program worked with the company's labs in Palo Alto, California.

"It was inspiring," she said. "Those people have rules and they are following those rules, something that we are missing back in Jordan. There is so much room for improvement that we should work on, especially involving women more in technology."

"We have a very big network now and we feel like there are people who are supporting us and want to cooperate to do something good for the Middle East," Al-Dwairi said.

The TechWomen program, Clinton told the participants Wednesday, is spawning a new program: "We're calling it TechGirls, and it will bring teenage girls from the Middle East and North Africa for an intensive month of educational activities here in the United States."

"Technology can be a great facilitator," Clinton said. "It can also be used by governments and others to prevent people from being able to communicate. So we have to stay a step ahead so that people are never deprived of their opportunity, as we saw how important that was in both Tunisia and Egypt over the last months. We're seeing it in many other settings as well."

"I also believe that innovation thrives on good ideas," she added, "and women have a lot of good ideas. And we don't want those ideas to just die. We want them to be shared and to help others and to create businesses and jobs and improve lives. And it has a greater impact when technology has access for everyone."