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When Nelly Yusupova's family moved from Tadjikistan to the States, 13-year-old Nelly didn't speak a word of English. Upon her arrival, she resolved to learn American language and culture as quickly as she could—and learn she did. As a freshman at Queens College at CUNY, Nelly received constant encouragement from one of the female professors in the school's computer science department. “Don’t let anyone stop you from achieving your dream, Nelly,” her professor would tell her. Of course not, Nelly thought to herself, unaware of any forces standing in her way. Isn't that what I'm doing already?
Fast-forward through fifteen years of working in technology, and Nelly finally understands that her professor was simply trying to prepare her for entry into what has historically been a "man's world." According to a study by the National Center for Women in Technology, women held only 25 percent of IT-related jobs in the United States in 2008 (the most recent numbers available).
Nelly has since exchanged roles with her former professor—she has become the one encouraging young women to enter STEM fields. Nelly is the Chief Technological Officer for Webgrrls International, a networking organization that strives to help women succeed in an increasingly technology-dependent society. As the leader of New York City's Webgrrls chapter, Nelly organizes monthly events on topics ranging from Pinterest to female-friendly mobile apps. She has also started her own Internet consulting company, DigitalWoman.
According to Nelly, everyone from clients to developers to consumers can benefit from an increase in the number of female programmers. “Having a woman's opinion in building a product is going to change its direction for the better,” she says. "Different experiences yield different perspectives and ideas. If we can have more women involved in the process of building technology, we can have a better world."
Creating that brave new world means shattering IT's "geeky" reputation—and that means showcasing more women like Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO. Marissa doesn't live a lonely life surrounded by computer screens. Instead, she is known for being a fashion lover and a social butterfly. “She is living the life,” Nelly says. “Using role models to show that geek can be chic is an important part of getting the younger demographic on board."
Every now and then, Nelly encounters male coworkers who seem to believe that she's there to fetch them coffee. Nelly has learned to take this attitude with a grain of salt. “I have to accept that it's not my fault—that that person is not evolved enough, or whatever it is,” she explains with a laugh. “It’s a little bit annoying to have to prove yourself, but with knowledge and confidence, you can show that you know what you’re talking about.”
—Linda A. Thompson
If you're located in the tri-state area, Webgrrls is offering WomenWorking.com readers a discount on the upcoming Techspeak for Entrepreneurs conference in NYC. Register now for September's event here!