Arezoo Riahi

Program Director | Tech Women

Welcome to the inaugural podcast about women working at the intersection of foreign policy and technology, a partnership between Women in Foreign Policy and The Foreign Policy Project's Women in Diplomacy Podcast

If you're worried that you don't know the path, how do you get to the next step? How do you make that leap? Don't worry. You will create it for yourself.

Please welcome Arezoo Riahi. She is Program Director of Tech Women, at the Institute of International Education, and this interview is part of our Women in Tech Series.

Arezoo, can you give us a brief introduction to your job, your role, and your work?

Thank you for having me. I am the Director of Tech Women, a program which is going into its sixth year. It's an initiative of the US State Department. I work for an organization called the Institute of International Education (IIE), and we have the great privilege of administering this program.

It is a program through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Exchange. We bring emerging leaders, women who have a technical background in science, tech, engineering, math, to Silicon Valley, which is this hub of innovation and risk taking. We give them an opportunity to see first-hand what some of the leading companies and the most innovative companies are doing.

For five weeks, about 100 women from 21 different countries (from the Middle East, north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and south and central Asia) come to Silicon Valley. They have an opportunity to be in a company and work on a project with a mentor. The objective is for these women to go back home and meet their own potential in their family and in their career. It's launching their own startups, it's starting their own community centers or initiatives. Whatever that may be, we hope that this program gives them a voice and a seat at the table.

Certainly very impactful work. For you, on the ground level, what does a typical day at work look like for you? Was there any experience that you had, that let you know that this job was a good fit for you?

To be honest, there's no real typical day. Every day is so different. Most of that is because the program is on a cycle where the women come every fall. Leading up to that, we're in different parts of the program cycle and its design: we could be traveling on one of our delegation trips to a program country; we could be hosting the women here; we could be preparing for them; we could just be working on our relationships here with our mentors, our host companies, doing logistics, whatever is needed to be ready to welcome the next group.

I think the job is interesting, and I've been doing this work now for a little over 10 years. When I started at IIE, I was working on the Fulbright Program, which many of you may have heard of. It was very different. I was working on outreach, traveling to different college campuses to talk about the work that we were doing. You can see how different that is from my day to day now, despite working still in a State Department program, and working at the same company.

In terms of just seeing how this is the right fit, I've had the great privilege of working for an organization that's allowed for me to talk about my own interests and passions, and then positioned me on a program where I can work with women globally to do the work that I love.

What's the biggest challenge that you encounter in your work?

There's a lot of challenges! First of all, we have over 2,300 applications on any given year. Getting that down to the top 90 or 100, depending on the year, is a huge task. We take the selection process seriously. We do final interviews to make sure we get the right people because ultimately that's where the impact is.

I think there's a lot of unknown in who we choose and then there's a lot of unknown in the program. This is a State Department program. Different administrations look at the program differently. We're in an election year so the longevity of the program is something that we think about a lot.

Another challenge is the many relationships we have to maintain. There are new participants each year, who then become alumni. In some countries, we have six years worth of alumni. In others, we only have one. How do you cultivate those relationships, and continue to support each group with the support that they need to continue to be successful? Same with the companies in our own back yard. How do we continue to engage with companies that are so generous with their time and their resources, in partnering with the program, but also may have changing needs?

The challenges are constant, and they evolve day to day depending on where you are and what you're working on. Finally, I think the biggest question for me on a regular basis is how do you make a great program even better, how do you look into the future, how do you scale, how do you bring in new participants, new partners, and how do you change the program's design to ensure that every year, no matter how great the results are, and how strong the impact is, you're continuing to evolve and iterate, so the program continues to meet the objectives that we're looking for?

We are curious about your opinions on how tech and the digital space are affecting foreign policy and global politics. What changes has tech already achieved for foreign policy? What are some of the positive things we are getting and do you see any negatives coming from introducing tech to foreign policy?

At IIE, our tagline is "Opening Minds to the World". It reflects that notion that the more you are exposed to the world, the more peace and prosperity we have globally. Tech is huge in influencing that. Globalization has allowed for the world to be a lot more connected, for people to feel like they know one another more. 

We find today's conversations are more fluid. People are more available. Conversations are nonstop. We see that on Twitter, for example. In this year's election cycle, Twitter is a huge player in terms of understanding what our candidates are thinking on a regular basis. It also gives us access: I can tweet to people like Samantha Power. Maybe I'll get a response, maybe I won't, but I would never have had that opportunity before.

On a more collective front, tech allows people to have a voice on a global platform. Voices, especially from marginalized communities, people who have not been able to be present in certain movements, now have a space where they can participate in global dialogue. People who are in a position to affect policies and inform decisions at higher levels can hear it. We are able to see things that trend. We are able to respond to those as people working in foreign policy. It's really changed under President Obama's White House. It's the first time we've even seen the digital space being a part of the White House and being something that's monitored and facilitated by a US administration. It's such an opportunity for us to listen and to respond.

As tech becomes more integrated into foreign policy, do you ever see bureaucracy getting in the way of progress? For any listener out there that may be frustrated with this in their own jobs, do you have any recommendations on how to combat that?

We know that government is slow. Change takes time, which means progress is slow. It is quite frustrating for anyone working with governments or just in a bureaucratic job. As millennials, we are ready to have those decisions made now. It's that instant gratification and immediate satisfaction that we're used to. When you cannot have that at your fingertips, it's incredibly frustrating. Bureaucracy is often times the reason for it.

I've learned that sometimes, a little delay does work in our favor, as it allows us to produce something more thought through. We still look at it as an iterative process that goes slower, but we're patient in the process, and oftentimes we look back and think it's actually cool that we have that time.

I would say for those of you who are working with the government, it's important to build trust. There are things that you cannot control, and there are things that might be held tight by your client, or customer, or sponsor. I'll give you an example with Tech Women. When we look to expand globally into different countries, we want that to happen tomorrow. When we're launching into different parts of the country, that will take a certain amount of time, but we want to be able to launch it right away. It's exciting to go into a new region. We cannot do that. That just takes time. There are approval layers, and that's just kind of how it works, and we've learned to be patient with that.

On the other hand, sometimes it could be something as simple as producing a video or a documentary that showcases the great work that you're doing, and those approvals. Building trust takes time as well, a little bit like a new relationship. I've found that the people that you're waiting on those approvals from will let go a bit more, and will make our life a little easier.

What do you think is the key untapped potential of tech in diplomacy that you wish people were working on at the moment?

I feel like there are two things I'd love to highlight. One is this notion of the Internet being a basic right. We take that for granted in the US because we have so much access to it, but there's so much of the world that cannot be on WiFi or connected in any way. That limits education. Individuals who are marginalized, like women, are not able to participate. They aren't able to access the different resources that others have access to, that would bring them to the same level, or to the same playing field. They also don't have an opportunity to have a forum where they can share their thoughts freely, and be a part of a community, to learn from one another, for example. That's a space we see Facebook in with internet.org, or Google with the hot air balloons that are being worked on. I wish they would be able to be at a much higher rate, so everybody would have access today.

You see a lot of conversations related to virtual reality. VR is getting a lot of funding, and a lot of attention from VCs and angels. How cool would it be if we could experience travel and  other cultures, without traveling, if we could just take a two-hour jaunt to Paris in the afternoon without leaving our desk? That kind of technology would create an opportunity for individuals who don't have the ability, the means, the resources, the time, to actually participate in that activity and that dialogue. Ultimately, when we think about diplomacy we're thinking about an exchange leading to peace and to mutual understanding. I think it would be really cool if there was a way to experience another country or culture without actually having to get on the airplane.

Let's talk about you. What made you go into international relations? Where did you grow up? Why did you want to do this work?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Naperville (Illinois). It was very white picket fence, perfect school district, very homogeneous. I stood out. I was that girl with the big hair and the funny name. When I was 19, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Morocco. The first time I moved from Chicago to DC was when I did my undergrad at GW. That very summer I was in Morocco.

It was the first time I saw real poverty. Living in Chicago you would think I would have more exposure to that growing up, but I didn't. I didn't feel it was going on in my own back yard, in the streets of Chicago. What I saw was this need globally to make a difference to help. I know that sounds cliché, but I wanted to commit my career to allowing those people that I saw to participate. So many were living in the desert, as Bedouins, without running water or plumbing, or even real shelter. That affected me to the point where I changed my university focus to development.

How did that bring you to the Institute of International Education?

I finished my undergrad, went to grad school. I moved back to Chicago and did my master's in public policy at the University of Chicago. I had never been to California before, never visited San Francisco until my interview. Taking this job was a leap of faith, as much about my personal exposure to the world, and to America, as it was the position. What kept me at IIE was the ability to change, to grow. I started there on the Fulbright Scholarship program and I've worn probably six other hats before coming to Tech Women.

I really feel like I'm in a position to make an impact and then I thankfully am able to see it. I get to do cool things like hike with the gorillas in Rwanda. I went to the Dead Sea and floated in this incredible body of water. Those experiences are incredible and I don't take them for granted. I really love the fact that I can see the women, year after year, change, see them go home, see the impact the program has made on them, see the promotions they've made, see the girl they've mentored, see the passion that they have, and it really makes me feel like I'm in a position where I'm honored, and so lucky and privileged, to be able to have the small piece of helping them.

You start off thinking "I'm going to change the world", and you actually feel like you've got a little bit of that, like you're doing a little something. That's kept me at IIE, and it will keep me doing the work that I'm doing for a very long time, I'm sure.

I love how in touch you are with international development, and the work that is really making that happen. Often in undergrad or grad school we hear the term, and we know that we might want to work in it, but your career is a really good example of what it truly means to work in the sector. What advice would you give to young women who might be interested in a similar career path?

First of all, I would say don't worry. There's so much uncertainty in all of our lives. I've seen it with all of my friends, all of my peers, all of my colleagues. It all gets worked out. If you're worried, for example, about not having enough leadership, don't worry, you're going to get there. If the issue is that you're not getting paid enough now, especially to make ends meet, especially for those of you who are working in nonprofits, don't worry, you're going to get there. It will take a little time, but you'll figure it out.

If you're worried that you don't know the path, how do you get to the next step, or how do you make that leap, don't worry. You will create it for yourself. You will find a way. I think that's going to be the way to do that, is three things, I would say. First of all, don't doubt yourself. Especially as women, we do this all the time. Just don't doubt yourself. You have to be your own champion and your own cheerleader. If you are somebody who struggles with that, make sure you surround yourself with individuals who you can give you that pat on the back, and the boost, when you need it.

The second thing we hear a lot about is mentorship. Until I had real mentors, the concept of mentorship was hard for me to grasp because it felt like I was asking someone I didn't know to help me with something. If you don't know somebody, don't be afraid to ask for 5 to 10 minutes of their time. Often people are excited to meet with young women, to share their story, or just to give back in any way they can. People did it for them before and they want the opportunity to do the same thing. That's one thing, don't be afraid to ask for that time.

Mentors happen without you knowing it. I would think of it more as creating a little circle of people that you trust, that will give you feedback, and will give you strong advice along the way, and check in with them from time to time. These are people who've got your back. They might work with you, they might not. Some might be people you've gone to school with, some might be family members, some might be friends of friends. I strongly urge you to create that inner circle where you ask for the feedback and you trust what you're hearing. Those people will eventually become your mentors, and will help you along the way. Finding a mentor is like putting yourself out there, and meeting people, and then cultivating relationships that eventually evolve into mentorship in the truest sense.

Arezoo, how can we stay in touch with your work, especially if we want to learn more about IIE, and the Tech Women program?

I'd love for you all to stay in touch. Our website is simply techwomen.org. We have a blog that we update frequently with events about the program and with updates on what our participants are doing now that they're home, and what our mentors are doing to help support them. If you're interested in being a mentor, for those of you who are in the Bay Area, there's a whole section on the different opportunities there, as well.

For more day to day type of updates, you can follow us on Twitter. @TechWomen is our handle. You follow me on Twitter @ArezooRiahi. I'm very active on Twitter, and if anybody wants to get in touch with me personally please just EM me and let me know that you listened to this podcast.

Any closing words of wisdom?

This is not an easy career path. There's not a lot of glory in it, there's not a lot of money. If you are living in areas where there are not a lot of individuals in the field, it's almost like you're the outsider because you're not in finance or you're not in tech. It can be challenging to feel like you're being successful, but I would just say stick with it. I will tell you right now when people ask me how do you know you love your job, I have to say you just know. People who don't love their job are complaining about it all the time, and they don't want to get up in the morning, and they don't want to go to work. I don't have that.

I feel strongly that people who are passionate about the work that they do will with time and patience get to a place where the money will get figured out, where you fit in will get figured out. All the sudden it all makes sense, and you'll be really happy you stuck with it along the way.

 

Arezoo Riahi | Program Director | Tech Women 14 years' experience

Arezoo Riahi | Program Director | Tech Women

14 years' experience

CV in brief: 

Career so far: Senior Program Officer (2012 - 2014), Program Officer, TechWomen (2011 - 2012), Program Officer, E-Mediat (2011), Program Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility (2008 - 2010), Program Coordinator, Scholarship Outreach & Management (2007 - 2008) at Institute of International Education | International Group Research Associate at YMCA of USA | Public Affairs Intern at Leadership Conference on Civil Rights | Civil Society Division Intern at The United Nations World Summit on the Information Society | International Economic Affairs Intern at US Department of State

Education: Masters, Public Policy; International Human Rights Policy at The University of Chicago Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy | B.A, International Affairs at The George Washington University

Languages spoken: English, French, Persian, Arabic

Find Arezoo online: Twitter | LinkedIn | TechWomen blog

Inspired by Arezoo's career? Here are related opportunities: Careers at Institute of International Education | Be involved with YMCA of USA | Careers at Leadership Conference on Civil Rights | Careers at US Department of State

Interview by Kelsey Suemnicht 28 July 2016