Mahsa Mohaghegh - She#

Name: Mahsa Mohaghegh Title: Founder of She# (pronounced 'She Sharp') Education: MSc, Doc of Philosophy in Computer Engineering Website: http://shesharp.co.nz/ Location: Auckland, New Zealand

During high school, I didn’t really envision that computer engineering and computer science would be areas of my future career. I have always had a love of mathematics and problem solving, but my real interest in computers began when I experienced building my first computer with the help of my father.

My parents have always been so supportive of anything I have chosen to undertake, and exploring technology was no exception.

Originally I wanted to study mathematics, but in the end I chose to study Computer Engineering because of its practical and tangible concepts, and its great contribution to technology and scientific advancement. After beginning a Bachelor Degree in Computer Engineering, I quickly discovered a passion for this field. In my second year I founded a group called 'The Computer Engineering Community', for fellow computer engineering students. I was the president of the group for the next three years, during which I arranged a number of conferences with keynote speakers for the whole of the computer engineering school. We helped women with everything from studying for exams using ultra-fast learning tools, to researching the best dha for pregnancy, to helping overcome a general fear of technology and master computers. Twelve years later, this group is still operating.

Although I had significant opportunities in front of me to join the industry, after graduating from my Bachelor’s, I decided to advance my education further, and undertook a Master Degree in Computer Engineering, majoring in Computer Architecture. In 2008 I graduated with an MSc with a thesis in QoS of Wireless Sensor Networks.

After graduating with my MSc, I sent EOI applications for PhD level study to a number of universities in different countries worldwide. Although I was accepted in many of these, after much deliberation I chose to study at Massey University, after finding an excellent supervisor who suggested a very interesting research topic. At the beginning of my study I was awarded two scholarships – one from NZ Educated, and another from Massey University.My research area was in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing, and my thesis in Statistical Machine Translation of English and Persian language.

During my PhD study I attended and presented at many high-ranking conferences worldwide, where I had numerous publications. I completed my PhD thesis in 2012, and graduated in 2013 with a Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Engineering.

In 2010, during my PhD study I began teaching part-time at Unitec Institute of Technology and after a year I applied for a role as a full-time lecturer. In June 2013 I was asked to act as Programme Leader for a colleague who was on maternity leave. During this time I was the Programme Leader for a number of Certificate, Bachelor and Graduate Diploma courses, as well as the Department of Computing’s entire Summer School courses.

In January 2014 I applied for the position of Outreach Development Manager, and hold this position to date. This role is focused on promoting the Department of Computing’s reputation outside Unitec, developing and maintaining its relationship with schools, and organising and running student recruitment activities and competitions to aid in Department promotion. My tasks in this position also extend to establishing and maintaining industry links for the Department, and managing externally sponsored projects within the Department (such as Google’s Computer Science for High Schools workshop).

  1. What is the story of She#? Please share it past and present. Where do you see it in the future?

The gender gap prevalent in most computer science, software engineering and other technology fields has become increasingly highlighted in recent years. The severity of the situation becomes more apparent when companies take drastic measures to address it, such as Google’s public announcement of their dedication of US$50M over a three year period to be used to invest in promoting these areas to females. Regardless of the cause, it is almost unanimously agreed that a more gender-balanced tech sector would provide significant benefits across the board – to both male and female alike.

I founded She# (pronounced “She Sharp”) in June 2014, with the intention of addressing these issues. She# is primarily a group for high school girls, female tertiary students and industry professionals. At She#, we believe that one effective way of addressing the gender gap issue is to create an atmosphere where female high school students can see how exciting and relevant technology is to their lives, and provide them with the opportunity of seeing inside tech companies, meeting their employees and networking with female role models within the industry.

Being able to draw on experience from women in the field is an advantage that should be utilised as far as possible. Nothing is more motivating to girls either studying computer science or considering it as a career choice than to see other women in the field sharing their experiences, challenges and successes.

She#’s goals are to connect technology students to ICT companies by creating networking events where they can meet. Companies have the chance to promote positions to prospective future employees, and students have the opportunity to make valuable industry contacts. The events help promote STEM fields to high school girls, and help them to make contact with female role models in the industry.

A typical She# event is hosted by a (usually) tech-related company, and consists of keynote speakers who share their passion for science and technology, what brought them into the field, and the experiences, challenges, and successes they have faced. These presentations help to give advice to young women and girls considering entering the field. During an event, practical sessions are also run to demonstrate real-world situations, and teach members valuable career skills such as management, leadership and communication.

It was challenging at first working in a small team to manage and direct our future, and in particular we were faced with the difficulty of establishing a team of members who were willing and able to dedicate a significant amount of time to helping form this young group of only 20 members, and channel their energy into helping run events every few months. Since then, we now have a tight leadership team of talented individuals who share a passion for making a change for good, and creating opportunities for others.

Since its launch, She# has already generated much interest in both academia and industry. Over the past year, we have organised and run a number of She# events at major companies around Auckland, including Orion Health, Unitec, IBM, Google, AUT, Xero, and Westpac. Through the contacts we have established within the industry, She# now has full-time sponsorship from Google, Unitec and Orion Health. In October 2015, She# held its first event in Wellington, sponsored and supported by Xero and 920 Career Agents.

The future of She# is very promising. From only 20 members in 2014, we have grown rapidly, and the group here in Auckland now has over 400 members. This year we continue to network, seeking sponsors and companies interested in running events with us. We have had further interest from several organisations in both Wellington and Christchurch, and our hope is that She# can eventually be established in several cities around New Zealand, and girls and women in technology will be given a platform where they can network with each other, and make valuable connections in an industry with a significant gender gap.

  1. What motivates you- both at work and home?

Within my work as a lecturer, one of the most satisfying things is seeing my students progress throughout their career – from the first day they are in class, to the end of their final projects and securing jobs in top companies around the world. Being in a position with the ability to influence people’s lives for good is one of my biggest motivating factors.

This is perhaps one of the reasons behind why I started She#. There is a misconception about computer science fields, and girls are missing out on that could be an exciting, diverse field for them, so there was a need to create a platform and a group where girls can see for themselves what it’s really like. Being able to influence them for good is a privilege.

  1. Do you have a role model? OR - What inspires you?

Unfortunately in New Zealand – and generally in technology fields – there are not as many female role models as there could be. This is something I think we should be trying to change. There are always times that you would like to ask for advice, or like to know more about something, and role models and specifically mentors can be very helpful in giving you the answer you need or connecting you to the right people. Sometimes a lecturer at university can be a lifetime mentor – something which I have experienced myself.

Being an advocate for women in technology, my biggest role model is Dr. Anita Borg . She was a computer scientist, and founded the Institute for Women and Technology and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Ever since I won Google's Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, I found out more about what she accomplished, her visions and goals, and these have been very inspirational in the work I do.

  1. What puts you in a unique position in this competitive market?

Ever since I was a young girl I was always fascinated by new things – new technology or new devices, and once I started studying computer engineering I began to experience the ability of working towards developing these new things. The advance of science and technology and the thrill of being part of researching and developing something new is especially rewarding when we are able to share the discoveries we make with others who would benefit from them, our experiences, challenges and successes.

I personally find it rewarding to be able to use my own experiences to encourage others. This is the core foundation on which She# is built – the use of personal experience to encourage, mentor and assist the next generation, and allow young girls to benefit from networking with real people in these fields. I believe this is one of the key characteristics of She# that sets it apart.

Over the years I have becoming increasingly passionate about encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). As a woman in computer engineering/science, I learned very quickly that I was part of a minority, in a mostly-male dominated field. However I have never let this be a hindrance to my study, my work or any opportunity of leadership that might present itself to me. My determination despite being in this position helped me to take advantage of opportunities that I otherwise might not have.

Founding and directing She# in its early days was very difficult. There were a number of uncertainties present – what was the direction of the group? Is there a market for what we intend to undertake? Where would we get the majority of our funding from? How can we scale our proposed ideas?

My experience in managing risk, and the ability to network and communicate with the right people helped to really get our venture off the ground. Once I had established a vision for She#, it was necessary to ensure everything that was undertaken reflected what this vision encompassed.

After each She# event, we follow up with a team members’ meeting to evaluate what worked and what didn’t, take on board feedback we had received from members, and identify areas that we need improve – then implement these in the next event.

  1. According to you, what are the real struggles of women entrepreneurs? Please share your personal experiences.

Things have certainly changed a lot in the last 15 years since I began my studies in technology, and certainly now that the issue of the gender gap in tech is quite well known. Being accepted isn't so much of a problem, but I think that one of the biggest barriers for women can sometimes be themselves, and a lack of trust in their own ability. This was personally something which I had to overcome quickly – being in a minority does not have to hinder what you are able to accomplish.

The extra effort a female entrepreneur has to undertake isn’t something which is exaggerated. It is certainly better than 50 years ago, and today it is perfectly normal for women to be in positions of leadership, and undertaking entrepreneurial ventures. However when compared to their male counterparts, we have yet to reach a state of true equality. Unconscious bias still pervades our society, and is something which must be consciously addressed to eradicate. We can’t be satisfied with “improved”.

  1. What do you want to share with the young women of today?

I would have several pieces of advice to young women today.

Firstly, be proud of who you are, what you know, and what you want to achieve. Although it has nowbecome a cliché, it is true that you need to follow your dreams, and give them the chance to become reality.

Secondly, seek advice from reliable sources. Learn from others’ experience. Find a mentor – someone you trust, and someone who has experienced both success and failure.

Thirdly, learn from your failures. Any failure can be turned into a valuable lesson – if you correctly assess what happened, what went wrong, and what could have been done to avoid it.

Lastly, practical experience is the best form of learning. Give yourself more opportunities to try out things that interest you, and have more confidence in your ability.

 
  Ramandeep Kaur CONTRIBUTOR

Ramandeep Kaur CONTRIBUTOR