Originally aired on May 14, 2021 @ 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM EDT
Yes We Can is a recurring series presented by Cloudflare Co-founder, President, and COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech.
Anar Simpson is a key advocate for Women, Girls and Technology. She works with technology companies, grass-roots organizations, NGOs, governments, and international agencies on the digital inclusion of women. She was appointed as a Deputy to the UN High Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment and led this initiative at Mozilla.
She is the Strategic Partnerships Advisor for the US State Dept. TechWomen program and serves as the Global Ambassador for Technovation. Anar is a member of the Board of Directors at CARE Canada and Technovation. Anar has been recognized for her leadership and outstanding contribution to closing the industry gender gap: the Distinguished Alumni, University of Calgary, UN Women and ITU GEM-Tech Award, GSMA Global Mobile Leadership Award and as a Woman of Influence by the Silicon Valley Business Journal.
To watch more episodes of
Yes We Can — and submit suggestions for future guests — visit cloudflare.com/yeswecan
Women in Tech
Hi everyone, happy Friday for those tuning in live. Welcome back to this week's episode of Yes We Can. I am just so honored to have Anar Simpson here today. Hi Anar, welcome. Hey Michelle. This is always a highlight of my week and today is no exception. And so Anar has spent her career dedicated to girls, women, and technology, which are topics that I love and actually was the inspiration for this whole segment, Yes We Can. So I can't wait to dig in and hear more about what this means and all the sorts of things you've done. But really from working at Mozilla to being as part of the United Nations to help move women's empowerment movements forward, you've done so many things at the corporate level, community level, national levels. And so we're really going to dig into that today. One housekeeping item, if you have any questions for Anar, you can email yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv or if you have ideas for guests you'd love to see a part of this episode, please email yeswecan at Cloudflare.tv. And so welcome Anar, really a pleasure to have you here today. Thank you Michelle for having me and also thank you for hosting this. You are a unicorn founder and for you to take your time and do this series to ensure that women know that Yes We Can is truly needed and I'm so glad that you're doing it. So thank you. Well, that's very kind. I really mean it when I say I started this during the pandemic and it's always been the highlight of my week because I meet so many amazing, incredible people who all happen to be women doing so many interesting things that they're passionate about. So it's been a hidden gem. So thanks. I feel lucky that I get to do it. So it's the feeling is mutual. So let's dig in. So yeah, in my opening, I said your career has been really focused on girls, women and technology, which in many ways you were ahead of the trend because that I feel like is a much more common thing to hear today than 10 years ago. But you've been focused on this your whole, whole career. So maybe we'd start by why and how did you fall in love with this cause? And maybe you can share a little bit more with the audience of how you found it. Sure. So, um, you know, just like you, I'm a Canadian. And so, um, my bachelor's degree was in computer science and my master's was in communication. And at that point, I just, like many people got into like an oil and gas company and then moved up the ladder in it, uh, in that company. And in fact, my first job out of the university was to be a, uh, accounting, uh, package, uh, for oil and gas companies. So, you know, I started off in a very traditional route that, that maybe some graduates would do today with, with an undergrad in computer science. I think Michelle, my, my interest in sort of the women, girls at technology really sparked when we moved to Silicon Valley. Um, I was like everybody else started. I thought I'd do a startup. And so I was trying to make a go of it. Um, and Mozilla, which you mentioned, uh, you know, another great female founder, right? Mitchell Baker, um, agreed to give me some space, you know, in their offices in Mountain View. And I was working away on my startup and it was super hard. And anyway, um, since I was in the Mozilla environment, there was this, um, you know, you get invited to events in the industry, tech events in the industry. And one of the events was that, uh, was to listen to, um, tech leaders, uh, at the Andreessen Horowitz offices, uh, for a wine and cheese on a Wednesday afternoon. And I thought, okay, I can do that. You know, I'll leave work at 4.30 and go anyway, Michelle, that's where it started. Uh, we went there and there were really tech luminaries there. Marissa Mayer, she was the, she was still at Google at that time. Uh, Frida Kapoor Klein, um, oh, Padmashree Warrior, Cisco, right? And more women. And these, these were like at that time and still luminaries. So anyway, we had a great time. It was a packed office and it was, it was nothing fancy, but there were 200 women there. And we were listening to the people and we listened to their stories and we drank their wine and we ate their food. And then we were going to leave. And they said, oh, just a second. If you could sign up to be a mentor for Technovation, we'd really appreciate it. And I was like, what? No. Anyway, that that's it. That's where it started. I became a mentor for Technovation. I actually mentored girls in the very first sort of, um, cycle of it where, where we met physically, you know, for 12 weeks at, uh, in Mountain U at a Google office. And Michelle, that's where it started. Those girls, those five girls from Mountain U high school that I mentored alongside, you know, another 25 girls from a school across the tracks, um, Sequoia high school. And the 12 weeks showed me how this team just flourished under my, um, you know, being with them. And then how this team from Mountain U high school and this team from Sequoia high school were so different and, and, and yet they were all teenage girls, you know, and that's, that's really how it started. And after a while, my startup, which I poured a lot of money into, didn't see that it was getting any, um, sort of traction, you know, capital wise or trying to find engineers. And so I thought, well, I'm really finding this Technovation stuff. So inspiring. Should I just continue? Spoke to the founder. She said, I'd love for you to come on board as the global investor. And that's how it started. Wow. I love that story. It's amazing how you show up to one wine and cheese and, and where, what happens from that? And I, I, I mean, I mean that both literally and figuratively. And I find that, um, just sometimes saying yes to those one thing, like making that one call or going for that one coffee or going to that one wine and cheese can open up a whole opportunity. You didn't even know it was possible. And so good for you. I love that story. So you've mentioned Technovation and I know this is something that you're the global ambassador for, you're so passionate, you've been working with this organization for a long time. You've told us a little bit about it, but maybe you can share with the audience more, tell us more about this program and what it is and what the mission is of Technovation. Right. It's really simple. And, and what the, the, the whole thing is to get young girls inspired to get into the field of tech. And what we've learned is the younger we expose them to the fun parts and the powerful parts of tech, the more likely they are to enroll in STEM fields at college and, you know, hopefully into the career. So it's a really simple concept, but it's really, uh, and it's simplicity allows us to scale it. Um, and also get people to feel like they can really be a part of it. So it's become a community. So let me just explain it to you. We tell girls around the world, right? Wherever you are, uh, you know, Armenia or Zimbabwe from A to Z, and we have participation from countries in between, we're in over a hundred countries. And we just say, look around you wherever you're, you are locally. And if you think that there is a problem that you could solve using a mobile app, right? Uh, then we will help you, uh, solve it. We will teach you sort of the basics of app development. You know, it's really pseudocode. It's MIT app app, um, inventor, and then wrapped around that. We will also teach you about, um, entrepreneurship. You know, how do you start? You know, do you look at the market? Is your product, um, sort of why is your product really good? You know, do you have competition? How will you grow? Do you, um, have a business plan? Can you pitch, can you present? And so when you give this kind of tutelage, uh, to very young girls, um, the results are astounding. They're just as they, you see at that age, Michelle, they don't have the walls that get built up as we go through our career. So their, their minds are free. So the creativity in their solution is also amazing. And then it becomes a movement because these young girls are supported maybe in their school. And you know, the program is five girls to one mentor, and then they go through the online curriculum together. Um, so that format is very scalable, um, and having mentors in there allows them to get that osmosis to the, you know, for the girls to get osmosis, to say, Oh, well, she's doing this, or she showed us this. And the younger the mentor, the greater the connection. So, uh, we have mentors that come in all shapes, sizes, right? But we've noticed that when the mentors are, um, girls in their senior years at university, and our girls are sort of in the middle school, junior high school, the connection is better because I want to be like that, or I can connect with that. So, and then the community, um, you know, university supporters, um, corporation supporters, uh, lots of people. So for example, um, Shopify, you know, Shopify in Canada has, has given us so many mentors and it's, they don't, they're not doing it just because the, you know, it's a good thing to do. They're doing it because they also see the benefit for their employees to be as mentors to participate in this program, which is global. And so there's this whole sort of good network type thing to, to maybe build a pipeline of, of young girls getting into STEM. That's amazing. And so maybe, can you give us some examples of these girls from Armenian to Armenia, to Mountain View, to Zimbabwe, what sort of problems do they solve? Like, what are maybe some examples just to bring it to life for the audience? Oh yeah. I mean, there are so many, I think we've got, uh, I think I wrote this down. There've been 9,000 mobile apps, but I have a few that I will share with you. Um, one of the first ones was a team in Moldova, young girls in Moldova. And what they realized was a lot of their schoolmates wouldn't come to school, you know, on certain days. And it was an ongoing cyclical thing. And what they realized was, uh, some of them were getting their drinking water from wells that were contaminated. Right. And then they'd get sick and then they'd miss school. And this, this is an ongoing problem. So their app, uh, was almost like a litmus test. You know, somebody would go and check all the wells in the morning and then they would put it on the app and everybody would check their app and make sure they didn't go to that contaminated well. This is young girls. They're probably, they're solving water problems in their own, um, local environment. And then there was this, um, you know, there's, there's so many, but I'll give you two more, uh, a team in Lagos, Nigeria. Um, you know, at that time, I think this must have been five years or six years ago. Um, at that time, Airbnb was really taking off, you know, and Uber was really taking off people were doing, um, copycats Uber for this or, but this, this, this copycat was so good. Um, they did an Airbnb for toilets. So let me, let me set the picture for you in Lagos, like in a lot of countries around the world, there isn't enough sanitation facilities, right. And it's uneven in some houses, you'll have two or three and some houses you'll have none, you know? And so what they said was, you know, in the houses that have an outhouse, why wouldn't you use the Airbnb model when you're not using it, just tell us that it's available. Whoever comes to use it, they'll put a few, a little bit of money in it. It's good for you. It's good for them. And, you know, imagine that amazing sharing economy. I love that. Right. And, and, and so what it tells you is, is young girls are really thinking, really thinking, um, their way through. And then the last one it's, it's really very current is, you know, during COVID, so many things were shut down and it just happened that a team from the university of Calgary, uh, had been approached to build an app, uh, to make more efficient, uh, the, the diversion of extra food from people, uh, to places where it would be really needed like shelters or like, um, you know, churches or, or wherever. So during the, uh, during the pandemic in Calgary, this, this, uh, organization called leftovers Calgary really use the app that this girl had created to facilitate, um, to facilitate food deliveries from places where there was too much, you know, like the keg or something like that, you know, like a steakhouse that had such good steaks that were going to go bad because hey, a restaurant's not going to be open. And so they were able to deliver it. These are real problems. These girls are solving real problems with the app. Oh my God. I love these stories. This is, these are the sorts of stories that actually were the inspiration where yes, we can just hearing these stories of people showing up and doing it and it makes it even sweeter and that it's girls from around the world who have come up with these problems and solve them in such elegant ways. It's, it's hard not to be smiling after the, after that. I can see why you're the ambassador for tech innovation. Cause you just, you're so passionate about this in arts. It's a, it's, it's very infectious. Michelle, it comes from, it comes from living in a, in a world that was never equal. You know, it comes from that. And if you think you have a chance to maybe make some impact on this, then it just, it just gets to you. Right. So that's great. So, you know, if there, do you think about all these different projects that again, you've been working with tech innovation for nine years, there've been so many ideas. You said 9,000 mobile applications created problem solved. Are there any, are there any common threads around the ones who really are super successful? Like the ones you just shared, are there any, you know, lessons learned that you've applied across for the. Yes. Yes. Maybe a couple of lessons, you know, when we started, we really, and we still do, we really want to reach under the underserved populations, people who wouldn't normally have you know, participation, participate in something like this or have the resources to do it, et cetera. So we see a lot of, a lot of apps coming from places that do have the resources, right. Cause the program is really fun and it's really good. But we are seeing an uptick in places that maybe never had any wifi. So, you know, they've come up with creative solutions and they go to the nearby McDonald's in Florida. And because McDonald's had wifi, they would sit outside the gates and try and get their app going. Right. That was like, and that was a lesson learned for us to say, okay, if we want to really reach that kind of population in which we do, we really need to partner. We really need to partner with the people who would help us, you know, so can we approach these people who do have wifi and say, and in fact, those, those conversations are actually going on. So, okay, that's a, that's a plus. And then the other thing is, you know, as we grew, as you said, we've been here a long time, partnerships have been really, really important for us right off the bat. And as you said, you know, I'm involved in sort of three different levels of this women, girls in tech. And I think the other, you know, the other two levels have really helped scale and grow tech innovation into what it is today. So, I mean, sort of the, the necessity to partner, the necessity to really listen to what's happening on the ground and, and sort of the partnership, you know, both with like-minded organizations, but also corporations, because as you said, you know, in the last little while there's been a bit of a shift. And so there's a lot of openness now to when I knock on doors to not just brush me off and put me to like, it used to be, they would say, well, you know, we're not the corporate social responsibility department, but now that's changed, you know, now, now, as you know, almost every company in the Valley has a D, diversity and inclusion, chief, right. And a whole department where maybe, I don't know, would you say five, six years ago, hadn't really heard of that. So definitely a bigger focus of making sure teams are diverse and inclusive. And I think that's a good thing because we need that. So that's great. If there are people listening and they, they, they think of, oh my God, I know a girl that should participate in this program. First of all, how, what are the age range for, for, for the girls that you accept into Technovation and how would they apply or how would they send them information about the program? Oh, sure. So the age range, I think it's eight to 18, you know, we want to start young, so it could be eight, nine, 10, but, but all the information is sort of on the website for that. But so here's the nice thing about Technovation. It's an annual program, right? We, the actual curriculum starts in January and it finishes in May, just 12 weeks. But in, in the, and so right now we're in the process of judging the applications, right? We got, we got applications from all over the world. And so we get judges who are actually employees in companies around the world, right? To judge it, to make it really fun and also to get them to interact with the program. So it becomes personable to them. So, so they can definitely go on the website and, and have a look and every year, so it's a competition, it's 12 weeks and then you submit your applications and then you're judged at the local level, sort of at the sort of regional level, you know, semi -finalists and then the finalists who usually used to come to Silicon Valley to pitch and present. And all that because of COVID is now online, which I actually find is fantastic because in the previous years, not everybody could come to the world pitch, right? But now, since it's online, you can see, you can feel, you can understand what this is. So a lot of our stuff was online to begin with, but now almost everything is online. So if anybody has any interest in this, especially young girls, please do check out our website. And there is now a lot of press around technovation as well. So, you know, do read it and I sure hope that you get inspired to join. Me too. Okay. I love that. And so we should all be thinking about girls that we need to be telling about these programs. And, you know, I, sometimes people say, hey, what was your first introduction to entrepreneurship, Michelle? And actually it was not technovation because it didn't exist then, but I did junior achievement, which was similar. It was a local program. There was a group of us. We had a mentor. I come from a small city in Canada, small, very small city in Canada. And my mom put me in this afterschool program. And at first I kind of like a good preteen teenager girl, it kind of rolled my eyes, but I ended up loving it because it feels so fun to build something and be part of a team. And it's so empowering and same thing. We went to the region or we competed locally within my city. Our team won, we went to the regionals and we won there. Like it was like, it was so, it was my first introduction truly to entrepreneurship. Now it wasn't tech entrepreneurship. We build something, but that there is something really fun. So I do think we should all think about girls that we should tell about technovation about and encourage them to apply and get involved because I think it really will inspire. And how about all of the, there's a lot of, a lot of people who work at tech companies who listen to this and if they want to become a judge or maybe a mentor, they say, wow, I would love to do what Anarv has done and kind of fall in love and help these girls. What's the best way for them involved? Are you taking new judges? Are you taking new mentors? Absolutely. And always we love mentors. Mentors are the bedrock of this program. Mentors do so many things. They not only inspire the girls, but they are able to, again, through osmosis, right? They don't have to know the curriculum because the curriculum you learn together with the girls, but their ingestion of the curriculum with the girls right next to them is that magic. The girls look at them, the girls look to them to solve maybe a team problem or how do we get out of this? Or, and more importantly, can you open a door for us? Oh, we need this, but we don't know how to get it. And the mentor says, oh yeah, I do. I mean, it's easy. I can just find this or I can contact this. So the network is big. So the mentor's network is big. The mentor's experience is big. The mentor's interest is wider and you're helping these girls. And in fact, really the mentors get so much more from it than the girls do. The mentors keep returning and their engagement, because remember, a lot of times the mentors have got the same community as the girls. Excuse me. And so there's that bonding that happens to say, I'm giving back because Michelle, who today doesn't want to give back? I mean, even if you have a completely time -consuming job like yours, you're giving back, right? You're doing it because you want it. Well, everybody wants to do that. And so Technovation provides this in that 12-week period. And then so many mentors return all the time. And so many companies find that employee engagement with the support of the company in programs like Technovation is actually good for the companies because the companies are showing, maybe they're just virtue signaling, but I think they're showing that they care about the next generation of engineers coming into their organization. It's very possible, right? That you mentor somebody and five, six, seven years from now, that person will be the intern at your organization. That is the magic, right? That is the magic. I love that. All right. Well, so for the audience who wants to sign up to be a mentor, because I'm definitely going to be signing up to do this after, it's Tech, so T-E-C-H, no, N-O-V-A-T-I-O-N, V-A-T-I-O-N .org. So that's what Technovation, how you spell it. So you can go to the website. And as Anar said, there's lots of information for girls to apply, mentors to apply, judges to apply. And just, there's a lot of goodness to this program. It's hard not to... You're a good ambassador, Anar. Good ambassador, recruiter. Good job. Always be recruiting. That's my motto as an entrepreneur. So sounds like it's the same for Technovation. Okay. So let's switch roles. We have about six and a half minutes left. And so Technovation is really aimed at girls ages eight to 18. So early showing them, like, I think that's great. But you also do tech women, which is more meant for mid and senior level women who work in tech. It's actually how we originally met, like years and years ago, where you invited me to be part of this program. And I went and met all these other amazing women working in technology. And these are more further along in their career, mid-level executives, senior executives. So maybe tell the audience more about tech women and a little bit more about that program. Yeah. I mean, tech women, as you said, is a program of the U.S. State Department. And the whole idea is to encourage STEM, women to, you know, girls and women to go into more STEM related careers. And now that program, it started just in the Middle East and North Africa region. But now we're, you know, over, it's 10 years this year. It's now in 21 countries. And so what happens is these women are selected through a very rigorous process to come from 21 countries and spend three weeks in Silicon Valley. And they're hosted at tech companies around the valley, right? So it's for your usual companies. Maybe Cloudflare will be part of this next year. Actually, I think you guys have already hosted tech women events and you've been a speaker at that. So they come here and there's an exchange. They're actually paired with a mentor, two types of mentors, professional mentors, a mentor at a Silicon Valley or a tech company, and then a cultural mentor, right? So there's this nice dichotomy of the exposure they get to them. And then really the exposure that the mentors get to 21 countries. And so there is this real expansion of minds of women in tech, right? In Silicon Valley to women, how women do tech in 21 countries. And for three weeks, you know, you're getting this amazing exposure. And what we found is that companies love it, right? The companies love it because technology is everywhere. So if you can get a really good sense of how it's doing in Kenya or how it's doing in South Africa, how it's doing in Kazakhstan, hey, it's really good for you. And then after the three weeks here, we all go to Washington for meetings there, you know, at the embassies that the women come from, but also at state department. And then, you know, sometimes at the World Bank and the White House, et cetera, so that they understand. You see a lot of stuff in the world you can do by yourself, your education, your experience, your sort of network, et cetera. But then in the end, it's policies, right? Policies about women in tech or policies. And so that gives them exposure to that. You know, how are those policies looking and how are they doing here in the US? And then, you know, when we go home, is there a comparison? So the program has been amazing. We've had close to 800 tech women. Imagine that network, Michelle, imagine that network of middle to senior level women in tech, 800 of them. It is an incredible network, incredibly powerful. In today's world, I feel that that's so important on so many levels. Well, the connection, the connection, the global aspect. I mean, I think what's really amazing about both these initiatives is how global they are and how it helps connect just people and ideas and best practices globally. And what I love is that these organizations are doing it. You're not just talking about it, you're actually doing it. And I think there's something really special and magical about that. You know, it's hard if you go on Twitter not to see the big debate about the demise of Silicon Valley. And so I would be remiss if I didn't ask you, do you still see tech women coming to the Valley going forward or is that going to move to some other place, whether that's a virtual place, because maybe the Valley is not the place to be anymore, or is it going to be replaced by another city? I didn't ask you in advance if I could ask you this question, so I'm putting you on the spot, Anar. Oh, no, no. I mean, it's such a timely question, right? Like, did technology suddenly turn and now we're looking at him from the other side and saying, oh, I don't really like what we're seeing. There's definitely that. And I think, I think to answer your question, I don't think we need to run away from it. You know, we didn't run away from historically, we didn't run away from steel and we didn't run away from paper mills. Clearly they weren't as dangerous as this particular technology. But I think what I'm heartened by is that there are so many people looking to see, well, look, we've uncovered some really capitalistic, you know, all for the money types of strategies on tech today. Can we solve that? Can the government or the regulatory bodies get ahead of that so that we don't, you know, we're not impaired in really humanity's presence on earth, right? Like that's what it is. You don't do tech. I mean, we have to keep evolving. So tech has to be part of it. And I think I'm heartened by the fact that the more I look into it, there are people and there are policymakers and there are governments who are looking at this to say, wait a second, how do we guide this better? And is this, you know, is this quest for money and more money and more money? Can it be solved better? So I don't think that running away from Silicon Valley is going to achieve anything. No, maybe involving us, involving this huge network of women, right, who live and breathe tech, involving and getting involved in the policymaking of it, getting involved in the regulatory would make a difference. I love that. Good, good. Well, we have about 45 seconds left. So the one question I want to ask you before I let you go, and I'll be quick is, you know, when you tell people that you're doing women, girls, empowerment tech, do you have to convince people that this is a good idea? And you have 30 seconds to answer this question in an hour. I used to, I used to have to convince them it's getting better and people are not so, in fact, people are welcoming now. But definitely when I started, it was like, yeah, next, not anymore. That's good. Well, that's the real definition of progress. Anar Simpson, this has been amazing. I feel so much lighter and happier. For those following along, please visit technovation.org. Tech women, thank you, Anar. It's wonderful. Continue up the great work. Thanks, Michelle.