Asia, Interviews

Zahra Shah – Co-founder of Iraqi Innovators

Technology has become an unstoppable force with a mind of its own. We don’t have to wait for opportunities anymore because we can create them.

Zahra has been working in startups and emerging markets for over 7 years, with a focus on growing tech ecosystems in conflict-affected regions. Merging her passion for technology and development, she has spent the last two years leading Re:Coded’s operations in Iraq, and working for Gaza Sky Geeks before that. Both organisations upskill youth through coding and entrepreneurship with a focus on employment. She has now launched her own non-profit venture, Iraqi Innovators, which works on creating quality content to change the narrative surrounding the country and providing specialised events and training to startups, writers, and techies in the south of Iraq.

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role technology plays in it?

I’m the Co-founder of Iraqi Innovators, a startup NGO with a mission to change the narrative about Iraq. Alongside our blog, which highlights the startups and success stories in the country, we’re looking to conduct trainings for budding writers, techies, and entrepreneurs. 

Our trainings will be tech-based which means that students can enter the digital workforce as copywriters, developers, or by scaling their tech-enabled. 

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

My first job out of university was in a startup. I loved the fast-paced environment and the flexible working, but it was very profit-driven. I had previously done an internship with a UN institution and the rewarding nature of the role opened my eyes to the role of the UN in international politics. 

I ended up quitting my job to pursue a master’s in international Relations. I knew I wanted to work for the UN, but I wasn’t entirely sure what and how. I finally realised that I liked the humanitarian sector, but I didn’t want to compromise on my tech and startup background. Whilst at university, I started an NGO that focused on youth involvement in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. As I planned to move back to the UK, I wasn’t able to continue working on it but it was a great experience to be so plugged into the international community in The Hague. 

As I started searching for jobs after graduation, I did more internships with the UN in Jordan and I became disheartened. The bureaucracy and lack of impact made me rethink my dream. I needed to find an organisation with a mission I was passionate about which ran like a startup. 

That’s when I came across Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), an initiative by Mercy Corps that runs an incubator, accelerator, coding school, and freelancing academy in the Gaza strip. GSG was using tech education to empower youth in an extremely unique environment. This was just what I was looking for so I started working pro-bono with them. After a few months I was offered a consultancy, and this became the start of my career where I was able to merge my passion of tech with humanitarian work. 

In 2017, I joined Re:Coded’s operations in Iraq to manage their coding and entrepreneurship programs. A similar mission in a different environment gave me the chance to expand my skills and take part in growing a tech ecosystem from scratch. 

After two years at Re:Coded, I decided to launch the Iraqi Innovators blog. So many people I spoke to knew nothing about Iraq’s startup scene and I wanted to change this. I’m now in the process of moving back to London but I’ll be shuttling back and forth between the UK and Iraq to conduct events and programs in Najaf and Basra, in addition to the blog.

There’s still a long way to go for women to be at an equal playing field in the tech sector, but technology has become an unstoppable force with a mind of its own. We don’t have to wait for opportunities anymore because we can create them.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

The simple things that have improved our work processes and the ability to collaborate have been the biggest transformations for me. Tools such as Google Docs and Notion effect my daily work and personal life. They help me keep organised, work with peers, and get stuff done. 

In addition to this, social media has also completely transformed the tech scape across the world. In Iraq, there are many people that identify the internet as just Facebook. That means Facebook is the main source of information and a heavy influencer in how mindsets will change in the next few years. I find this mind-blowing.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

I think technology has brought about more tools for the inclusivity of women in the workforce. Flexible working arrangements allow for a work-life balance and the choice between career and family is less of a challenge. There’s still a long way to go for women to be at an equal playing field in the tech sector, but technology has become an unstoppable force with a mind of its own. We don’t have to wait for opportunities anymore because we can create them.

Working in countries where cultural beliefs sometimes restrict women’s ability to work, the option of remote working using technical skills is something that has given more opportunities to women. This will only increase in the next few years.

I would use 1 million euros to train hundreds of women in countries recovering from conflict in tech skills. We can’t close the gender gap in tech if we’re not including women from all over the world. 

We always hear there are not enough women working in tech. What needs to happen to change that, which steps should be done to achieve gender equality in tech?

There is a multitude of reasons why this is the case. One of those being that our parents’ generation doesn’t understand how tech-related jobs are a ‘noble’ profession and the future of the workforce. As a result, we weren’t encouraged from a young age to study technical subjects. This is normal as we go through this digital revolution and current thinking and norms adapt over generations. 

Some effective steps we should take include:

  1. Schools playing a key role in introducing STEM activities and encouraging young girls to get involved. 
  2. Creating more safe spaces for women to learn new skills, share ideas, and network. 
  3. Companies investing in active outreach and training programs for women to ensure a more equal workforce.

If you had 1 Million Euros to invest in women, what would you do? 

I would use it to train hundreds of women in countries recovering from conflict in tech skills. We can’t close the gender gap in tech if we’re not including women from all over the world. 

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

One of my influences is my aunt, Saadia Imad. If it wasn’t for her, I would not have been exposed to the public sector or the work of the UN, which is what sparked my interest in this field from a young age. She always motivated me to do a Masters, gave good advice along the way, and kept her doors open if I ever needed a place to stay. She has constantly grown in her career and on both a professional and personal level, she leaves a mark wherever she goes. Seeing her in action gave me a lot of influence for when I started out in similar positions.

Along the way, I’ve also met other amazing women who I’ve absorbed energy, work ethic, and commitment from, including Iliana Montauk, Safa Sultani, and Stephanie Nour Prince. 

Ultimately, my parents played a huge role in supporting me on my path to figuring out my passion. Their unwavering support, unconditional love, and push to make me think for myself and be independent has made me the person I am today.  

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

As a 14-year-old I was, naturally, very naive with how the world works and I had big plans of what I wanted to achieve by 30.

I would tell my younger self to take things a day at a time and not worry so much about the future. I would also beg myself not to lose my violin and language skills. I spoke a decent amount of French and German, which would have been useful because I ended up working internationally. 

Zahra Shah has been working in startups and emerging markets for over 7 years, with a focus on growing tech ecosystems in conflict-affected regions. Merging her passion for technology and development, she has spent the last two years leading Re:Coded’s operations in Iraq, and working for Gaza Sky Geeks before that. Both organisations upskill youth through coding and entrepreneurship with a focus on employment.

She has now launched her own non-profit venture, Iraqi Innovators, which works on creating quality content to change the narrative surrounding the country and providing specialised events and trainings to startups, writers, and techies in the south of Iraq.

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