Some of the things people associate most closely with Wisconsin—namely, cows and cold—almost kept Zainab Ghadiyali away. Yet the University of Wisconsin-Madison turned out to be a terrific choice for Ghadiyali, who earned a dual master's degree in computer science and industrial engineering in 2012.
"I don’t think I could have asked for anything more. It was the most productive two years of my life!" she says.
Now a software engineer, Ghadiyali is using her passion for science and technology to inspire other women. By day, she’s a tech lead for advertiser growth at Facebook, building products that help small businesses reach new customers.
In her off hours, along with her friend and Facebook colleague Erin Summers, Ghadiyali is the cofounder of Wogrammer, a project that celebrates the accomplishments of women in tech by telling their stories in short, snappy profiles.
As Ghadiyali and Summers see it, Wogrammer provides a necessary counterbalance to media horror stories about the climate for women in tech, as well as media narratives about successful women that focus on their appearance, hobbies or non-technical accomplishments. They want to shine a spotlight squarely on women in STEM who are doing what they love to do.
Launched in 2014 on Instagram, Wogrammer now features the stories of more than 150 women all over the world. The project reaches over 2 million unique people quarterly through its website and social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.
Wogrammer’s founders hope to expand the conversation about women and tech in a fun, positive and inspiring way. Says Ghadiyali, "It’s important to highlight biases and the gender gap, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Women are in this field, and they’re doing amazing work. We want to highlight their contributions to the field, so we said, let’s start writing these stories ourselves."
Wogrammer embraces a "something for everyone" approach so that girls and women at various stages of their educational or career path will see themselves reflected.
For example, browsing Wogrammer.org turns up profiles of engineers at well-known Silicon Valley companies like LinkedIn and Facebook, a flight controller for the International Space Station who works at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany, a software developer and youth mentor in Nigeria, and an ambitious seventh-grader just discovering her passion for computing.
Says Ghadiyali, “We want people to identify someone who looks like them, or has a similar background or age, or comes from the same community. If we are able to do that successfully, everyone can see somebody who is a role model or inspiration.”
The media has taken note; the initiative has been highlighted by CNN Money, the Huffington Post, Vice and Foreign Policy magazine, among others. Foreign Policy named the duo one of its 2015 leading global thinkers, recognizing Summers and Ghadiyali for "cracking the STEM ceiling."
The duo is now branching out, with a book expected next year. They’ve also developed "Own Your Story" workshops aimed at young women, encouraging them to talk about their professional lives in ways that genuinely reflect their personalities. "Women sometimes feel uncomfortable claiming their accomplishments," notes Ghadiyali.
Ghadiyali and Summers are also working on partnerships with like-minded organizations and expanding outreach in other countries, such as Mexico, Kenya and South Africa, which are already big audiences for Wogrammer.org.
Ghadiyali credits UW-Madison with helping her achieve her goals. "I have a very entrepreneurial spirit, and Wisconsin has this amazing culture to support entrepreneurs," she says, citing programs like the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp organized by the School of Business.
"The CS department is fantastic, and the entrepreneurship culture helped me build my confidence and meet so many new people."
[Photo credit for portrait of Z. Ghadiyali: Humans of New York / Brandon Stanton]