Why don’t we start at the beginning? Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I am originally from Jordan. Born and raised there. Did my undergrad in Management Information Systems. After graduation, I worked at Royal Jordanian Airlines. I worked in the cargo department for about 3 years. The airport is a little far from the capital Amman. In an area that looked more like a desert, and the the cargo building was few kilometers away from the passengers terminals – deeper inside what felt like a desert. The actual building was relatively small. 1 floor that had few meeting rooms, and an open space with cubicles. I don’t think there was more than 30 people there. But that small building was attached to a big hangar where goods and packages were getting onloaded and offloaded to the airplanes.
When I was interviewing, I was told that there will be morning and night shifts, and I’ll be expected to rotate shifts with my male colleagues. I grew up seeing my dad working those shifts, and I always assumed that both men and women work the same shift, so I responded “fair enough”. The interviewers chuckled and said “we’ll see”. It turned out that there weren’t many women worked in Cargo at that time, and at the hangar itself, there was only one woman who worked in the import department. I was assigned to the export department, and I was the first woman to work in that department. Working in that male dominated field came with challenges, and showing up to work as the badass who doesn’t get intimidated by men was the only way to navigate what felt like a hostile environment, and only way to gain respect. but once you get their respect, you become one of them.
I guess one of the most interesting things about Jordan in general, is that people love and support strong women. There was never laws that prevented women from doing anything just because they’re women. The problem was with the cultural norms that somehow had low expectations of what women could do. But as soon as a woman decides to challenge the norms and proves that she could do it, no one would stop her.
That was a great experience, and it definitely helped in shaping the person I am now.
At that point, did you have any idea that you would end up in Silicon Valley?
Not even close. I don’t think I even knew what Silicon Valley was at that point in my life.
While I was still working with RJ, I decided that I wanted to do my MBA, so I applied to the best university in country – University of Jordan, and I got accepted and I started my MBA. I was doing a full-time job and a full-time MBA so it was really hectic, but at the same time it wasn’t really satisfying. It felt like there was something missing both in my career and education.. I felt like there was something bigger that I needed to do.
So in May 2009 I decided that I don’t want to register for the second year of the MBA program, and I want to move to the US and get my MBA from there. I started contacting schools in Portland and finally I decided on Portland State University. I decided on that because it felt more like a calculated risk, because I knew if I’m going to tell my dad that I want to move to the US, I better have a proposal that makes sense, and won’t freak him out! I had to pick a place where he would somehow feel a little more comfortable letting me live there, so I picked Portland- Oregon where I already had 3 uncles and a brother who lived there. I knew it would be an easier discussion. I contacted PSU and started the application and the admission process.
July came and it was the time for the family summer vacation, so I took two months vacation from work and packed one suitcase just like I did every year, but this time I packed all the paperwork that was needed for the school.
July 1st 2009 was the day I came here. The first month passed; my family was here; we were doing all the touristy things we always do. A month later, I got an email from PSU informing me about an orientation session that I needed to attend. That meant I have to talk to my parents and tell them about my plan. It felt more like a confession. I couldn’t go to PSU by myself. I didn’t have a driver license, never driven in this country, and I didn’t know anything about the transportation system in Portland. I was a visitor, so I needed someone to actually drop me off at PSU. So I called in my mom and dad, and I was like, “We need to talk.” I told them that I applied to PSU, got accepted and I’m not going back to Jordan. My both parents were surprised but my mom was okay with the idea. My dad wasnt– he didn’t really like it for couple of reasons. I guess the first was because I had made a decision and moved on with it without telling him. The second was because he didn’t really understand why I was doing this. For him I was working for a good company. I had already started my MBA, I’m half way through, so to him I had everything I needed. It took me a week or so to finally get his blessing. I wasn’t worried that he would say no to be honest. I knew that if I explained it to him from an education perspective, he would understand it. And the fact that my uncles and brother were there, made it much, much easier. I also wasn’t that worried because my dad never stopped me from doing the things I wanted to do. He always trusted my choices and decisions, and never tried limiting my options.
So, yeah, so I went through the MBA, it was a very cool, interesting experience, I learned Mandarin during that time.
Just learned Mandarin, no big deal.
[laughter] I suck at it, trust me. It was not easy and I barely remember any of it now. We had a trip to Asia. We went to Japan, China and South Korea, so it was a really fun program. But given that I was the only Arab, only Muslim, only Hijabi in the program, I had my share of bumps. Something like getting “randomly” selected for extra screening in every airport throughout our trip to Asia, but overall, it was a great experience.
I graduated in December 2011. My parents came for my graduation. The plan for me was to get my degree then move back home, but I didn’t feel like I was done. After living in the US for few years, I knew that I’ll have much better opportunities here, so I had to go through another hard conversation with my parents about my future. They were staying for couple of months, so we agreed that I have until February to try to find a job here in the US, and if I couldn’t I’ll pack my stuff go back with them.
I got an offer on the Valentine’s day! The job was in Seattle. My parents had their concerns about that since I’ll have to move to Seattle, and I don’t really have any family that are few minutes away from me, and I’ve never lived that far and on my own before. In Jordan, girls hardly ever live on their own. You move from your parents house to your husband house. There’s nothing in between. Unless you end up in a far university and live in a dorm.
I was 28 at that time. I used to joke with my friends that I’m about 10 years late in moving out in the American standards. It was great yet hard experience. It was the first time I ever gas up my own car or do my own laundry! It took me 2 weeks to figure out that I don’t have a washer and dryer in my apartment! I didn’t even understand what it means when the ads say “no washer and dryer in the unit”. I had to call my brother in law to ask him where I can find the washer and dryer, and when I finally found them, I was very surprised that I need quarters to make them work! I had to learn a lot about basic adult life in the US. 🙂
I lived in Seattle for about a year and a half, then I moved to the Bay Area to start working at Facebook. I started as a contractor, then about a year later I took a full time position.
Tell me about your first impressions of Silicon Valley. Did you have any expectations of it based on what you’d heard, or what stuck out to you when you first came here?
My expectations were mainly about the weather! How sunny it is here compared to Portland and Seattle. It really reminded of the weather in Jordan. Work wise, I didn’t really know what to expect. But soon enough, I realized how competitive it is here. Also, life pace is much faster here. Portland and Seattle are much laid back compared to the Bay Area. Here it feels like everyone is just running the whole entire time. looking for the next big thing and there’s something going on the whole time.
What have been some of the most exciting things about working in tech? Like, what are some of your favorite parts of your work?
Honestly, the huge understanding and the big push for diversity. I did not even understand what diversity really means until I moved here. My whole life I lived in a place where almost everyone looked like me – dressed up like me; talked the same language., and when I was in Portland and Seattle I guess I just accepted that I’m a foreigner. When I moved to the Bay Area and made it more of my new home, I started becoming more aware of the fact that I am a minority, but being in a company like Facebook, that was a good thing! As a Muslim Hijabi woman; it felt I was accepted and even celebrated for being different. That’s the biggest thing that keeps me going here.
Yeah. I’m really curious to hear more about what it’s like being a Muslim Arab-American woman, as you’ve self described, in tech and just in the US in general. How is that experience been for you so far?
I guess when it comes to being a Muslim woman there is that expectation -that is usually driven by stereotypes- that you’re oppressed, forced to wear a head scarf or have to cover up. That you don’t have a voice or a choice. That you’re mainly a follower. Which is the complete opposite of who I am. I’m independent. I wear the scarf because I want to wear the scarf, and in full control of my own life.
I had some interesting conversations though, things that come from a deep stereotype, something like “Oh, you’re an Arab. You guys like to kill each other [laughter].Things like this actually happened and I went a through experiences where I did have to educate others, or stand up for myself and fight for my seat in the table. Unfortunately, even here in the US, if you’re a woman then you’re an easier target for bullying or harassment. That’s part of the experience of a Muslim woman in the U.S I guess. Fighting those stereotypes. And sometimes it could be as intense as, ”Oh, you guys like to kill each other?” Or it could be something as simple as, ”You’re in the U.S, you get to be free now.” (as a reaction to my Hijab). But at the same time, there’s a lot of great people who just are curious. Curious in a very genuine way that they just want to know more. a lot of people who see beyond your look as a woman, and just believe it’s your right to choose how much of your body to show, or cover. So, there’s the negative and the positive portion of the experience. And I’ve seen both sides.
Where have you found your support networks? You touched on finding groups in college. Where do you find them now?
Here at Facebook, we have a Muslim group that goes under the umbrella of the Interfaith ERG. So there’s a really good supportive circle of people who understand where I’m coming from. Throughout the years, I became more and more involved with the ERG. I found it as an outlet for me, because the more I’m living this Muslim woman experience, the more I am finding myself passionate about talking about it. I realized that you can only change the negative narrative about any issue or topic if you provide an alternative perspective, otherwise people will only have that single story that the media provides, and the ERGs system at Facebook provided this safe environment to do that, and because of that, I can say that now I have a very big network of supportive Muslim and non-Muslim friends. That honestly speaks volumes about the management at Facebook.
I love that. My last question for you would be, what advice would you have for folks from similar backgrounds, who are hoping to get to the US, have heard of tech, and want to get into Silicon Valley but feel like it’s just impossible to make it over here for whatever reason. What advice would you have for them?
I would say dare to dream big and you’ll be surprised what life throws at you. Then the second thing is, it takes a lot of work. Even when you make it here things don’t happen on their own. Don’t wait for life doesn’t happen to you, you have to happen to it. You have to work hard. I worked so damn hard to get through the MBA and get job. Because the culture is different, the religion is different, the language is different, everything is different it was taking me extra time and extra effort to do it. But the harder you work, the more you get, the better things you’ll get. So put more than 200% into it. Pour all your heart and mind and everything in it and it will finally pay back.
The last thing is never be afraid to be you. It’s hard to try to blend in and try to change yourself to fit in, but you don’t have to. Just be who you are. You will always find someone who won’t like that, but that’s 1 out of hundreds who will like you, accept you for who you are and will stand behind you and support you all the way. So just be comfortable being who you are.