It is well understood that STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields are becoming increasingly important for driving the future of international economies, but how are our international counterparts tackling the same gender and diversity issues that we face in the U.S. and Indiana when it comes to filling the talent pipeline?

Five female tech experts and international leaders from Azerbaijan spent their morning asking questions about STEM, tech platforms and culture to a panel of female leaders at Angie’s List this month for a discussion on “Encouraging Women in STEM.”

Azerbaijan delegation guests visited Angie’s List as part of the Open World Program, which is a U.S. exchange program for countries of the post-Soviet era.  The goal of the program is to initiate and build upon relationships between the up-and-coming leaders of Open World countries and Americans dedicated to showcasing U.S. values and democratic institutions.

Open World Leadership Center delegation guests were accompanied by Ramina Murshudova, Education Specialist, U.S. Embassy Baku, and included:

  • Aysel Garibzade, International Relations Specialist, Ministry of Communications and High Technologies of the Republic of Azerbaijan
  • Gunel Azimova, Solution Consultant, Oracle Azerbaijan
  • Musharraf Mammadova, Academic Advisor, School of IT and Engineering, ADA University
  • Shahla Mammadova, Head of Project Management Department Projects, Cybernet LLC
  • Yagut Hajizadeh, Teacher of 8-to-14-year-olds at IT Step Academy
WHERE IS AZERBAIJAN? This map shows the country in relation to is closest neighbors and the Caspian Sea.

The panel of experts included:

  • Merillat Flowers, Director of College-to-Career Talent Programs at TechPoint
  • Shelly Towns, Senior Vice President of Product at Angie’s List
  • Robin Fleming, Senior Vice President of Technology at Angie’s List
  • Christine Bowman, Technical Testing Director at Angie’s List
  • Christina Dunbar, Senior UX Researcher at Angie’s List

Innovate now, not later

Ramina Murshudova originally suggested Angie’s List as a prime location and topic for a conversation on women in tech because of the company’s founding CEO being a woman and because of the large impact Angie’s List has had on Indianapolis — both as an employer and as a driver for economic growth.

Shelly Towns provided a background and history on how Angie’s List was founded and what choices they made to get the company to where it is today, which led to the main theme for the conversation. What happens when you don’t innovate along with technology as it grows and changes?

The unique parallel between Angie’s List and the guests from Azerbaijan is that they both recognize their need to move forward with technology, not against it. Shelly Towns remarked on how she and the leadership at Angie’s List realize that in the past they did not adapt to the growing technology scene as it happened, and that lack of attention to tech placed challenges on the company that they have had to overcome. Flash forward to today and Angie’s List is increasingly moving from away from being tech-enabled to becoming a tech company.

Similarly, the delegates from Azerbaijan recognize their need to put intentional focus not just on technology but on encouraging women in STEM fields. At this event, women represented major tech companies (Oracle, Cybernet) and educational institutions, and their questions proved that Azerbaijan is planting its flag in the tech space and is tackling some of the same challenges U.S. companies are facing.

Career confidence is in you, not a degree

One of the questions I am often asked by skilled professionals who do not work for a tech company came up at this panel discussion. Do you have to have a tech-specific career to work in tech?

Both Robin Fleming and Shelly Towns shared their stories of how they went from non-tech careers to leading the tech stacks at Angie’s List. “It never occurred to me to get a degree in tech,” said Robin, when asked if she ever considered seeking a second degree in IT or computer science. “You can have a fantastic career in technology without knowing how to code,” said Shelly.

Apparently stereotypes easily cross international borders. Shahla Mammadova, head of project management department projects at Cybernet, explained how Azerbaijan also fights stereotypes of what a tech employee looks like. At age 31, she’s worked in IT and international relations for 10 years. She spoke up about she has mentored both women and men to help them understand that tech jobs are also marketing, project managers and more. Despite her efforts, stereotypes persists and she recognizes there is work ahead of her and her country to fight that.

Our own Director of College-to-Career Talent Programs, Merillat Flowers, took this topic on and spoke about the ways in which TechPoint and Indiana tech companies are increasing diversity for women and people of color.

During lunch, the conversation continued and often got very technical as questions were lobbed back and forth about legacy tech systems, UX and innovating for design, and disruption in digital transformation.

As the panel and lunch came to an end, it was obvious that these delegates left with a better understanding of tech in Indiana and the United States, along with relationships, ideas, and a power to grow and make meaningful changes in their own careers.