During the Arab Spring, and even before, the Internet and social services like Twitter and Facebook have been lauded as helping to bring change to the Arab world. This summer, the State Department is going to use the Internet to build more bridges to the region, with a program that will take teenage girls from the Middle East and give them a crash course in Silicon Valley. The program, called TechGirls, will bring approximately 25 Arabic-speaking teenagers with backgrounds in computer programming and robotics to the United States for an intensive month-long tour of high-tech firms.
For the State Department, the program is a relatively low-cost way to build lasting ties between American and foreign geeks. The Arabic-speaking Middle East has a wildly active tech culture, but female representation at high-tech firms is even lower than in North America and western Europe. Tech firms in the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are still boys’ clubs in a lot of ways. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken a personal interest in the project TechGirls was spun off of— TechWomen.
TechWomen brings (adult) female Middle Eastern high-tech workers to the United States each year for mentorship and professional development activities. The program is a perfect example of cultural diplomacy—participants build ties to American firms and return home (hopefully) preaching the virtues of Silicon Valley, Redmond, the Route 128 corridor, and the rest of America’s high-tech hubs.
When the pilot launch of TechGirls was announced in July 2011 to TechWomen participants, Clinton stated that "Technology can be a great facilitator. […] It can also be used by governments and others to prevent people from being able to communicate. So we have to stay a step ahead so that people are never deprived of their opportunity, as we saw how important that was in both Tunisia and Egypt over the last months. We’re seeing it in many other settings as well."
Apart from the heartwarming aspect of introducing foreign tech nerds to their American counterparts, there’s something else at work here. The State Department is betting on the fact that participants in this program will be trailblazers in the Middle East and the Maghreb—that they will be influencers who will hold positions of power in their home countries’ business sectors. Plenty of foreign countries, especially European Union member states, also hold similar programs in the region for similar purposes. In the United States, A-list tech firms have hosted TechWomen guests; this, of course, wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts. The payoff comes down the line in future business opportunities and personal contacts for American tech firms in emerging markets. Last year’s enrollees got to visit Google, Facebook, and Cisco facilities, among others.
After TechGirls 2012 concludes, State Department documents indicate that participants will also participate in a short debriefing in Washington. Apart from helping them fine-tweak the program, it also gives government bureaucrats an easy window into technological development and education in a geopolitically crucial region.
A formal list of the firms and organizations who will host TechGirls participants has still not been announced. However, last year’s TechWomen program enrollees were taken by the State Department to professional development activities at Cisco, HP, Intel, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Yahoo, AT&T, and Adobe.
As one participant in TechWomen put it in a Cisco PR blog, "a geek is a geek wherever you are." TechGirl participants will all, thankfully, be geeks. According to internal State Department documents (PDF), applicants will be judged on criteria such as their interest in web design, robotics, and game design.