How an immigrant back story builds up tech leaders

Covid-19 briefly immobilized the world, but as order steadily resumes, so do opportunities for those looking to advance their tech careers. For a specific section of that talent, immigrants have always been a key to the industry, and a source of inspiration for many. Yet career paths sometimes depend on networks and connections, and uprooting to a new country is an added challenge that involves many financial, emotional, and social sacrifices and setbacks.

Each story is unique in its transformational way of laying the groundwork to pursue successful career paths. But common throughout is a bedrock of empathy and effort in order to excel for themselves and the greater good.

Atefeh Riazi is CIO of the Hearst Media Group and former CIO of the United Nations, and has held other high-ranking positions throughout her career in tech. It’s a long way from where she was born in Iran, where women still fight for basic human rights and freedoms. “As a woman growing up in the Middle East, you were always told you have limited choices when it comes to careers,” she says. “You become a teacher or a nurse, but you don’t become an engineer.”

Riazi’s parents sent their then 16-year-old daughter to the US to study, joining her older sister already living in New York. Shortly after arriving, the Islamic revolution in Iran broke out, and the financial implications meant that Riazi had to take on multiple jobs at a young age to get by, which she describes as both tough and enriching.

“I was waitressing, washing dishes, and selling and repairing vacuum cleaners door-to-door,” she says. “I also made money fixing TVs and radios where I could. I even had my own radio program for over six years. I met amazing people who helped me greatly during this time, whom I will never forget. They understood it was a difficult situation for all of us. Of course, such struggles, uncertainty and upheavals make you resourceful and resilient. But they also make you grateful and humble, and encourage you to want to give back to your community and society.”

Atefeh Riazi, CIO, Hearst Media Group

Atefeh Riazi

Felix Quintana, CIO at MX Technologies, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and lost his biological father in a motorcycle accident when he was two. At 10, he and his family immigrated to the US. “My family sought a better life and opportunities,” he said, adding that the transition was grueling. “I had to adjust to a new culture and learn a new language. The most challenging experiences were probably fitting in. Our economic situation was below standards, employment opportunities were limited for my parents, completing schoolwork in a foreign language was difficult, and we experienced some discrimination.”

Elaine Montilla is the CTO for US School Assessment at Pearson, and was formerly CIO at The CUNY Graduate Center. Yet moving from the Dominican Republic to the US at 16 was fraught with challenges. “My English was very basic,” she says. “I realized I looked and sounded different to everyone else. I used to feel so ashamed of my accent. I became very self-conscious of it and didn’t want to speak.”

Today as successful tech leaders, all three, despite their different backgrounds, agree that CIOs who have experienced immigration have unique qualities to offer as industry leaders.

“I’m a firm believer that our past experiences shape who we are,” said Quintana. “Given the challenges of integrating into a new culture, I feel these leaders are more likely to have more empathy toward others, have a broader perspective, and be more accepting of diversity.”

Riazi agrees: “I cherish diversity. People with diverse backgrounds hold various views and have wide-ranging perspectives arising from their unique culture and history. These are invaluable in all aspects of work, but especially in leadership. A modern global workplace needs diversity of thought. After all, customers have diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and employees bring their own diverse history and culture to the work environment. It’s only through embracing their uniqueness can we become a more holistic organization and better align with customer needs.”

Changes in the workplace

One of the aspects of the modern tech workplace that should be addressed, says Montilla, is recruitment. “We’re following very outdated hiring practices that keep minorities such as immigrants and women out of tech.” She cites examples such as job ads that are sometimes phrased to be more appealing to men rather than women. “Even at the interview stage, there’s a lot of unconscious bias,” she adds. “People hire those who look and sound like them. We need to change this practice.” Another is conscious or subconscious discrimination on the basis of a foreign-sounding name, she adds.

Elaine Montilla, CTO, US School Assessment at Pearson

Oscar Nolasco

Riazi observes that a key obstacle to having more women remain in the workforce—especially in leadership roles and in tech—and attract candidates with disabilities has been the 9-to-5, five-days-a-week office work requirement. Yet one unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the recognition that most work can be performed remotely, so the hybrid workforce model has helped level the playing field for many jobs.

“We’ve seen that more women with children and eldercare responsibility are staying longer in the workforce,” she says. “This is most critical in the tech space, as we already struggle attracting women and have an even harder time keeping them. We’re also increasing opportunities for people with disabilities, making it easier for them to work remotely.” 

Today, Riazi adds that this momentum needs to be broadened, considering how lopsided the tech sector is. Minority voices from a wide range of backgrounds are vital, otherwise industry leaders don’t get the broad perspective needed to develop, innovate and succeed.

“Most women are tech consumers, yet we struggle to attract girls and women to study engineering or computer science and contribute to the advancement of tech,” she says. “Our industry is truly lopsided. Diversity is vital to innovation, human growth and evolution, and essential for economic growth, good social policy and healthy democratic societies.”

The virtues of giving back

As a nod to their upbringings in different countries, Riazi, Quintana, and Montilla today mentor younger minorities who strive to get into the tech industry.

Felix Quintana, CIO, MX Technologies

MX Technologies

“There are many opportunities to help others,” says Quintana. “I’ve had the opportunity to lecture at a local university and talk to students about my career path, and several of these students happen to be minorities. I’ve met with Hispanic youth and their parents to discuss the importance of education and scholarships. Through service opportunities, I’ve been able to meet with refugees and other immigrants as well.”

Having role models or mentors has been vital in her career, says Montilla. “I used to watch my brother and it helped me,” she says. “He’s the one who inspired me to get into tech in the first place. Going into computer classrooms was intimidating because usually I was the only woman or one of very few, and I was still learning the language and translating everything in my head.”

Today, she tells her mentees that this vulnerability can also be a huge asset.

“I worked hard, so I moved up the ladder very fast,” she adds. “Of course, I felt insecure and suffered from imposter syndrome, but with time, I came to see that being vulnerable can be a superpower. Admitting that I’m not perfect relieved me from pressure and enabled me to get on with things. I teach this to all my mentees. Let the feelings be there; don’t fight them. The key for me was to learn to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s not easy, but the more I practiced it, the more I saw the bigger picture. I always give more than what I’m asked. As an immigrant and a woman of color, I work twice or three times harder as others.”

As advice to others experiencing challenges, Quintana says to never just settle. “Take every opportunity made available to you to constantly learn,” he says. “Always challenge yourself. Treat others with respect and be kind to everyone. Your reputation follows you. Seek mentors and organizations that align with your values and will invest in you. Above all, don’t be ashamed of who you are and where you came from. This is part of your character and what makes you unique.”

CIO, Diversity and Inclusion, IT Jobs, IT Skills