The Dawoodi Bohra faith instills the value of education and lifelong learning in members of the faith from a very young age. With a focus on hard work, many Dawoodi Bohra women go on to run successful businesses, while others pursue careers in medicine, teaching, academia and public service. To mark International Women’s Day, we spoke to Ramla Tiewala, a Computer Scientist who has developed a passion for finding technical solutions to business problems in Product Management Leadership. We asked her how she has overcome the challenges of being one of the few women in her chosen profession, and how her faith has played an important role in her success.
What brought you to the United States and why did you pursue a career in computer science?
I grew up in Oman in the Middle East where there were no opportunities for higher education. Inspired by my mother, who started a computer business in a male-dominated country without any formal education but considerable drive, I pursued Computer Science as a major at Purdue University in the United States. I moved to the US in 1999 as a teenager, having never lived a day away from my parents and family.
At first, there were many challenges fitting in and finding my way in a foreign land, not least as I was one of a handful of female graduates in an industry that was predominantly populated by men. I relied on a support system of friends and extended family to learn the American ways and become integrated into the culture and language. Connecting with other Bohra students and worshiping together created a sense of family away from home.
Where did you start your career, and where are you now?
After university, I began my career in Louisville, Kentucky. Living in a smaller and less diverse city, finding people that shared my faith felt like a miracle, but five Bohra families welcomed me into their homes and hearts. Even though the Bohra community was small, we gathered to celebrate and pray on every important religious occasion. These new-found families and deep connection with my faith encouraged me to shape my career goals.
Even at the start of my career, I was surrounded by mostly male colleagues who understood and respected my values. I enjoy building relationships, understanding the root of problems and designing solutions that are outcome focused. During my career, I have moved through various leadership positions of technical teams, business analysts, global teams and most recently into Product Management where I combine my technical skills with business acumen to formulate strategies that align with corporate goals.
When did you feel that you broke through in your career?
As a woman of color in a technical field, there have been a few obstacles along the way. When looking to be recognized and promoted, I have had to find a balance between being assertive in my role versus coming off as aggressive. As my primary role is managing our family and being a parent, there have been opportunities that were not attainable to me due to work clashing with family schedules. And as an immigrant from the Middle East, I sometimes felt distant from Minnesota’s outdoor culture.
However, the Bohra community has leadership positions that help us grow management and people skills within a safe environment, and I have found these to be helpful in the workplace. I am grateful to have been involved in multiple initiatives where I can bring skills learnt at community events to work, and vice versa. And I have enjoyed bringing my Middle Eastern background to Minnesota, sharing our unique culture, traditions and foods with people who grew up here.
As for a breakthrough moment, I distinctly remember a time I was presenting to an executive leadership team at a large organization, and had that feeling of pride at having a seat at the table as a diverse woman leader in technology in a predominantly Caucasian male organization.
What’s something you would like to be recognized for?
My biggest strength is including other people of diverse backgrounds in the workplace and beyond. Being a woman leader, I have felt like an outsider myself sometimes, and struggled with imposter syndrome. I therefore strive to be inclusive of everyone no matter their experience, gender, culture or any other distinguishing factors.
What can women do to support each other?
Success is engendered when women grow together by supporting each other. I often seek out female mentees that are starting off in their careers to help them to advocate for themselves and find strategies to deal with bias. Having a broad network of women supporting one another is a huge win.
What other support have you had?
My family is my strength, and my 11 year old son has been an integral part of my career. Not only has he learned about what I do at work in our time spent together at home during the lockdown. He is also deeply connected to my organization by being featured in marketing campaigns and brand videos to showcase diversity. I have been fortunate to combine my passion for photography and making life’s moments memorable with my technical ability to drive efficient product strategies.
What advice would you give to young girls wanting to have a career in STEM?
It’s so exciting to be in a space that is rapidly evolving. My advice to young girls is to believe in yourself. If you have the passion then go out and find some mentors and leaders in your community that are in the field. They would love to guide you and share their experiences with you. It’s inspiring to learn about women that have achieved success. Explore opportunities in your community and school tailored towards STEM. You can successfully have a career in STEM and marry it to any other passions you may have. The possibilities are endless!