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Refugee to Winner to COO: Inspiring Young Female Tech Entrepreneurs

“I was born in the middle of nowhere.”

That is how Sophia Mahfooz, the 25-year-old chief operating officer of Girls In Tech, describes the start of her life. Since 1992, she has masterfully moved from her beginnings in Afghanistan near Peshawar, Pakistan to a global position for a non-profit based in Silicon Valley where she can change the lives of young women around the world.

Mahfooz describes how her parents and brother escaped from the Taliban when their home in Afghanistan was bombed and her mother was pregnant with her. Born on the outskirts of Afghanistan near Pakistan, Mahfooz says her family stayed in Peshwar for seven years “to gain some form of stability” before moving to London.

As refugees, she says, her and her now two brothers, Rahfi and Omar, were not allowed to attend school. “My parents taught us to read and write and fellow refugees who were academics also taught us,” she says. “It was a difficult, chaotic time.”

Those intense challenges, Mahfooz says, offered her insight. “I realize someone whose family is displaced can take two decades to reach stability, the trauma is there. You have the feeling you don’t have skills, the right accent or the language to survive.” She adds, “I felt like I never had a childhood.”

After her first year at University College London, Mahfooz says she entered a global pitch competition. “I had no clue what an entrepreneur was and I pitched an idea for a wearable medical device to track cardiovascular health,” she explains.

Because England has a public health system, everyone is scheduled for appointments, but there is a wait for an appointment, she says. With her idea, OneCare, the wearable device would send data to a hospital so you would get your appointment shifted.”

Still a teenager, Mahfooz was spending her summers working on getting the product made—in China, with the software created in London. Still, funding was difficult.

“I realized my age was playing against me as an 18 and 19 year old and my gender played against me,” Mahfooz says. “People would say you should get a PhD or you should have a co-founder who is a professor—because they would not say to have a male co-founder, but I could read between the lines.”

That is precisely the form of sexism and ageism that Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer found when seeking funding to launch their start-up, Witchsy. They fabricated a male partner in the business, according to John Paul Titlow writing in Fast Company.

“In many cases, the outside developers and graphic designers they enlisted to help often took a condescending tone over email. These collaborators, who were almost always male, were often short, slow to respond, and vaguely disrespectful in correspondence. That’s when Gazin and Dwyer introduced a third cofounder: Keith Mann, an aptly named fictional character who could communicate with outsiders over email,” Titlow writes.

“It was like night and day. It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with,” Dwyer tells Fast Company.

Mahfooz was “extremely dejected,” she says at her inability to move her idea forward. “I didn’t have the right mentorship. I am an ex-refugee kid trying to build something out of nothing. So I came to the harsh decision that I didn’t have the support system.”

Still, she wanted to try other ideas. In her final year at the university, she entered the Mega Brainstorm Challenge, a Belgium-based university challenge, where 10 students at each university would be chosen to compete with other European universities.

Read more on Huffington Post.

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