Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Stop Being Afraid of Speaking Up

Photo by Tessa Rampersad on Unsplash

About 5 years ago to date I did what I have been doing for many years — my annual physical. My physician was always saying to me that I will never die — for almost 20 years I was with her she never saw me being very ill or having anything out of normal on any health tests. She said to me that its rare to be so healthy at the age of 50. (By the way — first time I am mentioning my age. Being “that” old in Silicon Valley is something most of us hide once you are over 40!)

But five years ago a very important thing happened to me at that appointment that I did not talk at all for almost a year:

5 years ago I was diagnosed with cancer.

Colon Cancer. Fortunately it was caught very early and thanks to a skilled surgeon from Stanford the devil has been removed from my body…

In my view back then — I had failed by getting cancer.

So I decided to not be vulnerable, to keep it quiet — not show people that I was weak and sad and scared.

How did I grow into a person who felt that cancer was a failure? And why am I coming out about it now?

How I got Here

I grew up being an overachiever. Only straight As — every subject, every grade. My parents did not force me to study. Actually, I did not have to study hard but I had to have As. Always. When I graduated high school and had an interview with college admission people they looked at my diploma with all As and immediately asked if I would go and study in Leningrad at the Medical College as one of the representatives of Azerbaijan. I said no and instead went to a top technical college in Baku, learning programming.

I learned to read. In English! At the age of 5. My English teacher used me as his “achievement” example, taking me with him to all his other groups as a “demo.”

And then there were chess. I learned to play when I was around 6 and became quite good at this game of life. Play to win. Never give up. Being a chess champion was a very glamourous thing back in the USSR. Playing on the same team with Gary Kasparov. Travelling. Winning. This game made me strong. Focused. Competitive.

Azerbaijan Chess Team, Tashkent, 1978

I remember I was about 10–11 years old. Competing in international chess tournament. The game before the last game. I am leading. I felt the first place was in my pocket. I made a bad move in a totally winning position and lost. I got up and start walking towards the exit and run into my chess idol : Vladimir Zak. Vladimir Zack — chess legend who coached Victor Korchnoi and Boris Spasski. He was my friend, coach and the person who taught me the most impactful life lessons. He was watching my game and knew I was about to win. “How did you do” — he asked me. I burst into tears and run away. The next day he found me and said the following: “You are a talented chess player. I want to see you become a world champion. In order to become one you need to learn not to cry when you lose the game.”

A few years later at a different tournament in a similar situation I responded to him without any drops of tears on my face and he just smiled.

Not many of you know, but I came to US in 1990 as a refugee. Trust me there is no glory in being a refugee. I was so happy to be able to clean houses in Italy to earn money to buy the cheapest flour to bake bread because we could not afford to purchase bread in a store. Compared to many other refuges I was lucky, as I knew English, was a programmer and was able to find my first software engineering job in the US without resume within a month after arriving in Mountain View.

I was born being a geek — though at that time I had no idea what that meant. My favorite school subject was math; sport — chess; in college — programming. But in my case I was a “mixed” geek because I also loved wearing fancy dresses, make up and fashionable shoes, bags.

I remember guys stopping me at the Youth Olympic Games in Tashkent asking what gymnastics team I was with because they could not associate my looks with being “brainy”. Living in Silicon Valley for almost 30 years I get the same feeling from many male executives. And even more so from VCs who see me in my fancy outfits and make up talking to them about AI, Big Data Analytics, NLP and Blockchain. One of them was so rude that my co-founder who listened to our conversation over the phone told me to not even consider getting any money from such an A$$hole.

I’ve done a lot and traveled far by being an overachiever. But it’s just as true that being an overachiever sucks. It gets into your brain, and you tell yourself: You can’t fail. You have to be strong. Always. You can’t lose. Play to win.

I spent a long time not owning who I am and what I’ve been through, nor how it has made me a better person and a better entrepreneur.

Five years later I am coming out

I had cancer.

I am turning 55 this year and yes, I am a proud grandmother!

I am a “burner.”

I am running a startup which is already profitable despite getting no financial support from the VC community.

I wear fancy dresses and make up.

I am a geek and love doing and talking about advanced techie things.

I ignore VCs who don’t walk their talk and respect the ones who do.

I align myself with people who practice what they preach and let karma do its magic with the others!

I encourage all the women of any age and background to stop being afraid to speak up and trying to fit in. You can be the change and should not be afraid to start your businesses, build companies, follow your passions!

I am your voice! I am committed to be with you, support you and give you a hand when you need one.

Originally published at medium.com on November 26, 2017.