“I didn’t have a birth certificate until I was 22 years old…today, I’m a tech CEO in London.”
Those words from Marieme Jamme, who will never know her own birthdate but now has the audacious goal of teaching 1 million girls to code by 2030 as the chief executive of iamtheCODE, summed up the range of opportunities faced by women and girls the world over.
At the brand new Microsoft Reactor space, with the iconic windows of Grand Central Terminal in full view, Marieme joined an incredible all-female panel on Monday evening to discuss how to invest in young women and girls who are suffering through the refugee crisis.
The following morning, the Hub @ Grand Central Tech would officially open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring the Microsoft Reactor and other foundational partners such as Milstein Properties and General Electric, as well as New York City Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, New York City Economic Development Corporation President Maria Torres-Springer and London Deputy Mayor Rajesh Agrawal.
Last year, the United Nations (UN) launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a set of global priorities to be ambitiously pursued between now and 2030. SDG #5 is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” As part of that push, Monday evening’s event titled Investing in Adolescent Girls and Young Women in the Refugee Crisis was convened by UN Women and the Malala Fund to take full advantage of the plethora of changemakers in New York during the annual UN General Assembly. After I welcomed the overflow crowd to the Microsoft Reactor, UN Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri provided a sober assessment of progress-to-date and ongoing needs.
A panel of female voices then shared experiences from Yemen, Syria, and across the United States. As Fatuma Roba of Film Aid said, in a statement that is simultaneously saddening and inspiring, “I don’t believe in tomorrow; I believe in today.” Zaynab Ali Abdi, a Yemeni refugee who quickly became student body president and captain of the soccer team at her high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, spoke about the importance of education above all – not just access to education, but expectation of education. She suggested that delaying marriage, which can often occur in the mid-teens for Yemeni girls, could lead to a more educated and empowered female population.
The panel was followed by a spoken word performance by Amani Yahya, the first female Yemeni rapper, who now lives in Saudi Arabia as a refugee from civil war in her home country. It was heartwarming to witness how excited Amani and Zaynab – both from Yemen – were to meet each other just prior to the event. On this, her inaugural visit to New York City, Amani was even interviewed by Tony-winning actor Daveed Diggs of the mega-hit musical Hamilton.
As an organization, UN Women recognizes the importance of teaching boys and men to support girls and women. Wearing #HeForShe lapel pins, rappers TrevMomatic and Otuk William took the stage to lend male feminist voices in the form of their song Girls.
The event was wrapped up by Toni Townes-Whitley, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Worldwide Public Sector, who delivered a tour-de-force showing of her own.
Conversation alone won’t solve the myriad problems faced by refugee girls. But it’s a start. Showcasing the incredible stories and resolve of these girls and women can only open up minds. And, as we often do at Microsoft, connecting skilled technologists with knowledgeable policymakers and dedicated non-profit workers can bring about the most profound change, because in the 21st century technology and policy are increasingly codependent. Three things were clear: 1) the opportunity to get an education is essential, 3) these are strong, determined girls and women who will no doubt make a positive impact on societies in the USA and abroad, and 3) we here at Microsoft have roles to play, in connecting our technologies to solve hard problems and in hosting conversations like this one.
On Tuesday morning, we hosted the official ribbon-cutting for the Hub @ Grand Central Tech, a striking 45,000 square foot space specifically geared toward startups working on urban tech solutions – from transportation to water treatment to air pollution. With the 4,000 square foot Microsoft Reactor as its cornerstone, the Hub will showcase innovative Microsoft technologies, make Microsoft experts more accessible to the community, and happens to boast the aforementioned show-stopping views of Grand Central Terminal – one of the world’s great examples of urban infrastructure.
Grand Central Tech co-founders Matt Harrigan and Charlie Bonello have spent the past few years building a density of startup activity in an accessible midtown location. With the success of Grand Central Tech’s accelerator program, the Build co-working space, and now the Urban Tech Growth Hub, 335 Madison has become the vertical home for tech in midtown. After Matt and Charlie welcomed guests, NYCEDC President Torres-Springer highlighted the importance of urban tech, NYC Deputy Mayor Glen spoke of “the commitment of the city to continue to grow,” and London Deputy Mayor Agrawal even jokingly (and erroneously) referred to New York as “the second-greatest city in the world” while sharing his own inspiring story of arriving in London as an immigrant 15 years ago with just 200 pounds in his pocket, becoming a successful entrepreneur, and being named Deputy Mayor of London. Now, he is promoting further ties between London and New York.
In less than 24 hours, the Microsoft Reactor hosted hundreds of people from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America who represent a wide array of industries and issues. From these two very different events – one focused on the needs of girls in the refugee crisis, the other on the potential of tech in New York City – two things became clear. First, the audacious optimism of every person in the room. Second, no matter how different we may be – far-flung cities and countries, varying cultures, differing dress – we all have roles to play and we can often accomplish the most when we work together.
It’s days and weeks like this that make a job worth doing.
Tags: #HeForShe, Alicia Glen, Amani Yahya, Charlie Bonello, Daveed Diggs, Fatuma Roba, Film Aid, Grand Central Tech, Grand Central Terminal, Hamilton, He For She, iamtheCODE, John Paul Farmer, Maria Torres-Springer, Marieme Jamme, Matt Harrigan, Microsoft, Microsoft New York, Microsoft Reactor, New York, Otuk William, Rajesh Agrawal, Sustainable Development Goals, The Hub @ Grand Central Tech, Toni Townes-Whitley, TrevMomatic, UN, United Nations, Zaynab Ali Abdi