Immigrants of Tech- Humaira Ahmed
Our newest feature Immigrants in Tech highlights incredible stories of newcomers who are making a big impact in the Canadian tech ecosystem.
Humaira emigrated to Canada from Pakistan at the age of 20. She's always been interested in creating more equitable and diverse teams in tech which inspired her to found Locelle - a mentorship platform for Women in Tech.
Here she shares her experience building in Canada along with some incredible tips for newcomers looking to integrate into the local tech ecosystem.
What's your story?
I was born and raised in Pakistan. When I was 20, my parents decided to move our whole family because my brother wanted to move west. My dad chose Toronto because he had some friends from Pakistan there, and you do need that support system. They helped us get an apartment and all the essentials, and it was pretty magical for the first while.
I was an exceptional Computer Science student in Pakistan with a high GPA. I hadn’t known that I could apply as a transfer student and that my previous years of Engineering would be counted - so that was great! I got into every University I applied to but decided to go with York University. As an immigrant, the campus felt a bit more contained versus being in the downtown jungle. I was placed in my third year of engineering studying things like AI. It was good, but it was also not good because I learned surprisingly - or not - that I was one of a few women in a class of 160.
I stuck with it for eight months but the number of women dropping off through our third and fourth year got higher and higher and I had this “I don’t belong here,” feeling. I dropped out and moved into my second major, Communication Studies. I did really well, I graduated, and I’ve worked in the tech industry for well over 15 years now.
I had met my husband one year after graduation, and I moved to BC from Toronto to be with him. Vancouver wasn’t as diverse as Toronto and felt more cliquey. We were visiting Victoria often for my husband’s family (which is where he’s originally from), and it felt so peaceful every time we took the ferry to the island. So, that's how I moved to Vancouver Island. While it’s beautiful, it has been quite hard. Again, there's not much diversity. I’m now that immigrant woman of colour who is invited to every panel.
Eventually, I moved away from marketing for tech companies and started my own company, partly because I had seen that tech isn’t very equitable. This was five years ago, but there were very few women in leadership, especially women of colour and it fueled me to do something about it. I initially launched an app connecting women in tech so they could learn from each other. That’s how Locelle was born. We connected over 3,000 women on the app, mostly in the Pacific Northwest and Southern Ontario. We’ve gone through many pivots and iterations. We want to give our people opportunities to connect with like-minded people in a safe environment with relevant guidance. We offer mentorship and are launching group coaching for women in leadership, underrepresented folks, and also for men who are people leaders, managing diverse teams, because if that doesn't change, workplaces (especially in tech) won’t become more equitable.
What led you to choose Canada as the place that you wanted to build in?
I think the biggest reason my parents chose Canada is that it has a lot more opportunity for innovation. It’s easier for immigrants to settle here than in the US because it is made up of immigrants and so people are a lot more welcoming to new ones. People go above and beyond to help.
Canada is also a bit like a small town – if you do a good job, people will know. If you do a bad job, people will know. So if you are an immigrant who wants to really stand out, I think Canada has more opportunities. There are also so many programs to support entrepreneurs, more resources to thrive and an environment that really encourages innovation.
What advice do you have for newcomers entering the Canadian tech ecosystem?
There are challenges and opportunities here.
Build your network: I think the biggest challenge for people looking to break into tech is your network. Canadian tech companies need immigrants. There’s a lot happening (like companies trying to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals). Take advantage of everything you're invited to. If you’re invited to speak on a panel, take the opportunity! Network even before you get here. I know it's hard, but put yourself out there. If you are that person that shows up to all these tech conferences, people make note of that. It shows that you're hungry, that you want to be here and that you’re someone who shows up. That is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Look for specialized associations or placement agencies: There are agencies that specifically support immigrants, so look for associations that have networks or that are intentionally trying to change things. Being an immigrant can give you career blinders. There are so many misconceptions about what we can or can’t do. We start to think that because we don’t speak English well, or we don’t know anyone, that we can’t bring value. We end up working at Walmart or gas stations or driving cabs because we don’t always know that companies actually value diverse backgrounds and have mandates for it. So, find the associations that help you remove those blinders.
Mentorship: Representation matters and it really helps to see others in positions and roles we want to be in. As such, connect with other immigrants and reach out for mentorship chats. You can be clear: ask for 15 minutes of their time, tell them what you want to talk to them about and that you’d love their perspective. Be intentional with your time and theirs. People want to help, especially people who've been in your shoes.
Be authentic: I think this is where I've struggled the most. I had to change my accent because I didn’t feel like I belonged, and I think I lost a piece of myself along the way. I had to adapt to get opportunities and maybe it gave me a leg up over my Pakistani friends who had accents, but I really wish I knew what my accent was. I often hear newcomers say “people don’t understand me or my accent.” I tell them it is their job to listen and to seek to understand. You can be as clear as you can and work on fluency and confidence, but it’s also up to everyone else to listen more intentionally without making newcomers feel any less or that they have to change. I think people should stay authentic, be confident, and know that you are needed. Canada needs you more than you need Canada, period. So knowing that and surrounding yourself with people who are that example of authenticity will make you feel more at home.
Practice the uncomfortable: Confidence takes practice, so practice asking for what you want and what you need.