The first images of my family's home country that I remember as a child were from the evening news: a country unraveling into disarray, the streets of Mogadishu overrun by militants, the bodies of children destroyed by famine. I viewed this destruction from the comfort of our living room in northern Virginia, but I felt then as I do now; a deep connection to the fate of East Africa. My family is from Somalia and came to the United States through political asylum. I'm a proud first-generation American woman, and I grew up constantly reminded of my fortune to be born in the United States -- and the unyielding opportunity to build your own destiny here.
I always wanted to direct my career in a way to give back to the country that gave my family a second chance at a peaceful life. Today, that career lives at the intersection of technology and social change -- building technology to help people tell their stories and grow movements online. But at a time when I was less certain of my path, I reached for community and found WIN, the Women's Information Network. WIN is an organization for pro-choice Democratic young professional women in Washington, D.C., and this community is where I found my closest friends in Washington, built my leadership skills and eventually found the mentors that guided me through the process of starting my own company.
WIN is a hub for like-minded women to jump into politics and, through its Advisory Council, learn from the established female leadership in their fields. When I first heard about WIN, I happily got involved, excited to be a part of a community of young women who supported one another on their path to success as I figured out my own.
When I realized I wanted to take my skills in technology and start my own company, I asked women I knew who had become entrepreneurs for advice. I was 24-years-old at the time and that list was very small -- until I turned to WIN's community and connected to mentors like Rene Redwood from Redwood Enterprise, Margie Omero from Momentum Analysis and Liz Chadderdon from The Chadderdon Group. They shared their stories, and were generous with their time and resources.
I took one conversation I had with Liz Chadderdon especially to heart. Her sound, actionable, and hilarious advice paraphrased was: "Work hard. Make money. Pay your taxes."
"But what if I fail?" I asked her.
"Then you fail. But you need to try. You need to get in the game and decide if it's for you or not and you can't sit back and wonder what if. If you fail, then you start over. People do it all the time."
Permission to fail is a gift this girl from a large, immigrant family had to learn to process.
But after a few years into building my own American Dream, I was curious about a piece of my family's story; about a year ago I asked my mother, "How did you ever even begin to prepare for life in America?" At the time, my mother didn't speak English and, until circumstances made it impossible, was content to spend her life in Somalia.
She told me she discreetly asked an American couple that worked in Somalia: "What is life in America like?" The advice my mother relayed back to me 30-plus years later resonated with me: "You will work very, very hard. You will make a little money. You will pay your taxes..."
"... and most important, your children will have opportunity."
I am happily the product of the good fortune that comes when women connect and support one another through life transitions. Last year, I got the privilege to introduce my mother to WIN's community and tell her story at the Young Women of Achievement Awards, an inspired night where WIN women celebrate the outstanding changemakers in the community.
This year's Young Women of Achievement Awards is around the corner and WIN is set to celebrate another group of inspiring, politically-engaged women. I'm privileged to call many of this year's YWA nominees close friends and peers that inspire my work every day. But most of all, I'm grateful to see that in a political and media climate where women's voices are constantly marginalized, YWA celebrates women leaders who stand on the frontlines of progress.
If you are in Washington, join WIN and see for yourself. And no matter where in the world you stand, celebrate women in your own communities who have relentless spirits, inspire you, give you permission to fail and help you grow into the life of your dreams.