By Gladys Kong — August 16, 2017
I was honored to participate in this year’s Fortune / State Department Global Women’s Mentorship Program for the first time. As a strong believer in supporting female entrepreneurism and exchanging ideas across borders, the annual mentorship program was a perfect fit. I’m also well aware strong mentors and leaders – including the legendary Bill Gross – have shaped me into the leader and businesswoman I am today.
When asked if I had a preference of who I wanted to be paired with to mentor, I emphasized the “where” did not matter as much as the “what.” I wanted a technical CEO, like me. We’re moving into the next age of globalization where technology is the only truly global language. While cultural nuances exist, technology remains universal.
I learned this firsthand when I emigrated to the United States from Hong Kong as a teenager. Uncomfortable speaking a language I had only learned in classrooms and studied in books, I gravitated to STEM studies that were like my schooling in Hong Kong. It led me to Caltech, where I earned a BS in Engineering and Applied Science, and UCLA, where I earned my MS in Computer Science. Ultimately, it led me to UberMedia, where I served as CTO for three years before being named CEO in 2015.
Fortune and the State Department paired me with Hana Qerimi, co-founder and CEO of Shkolla Digjitale (Digital School) in Kosovo, the only private education institute in Kosovo offering computer science, programming and robotics after-school lessons for school-aged children. We formed an instant bond over coding and STEM education. Her students were using the same coding curriculum in Kosovo as my children in California.
Our instant connection over coding led to larger conversations about leadership. As two CEOs with technical backgrounds, we found we both apply an “engineer’s mindset” to management. Neither of us are – or will ever be – loud, powerhouse CEOs that relish in the spotlight and use the stage to convey ideas; rather, we shine by applying rational and logic thinking, observing before concluding and valuing a team-first approached. I’m just as comfortable meeting with my engineering team as my sales team, which is critical given technology is the backbone of our company.
While I was technically the mentor, this was a mutually beneficial relationship. Hana impressed me – and the full UberMedia team – with her perseverance, intelligence, grit and determination. She started her company when she and her co-founder invested their savings of €1,000 to buy ten computers and set up their classroom by themselves. In less than 18 months, she’s expanded Digital School into two cities with 21 employees. We discuss having limited resources in the United States, but it’s on a different level in Kosovo.
While Kosovo – still feeling the effects of its war nearly twenty years ago – may not eclipse the United States in terms of world power status, its youth should feel empowered. STEM is our future, and technology is universal. Students in Kosovo are learning the same building blocks as youth in the U.S. – the same building blocks that allowed a quiet immigrant to become the CEO of a U.S. technology company.