“When the explosion in Beirut happened I was volunteering on the ground,” Aya tells me over Zoom after our initial interview was rearranged due to the damaged phonelines left in the wake of the blast. “All the young volunteers were helping to physically clear debris, but then when I left Beirut to go to our house in the countryside, I started volunteering remotely. We’ve been compiling a database of the missing, the found survivors and any other victims, of which thankfully there are no more. I’m really proud of what we’re doing. It’s been hard, but it’s really empowering.”
At just 22, Aya Mouallem – philanthropist, PhD student, tech tycoon and mentor – sets the bar sky-high. Aside from preparing for university and spending her days giving back to her Lebanese community, this go-getting girl, born and bred in Beirut, has also launched All Girls Code, a program that gives teenage girls the chance to take computer science courses and learn coding fundamentals.
“I was having lunch with my friend, Maya Moussa, who is the co-founder of All Girls Code, and we were discussing how grateful I was to be one of two girls studying software engineering in a class of over 20 students. She was having a similar experience in IT class at university. A guy was actually shaming her for pursuing computer engineering. He told her, ‘Honey, you won’t make it. Men are better at math.’ And that was it. We founded All Girls Code in Lebanon, around four years ago, and ran our first program that summer.”
One in three start-ups in the Arab World is founded or led by a woman. That’s a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. According to UNESCO, 50% of STEM grads in Arab countries are women, which is much higher than in universities in the US or Europe. But that’s not the problem, Aya tells me. The problem isn’t encouraging women in go into STEM, it’s encouraging women to stay in STEM.
“Even though the number of women pursuing STEM is relatively high in the region compared to the rest of the world, the number of women who decide to pursue careers in each field afterwards drops off. It seems like there’s a trend in the Arab world to encourage women to pursue STEM at university–because it’s a reputable, noble degree–but once that’s done, people are like, ‘that’s it. You’ve got the degree you were interested in. Now it’s time to go and work in something that society approves of.’ And so I definitely think that we’re moving in the right direction, but there still needs to be a lot more effort done to empower women to continue with pursuing their careers.”
And that’s where She is Arab comes in. With a vision to be the voice of Middle Eastern women, She is Arab, of which Aya is part of, represents and develops Arab women speakers and thought leaders across every sector as a way of creating opportunities for growth and development for young entrepreneurs. “Their culture is very empowering. I found their work very important in the region because growing up I found it hard to find role models in the Middle East. She is Arab is working on elevating the performance of Arab women leaders, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, so they’re really filling an important gap for young girls growing up.”
Now in it’s fourth year, All Girls Code has welcomed over 500 students and is showing no sign of slowing down. “Our focus has always been our program focusing on empowering girls, mainly in the MENA region, but we took the courses online this year because of the pandemic, which meant they were opened up to the whole world, so it went crazy.”
At its core, Aya’s company gives young women a sense of self, supplying them with proof that there is no task they should shy away from attempting, no room they should feel unworthy of entering. “We focus not only on developing coding skills, but also on providing sisterhood, environment and fostering leadership skills. And we just want to show them that whatever happens to them, however lonely they feel, there’s always going to be the support system for them.”