“Never fear what you don’t know.”

Nelly Yusupova echoed this phrase several times throughout the conversation. The words have become a mantra for her, crucial to every aspect of her personal and professional life. It’s helped her take advantage of opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have, challenge herself throughout her career, and has forced her to get in over her head and learn.

“No matter what comes my way, I say ‘yes’ and I learn as fast as I can,” she said.  

Yusupova is the CTO of Webgrrls International, an organization that has been at the forefront of the women in technology movement since it was founded in 1995. It is based in New York City but has many local chapters around the country. Webgrrls uses its community of women to empower each other in technology by helping them leverage technological tools so they can propel their careers. The local chapters offer workshops on a range of things, from Photoshop to coding, as well as job fairs, forums, and meetups to learn about and discuss the state of technology today.

She is also the chapter leader of NYC Webgrrls, creator of TechSpeak for Entrepreneurs and Build Your Social Media Footprint bootcamps, founder of Digital Woman, a web technology consulting company, and an overall leader in the movement of getting more women into technology fields. Yusupova was included in Fast Company’s “League of Extraordinary Women” in 2012.

Yusupova’s family immigrated to the US from Tajikistan after escaping from the invading Taliban in the early 1990s. When she arrived, she couldn’t speak a word of English, and she knew nothing about technology.

“I had no experience with technology, never had a phone, never used a computer,” Yusupova said. “When I went to high school, I decided to study computers because the future was there, and I saw a huge opportunity.”

Her first computer science class was also the first time she ever turned on a computer. This anecdote has become a core example during Yusupova’s workshops and speaking events, as it shows how far she has come — and how hard she has worked — to become a leader in the tech scene.

Throughout her life, Yusupova noticed the dwindling numbers of women in her computer science classes. She was one of the few that actually finished the curriculum. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Queens College of the City University of New York. As an immigrant, Yusupova said she worked constantly, whether it was full-time or part-time, throughout her school career. She learned about the disparity of women in technology through Webgrrls, where she volunteered and worked during college.

“I resonated with [their] mission,” she said. She also worked for a startup technology company, and eventually found herself in the corporate world. But she had already caught the “entrepreneur bug,” as she called it. She had the most energy and felt the most fulfilled when running things herself.

“Webgrrls said ‘work for us, take this organization and be the web girl,'” Yusupova said. “I am living the persona that could really take this to the next level. I jumped at that opportunity, which was the opportunity of a lifetime at 21 years old.”

She wanted to make a change in the world and lead an organization with a mission she personally believed in, so Yusupova became CTO of Webgrrls in 2001. She developed the boot camps several years ago when she heard horror stories of business projects going awry and wanted to address the growing problem of entrepreneurs unnecessarily losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to technology they didn’t understand. Tech Speak teaches these entrepreneurs how to communicate more effectively with their development teams.

“It’s almost like training future CTOs,” Yusupova said. “People who are CEOs that think like CTOs, so they can be more technical and have an equal say in their strategy.”

However, the mission that still grounds her is empowering women in whatever area of technology they find themselves in, and she often hosts workshops and speaking events for young girls to help change the conversation at an earlier age.

“We’re not getting there fast enough as women in tech,” she said. “More and more [women] need to realize tech is going to liberate them, and they need to take more risks and say ‘yes’ more.”

In other words, never fear what you don’t know.

In her own words…

What is your biggest advice for aspiring tech leaders?

“Understand you will not have all the answers. More and more women in tech have to have everything perfect and feel like they need to know everything before they can call themselves an expert. Because tech changes so quickly, you’re never an expert. Ask a lot of questions, and find [a mentor] that you can bounce ideas off of and learn from their experience.”

Who are your role models?

“The first women programmers. I am always amazed that the first programmers were women, these women were our role models. Whenever I have a tough day or something is challenging, I think of them. They inspire me to think bigger, to think stronger.”

What is your favorite thing to cook?

“I make a lot of salads. I live in a small apt in NYC with a very small kitchen. One day maybe I’ll cook. There’s tons of great food in NYC you can order, too.”

How do you unplug?

“I’ve done martial arts pretty seriously for last 10-15 years. I’ve lost track. It’s one of the things every woman should take. I teach self defense for women, it gets me out of my seat working my body hard. It’s important to have something else other than work that you’re good at.”

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