Sehreen NoorAli was riding a donkey in the middle of a desert in Jordan. Next to her was one of President Barack Obama’s speech writers, specifically one who had co-authored his historic speech in Cairo in 2009.
He checked his BlackBerry, as one does in the middle of a desert while riding a donkey, and said, “Oh my God, President Obama just won the Nobel Peace Prize for the speech that I co-wrote.”
For NoorAli, who was working at the State Department, it was a moment to step back and think that her job was pretty cool.
That proximity to colleagues communicating big things, to people, to understanding how to help them into their own capacities — that’s been an important and recurring theme over the course of her career.
These days, NoorAli is the founder of EdTech Women and the vice president of business development at education search tool Noodle.
NoorAli did her undergraduate work at Brown University where she studied international development. Her father had been in international development, so it was a familiar area. By the end of her senior year, she was focusing on women and anthropology, studying how women negotiate influence within their own cultural framework.
After Brown, she continued grad school in London, and did field work in the Middle East, particularly looking at art and womens expression. After that, she came back to the US and got a master’s degree in education and international education and policy with the idea that she’d work in DC or abroad — which was what happened. NoorAli got the Presidential Management Fellowship, and when they ended up not having enough funding, she wound up at the State Department.
Working in the State Department made her shift her attention and interest from international development to public diplomacy.
One of her projects while at the State Department was digital outreach during the 2009 Iranian elections.
In a sense, the team she was on was the official government voice. They set up a website with content on topics like how to use social media, and there was a team that would check in on Persian-language chat rooms and talk with Iranians about what it was they were talking about.
If you’re a little rusty on your history, those elections were hotly contested. Incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran against three challengers and won, but there was doubt as to the legitimacy of the win, including from the European Union, and the country saw large protests.
At the time, a part of the narrative of the aftermath of the elections was the role Twitter played in organizing opposition and communicating what was happening to the rest of the world. News outlets like The Washington Post even reported that elsewhere in the State Department, the government was working with the social networking site to keep it running in Iran.
“I think that as soon as the 2009 elections hit, everyone at the State Department looked at us and were like ‘Ok, what are people saying? You need to tell us what the themes are. How can we stay engaged with Iranians without being risky?'” NoorAli said.
They’d keep an eye for where their content would get picked up and engaged with — sometimes the Iranian government would respond in some manner.
“The messages had to be sort of subtle. We couldn’t create revolutionaries — and that wasn’t really our intent either — so it was like content delivery in a way that would be meaningful and useful without being incendiary,” she said.
NoorAli also worked on President Obama’s re-engagement with the Middle East. Her team at the State Department was tasked with coming up with programs that could substantiate what Obama talked about in his speech to reset relations in the area.
Since the US recently signed its nuclear deal with Iran, NoorAli says it feels like her work has come full circle.
“I think that people thought we would never have better relations with them,” she said.
In 2011, NoorAli was ready for a change. Given that she did get a master’s degree in education, she decided to get into the world of edtech.
She met the brother of Noodle’s CEO John Katzman and, after meeting him, found herself with a job. As the 12th employee, she was doing everything from business plans, to PR, marketing, and business development.
More recently, after she drops her 16-month-old daughter at a nearby daycare, she spends a good chunk of her day working on business partnerships, and talking to media publishers about educational content.
“Education is an industry that people who are outside the industry don’t always see the value in at a deeper level,” she said.
In terms of ROI value in education, it’s not always an easy sell, unless a publisher has identified part of their market as parents. She said there’s a lot of info out there about parenting, but not so much about education, even though those are related concerns.
Edtech is different from mainstream tech.
“You have people in the education ecosystem that are pretty removed from general tech,” she said, like educators or teachers who are bringing technology into the classroom, which means a fairly specific community.
While getting to know the edtech industry, NoorAli stumbled on a big demand for a community surrounding women in edtech. On behalf of Noodle, she spoke at South by Southwest Edu and got the idea to basically host a 30-person dinner on the subject. They had to cap it at 100.
“There was so much energy in the room in Austin that it was really clear immediately that it was more than just a dinner,” she said.
EdTechWomen gives members a place to discuss leadership development, or how to navigate different situations in the workplace.
“When it comes to questions about gender and identity in the workplace, sometimes people need a gut check and the community offers a gut check and ways for them to troubleshoot,” she said.
EdTech Women events usually start off with a question — what’s something you’re proud of that isn’t on your LinkedIn page?
She says it engenders trust, and by doing that, people feel less of a need to be “on.”
“I think there’s a lot of pressure to be ‘on’ but the richness of the conversation actually comes when you can be vulnerable with each other. That’s what that community does. What we try to do is give people that space to open up,” she said.
In her own words…
How do you unplug?
“Honestly, I don’t. I’m really bad at unplugging. But if I had to choose anything, I think the main way I unplug is listening to music and working out. I think that’s the only way I really feel like I can get my mind off of something. Usually, hip-hop and 90s hip-hop is my thing.”
If you could try another profession, what would it be?
“I’d be a travel writer. I think the hardest thing for me right now — I really like the transition into tech, but it is so hard for me not to be traveling. Back to your unplug question, I love traveling with a passion, globally. It makes me so happy from the inside to learn about other people. I feel like that’s the only time I can really think of where I really unplug and I’m just in the moment. And I’d figure out how to be able to take my kid with me. That would be key.”
What’s your favorite thing to read?
“My new favorite thing to read — and this goes with my new parent obsession is the New York Times Motherlode. It has all these really personal stories about people becoming parents, and love, and marriage, so I really like that a lot.”