Melissa Sassi: "I turned my worst nightmare into my superpower and you can too!"

Melissa is the Chief Penguin of IBM Z – Student & Entrepreneur Experience, focused on empowering early-stage startups through technology and business acceleration, as well as encouraging students to build tech skills to better prepare for the future of work and gain access to high-paying, purposeful jobs. She's working internationally on digital intelligence to increase tech skill-building amongst youth. Melissa is also the Founder & CEO of MentorNations, a youth-led digital skills movement that has taught tens of thousands of young people to code across twelve countries.
This interview was conducted by Rene Rumberg, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

How did you find your way to technology?

Initially, I didn't know how to talk about this story, especially at work, and you'll see how it connects in a second. It went from being a mom, doing mom things, having a busy house with three kids to a sudden quietness. My children and I are victims of parental kidnapping, and for a variety of reasons, things didn't work out legally to get them out of the country where they were taken. I wasn't going to re-kidnap them or hire a hitman or something crazy like that, so I decided to play a long game, and what I mean by that is to make sure they know that they have a mother who loves them and did not choose for them to go away. Over time, I knew that they'd figure it out on their own, without me saying disparaging things about their father.

Fast-forward about five years ago, when I was working at Microsoft, my daughter said to me, "Mommy, I'm learning Microsoft!". When I asked, "What do you mean you're learning Microsoft?", I discovered that she was learning Word in her classroom, and she didn't have access to her own computer, and obviously, the other kids also didn't. There were many things I couldn't do in my role as a mother, some things just were not possible due to our distance from the United States and Tunisia.
I thought this is something I could do – get devices into her classroom! I set out this mission to bring 30 computers into her classroom and ended up with 400 computers for 20 schools, provided by Microsoft and HP.
It got me thinking about the role technology and digital skills play in the classroom. Specifically, what it means to make meaningful use of the internet – whether being an entrepreneur, having access to education, or whatever else. I started researching and thinking about what it really meant to be digitally literate. I ended up incorporating that into my Ph.D. – digital inclusion of underserved and under-represented communities and the impact and outcome it has on economic empowerment, education outcomes, and access to healthcare. I realized that in many schools around the world, students were not necessarily being equipped with the skills necessary for the future of work. Even when they had the technology sitting in front of them.

I took some time off from work, traveled around their country and the world, teaching young people to code. With a few engineers, we drove around every single region across the country. We were in the Sahara, the Libyan border, and the Algerian border, teaching young people to code. As we went from city to city, we realized that sometimes a local mayor would show up, sometimes kids would sing. The national guard showed up once, but we were not in trouble and didn't end up in jail, thankfully! I taught myself how to speak Tunisian Arabic and ended up launching a company after that. I now have a co-working space, robotics, and IoT lab. It's all youth-led and -run, and we've taught more than 10,000 young people to code in 12 countries. It inspired me to go into a role solely focused on empowering others with technology.

Now I also head the Student and Entrepreneur Experience globally within the IBM Z division of IBM. I'm working every day with students and early-stage entrepreneurs to empower them through technology and digital skills. My main goal is to economically empower others around me by gaining access to education, formal and informal, and help inspire entrepreneurs to build and scale their businesses.

That's how I went from being an operational, back of the house employee working in investment banking and asset management, into a role in tech that’s all about inspiring, empowering, and being an advocate of the underserved and under-represented.

As the Global Head, or Chief Penguin as you call yourself, at IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator, what are the most promising or exciting fields/technologies you and IBM are keeping their eyes on?

I'm very passionate about data protection, privacy, and security in terms of managing the protection of sensitive data through technology instead of policy. We see too many data breaches, even from the largest companies. In many countries worldwide, data protection, privacy, and security regulations are in their infancy.
Companies are not necessarily managing their data protection, privacy, and security through technology but policy.
I have been working on this concept lately, where I aim to transition the dialogue on data security to one of social good. What I mean by that is showcasing the protection of sensitive data as another aspect of corporate social responsibility. My vision this year is to create a Data Tech for Good Coalition that begins to set the tone for startups seeing data protection as another aspect of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Peoples' data requires protection because it’s the right thing to do and not because government regulation requires it to occur.

There is a product I support in my job at IBM, that I’ve become increasingly passionate about since learning how it serves as the Fort Knox of data protection, and security – IBM Cloud Hyper Protect Services. It’s all about having secure enclaves for your data. With encryption everywhere you go, whether it's being transmitted, at rest, or being operationally processed, it’s encrypted. What makes it so special is the fact that even the cloud administrator doesn't have access to sensitive data. Let's say an employee receives a phishing email, or something nefarious is happening. The cloud administrator is not able to access the data, as it’s stored in client keys.

Many startups historically haven't had access to enterprise-grade tools such as this in the past. That's because gaining access to enterprise computing machines was out of the question from a cost perspective. As a startup, you're trying to figure out how to pay salaries, bring in revenue, raise capital, etc. Through the program I run – IBM Hyper Protect Accelerator – we are providing access to enterprise solutions enabling startups to utilize the same kind of data protection, privacy, and security that a big bank may when it comes to scalability, security, and up-time. That’s essentially access to a LinuxONE machine – the Fort Knox of data protection, privacy, and security.

One of the other exciting innovations that wake me up in the morning is the power of machine learning and AI. When it comes to HealthTech, for example, looking at predictive modeling and patient experience. With COVID still in our midst, all eyes are on health care, and what comes along with such healthcare innovation. These same startups innovating healthcare also have access to our sensitive medical records and data. Therefore, startups need to have enterprise-grade tools in place to protect the data to the highest degree possible.

In the FinTech space, significant movements are being made to introduce incredibly interesting tools for taking your credit with you as you travel across the EU. Finclude is one example of many that evaluate fraud monitoring and anti-money laundering.

The RegTech space is something that I’m watching closely, and around the world.

Having secure systems and data protection tools in place is a basis for everything else.

Yes. I mean, in my mind, it's a customer or human right. My data should be protected. I'm very active on social media – I check-in places and share a lot of stuff. But where does this data go? Even our most sensitive data? Where is that going, and do I know where it is at all times? None of us do, really.

A few years ago, the United Nations condemned internet access disruption is a human rights violation (source). At one point, maybe there comes a time when the UN says that data protection and privacy is a human right.

Yes. I look forward to that time. I think everyone should know where their data is going. It's ultimately our data. Or, if you're giving your data away, you should have transparency about where it is going and why it's going there.

In many cases, that data is used against us in certain circumstances. Many people are not even aware of how it impacts them, and even if you have a conversation around it, it often falls on blurry eyes, as it’s not the sexiest conversation to have with your friends. We currently have no control over how our data is protected, where it is going, how it is being used. I want to be part of a movement that looks beyond what you have to do to keep people safe and turn the conversation around into one where it’s about doing well while doing good.

What's your secret to keeping yourself up-to-date with the latest trends in technology? Do you have a system in place for that or ...?

I think no matter what company you work at or how smart you are, technology moves so fast that it's hard to keep up with things. I read all the time. I'm obsessed with reading and I’m constantly checking out startups…all the time. Probably too much. I look at thousands of pitch decks and pitches every year, and sometimes frankly, things blend after a while. But you know if something strikes you, "Hey! This is something!".

I'm very thankful that I have the opportunity to work with a number of Distinguished Engineers at IBM to guide my work technically. A Distinguished Engineer is someone who is on top of their game from a technical perspective and has several patents. I try to listen and learn, take part in speaking engagements, and apply those learnings wherever I go – from our students to our entrepreneurs.

Everything is so accessible online, however, we are all in information overload these days. Even for the smartest person on the planet, it's hard to keep up and know everything that is happening.

You're also the Founder and CEO of MentorNations. As a mentor myself, I'd love to hear why you enjoy mentoring, and what's the most fulfilling part of being a mentor for you?

For me, because of my personal situation around the physical loss of my kids, I needed something to, let's say, "fill up space". For a while, in the beginning, my habits were not the healthiest. I discovered the power of volunteerism and working to solve UN Sustainable Development goals – these were things that spoke to me. Both gave a greater meaning to my life by sharing my knowledge and experiences with others, learning from them, and solving the world’s wickedest challenges of our time.

I've been a lifelong learner, and I've always been interested in learning and exploring, and taking on new challenges while being open to change and adapting to what's around me. Mentoring has helped me learn more about myself and others and has given me something greater to believe in. That's the extra secret sauce that wakes me up in the morning and fires me up to keep doing the thing. The same thing goes for my mentors and sponsors. I might be on my Chapter 5 while someone else is on their Chapter 25. I strive to not compete or compare but elevate and recognize that I’m not an imposter.
I deserve a seat at the table, and I did not get here by accident. I try to elevate and empower people as much as I can.
It just feels good and makes me realize that we all have some kind of secret sauce we bring to the table to create the superpower that’s uniquely us. I guess you could say that I turned my worst nightmare into my superpower.

What makes you want to get up from your bed every morning?

I'm passionate about doing unique and different things that break the norm. I'm quite goal-oriented – when I have the goal in front of me, then I'd like to see it through and achieve it. I'll give you one example.

One day I was looking at my Twitter DMs, and I got this message from a girl, who had seen the videos of my coding story campaign. This campaign was all about young people sharing what inspired them to learn to code. Through our collaborator Goodwall, we were giving away $1000 to the winner that would go towards their education expenses. She reached out to me and said: "I didn't think that my ideas would be good enough to participate in your ideation event. Then I went to your event, the IBMZ-4-Good Ideathon, and I saw young people like me. They know as much as me, some of them even less”. She wanted to know if the event would help her build her confidence. I said to her, "Of course, the more you learn, the more you show up, the more you come out and say, just like you did today when you sent me this message. That took a lot of confidence!". That's the kind of stuff that wakes me up in the morning.

I've spent a lot of time in locations where youth unemployment is high, and there are challenges with racial and social inequality. I've spent time in refugee camps. I've also seen firsthand people who are at risk of engaging in violent extremism. I've met children who are in forced labor situations. I've met child brides.
Through access to the internet and education, I know the world would become a better place, as long as people are empowered with the skills to make meaningful use of the internet – digital skills.
This is not going to be the secret bullet for everyone, but I see it as my little piece to give forward to help to make the world a better place. Having digital skills or access to the internet is not going to solve all the problems on the planet. But I think it's a helper and puts us one step closer to solving global poverty.

In your opinion, what are the top three most important new digital skills that people should adopt in 2021?

We need to know how to keep ourselves safe and secure online. What you should and shouldn't share, how to manage your online footprint and keep your passwords safe, etc. This is especially important for children. I think that having emotional intelligence is another aspect of introductory building blocks of what it means to be online. We are impacted by the things people say, how we regulate our own emotions and recognize others' emotions. Media literacy is another aspect of digital literacy that's important.

How to spot fake news, for example.

Exactly! What I share, what I do not share. How do I know whether it's media misinformation or disinformation? Just look at what's happening with elections all around the world. With deep fakes, how do you recognize if it's that person or not?

But I also think that everyone should understand the basic building blocks of computer science. I'm not saying that everybody needs to code, be an engineer or data scientist, but you should understand what makes computers do what they do and how we communicate with computers in their natural language. Whether you're going to roll up your sleeves and build a mobile application, website, or e-commerce solutions, it's a different story. But it would help if you understood it.

I think that the way computer science is taught is fundamentally wrong. I think that even using the words computer and science can be off-putting and scary. The word "computer" and combining it with "science" makes people feel like it's a lot of hard math. In reality, it’s just another form of creative expression, another language, and should be taught like the arts.

There are also stigmas around what it means to be a computer scientist, programmer, or developer. It's like a white dude in his basement, with his hoodie, cold pizza, and hacking away in the dark. If we taught computer science like an art form or another language, like French or Estonian, it would be more approachable to bring greater diversity and inclusion into tech and attract nontraditional students into the field. Having a diverse and inclusive team is incredibly important. If one gender or group of people create the tech in front of us, we are missing out on truly incorporating design thinking into our products. Meaning the solutions that are reflective of the audience's wants, needs, frustrations, and pain points.

2020 might go down in modern history as the year full of unknown and unexpectedness, but at the same time, it has offered us a great chance to create innovation and learn new things to adapt to this new normality. What are some of your positive key takeaways from this chaotic year?

This may sound funny, but I've become a Canva master! If Canva needed an external evangelist or brand evangelist, then it would be me. I feel like I'm making something in Canva every single day. It just helps me do things differently. I've mastered Canva and it helps me to communicate better and run some of my events differently. Even in the big company, we don't always have access to marketing dollars or someone to create assets for us. Previously it was hard to do stuff like that unless you were a graphic designer. Canva has democratized graphic design.

What else….I brought some ideas forward within IBM regarding how we were approaching and nurturing students, and there are some certain areas where we could do better. It enabled me to expand my responsibilities from running the startup program with 45 startups in the portfolio now 100 by the end of 2021. To expand my sphere of influence, I also did an amazing hackathon at the beginning of the pandemic, called CodeTheCurve, which was all about fighting back the COVID-19. It was a collaboration with UNESCO and SAP, where scores of young people from 20+ different countries participated. They were all creating solutions to fight back against the COVID-19, and ideas included combatting healthcare issues, access to digital skills education, data and analytics, to media misinformation/disinformation.

What else can you ask when the UN writes an article about your project, puts it on their front page, and calls you the IBM’s Chief Penguin. I got the UN to call me Chief Penguin. If this isn't diplomacy, then I don't know what is!

Talking about the future, what excites you the most about it?

The power of youth makes me really fired up! Thinking about what kind of things they will create, make, and do to change the world. How do we put youth at the center of what we do? It's often when you go to a meeting, conference and look around the room, and then you'll see no young people. There is a lot of power in the role that young people play.

Also, the world is paying more attention to diversity and inclusion. Tech has had a challenge regarding diversity and exclusion, and I don't just mean gender. I mean different ethnicities, abilities, and schools of thought. There are also some really exciting things coming from the technical perspective that's not just about Silicon Valley bringing new solutions to the world, but really looking at local solutions, created by local entrepreneurs, to solve local problems. Maybe big tech is empowering them in some way, but these are the home-created solutions that solve the wickedest problems of our time and truly understand the local challenges and solutions in ways that are often impossible for an outsider.

Continue the conversation with Melissa here! Melissa is one of the speakers at sTARTUp Day 2021. She will conquer the stage on August 26 – the day of Chasing Unicorns!
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