Inspired by her own struggles and challenges, Ika Aliyeva, a social media specialist and an immigrant from Azerbaijan, created Femigrants, an online community for immigrant women to find and give support to each other. Her passion is connecting immigrant women with each other to help them achieve their goals and dreams.
[Marialyce] Please tell us your story and how you arrived to the US.
[Ika Aliyeva] I am originally from the post-Soviet country of Azerbaijan. I moved to the US ten years ago to study social media marketing. Before coming here, I worked for different non-profit organizations sponsored by the US embassy, US organizations and also by oil companies. I was very active and successful back in my country.
I was attracted to the idea of learning how people can trust each using social media, and how people come to believe in leaders they have never seen. I wanted to learn how people can use social media to affect change in their countries and in their own lives. I graduated with a degree in Social Media Marketing in Tennessee and came to San Francisco for an internship at New America Media, where I developed my experience working with a diverse team.
I had to find a full-time job when I moved to the US. My husband has just graduated from school in London and neither of us knew the process of finding employment in this country. We were out of money. I remember we had just $300 in our pocket and we were renting a basement studio for $850 per month. We decided to print our resumes and apply at restaurants for jobs so we could afford our rent.
We struggled a lot financially during that time, but we were able to get help learning how to find jobs from a non-profit organization. We were so happy when my husband found a job at a restaurant!
I did some volunteer work, and was able to find some paid social media work at local companies. When I became pregnant, I had to leave my dream job behind. I enjoyed staying at home with my kids, but I realized being a housewife isn’t for me. I decided to go back to work, but found re-entering the job market to be very challenging.
During my job searches, I often felt excluded and as though I didn’t belong. My struggles looking for work lead me to think about the lives of immigrant women in America. This later motivated me to build a platform to help other women like me.
You are talking about all the challenges you’ve faced in the US. Could you walk us through your journey and your career since your arrival to the country?
I started in Tennessee. It’s really 180 degrees different from California when it comes to diversity. The biggest culture shock for me was learning that many students were not welcoming to international students. I felt isolated until I was able to build relationships with other international students. Thanksgiving, New Years, all of these holidays, we felt homesick. We wanted people to be with, to eat with, to share happy moments with. So I decided to find other international students and build my own network. I cooked some food—I am a good cook!—and invited them over.
While many students were not inclusive, the professors were very welcoming, very supportive and helpful. When there was a shooting at the University, I got stressed and depressed because I had never experienced anything like that before. I was scared for my life. One of my professors invited me for lunch and said, “If you feel yourself uncomfortable, if you feel you are scared or afraid, we are always here to support you.” During this time period I experienced both—exclusion by the younger generation, and support and inclusion by the professors at the University.
What do you think helped you overcome the challenges that you faced?
I am a very goal oriented person. If I have a goal, nothing can stop me! My parents influenced me a lot. I grew up in the southern part of Azerbaijan, where women were not accepted as leaders. I have three sisters, which was considered to be unfavorable by my community. However, I was lucky because both of my parents were highly educated. My father always said, “I will raise my daughters so that they will become powerful, strong minded, strong charactered. I will teach them to be strong in everything.” My parents support built my inner character.
My father wanted me to be a leader. He went against our culture, our community and overcame many obstacles to send me to America. In my city, a girl in her late twenties moving to the US is not a common thing to see, and thus a not well accepted fact. All of our relatives were telling my parents, “You are sending Ika to America, what will people say? No one will marry her!” My father just told them “I trust my daughter, and I know she’s a clever girl.”
This family relationship, this trust from my parents in me, always motivated me to go in the direction that will make my parents happy and proud of me. Whenever I feel like giving up, I see either my mother or my father in my dreams, or I just remember their words, and I know that I cannot give up because my parents used all of their efforts, their financial income, everything just for us to be well educated and to be able to stand on our own feet.
Do you think what you lived through is typical for other immigrants? Why?
When you do not have a network, or know people with the same experiences, you think that you are the only person in the whole universe who is experiencing challenges. That’s what I felt five years ago when I was in the job market after a three year gap. I thought that I was the only immigrant woman struggling to find a job. Sometimes when you follow successful people on social media, they seem like they are unreachable stars in the sky. You do not realize that they also struggled and took things step by step to reach their goals. I wish I had known then that I wasn’t the only immigrant woman to experience this.
Later when I decided to interview immigrant women before launching Femigrants, I understood that there were some experiences that were worse than mine. And others were better than mine. No one’s experience can be compared. Everybody’s struggles are challenging for them. The Femigrants project helped me to understand my situation, and how to better help others. My struggle of finding a job at the time seemed like a lot to me. A month ago, I saw a post from an African woman on Femigrants. She said that she had a PhD and several Masters degrees, and here she was, unemployed for 7 years and she was a single mom. It broke my heart. I immediately reached out to her and offered my help. I said I would be happy to mentor her at no charge.
Learning about the experiences of other immigrants opened my eyes. I feel like every time I interview or listen to an immigrant woman, I read a new book. And that maybe I can help that woman change the ending of her story to a better one.
Do you think California is a good place for career growth for immigrant and minority women? What are the pros and cons of living here and being an immigrant woman?
California is a great location, and also California is big. If you are in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley, it’s a great place because people here are diverse, and there are more job opportunities. But if you live more inland, I am not sure if the opportunities are the same and your commute may become unsustainable.
There is a story that one of my mentors said I should share everywhere, so here it is. When I was looking for work five years ago after my kids were born, I applied only to low level jobs or low income jobs. Babysitter, elder care, restaurant jobs and receptionist jobs. I didn’t get even one “yes.” Everytime I heard a “no,” it killed my confidence. I didn’t know what to do, where to apply.
Then I had an interview in San Francisco at a law firm. A nice gentleman, a lawyer who has practiced for over 30+ years, interviewed me. He looked at my resume and he asked what I was passionate about. I said social media. I told him my story and then he gave me back my resume and said, “Do you know that this receptionist job is not only to answer phones, but we have prestigious guests, and you will have to serve tea, and to put dirty dishes in the dishwasher?”
It seemed pretty normal to me, so I said, “Yes, I do the same stuff at home.” He said “Ika, take your resume. Think about it a little bit. I will call you back when I decide. The next day he called me, we talked a little bit and he said, “I think that you are underestimating yourself. I saw passion in your eyes when you talked about social media, when you talked about your future goals. This position is not for you. When you apply for a position, consider your capabilities, your passions. Then you will go in the right direction. I do not want you to wash dishes and kill your goals, mission, and passion just helping me serve tea to people. Think about yourself. Take a break, then apply to relevant jobs.”
His feedback changed my whole life. I took a break, thought about it, and then I applied to start-ups. As soon as I did, I got a job offer for a manager position. His honest statement helped me understand that I was moving in the wrong direction. Sometimes we need to give people straightforward feedback to help them see their value and better understand themselves.
I will give you some statistical information. There are 21 million immigrant women in America. 56% of them are in the workforce but more than 32% are in an “experience mismatch”, which means that they are working at jobs where they are overqualified. We do not always see our value. You may think to yourself, “People here are graduates from Stanford, MIT. Why would a company hire an immigrant with an accent?” That’s why I applied to all low level jobs. But later I understood that it’s not about how you speak, it’s about what you can bring to the table and what value you can offer the company that you are working for. I am sharing this story to help immigrant women better understand themselves and to not downgrade themselves if they hear a “no”. If they hear more than 10 “nos,” then they need to take a break, take time to better understand their capabilities, change their direction, and find the right place that they deserve to be in.
What is the positive side of being an immigrant woman in Silicon Valley? What do immigrant women have that other people don’t?
The positive side is that people here are open minded. Having said that, it is a very stressful place to live in because it is expensive, and you always have to take care of your income so you can balance your expenses. You learn here how to ask for help. Overall, most people are very welcoming and supportive when you ask for help.
Here is another story about how American people welcomed me and my husband. When we were looking for a job, we heard about Costco. We heard that it is a huge place and food is cheaper there. Because we had a limited budget, we decided to go there to save some money. Along the way, we saw a man and a woman together and we asked them, “Do you know where Costco is?” They said, “Actually we are going there. Would you like to join us?” And we said yes.
On the way we started talking to them, my husband and I told them our stories. We got to Costco and got the things we needed. At the register, the clerk said, “Are you a member of Costco?” We didn’t know that you have to be a member. We said “No, we have only cash.” And suddenly the guy who showed us where the Costco was said, “Hold on, keep that money. You can give it back to me later. I am a member of Costco.” He gave his Costco membership and paid for our items. When we exited the store, my husband handed him some money but he wouldn’t take it. He said, “You are my guests today. You are immigrants looking for a job and I want to give back to the community and I am a lawyer, so please be my guest today.”
We were so positively shocked because they had just met us on the street and they bought us food! At that time, I wanted to hug all of America! It was such a good sign that people here are so supportive and welcoming. If you tell them your stories, they are here to support you.
We know you do a lot to support immigrant community in your turn. You run Femigrants group in the Bay Area. Could you tell us more about this group and its mission?
Two and a half years ago, when I was able to stand on my own feet, I got a job at Instagram. Everything was good, I had a stable income. But I did not want to live my life just going to work, earning money, coming home and going to sleep. I wanted to give back to this community and to help immigrant women who were in the same situation I was a few years ago.
I really wanted to do something but I didn’t know what and how to start. I have a mentor who is an investor and is a close friend of my husband. I messaged him and said that I wanted to do something to help immigrant women. He said “Okay, that sounds interesting. Let’s talk about it.” He asked me a lot of questions to help me better understand what I wanted to do and how to do it. We talked back and forth for a month and he helped me to get my ideas clearer. He suggested the name “Femigrants,” and that is how Femigrants was born.
I started to interview immigrant women first using the network at Facebook because I worked there and had it at my reach. Everytime I interviewed someone, hearing their struggles, challenges, and the way they got out of the situations to become successful gave me ideas of what I can do to help them. And that brought me to the point where I wanted to build a platform to connect successful immigrant women leaders with women who need support.
That was my main mission: to build a supportive community for immigrant women. I created a Facebook group, and published success stories. All the work was done with the help of volunteers. We didn’t charge members for anything. I used my own income to keep our community active.
I did a survey asking what people liked about the services Femigrants offered. More than 80% of survey results came back with “Keep publishing inspirational stories because it motivates us.” I also decided to organize a free event to see if immigrant women really wanted to come together to meet each other in person. Many people came. I got a message “Ika, that was a great event. Please do more.” So I did more!
A year later, I decided to celebrate our first anniversary. It was my first experience organizing an event in Silicon Valley with 100 guests. I was very excited to carry out an event that included venue, food, marketing, speakers and lots of things. I experienced many challenges, but at the same time I learned a lot of things. When the event ended, I was so energized that I felt I should keep it going. That positive energy took me through the next year.
As you know us now, Femigrants has been around for two and a half years and we have organized over 15 events in this time period. Right now we are changing the Femigrants model a little bit. We will launch soon subscription model, with different packages for immigrants in entry level jobs, mid level jobs and senior and VP level jobs. This program will help immigrant women in different situations and in different career stages.
Do you have any story from a femigrant you helped that you can share?
I will tell you two stories. The first story is about an immigrant woman who studied HR here for two years and who struggled like I did to find a job. She found a job at a startup company. They hired her, and then the manager came and asked her to do something that legally she could not do. Because she graduated in HR, she knew all of the laws and rules very well. She refused to do it, and her manager told her that because she was an immigrant and spoke with an accent, she would not be able to find a job anywhere else. He said, “You should be happy that I hired you.”
She left the office crying and decided to resign. She said “I could not come to feel better about myself for months because those words were in my brain. But later I thought that if he thinks I cannot be helpful in this country, and I cannot get a job here, then I will create a job to give others.” Then she created her own HR startup company. I believe it’s created an AI to match engineers to startup companies regardless of accent or background. Now her company helps diverse people to find work.
The other story is a very touching story. A women worked for a couple of companies and was very successful but at some point she heard that her mom had cancer. She decided to spend time with her mom. The more time she spent with her mom, she tried to learn and understand how she could help her. When her mom passed away, she decided to open a company to help people with cancer. Her story is very sad but it’s a story where she was able to find resilience through hardship. No matter how bad it is, if you can be more positive, you can create something positive out of the negative.
What of your qualities do you think contribute to the positive outlook on life? What drives you in your darkest moments?
I believe that being humble is very important. Two years ago when I went back to Azerbaijan, I gave an interview for a very famous program. People who knew me, who grew up with me and who listened to my interview said, “Oh my goodness, Ika is still that humble person. She’s still an honest, sincere person.” It made me so happy!
When I talk to my family, I realize that my mindset changed because I have been here for ten years and I tell them to remind me if my humbleness also changes, because I don’t want my inner side to change. I believe in being humble and open to conversation, to helping people, and being positive.
How do you handle all this work by yourself? What is your secret sauce?
I get a lot of help! I have a team of 50 volunteers and it varies depending on projects and events. And I never, ever, ask my team for anything without saying “please.” To be a manager, to have managerial skills, doesn’t mean to be bossy. You can still be a good manager and having a good relationship with your team by respecting their time, their efforts, even if they cannot finish a project on time. When I see that my team have put effort in, that’s good. My priority is to be in a nice, positive, and to have a respectful relationship with everybody around me. This is my secret sauce!
You are not only an entrepreneur and a leader, you are also a mom and a wife. How do you find a balance between your work, your health and your family life?
I believe my story will help other immigrant women to take a pause and think about their timing, their goals and their mission. Comparing my life now to at least 5 months ago when I had a full time job at Facebook, it’s two different worlds. I run Femigrants, I have children, which is full-time work by itself. I have to help with their homework, take them places, spend time with them, plus educate myself. I was sleeping 3-5 hours, maximum. I didn’t have my own time or time to take a break, to focus, to be more creative. And I missed it because I am a very creative person. At some point I came to the decision that I had to give up something to get something.
This “something” was my dream job at Facebook. Family is always my top priority. I couldn’t sacrifice Femigrants because it is my passion. It’s in my “insides”. I couldn’t just stop doing it, stop giving hope to my community members. People join us with trust and hope for help, and I cannot just close it.
I thought about it a lot, and I discussed it with my mentors. I have great mentors who didn’t tell me what to do, but they asked me questions to better understand what I could give up. My husband can financially support us at this point, so it was time to sacrifice my dream job. I resigned from Facebook about a month ago, and now I fully focus on Femigrants because I want to take it to the next level. I am able to spend valuable time with my kids and I studied at and graduated from the Founder Institute. It’s where I came up with the idea for a subscription model for Femigrants as a next stage.
I have time now to spend with my kids my kids. I value these moments. What is the point of being very successful if I cannot spend time with my daughters? My passion is to empower other women, and I have to empower my daughters first.
My parents used to say, “Never forget where you come from.” Sometimes we are so busy with our lives and daily responsibilities that we forget small milestones. Sometimes we forget how much we were able to achieve to get where we are now. Taking a pause helps us value ourselves and when we value our success and what we were able to achieve, it motivates us to go further to the next stage.