Introducing – Elina Ashimbayeva

Tell us about yourself, and your journey into Tech/STEM.

I’m from Kazakhstan. I came to New Zealand to study Biomedical Sciences, with the view that being a Doctor and being in science was the only way to contribute back to the world – I guess when you’re younger you have a very different perspective of what jobs are available, and what ways you can express yourself. After studying Biomedical Science, I worked in cancer and immunology research for a year and a half. I realised then that there were a whole bunch of other ways to contribute to the world. Actually, it was really funny, I didn’t know anything about computers at the time, I was very much in science with a little bit of a creative side, but I didn’t really know anything about technology. During my lab work I would have breaks between my  experiments, and I would just go scroll on Instagram in between, which was a bit of a waste of time. My friend sent me a super discounted web development course. So then, in the lab I would do an experiment, and in the 15 minutes I had to wait I would get the computer out and watch web development courses. That really opened my eyes to all the cool ways that you can support society through other ways that were not just science. Even though I never pursued the development route, I went to work in strategy health consultancy, ended up in product management and user research for tech companies and government.

Why did you choose to go into tech and/or STEM?

I guess science for me always felt like a field where you can contribute directly to the world – especially in medicine and health. I think now that that’s not always true – unfortunately in a lot of cases in science the work centers on where the funding goes, and the funding is not necessarily going to the most needed places. It’s very similar in tech too: technology for the sake of technology – I’m not interested. But using technology and science to solve problems that really need to be solved is awesome!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in along the way?

One was definitely a little bit of an identity crisis, in terms of going from being a young person and thinking that I wanted to be in science – being a doctor was such a strong motivating force for me And then when I was 21, changing careers was scary because I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. Expectations from people were hard in the beginning – friends and family would say to me “aren’t you wasting your degree working on something different?”. For me that was hard to hear, cause I didn’t feel like I was wasting it, it just felt like an awesome different utilisation of my degree. I’ve seen so many people do the same job for 20 years not liking it, and I wouldn’t want to waste my time like that. Switching jobs has also contributed to this – I’ve had five full time jobs since I graduated, and I only graduated six years ago! So for me it felt really empowering to be able to switch contexts so quickly and learn new things – especially working for consultancy you get to be exposed to so many different organisations. But there’s this expectation from people that staying in one job for a longer time is a good thing to do. So even though I thought it was the right thing to do, the way people would make off comments or say negative stuff could sometimes get to me.

Of course diversity is always a challenge. I think it’s not a tech or a STEM problem but an everywhere problem. Having gendered or racial stereotypes about who can do what, whether that’s in science or tech it’s very similar. Personally, because I’m quite loud and passionate about this, I probably get less crap and have more discussions about it because I address it head on. But definitely having been in the space I’ve seen how it affects people, and being passionate about changing it has been a big thing for me.

Tell us about a highlight from your career and why it is significant to you...

Little moments always stand out for me!. A lot of my work involves user research (talking to people and figuring out how to build better products and services for them). I wouldn’t say it’s a highlight necessarily, but when you hear people say how heard and seen they felt, and how they know they’re cared for and that we’re building something for them is a wonderful feeling. And in the same sense with Storyo doing interviews with people, and amplifying their voices and stories, hearing little comments from them. It’s not like people message you all the time, but sometimes people make a comment about how nice it is for them to share their experience and story. So hearing people say that is definitely one of the highlights.

What are you working on now?

So many things! One thing is Storyo – we share stories of women and gender diverse people in New Zealand. Recently I paired up with Belong Aotearoa – an organisation that works with ethnic, migrant and refugee communities. We partnered up to do a video and podcast series highlighting people from ethnic communities – to talk about culture, food, challenges, all the things. It’s very exciting – it’s the first time I’m partnered with someone to deliver content together, which is cool. We had a form submission for people to sign up to participate, and seeing people’s submissions was very heartwarming!

I also just started work at Auckland DHB as an experience designer. We’re supporting the build of the Tāmaki wellbeing and health hub. The role is about experience service & healthcare. It’s spatial design as well, so I’m super excited about that. I had this moment on Wednesday, I was in the shower in the morning, and I was thinking about work, and I had so many ideas! When I caught myself I thought it was super cool, because it had only been three days and I was already daydreaming in the shower! It’s going to be challenging, but I’m looking forward to it!

Why do you think we need more women in tech and/or STEM?

There’s so many layers and levels to this question! But for me, the idea that we have a disproportionate number of people of a different gender or race in certain areas indicates that we’ve had some really big barriers to these areas before. I’m not a believer that there’s any differentiation that, for example “because you’re a women you’re more likely to like arts. That’s how society has conditioned us, so I feel it’s the right thing to do to decondition all of us to allow people to love and enjoy different industries. 

Technology is one of the fastest growing sectors, which I don’t necessarily agree with, because when we have problems with healthcare for example it’s not considered “sexy” or “scalable” or “exponential”, whereas with technology people have the perception that you can create a startup and make one billion bucks tomorrow! And I don’t like that idea because we have way more basic things that we need to solve, but the focus is on technology. It’s a bit scary how many things are being built that affect our lives so much, all while large parts of the population have no say or oversight of what happens. If you think about most large technology companies, a lot of their products and projects are led by men. And it’s a bit scary what it means for people who are excluded, and how much more segregation it will create in terms of opportunities, social equity, equality and capital in general. For example with Bitcoin and Blockchain, there’s so much hype about it, but it’s mostly men who are engaging with this tech.

It’s also about how do we show men that they can also enjoy arts and sociology – the traditionally ‘feminine’ industries. It’s not just about getting women in tech, it’s also about thinking about the reason we have this gap. Do we have a hostile environment, is it expressive enough. We need to create that balance to make people feel welcome in multiple environments. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get more men to have the mindset that they don’t just have to geek out about techy stuff, they could also geek out about art and theatre and culture and nursing and teaching.

And also I just think women are amazing! I could give you 40 million answers to this question haha

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