Nelly first contacted me about getting a press pass for the Womens Entrepreneur Festival in 2012. She was interested in a media sponsorship for Webgrrls. We were not doing any sponsorships at that point but we gave Nelly a ticket to attend. Soon after Nelly attended an intimate dinner that I went to and it was there that I really got a better insight into Nellys smarts. Fast forward to the Womens Entrepreneur Festival of 2013 where we quickly caught up on her latest venture, TechSpeak for Entrepreneurs. A two day intensive boot camp designed to help educate non-tech entrepreneurs on how they communicate and manage their tech teams. Great idea.
Nellys story has a lot to do with her drive and chutzpah. Nelly grew up in Thadjikistan. A town in Southeast Asia that was part of the former Soviet Union that bordered Afghanistan and China. I first thought it must be really cold there but actually the climate is like living in Arizona. Her father had a shoe making business as buying shoes off the rack were ridiculously expensive. Her mother was a nurse that had stopped working when her twin brothers were born.
When Nelly was 13, during the Afghganistan/Soviet war they left. The USSR was protecting the border from the Taliban coming into the region because it was mostly muslim. Nellys family were Jews living in a muslim community. The family had relatives in both Israel and the US both working on getting them VISAS. The Soviet Union was beginning to collapse and they realized that war was going to break out. The decision where they would end up was completely based on which ever VISA came through first. The US came first and off they went.
They family was able to buy plane tickets to get to the US through a Jewish organization as the ruble had completely collapsed and their net worth was now zero. They came with 15 other people that included her extended family members of uncles, aunts etc. They ended up in Forest HIlls living with an aunt where there is a large Russian Jewish community. Of the 15 of them only 2 spoke English.
The whole family went to work. Her parents worked in any job they could from delivery person, dishwasher, working the register at a food store, etc. Nelly worked too. Eventually her father saved up enough money to open a shoe repair shop in Long Island and her mother learned English and took all the exams to become a registered nurse. Yet their number one priority was getting an education for their children.
After graduating high school in Forest Hills, Nelly had to decide what to do for college. It was 1996 and She was 17. She decided that she should do something in computers because that was the future. Education in Russia is very different from the US, Nelly said the math and sciences there were more advanced and that is why she easily moved towards computer science. She had zero idea what it meant to be a programmer and they did not even have a computer in their home but she just knew it was the way to go. She took a class at Queens College and found she was the only person in the class without a job in computers. She said she felt as lost that first day of college as she did when she landed in the US for the first time.
The lab was where she got on a computer for the first time in her life. She sat down to this guy who was typing super fast and she thought he must be so smart. Once she started to learn how to write code she realized that all that guy was doing was changing directions in DOS. At first it just seemed to amazing but she quickly realized it was not as hard as she thought. Nelly worked really hard to get an A in that class. She says as an immigrant, failure is just not an option. Once she understood the power of being a techie she fell in love and finished the program in 3 years.
During her time in school she always had a full time job. In every job she had she would start out on the floor (shoe store and bagel store) and soon find herself getting more responisibility to become a manager. About a year and a half into college during these type of jobs she decided she should get a professional job. She put out feelers everywhere and Webgrrls was the first company that responded. They gave her an internship with a promise that within two months they would hire her to work in the tech area. At first she was just answering phones and doing community development but was more interesting is that she started to meet entrepreneurs. That was what really excited her.
Nelly moved into the area where there were 20 people sitting in a room working on a program called Town Hall with message boards and chats. She was hired to manage that. She was doing the work and blown away at how Internet companies work the same time. Soon she was put in the tech department with two other guys. Sooner than later she learned how to run the tech department, the two guys left and she found herself in charge. It was 1999 and she was graduating at the same time.
Like many others, Nelly was offered a job at Paine Webber and took it. She thought well this is the dream working for a big company. She got a wonderful card from all the people at Webgrrls saying she would be back. They knew what she did not know. Paine Webber was a corporate environment and there was zero excitement. It was the total opposite of what she loved about Webgrrls. She loved the working in a small company wearing a million hats where you get to do everything.
A few months into the job she CEO of Webgrrls asked her if she was happy at Paine Webber. She said she was not but felt she should stay a year because it was important to stay in a job for at least a year. The CEO asked why. If you quit I'd hire you to become the CTO of Webgrrls. Nelly was 21. She looks back now and is shocked that they gave her that opportunity. She knew she had drive and could figure it out as she went along and so she took the job. Nelly really does believe that she was a very mature 21 year old because she was really forced to grow up very quickly when she came to the US.
Nelly has been the CTO of Webgrrls since 2001. They have given her a platform to work on the projects she loves while being a CTO. In 2004 she became the New York chapter leader of Webgrrls. Webgrrls gives Nelly a lot of flexibility to be entrepreneurial because she is capable of managing her clients, getting the work done and helping other people how to leverage their businesses on the side. It is an incredible cultural environment that has allowed her to spread her wings. At Webgrrls she started something called Digital Women where she would speak on the behalf of Webgrrls to help mostly women entrepreneurs understand their businesses. Working in an environment where you get to learn the 360 degrees of the business from biz dev, tech, sales and talking to investors has given her a unique perspective and she believes that a CTO should understand all those parts. Through Digital Women Nelly would be hired by businesses as an entrepreneurial consultant looking at businesses from top down.
The more she worked with companies the more she realized that one of the biggest issues is that non-tech company leaders and entrepreneurs would go down the wrong path technically spending money where they did not need to. I have seen happen countless times. Developers promise one thing and then the entrepreneurs who hired them did not get the product that they want. There is a disconnect. Nelly realized it wasn't only the developer fault but is also the entrepreneurs fault because they do not know how to communicate or understand the process of developing something and because of that they make the wrong choices that are laid out for them from the developer. She started asking questions to entrepreneurs and she began to see the red flags that the entrepreneurs can not see with their developers. That is why she decided to launch TechSpeak.
Nelly set up processes in Webgrrls that allow her to grow TechSpeak. She has a road map that she is following and she is teaching other entrepreneurs to use that map to leverage technology in their own businesses. TechSpeak puts on two day seminars across the country. Not surprising Nelly knows exactly how many people she needs at each class in order to make TechSpeak a profitable business. Nelly has created something that many first time entrepreneurs should consider taking. It can save one a lot of money and frustration down the line. Keep in mind that Nelly has built this business while maintaining the tech infrastructure for 100 Webgrrls chapters across the country and world. She understands how to run an efficient tech infrastructure after all she can built a business at the same time. Impressive woman and techie that has taken her knowledge and figured out how to give back by training others to do what she does so well. Most of the people she has touched are women.
I am looking forward to watching what Nelly does next. An impressive woman. Really glad she crossed my path. BTW, for anyone who is game, here is a 15% discount off the two-day class.