By Jen Matteis
Determination is the driving force behind Nelly Yusupova. It's how she learned English at age 13 as a refugee from the former Soviet Union, and it's how she mastered computers from the ground up.
Today, Yusupova is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Webgrrls International (www.webgrrls.com), a community of professional women who leverage technology to achieve success in their careers. She's also the founder of the web technology company DigitalWoman.com.
It's a remarkable achievement when you consider that Yusupova knew nothing about computers—or, for that matter, the English language and American culture—when she first moved to the United States.
Yusupova's family moved to New York City as refugees from Tajikistan in 1991, when the Taliban began to invade their country.
“We left everything that we had and we came here,” said Yusupova. “We really came with nothing; I didn't know the language, I didn't know the culture.”
A Jewish organization sponsored the family and a relative helped them to procure visas. They arrived with two other families; all 15 of them lived in the same house for the first seven months.
Although she was only 13, Yusupova went to work right away to earn money for her family. As a waitress at a summer camp, she learned the names for different foods by comparing the menus to the dishes coming out of the kitchen.
Yusupova continued to work full time, often at multiple jobs. She put herself through Queens College in Flushing (which was just a few blocks from her home) by taking a job at a bagel shop and a shoe store. She eventually become manager at both businesses.
It was with her career in mind that Yusupova developed an interest in computer science. Although she had only the vaguest idea of what it was, she was savvy enough to know it would afford her a well-paying career.
At Queens College, Yusupova's first computer science class was incomprehensible. She had never used a computer herself and had to watch the other students to learn how to turn the machine on.
“I actually thought that doing computer science meant using MS Word and MS Excel really, really well,” she admitted. “All I heard from the professor's mouth was gibberish.”
For the first month, Yusupova struggled to learn the basics. On the verge of giving up, she made a resolution that she would not just complete the class but excel at it. Her overarching goal was to attain a good career.
“I decided I wouldn't be defeated by this,” she said. “I decided I was going to get an ‘A’ in the class no matter what.”
She attended all the classes, did all the homework, and asked countless questions. And, at the end of the semester, she earned an ‘A.’ She ended up graduating in three years with a bachelor's degree in computer science and a minor in math, while working full time throughout.
“It was crazy; I don't know how I did it,” she said. “Once you set a goal for yourself and failure is not an option, you just get it.”
The demographics—women or men in the class—were irrelevant to Yusupova's quest to succeed.
“I was completely oblivious to that because I had my goal set and it didn't matter what went on around me,” she commented.
One woman professor did take her aside and offer encouragement, telling her never to give up. But for someone with Yusupova's determination, this simply confused her.
“I was thinking, 'Why is she telling me this? I already know this,'” she recalled. “I was so determined, no one was going to stop me.”
Yusupova's success is rooted in a lot of straight-up hard work. However, once she began to master the basics, she developed a keen interest in computer science. A big part of getting there was also coping with fear.
“My mantra is, 'Never fear what you don't know,'” she said. “I became an expert at what I do because I have that mindset.”
Yusupova went on to take an internship and later a full-time position with Webgrrls. The energy and informal nature of the company captivated her.
“I didn't know about Internet companies, or start-up companies, or entrepreneurship,” she said. “The energy was so amazing to me.”
At one point, Yusupova left to take a position with a large financial company—something that fit more closely with her traditional view of success. However, after finding the corporate world frustrating, she returned to Webgrrls—this time as the company's Chief Technology Officer or CTO. The company's goals match her own: helping women use technology as leverage in their careers. She also pursues these goals at her own company, DigitalWoman.com.
Today, Yusupova lives in Manhattan. In her spare time she enjoys running, photography, tango-dancing, and martial arts. She recommends the latter as a way to take control of your life.
“It teaches you confidence, it teachers you leadership, it teaches you so many skills that you need,” she said. “Once you take a couple of punches, all the other problems that happen in your everyday life don't seem scary anymore.”
For others seeking success, Yusupova recommends asking lots of questions and breaking big goals down into small steps. And it doesn't hurt to be really, really determined.
“If you really want it, go get it,” she said.
To contact Yusupova, email firstname.lastname@example.org