By Poornima Apte
Yasemin Ugur-Ozekinci is a rarity in her field. She’s an accomplished female Distinguished Engineer of Turkish origin living in Canada. She’s triumphed professionally in a white, middle-class, male-dominated world. To say she enjoys a challenge is an understatement.
Yasemin has overcome bias and disadvantage by working hard. That diligence is evident today as she develops data protection solutions for Dell Technologies. She’s passionate about giving her customers choices that will solve their problems. But, most of all, she’s passionate about persevering until a breakthrough.
“You have to be transparent with customers by providing and guiding them through different options. You have to be relentless about seeking innovative solutions to their problems,” Yasemin says.
This tenacity, among her many other strengths, has helped Yasemin carve out a successful 20-year long career at Dell Technologies.
Fanning the Love of STEM
Yasemin’s grandfather nurtured the roots of that assiduousness as she was growing up with four other siblings in Antalya, Turkey. She remembers her grandfather as a wise man with an inquiring mind, despite his lack of formal education. Both her grandfather and her mother encouraged Yasemin’s studies: Yasemin’s mother, who had a difficult life, often reminded her daughter that education was the only ticket to freedom. “In order to find your voice you need to study,” she would say, “there is no other way.”
And study Yasemin did. Unfortunately, early elementary school was ridden with teachers who did not encourage Yasemin’s inquisitive mind. It was her fourth-grade teacher who finally indulged Yasemin’s many “why” questions and helped her find her voice. “He saw my potential and truly supported me,” Yasemin remembers. From fourth grade on, she started performing outstandingly well in math and science. “Soon, everyone was asking me for help with their homework and it really boosted my self-esteem.”
Yasemin followed her mother’s advice and leaned on education as a way to find new opportunities. She won a scholarship, upon completion of a nationwide assessment test, to study at a science-focused high school away from home. “It was very hard for me because I had to leave my family, but it also helped me become independent and stay focused on my studies,” Yasemin says.
At the new school, Yasemin couldn’t help but notice the skewed ratio of girls (20) to boys (90). Despite reassuring teachers and encouragement from home, she could sense an undercurrent that restricted her place as a young woman. “I was always reminded that I was a girl,” she says, “and that I shouldn’t question, but do whatever I’m asked.”
Work in Computer Science
During high school, Yasemin discovered her passion for math. “I loved the puzzles, the logic game, and any question that required analytical or abstract reasoning skills—I just loved it all,” she remembers. There were no formal career counselors or study advisors at the time, but computer science was emerging as an exciting discipline. Equally important, she says, she was really good at computer games, especially the popular—and now-defunct—Prince of Persia. All the signs and “everything [people] told me were that computer science would be a good fit for me,” Yasemin says.
After high school, Yasemin graduated with a bachelor’s of science in computer science from Middle East Technical University, a prestigious institution in Turkey. “I had a lot of good role models in that university, both the women and male professors were very encouraging,” she recalls.
Yasemin then won a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she published papers alongside her advisor, yet another role model, who had fled Iran during the revolution. “I got a lot of courage from her, she was a warrior,” Yasemin says of her professor, Hamideh Afsarmanesh. But Amsterdam presented a different set of challenges. Yasemin was shocked by the prejudice she encountered. Even educated people would tell her that they didn’t think a Turkish woman could pursue a post-graduate degree in technical subjects. Yasemin defied their condescension and worked even harder than many of her peers. She remembers keeping late hours, studying in the campus library well after the lights had been turned off because her students-only apartment didn’t have a decent internet connection.
After two years in Amsterdam, Yasemin, who was then-married, felt the pull to new horizons. Friends were moving to Canada and she had heard good things about the country’s more progressive attitudes. In 2000, imagining they would make a good life there, she and her husband decided to relocate.
Work at Dell Technologies
Through a job board, Yasemin applied for work as a software developer at Legato Systems, which she landed.
Her manager at Legato suggested graduate school at his alma mater, the University of Waterloo. Yasemin enrolled and endured the challenging 90-minute commute through the snow while pregnant with the first of her two sons. She completed a master’s in computer science in 2006 and stayed on after Legato was acquired by EMC, which then merged with Dell.
Yasemin became a tech lead along the way. “Over the years in my career with Dell Technologies, I have helped to build many high-performance, scalable application and storage integrated data protection solutions for our customers,” Yasemin says. “I’m proud of these accomplishments, but I’ve also derived great satisfaction from working with some wonderfully talented and encouraging male and female mentors, who have been willing to engage in open and challenging technical discussions without judgment. These people have been instrumental in my learning and development.”
Yasemin’s track record gained her a seat on the Data Protection CTO council at Dell Technologies. “The team evaluates new technologies and strategic roadmap items to see where we need to go as a technology company,” she explains. “It’s a very exciting place to be because we’re on the verge of so many possibilities.”
Women in STEM
Yasemin is well aware that her work at Dell Technologies holds significance beyond her technical output: She’s an accomplished woman of Middle Eastern origin in a powerful role at a major technology company. “Although the number of women in STEM is growing, I still think that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, especially at the higher career stages,” she says. Yasemin hopes to see more representation righted and shudders to think what her path would have looked like had it not been for her fourth-grade teacher who saw her true potential. “We owe [opportunities] to the young girls who are following in our footsteps.”
To that end, Yasemin volunteers in a local chapter of the Salvation Army, as well as a “big sister” through the Big Brother/Big Sister organization where she mentors girls and encourages them to put their best foot forward. “I want to give back,” she says. “[We build a better] society and community that way.” But the onus of increasing the number of women in STEM shouldn’t rest solely on women’s shoulders, Yasemin believes. Men, too, can be allies by working on small steps, just like her fourth-grade teacher did.
“My rallying cry to men is this: Don’t see women as competition, but as other human beings who might share the same goals and aspirations, yet had to work much harder to prove themselves.”
Fast forward 20-plus years after her move to Canada, Yasemin has made peace with the snow and now even enjoys skiing. “I finally found something to do outdoors during the Canadian winter,” she says.
Just like the Prince of Persia, Yasemin hopes to explore new frontiers through her work and mentorship, and help make the world a better place for all. She is quite sure her grandfather would be proud.
Yasemin Ugur-Ozekinci is a Dell Technologies Distinguished Engineer, a distinction given to the most accomplished technology leaders in the company.
This article is part of the “Rebel Women” series that features female trailblazers in technology as they share the stories of their careers and advice for women interested in STEM.
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