Investors, Innovators, Influencers – Melissa Sassi

Melissa Sassi is the Global head of IBM Hyper Project Accelerator and Chief Penguin of IBM Z, and a partner and ally of FFA. She believes that technology and education have the power to transition the world from being just consumers of technology into creators, makers, and doers through technology.

Tell us about the professional journey that took you where you are today. What major lessons did you learn along the way?

My children and I are victims of parental kidnapping, and they’re still not home – twelve long years have passed. Thankfully, they’re healthy, safe, and normal teenagers; however, they live in a small country sandwiched between Algeria and Libya – Tunisia.

My entrepreneurship journey began after realizing that my daughter lacked access to computers in her classroom, so I set out on a mission to empower the world with access to digital skills and tools to make meaningful use of the internet. Throughout my journey, I have learned resilience and how to fuel my pain into something bigger than me. I took my tragedy and turned it into positive outcomes by encouraging the world to learn tech skills and how to use digital skills to creative positive societal impact.

I’ve not always combined my passion and purpose into my career. Five years ago, I stumbled upon my life’s work – digital inclusion and technology entrepreneurship. I’m thankful for finding a way to turn my worst nightmare into my superpower.

Tunisia is a small country of 11 million people, and the place my children currently call home. I taught myself their dialect of Arabic, started a youth-led digital skills and tech lab, and visited often before COVID-19. Now that travel is not recommended, I am a digital mother.

I’m also the Global Head of an IBM accelerator that empowers early-stage founders to build and scale their startups by focusing on passion and purpose, fueled by technology and mentorship. The other part of my job includes leading a student community focused on professional development, and tech and entrepreneurship skills.

The biggest learning I have had in life includes staying resilient during trying times, continuing to show up regardless of the circumstances and being bold and jumping in head first. I also believe in the power that technology and education have on the world to transition from consumers of technology into creators, makers, and doers all empowered by technology.

What motivates you?

I’m motivated by social good and the power that technology and entrepreneurship have to empower the next generation of creators, makers, and doers.

Who are your role models and why?

I do not believe in choosing out of reach role models; I believe in having a squad of, friends, mentors, and advocates with a shared vision of creating technical solutions that help make the world a better place. If I had to choose one person who has made a meaningful impact in my life, it would be Dona Sarkar. You must know Dona! She’s an engineer at Microsoft, a true community builder, and entrepreneur, and most importantly…a friend. She builds me up when I need it and has helped me see myself as both an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur. She has taught me that I am not an impostor, and that I deserve a seat at every table. She helped me understand my personal brand and helped me build it

What does a typical day look like for you?

Like many of us living in this COVID-19 era, I have adjusted my life significantly. Last year, I ran 52 events in ten countries. However, now I am home 24-7. That said, my work has significantly increased, as the world is even more focused on digital inclusion.

I currently wake up at 4:00 AM and have turned into even more of a workaholic than I was before. I spend most of my working day on video calls and typically end in the evening. I know, this is a terrible habit; however, I am not really sure how to spend my time or what to do with it, so I am writing more, virtually speaking at events several times per week, and finishing up the final stage of my PhD.

I toggle between my variety of roles at IBM, running my own ventures, and writing my dissertation. I throw everything I have into running an accelerator, advocating for youth skill-building, being a founder, and rocking academia with practical experience. Since my family obligations are vastly different compared to most mothers, I find that being involved in so many activities help me invest my energy into more positive outcomes than dwelling on life’s circumstances

What do you wish founders knew about before meeting you? What about female founders specifically?

The one thing I would like anyone who meets me to know, and this includes males and females, is that my world does in fact connect even though people often have a hard time connecting the many activities I engage in together. These things include digital skills, empowering the undeserved, technology entrepreneurship, and community. I do not need to choose between academia, big tech, and being a founder. As you can imagine, this takes community, a tribe of trusted sponsors and friends, and the power to believe that none of us need to choose between the variety of selves we have available to us.

What are the major trends you are seeing in your space?

There are tons of accelerators out there. However, many do not leverage one-to-one interaction because they are more focused on helping companies scale quickly. While scalability is important, I believe it’s difficult to empower early stage founders with an approach that looks at a one-size-fits-all methodology.

Another trend that I am seeing is around digital inclusion. Although our world is more digitally connected today than it has ever been, 49% of the world is offline. Vast numbers of people are being left behind as digital transformation continues, thus creating a divide between the haves and the have nots. Investment in digital skills are being talked about in a variety of circles, and the time is now to enable the world to be prepared for the future of work.

A final trend that I am seeing is that investment in female founders and diversity and inclusion in technology is increasing. It is important to note, however, that we are far away from meaningful results. It’s essential for all of us in the startup ecosystem and wider tech industry to work harder to encourage more women and girls to go into tech and tech entrepreneurship, while creating more concerted effort to invest and empower women and girls to remain.

Anything else you want our readers to know?

My startup accelerator at IBM focuses on early-stage founders in the healthtech, fintech, and insurtech verticals who are creating tech for good products and services and interested in data privacy and security resources to help them build and scale their startups.

The program is global, and we are recruiting 30 startups in this year’s fintech and healthtech cohorts. The application process is open until July 31st. You can learn more here, or join my weekly office hours at 8:00 AM EST on Wednesdays.

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