Product manager and digital strategist Nafisa Rawji has a goal to make professional opportunity more accessible — and believes that tech is “one of the best conduits” to do so.
Rawji moved to the United States from Tanzania when she was 5 years old. When planning for her future as a young adult, she prioritized pursuing a sustainable career with the compensation that would allow her to live a comfortable life. Her high aptitude for academics as a marketing major at Temple University attracted recruitment from global consulting firm Deloitte. It wasn’t her passion, though.
“Minorities are often not taught to take risks in our careers and I’m the child of an immigrant,” she told Technical.ly. “The main things [I focused on] after school were career sustainability and compensation. But consulting wasn’t interesting or exciting.”
Rawji wanted a change in her professional life and was inspired by her relationship with technology. As a Black woman, she had always been fond of her community’s collectivism and saw tech as an easy way to connect with others like her. Growing up, she had enjoyed coding and making her Myspace profile stand out. A career in tech as a product manager intrigued her.
According to Rawji, product managers are often referred to as the “mini-CEOs” of companies, managing the business strategy behind a given product. They are fluid communicators who can make everything come together for colleagues with varying skill sets. They need to be confident enough for people to believe what they’re saying, but personable enough that technical pros like engineers and developers can relate to them. That capacity to be a people person is what separates good product managers from great ones, she said.
"No matter how beautiful code is, or innovative something is, if it doesn’t connect the dots, it will become an artifact in a museum somewhere. I help make tech make sense financially and in the real world."
“It’s one of the most in-demand roles in tech,” she said. “Tech is becoming saturated in terms of products and innovation. No matter how beautiful code is, or innovative something is, if it doesn’t connect the dots, it will become an artifact in a museum somewhere. [Product managers] help make tech make sense financially and in the real world.”
Rawji found mentors at Deloitte to guide her toward becoming one herself. She learned what floor of her building the product managers worked on, found an empty desk to sit at, and asked the secretary to make her a name plate. Each day, she listened to the discussions the pros around her had. Eventually, she got the opportunity to apply for a role and start her own product management career.
Looking back on her work thus far, Rawji said she was surprised to realize that every leader or C-suite professional in tech is trying to figure work out as they go along. She had long held the belief that top executives had all the answers, but has since learned that it’s OK not to know everything. She has also became more familiar with the value of networking in tech.
“Networking across disciplines is just as important as networking with people you look up to. I don’t have a computer science degree [and] I wouldn’t ask engineers things early on, but it hurt me with product success and personal growth,” she said. “It’s a people job first and it’s astounding the number of assumptions we walk around with. We validate and invalidate our assumptions as we build software. That can apply to anything in life.”
For her career in product management, Rawji doesn’t believe her degree in marketing was necessary. The occupation didn’t exist 15 years ago and higher education is just now responding with graduate programs.
“If you talk to three different product managers, they’d all have different majors,” she said.
Now an MBA candidate at the Wharton School of Business, Rawji is looking forward to learning more about product leadership, startup development and financial analysis, which she said is important for leaders of tech companies. By going back to school, she believes she is putting herself in a better position to be ready for whatever lies ahead in her career. “Going from being impoverished immigrants to being at the most prestigious business school in the world,” she said, brings an added significance to this step.
Rawji is inspired by the changes Wharton has made for a more inclusive future that include hiring Dean Erika James, the first Black dean of the school in its history. A desire to increase racial equity in tech also fuels the work Rawji does with Techsgiving, a nonprofit that works to bring more Black and brown people into technology careers, starting with K-12.
As her professional journey continues, Rawji hopes to use tech as a means of bringing equity to opportunity for other descendants of the African diaspora.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.