Passionately Curious: ​Haya Ajjan on how technology gives women entrepreneurs a voice

Ajjan, an associate professor of management information systems, was one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom. 

Associate Professor of Management Information Systems Haya Ajjan talks with students in a common area of Sankey Hall. 
By Haya Ajjan, associate professor of management information systems

I was once conversing with two women from Saudi Arabia who shared a fascinating anecdote while sitting next to me on an airplane.

They told me about women they knew who crafted handmade goods at home and sold them on Instagram. Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia were banned from driving. Technology gave those women an avenue for financial independence and ownership they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

My scholarship focuses on better understanding the impact of technology use on individuals, groups and organizations. Two touch points on my academic path influenced this passion. When I was an undergraduate student, I took a class in database management and fell in love with it because my professor was so amazing. He helped me understand the value and structure of data, and how to look at it from a detailed perspective while also taking a step back and seeing the big picture. Then when I started my Ph.D. program, I worked with my dissertation adviser on understanding how organizations manage a variety of projects to maintain their innovative leadership in the market, and that became part of my intellectual passion as well.

Companies that implement analytics and data mining are able to achieve a much higher return on investment. Throughout my career, I’ve used my passion for data mining and technology to help businesses better understand their customers and run more efficiently.

Right now, for example, I’m analyzing four years’ worth of sales data from a local organization and examining how online reviews and social media conversations impact sales for the company. But my interest in data and technology also dovetailed unexpectedly with another passion – women’s empowerment.

In 2013 I was presenting my work on how technology impacts performance and organization, and I was completely drawn to a session at the same conference on women’s empowerment. I grew up in Damascus, Syria, and rooted in tradition, girls often had to leave school by a young age to get married and start a family.

That always struck me as odd. Starting a family is a noble thing, but it frustrated me that they didn’t get to reach their full potential in terms of their education. I told the presenter I would love to do research with her, particularly about how technology could improve women’s self-efficacy and sense of empowerment.

We interviewed women entrepreneurs across Egypt about how they utilize technology to sell their products, connect with people and build their financial independence. That led to another study in South Africa in which we explored how women use information communication technology – mobile technology, social media, email, etc. – to create and build their social capital. We surveyed more than 200 women about how they find and connect with customers online, how they can reach new markets using technology and the ways in which they can work with other women entrepreneurs. We actually found that building those social networks had a significant effect on women’s self-determination and perceived impact.

I’m genuinely intellectually passionate about women’s empowerment because it’s been a part of my journey since my early years when I was exposed to a patriarchal society. I’m fascinated by how women can use technology to transform their social, political and economic lives. We know that feelings of empowerment can foster flexibility, stimulate change, improve innovative behavior and reduce strain. In the society these women live in, they may not have had a voice before. Technology enables them to create their own.

I talk about my research all the time in my classes, both my data mining scholarship and my women’s empowerment work. I’ve had several students – even friends of students who have heard about my work – tell me they are interested in researching issues related to women’s empowerment. One of my undergraduate research students and I started a project focused on Syrian refugees and their use of technology, so they can again have a voice in their community. Projects like this impact students in the classroom at a different level. It’s no longer just theory, but it’s making an impact in the communities in which we live.