Technology for Peace
Stony Brook Alum Tackles Global Communications as United Nations Executive
By Andrew Kahn
Atefeh Riazi’s job keeps her up at night—every night.
When you’re the information technology chief at the United Nations, sleep rarely comes easy.
“I’m kept awake every night with the enormous responsibility it brings,” said Riazi, the U.N.’s Chief Information Technology Officer and Assistant Secretary-General since May 2013. “Every day, I wake up and think, ‘How can we use technology to bring peace, when it is also being used to bring unrest?’”
Working out of the U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s East side, Riazi, a 1984 graduate of Stony Brook University’s top-ranked electrical engineering program, heads up the information and communications needs of a world organization that counts 193 member states.
“Being able to contribute, to make the world a better place, is a huge calling that no one can refuse,” said Riazi, 53, a U.S. national who was 16 when she left Iran in 1977.
Riazi’s U.N. appointment is the pinnacle of a 30-year career that includes stints as Chief Information Officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Housing Authority. At the MTA, she led the transition from the token system to digital currency known as MetroCard, a project that combined construction, analytic and marketing work.
“Throughout her career, Atefeh has demonstrated an ability to use technology to bring about important change in a variety of organizations,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “Her dedication and knowledge will help U.N. staff work more effectively.”
The Tehran native’s career has certainly blossomed since she followed in the footsteps of her older sister and enrolled at Stony Brook—just as the Iranian Revolution took hold in 1979. Her parents were still in Iran and the turmoil limited the family’s ability to financially assist their daughters.
“You know your family is selling their carpet or jewelry to send you money. You look at that, and it aches you to spend that money,” said Riazi, herself a mother of twin 7-year-old girls.
At Stony Brook, she scrambled to raise funds any way she could: repairing classmates’ televisions, organizing fashion shows, hosting a radio program and guiding student orientation tours. The odd jobs and the campus support system ensured her success at Stony Brook, she said.
“My family, the professors at Stony Brook, the welcoming environment, that whole feeling on campus that I was at home—all of that brought strength that helped me push through to become an engineer,” Riazi said.
Stony Brook professor Jayant Parekh remembers Riazi sitting in the first row of his class and eagerly asking questions.
“I saw there was a lot of positivity about her and an air of determination and confidence,” said Parekh, who has taught electrical and computer engineering at Stony Brook for 35 years.
Riazi, who is fluent in Farsi and understands “a little Arabic and French,” sees the many languages and cultures of the U.N. not as barriers, but as differences that energize the organization.
“To operate in an environment like this, you have to understand, listen, compromise and accept,” she said. “You must consider many opinions and options, and come to a consensus that works for the world.”
She speaks passionately about women, viewing them internationally as “a tremendous untapped resource” because they are too often denied equal rights and access to education, and seeing them in the United States as underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The information technology guru believes the world is hungry for education. She envisions a traditional classroom setting with tuition-paying students and many thousand more watching a live internet stream on monitors across the globe.
Stony Brook is “positioned so well to take on that challenge,” Riazi said, adding, “It is a great university. It belongs to the world. When you walk on campus, you see people from all over the world. It’s a place where you don’t feel alone.
“That was one thing that was important to me as foreign student. I was not in a foreign land. I was in a land where everybody was foreign and everybody was native. I wouldn’t be here without Stony Brook.”
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer in New York City. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and CBS Local, among others, and blogs at http://andrewjkahn.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.