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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

Entrepreneurship is a popular career choice for men and women alike these days. Yet it takes a lot of hard work, perseverance and determination for a woman to launch a tech company in a country where many believed that women should stay home to care of their families, a place where gender discrimination is a way of life and only 15 percent of the female population is literate. Building a sustainable company where female oppression and subjugation is the norm is not for the faint hearted. To top it all, there is conservatism dangerous to anyone who wishes to change societal relationships lingers after the reign of the Taliban. Roya Mahboob, the CEO of Afghan Citadel Software Company was all of this and more. In a society where there was no role model to look up to, she decided to be the role model that other women could look up to. She has been working tirelessly for women empowerment in Afghanistan and other developing countries.

The spark...

Having access to information at your fingertips is something we all take for granted in this century. But it sounded like a fairy tale to this Iran and Afghanistan brought up daughter of Afghan refugees. She bought a book to read about computers as she did not have the chance to see one in real. When this 16 year old, first set her eyes on a computer at the first internet café of her town in Afghanistan, it changed the world for her. Mehboob earned a degree in technology, founded a tech company at 23 and made her way to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

The hardships and obstacles in the journey of this teenager from being an internet cafe patron to a tech entrepreneur might surprise you. When she got the first taste of technology, she decided to immerse herself in the world of digital technology. She immediately joined for computer courses offered by United Nations Development Programme. She became the first female IT co-ordinator of her alma mater post pursuing a degree in technology after convincing her parents, who wanted her to be a doctor or an engineer. This fuelled her craving further for more and larger IT projects and opportunities. After working for three years in the university, she joined Ministry of Higher Education as a project coordinator for the IT department.

First venture...

Mehboob learned that women are as good at coding as men and some better, during her time in the university. However finding a job was not easy for them. In 2010, along with her younger sister and two female classmates, she co-founded an IT consulting firm called Afghan Citadel Software Company in Herat with an investment of $10,000 partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and partly with borrowings from Mahboob’s family. To involve more women in her country's growing tech industry, the company predominantly hired female programmers and employees. Around the same time, she got an opportunity to take part in a tech entrepreneur incubator program in the town, a US government-backed programme created by the former US deputy under secretary of defence, Paul Brinkley, to promote business development and investment in Afghanistan.

Challenges and threats...

Founding a company in the Afghanistan's male-dominated business world was just the beginning of challenges. No companies wanted to work with the women. Or when they did, they wanted to pay them less or refused to pay for work done. She and her employees had to face a barrage of threatening phone calls and text messages. She was discriminated, followed, spied on, was accused of being a spy, criticised for introducing western ideas and her source of income was questioned. Banks were hesitant to lent them. She slowly built the business around software projects for government sector. But due to high level of corruption, getting paid on time and accurately was another struggle.

In 2011, she opened another office in the city of Kabul as she thought moving to a bigger city would help her find clients. But unfortunately, it did not turn out the way she expected it to be. The struggles led this technology entrepreneur to unlock the doors of social media to reach out to businesses outside the country. A friend of hers sent her a LinkedIn invite. She used the platform messaging businesses to see if they were willing to outsource services to a company in Afghanistan run only by women. Being featured in a NATO documentary at this time favoured her. After hitting up a minimum of 500 businesses, she found the Italian-American businessman and philanthropist Francesco Rulli, whose partnership developed into more fruitful projects.

Beset with death threats for her progressive views and for choosing to continue her work, especially in the emerging sector of information technology, she had no other option, but to flee. She moved to New York in 2014 with her siblings and spent two years working remotely before returning to Afghanistan in 2016.

Founding Women’s Annex Foundation...

When technology changed her life, Mahboob wanted to to open doors for other girls and women too to educate themselves, to obtain the necessary skills needed to succeed in today’s expanding global market and to create financial opportunities from their home. The only way out was to be online; to gain access to technology. She, along with social entrepreneur Francesco Rulli from Film Annex, founded a platform called Women's Annex Foundation for the same in 2012. Using the profit from Afghan Citadel Software and with the help of some corporate donors, the foundation established ten computer labs in public schools in Herat and Kabul, Afghanistan for girls to study computing. She put on a thick skin when the Taliban told her that if she didn't stop, they would kill her.

Two more centres were opened in Afghanistan and the platform was expanded to Pakistan and Egypt in 2013. The foundation received MOU from Afghanistan's Ministry of Education in 2014. Women’s Annex Foundation was renamed as Digital Citizens Fund in 2015 and continued to grow as a non-profit organisation that seeks to increase digital literacy. It has helped 100s of women to start their own businesses. DCF looks forward to open a minimum of 100 IT centres in the next five to ten years to go to greater lengths to give opportunities to the generations to follow.

Bitcoin for women empowerment...

The girls were offered a platform to blog, write stories and document videos, photography and graphic design and generate revenue through advertising. However remunerating them was challenging as most of them were under aged to open the bank account. Carrying and distributing cash was not a safe option. PayPal was not operating in Afghanistan and Western Union was not affordable. This led them to send bitcoin to the girls who were writing blogs in Afghanistan. The financial security helped the girls to hold their heads high.

Other ventures...

Nothing could stop this serial entrepreneur from venturing out new areas. In 2012, she again teamed up with FilmAnnex and shows a new face of Afghanistan through their channel called Afghan Development Web TV. She formed another company called EdyEdy, an online vocational training platform in early 2016 and an export company, bringing Afghan tea and coffee to the US and Middle East.

Awards and accolades...

Named as Young Global Leader of World Economic Forum in 2015
Took part in the “Changing the Education Equation” panel at the 2015 Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City
Received Michael Dukakis Leadership Fellow in 2015
Honoured at Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards in 2014
Named as one among TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People In The World for 2013
Received Civic Innovator Award from the National Democracy Institute in 2013

Quotes

I saw the incredible power of social media and technology in my life, and I saw how it connected me to the world, and that I could work from home, and grow my business.
It’s not just that I want more women in the tech industry. I want the next generation of youth in Afghanistan to have better opportunities, have control over their lives. I get so excited when I think about the possibilities of education for these young kids – the opportunities with social media and technology.
If someone has talent, it doesn’t matter – woman or man – we have to allow them to come onboard.
I want to be a role model for females to know they can start their own business and nothing should stop them.
There are other businesswomen here, and when I talked to them, they said they encountered the same problems. But they didn't stop, and now they have big businesses. That encouraged me.

Hope readers caught up the spark …

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