Friday, October 26, 2012

Rethinking 42 with Roya Mahboob - Afghanistan's first female tech-entrepreneur

I first met Roya Mahboob when I visited Afghanistan over a year ago. She left a strong impression on me as a young, energetic and optimistic entrepreneur, in a country not known in particular for female entrepreneurship. Today, I circled back to her to hear about her experiences.


Divon: It is quite unusual for a young woman in Afghanistan to start a technology company. How did you get started?

Roya: We started as an association when I was studying at Herat University. After graduation we incorporated. At first it was difficult. We didn't have experience or financial support. Even when we offered a client a better technical solution and a better price, we still didn’t get projects.

We are the first ICT company owned and managed by women in Herat. There is only one other in Afghanistan, in Kabul. It is quite scary.

Now we are doing quite well - we were able to establish partnerships with Indian and American companies, and have learnt a lot from them about how to conduct ourselves on the global scene. Our clients are mostly in Kabul, where people are more open minded than in Herat, and we are now trying to expand to Central Asia. In addition, we often bid on government and education-related projects. So far so good!

Divon: How do the families feel about their girls working in the IT industry?

Roya: My family was ok with it. My father is educated and encouraged me, and my mother works, too. However, many families don’t approve of girls doing this kind of work - which involves interacting with men, and getting out and pitching to male customers. The few women that work in Herat, are mostly either creating handicrafts at home or are teachers in girl schools - those are the acceptable professions for women. Of course, I strongly believe women should be able to do software engineering as well, but we also have to be pragmatic with the reality. We have one engineer whose father doesn’t allow her to leave the house for work, and another that her husband doesn’t allow her. They both work for us, developing software, from their homes. In the case of the married employee, as is typical in Afghanistan, she and her husband are living with her husband’s family. The family would not approve of her working, even from home - so only her husband knows. The rest of the family are not very tech-savvy and they think she is just playing around with the computer.

Divon: How did the society react to you starting a company?

Roya: We got many threats and warnings. People called to threaten, sent SMSes, went to talk to our parents, posted papers outside of our homes. There were also rumors started - while everyone was nice to our face, when we won projects - people whispered behind our back “what did this woman do to win the project?” - nobody could believe that women can actually just be good engineers.

Divon: Wow, sounds extremely stressful. Weren’t you afraid for your physical security?

Roya: At some point, when things got bad, I had to move to Kabul. After a while, I moved back to Herat, mostly because I had commitments with the university here.

Divon: What are some other barriers women need to consider when opening a business?

Roya: The obvious big barrier is the threat to their physical wellbeing, with the risk varying depending on the type of their business and their location in the country. Another big one is access to startup capital. It is very hard for any new business to get investment or a loan from a bank, but for a woman it is simply out of the question. So the only option is family capital, but even that is really hard, as normally families would prefer to provide capital to their sons and not daughters.

Having said that, things are slowly changing for the better for women, and some of them are starting to understand their rights and how they can operate in this society, how to effectively deal with the problems and struggle for independence.

Divon: Herat is very close to the border of Iran, and the language is the same. It was easy for me to observe that there's a lot of Iranian business investment in Herat. Is there also cultural influence? Do you feel that Iranian culture is a force for moderation?

Roya: I think that due to our proximity to Iran, at least 80% of the residents of Herat have had an opportunity to visit Iran. The interesting thing is that while they are in Iran, they allow themselves to behave more freely and openly, but when they get back home to Herat, they resume their very conservative stance.

Divon: Do you think things will improve or get worse in Afghanistan after the US withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014?

Roya: This is a very important question for every Afghan, in particular for women. We are worried - will the Taliban come back? Will the fighting resume? We don't know. I think the best case scenario is that nothing happens. I don't think things will improve, but I hope they won't get worse. On the other hand, we really need to stand on our own feet - just like the Japanese did at the time. We are not seeing any good people stepping up as candidates to replace President Karzai so naturally we're very worried.

Divon: Where did you grow up?

Roya: I grew up in Herat. When the Taliban took over in 1996, I was a young girl, but I remember vividly that all of a sudden I was not allowed to get out of the house to play with my friends. After 6 months, we moved to Iran, like many educated Afghans did, and spent the Taliban years there. We came back to Herat in 2003, after the fall of the Taliban.

Divon: What are you working on right now?

Roya: One the projects I am most excited about is starting a new Woman Channel on Afghan TV. It will have programs for women - including topics like health, economics and woman rights. In addition to showing on local TV in Afghanistan, we plan to translate everything to English and publish it on the Internet for the global audience.

Divon: Do you think you will marry an Afghan man?

Roya: I am only 25, I still have time. But I don’t think I can marry a man that will not let me leave the home. I am hoping to do my Master’s degree in the US, perhaps I will get lucky and meet an open-minded man over there.

Divon: Finally, what will you advise other young Afghan female entrepreneurs who are considering starting an IT business?

Roya: Never despair - there are problems in every business, and every problem has a solution. Go ahead and start your own business, and don’t pay too much attention to what people say. Use your knowledge. Also, the great thing about the ICT profession, is that you can make money from ICT, perhaps start your own small business, even if you are not allowed to leave home.

Divon: Thank you Roya for your inspiring optimism, and best of luck!

Did you like this post? Please feel free to share the link on Facebook or Google Plus. If you care to share your thoughts and feedback, I would love to hear them either in the comments section below or directly to my email divon@shablife.com. Thanks! -divon