Women in the World

09.01.12

In Afghanistan, Roya Mahboob Connects Girls With Computers

A 25-year-old female entrepreneur working to help the next generation is also a model for it. Angela Shah reports.

The 25-year-old is at once exhilarated and shy. A woman is not supposed to attract so much attention. Just minutes earlier, a male colleague offered her a word to the wise as he gently pulled down her head scarf to cover her throat and shoulders, exposed from the scoop-necked top she wore, saying: “There are conservative men inside.

On this day in late May, the girls at Baghnazargah High School were getting computers and Internet access for the first time. Mahboob’s IT company, Afghan Citadel Services, or ACS, installed the technology lab as part of a project to help wire schools in Herat, and Mahboob offered welcome remarks as a panel of bearded men dressed in traditional salwar kameez, elders in this community, along with school officials, sipped tea behind her.

Baghnazargah is located in a poor section of Herat and many of the female students come from conservative families. While boys can move freely, and so attend computer tutorials outside of school, girls are only allowed to leave home to attend school. And those girls are, in a sense, the lucky ones: most girls don’t even attend high school. Like most 16-year-olds, Augiza longs to surf the Web, but she doesn’t have an email address. “This is the only way for me to learn the computer,” she says. “It gives me [a] connection to everywhere in the world.”

For students like Augiza, Mahboob is a revelation. Here is a woman less than a decade older than they are who runs her own company and flies in from Kabul on her own for ribbon-cutting ceremonies like the one on this day. She, they can see, has a position of power. Once the men have left and the formal festivities are concluded, the girls congregate around Mahboob in packs of threes and fours asking to take pictures with her.

“You have to show everybody that men and women are equal,” Mahboob says. “Women can do something if you allow them. Give them opportunity and they can prove themselves.”

In a country where the Taliban had outlawed telephones, Afghanistan has quickly wired itself in the last decade. The number of Internet users in the country has grown from 300,000 in 2006 to 1 million two years ago, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Only 20 percent of Afghanistan is electrified; it’s only 20 percent illiterate,” says Paul Brinkley, the former deputy undersecretary of defense. “But 60 percent have a cellphone. What does this tell you about the Afghan people? They’re starving for information. You need that more to stabilize this country than all the security things you could do.”

Brinkley, a Silicon Valley veteran before joining the government, founded the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan in 2010, to link the department’s military operations with economic development. That program led to the Herat Information Technology Program, which started in May 2011 with an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs, including Mahboob. The program’s goal is to show the potential of Afghanistan once international forces withdraw troops and treasure by the end of 2014: that, with a little bit of help from the international community, talented and determined Afghans are succeeding despite an enduring insurgency, a frequently inefficient and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, and a weak domestic economy.

“Roya represents what the majority of Afghanistan wants,” he says. “To stand on their own two feet, to build their own lives.”

Mahboob founded ACS two years ago along with two Herat University classmates with an investment of $20,000, partly through savings from their jobs lecturing at the university and with funds from Mahboob’s family. She owns 45 percent of ACS, with the remaining shares divided among the two former Herat University classmates and her brother and sister.

I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.

In an industrial-park compound behind high walls topped with concertina wire, the entrepreneurs set up offices in free office spaces with Internet provided by the program and attended seminars on “Business 101": how to create a business plan to attract investors, how to respond to RFPs, and how to price their services.

A year after the incubator’s launch, some entrepreneurs are still struggling to establish a commercial foothold. But others, like Mahboob, have thrived. Crucially, ACS is making the transition away from sourcing business solely through contracts offered by ISAF and international groups and toward Afghan governments, hospitals, and schools. Currently, the company has projects underway or completed worth $500,000. In the last year, Mahboob has hired three additional software programmers and aggressively sought contracts for projects worth millions.

“What matters is that those Afghan businesses are doing better than before,” says Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat who founded the nongovernmental organization Building Markets, which recently changed its name from the Peace Dividend Trust. “That is your sustainability.”

A NATO promotional video last year featuring Mahboob attracted the attention of Francesco Rulli, a New York businessman. The Italian-born Rulli is sort of a Renaissance man entrepreneur—one of his businesses is a men’s clothing line in partnership with actor John Malkovich—and he says he was attracted by Mahboob’s spunk.

So far, he and his brother have invested nearly $120,000 to build eight computer labs in Herat schools like the one at Baghnazargah High School. “I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom,” he says.

“I have an opportunity to do the right thing,” he explains. “I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Rulli runs Film Annex, a Web-based video-content farm that allows individuals to create Web TV channels; Rulli profits by capturing and selling user data. He says the site has 30 million page views a day. He and Mahboob recently expanded their partnership to install computer labs in other Central Asian countries, and to develop e-learning and testing platforms for use in those schools. Mahboob’s university classmate and co-investor Fereshteh Forough plans to move to New York by the end of the year to open an office there.

roya-mahboob-shah-02
Computer class at an all girls school in Herat. The classroom was set up by Roya Mahboob's company. May 23, 2012. (Gabriela Maj)

“Let’s give the kids the Internet and let them choose what they want their future to be,” Rulli says. “I have three kids. I know ‘Angry Birds’ is a stronger weapon against the Taliban than anything else.”

Late one spring evening as Mahboob and I enjoyed the breeze at Takht-e-Safar, the mountain-side park that overlooks Herat, she told me: “You know, in Afghanistan, we women are not supposed to go out, run the business, but I don’t agree with this.” The park is a popular retreat for Heratis, but past sundown, it is mainly the refuge of men clumped together on car hoods or blankets. Hidden by the darkness and foliage, Mahboob and I could allow our head scarves to loosen.

“If we can’t prove to 100 people that women have ability and skills, we can prove it to at least 10 people,” she says. “That’s enough.”

Mahboob tells me that she first discovered the Web in high school in 2003, when she saw her cousin in Iran use Yahoo messenger. Her lack of knowledge shamed her. She immediately saw how isolated she had been among Iran’s Afghan refugees and how the Web could connect her not only to Afghanistan but to the rest of the world. So, when her family moved to Herat just across the Iranian border later that year, she enrolled in Information and communications technology courses offered for women by the United Nations Development Programme.

Recognizing technology’s power to connect her to the rest of the world, she pursued a computer sciences degree at Herat University. After graduation she stayed on as a junior faculty member in the university’s computer lab. There she first got a taste of her biggest obstacle in business: she’s a woman.

Slender, 5-feet tall and partial to fashionable tunics, skinny jeans, and heels, curly bangs escape from her headscarf onto her forehead. “When I started working at university, all people were thinking that I am a typist,” she says. “I created websites, databases for them, but they never even mention our names. They mentioned my deputy when he was a man.”

Even today, when responding to contract bids at ministries in Kabul, Mahboob says bureaucrats often openly disbelieve that she is the CEO of her own company. She has recently pitched the Ministry of Public Health for services on an IT contract. “She is a woman,” Mahboob says of the minister. “I hope she will listen.”

Such paternal condescension is fairly common, and Mahboob has learned to navigate around the soft discrimination. But the opposition is also, frequently, more sinister.

roya-mahboob-shah-03
Roya wears a traditional chador entering an all girls school in Herat where her company recently set up the first computer lab. May 23, 2012. (Gabriela Maj)

One afternoon in late May, Mahboob picks up her ringing cellphone. Without saying anything—she makes a slight face—she pushes the button to hang up the line.

Physical threats from anonymous male callers come almost daily. While her own father and brother support her efforts at ACS, many in the conservative community of Herat do not. “They call and call and call, saying ‘I will pay you, too,’ as if I am doing bad things to get business,” she says.

For many conservative men, Mahboob’s having business meetings with unrelated men on her own—a basic of doing business–is akin to prostituting herself: the business men can only be paying her for one thing, and that is sex.

Ahkhtar Mohammed Mahboob says he, too, receives phone calls asking why he doesn’t force his daughter to abandon her business. “It has been difficult for us, for our family,” he says after breakfast at the Herat home he shares with his wife; his daughters, Roya and Elha; and his son, Ali.

“Maybe they will hurt Roya but I can’t change myself or my daughter,” he says, quietly. “This is her time. We cannot stop progress."

Mahboob used to switch among an assortment of SIM cards to deflect her harassers, but is now resigned to the taunting and threats. For the last eight months, she’s kept the same cellphone number.

“What can I do?” Mahboob asks. “I have to keep working for my company, for my country. We have to stay focused on helping girls.”