In Afghanistan, women’s liberty from oppression and discrimination is still in its infancy. That makes Roya a pioneer and a trailblazer in a country where women are regarded as property—unable to decide for themselves. Roya is where she is now because she refused to go by the norm. She wants to prove to Afghan women that they can do something to change their circumstances.
The Journey of a Refugee
Roya Mahboob is the daughter of Akhtar Mohammed Mahboob. She has two siblings, Elaha and Ali. Although born in Herat Afghanistan in 1987, her family fled to Iran just after her birth to escape the ongoing insurgencies. They only came back to Herat, Afghanistan in 2003. She was able to learn how to speak English working as women activities officer in AINA organization, a French NGO specializing in media. She stayed there for over one year, providing administrative support for activities organized by the NGO and doing other clerical work.
She got interested in information technology after seeing a cousin surfing the internet and using Yahoo! Messenger. In Afghanistan, women are not allowed to enter internet cafes because they are riddled with men. Afghan society looks down on women who associate with men they are not related with. After witnessing how powerful technology is and how it can be used to liberalize women as they could do pretty much anything in the virtual world, Roya knew she found her calling.
Fortunately, the United Nations Development Programme offers information technology courses for women. She enrolled and completed her bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Herat University in 2009. Her activism began way before she completed her degree. From 2006 to 2009, she served as the director of the Afghan Young Development Organization, while being the IT Coordinator at Herat University from 2007. The following year, she founded the Afghan Youth Development Program Organization (AYDPO). In university, Roya displayed leadership skills. She was everywhere, considering that women are expected to blend with the crowd and stay on the sidelines. In order to empower women, she helped establish Technology Women. It’s an organization of tech savvy university students creating websites for faculty and other organizations without charge.
Realizing that they could make money out of it, Roya and her classmates though it was a good idea to start their own software company.
Founding the Afghan Citadel Software Company
Right after graduating from university in 2009, Roya used the money she saved to put up the first female-owned IT firm in her country, the Afghan Citadel Software Company. The company was established in 2010 with her partner, Fereshteh Forough, and their other classmates. Hence, Roya became the first female CEO of an IT company.
It was anything but an easy undertaking. They needed extra funding and the banks were not very helpful. To them, a woman leading a company is an incredulous idea unworthy of support. That was the first challenge Roya faced as a woman entrepreneur. She could have just abandoned her plan and think of working overseas instead where women’s rights are recognized and people are more open to seeing women having a career of their own. Roya chose to stay and managed to raise just enough money to keep initially 18 employees, most of them women.
The next hurdle they have to overcome is getting clients to choose their services over those ran by men. It proved to be harder because they had to earn credibility, which simply means they need to be the best. When securing clients, Roya experienced overwhelming discrimination. Some of them discreetly refuse to further discuss business with ACSC after learning that it’s being led by a woman. Others, however, openly taunt them. But Roya has learned how to deal with different kinds of customers. She doesn’t easily back out from the challenge even if the clients show their contempt at seeing a woman doing what’s supposed to be a “man’s job.” What she does is:
"We tell them, 'This is not just men's work, and if you don't believe us, let us do a presentation and show you our product.'"
Aside from dealing with clients’ utter disgust, Roya and her family were not spared by the community. Her father was criticized for allowing his daughter to put up her own business. He was told that his daughter is doing something scandalous. Their relatives treat them like an outcast because of the path that Roya chose to take. In Afghanistan, women are not allowed to talk to men unless they are in a relationship or are family. Roya is just lucky because her father is the supportive kind. Instead of prohibiting his daughter from pursuing a business career, he stands by her side and urges her on—something that is rare in a conservatively patriarchal country like Afghanistan. Some of her employees, however, were not as lucky as she is. She has three employees who were pressured to leave the company. What’s amazing about Roya is she’s not that idealistic about changing the norm and practices in Afghanistan. Instead of heatedly responding to the issue, Roya opted to bend some rules. Since their company is technologically-run, she allowed those three employees to work from home, settling the conflict that arises from their inevitable dealings with men in the office.
Her obstacles don’t end there. Some resort to violence in order to stop her from conducting business. Roya is one of the few women who have the guts to drive a car. That trivial thing is considered by society as defiance. She was threatened many times by anonymous people who would send her death threats to her mobile phone and email. Many times, she tried changing her mobile number to avoid getting harassed by people she doesn’t even know. But lately, Roya thought the better of it and chose to keep the same number for months now in spite of getting malicious calls or text messages every now and then.
At first, she was afraid, thinking that the Taliban is behind the death threats she was receiving. But later on, she was convinced that the malicious calls and messages were from people who closely monitor her. She believes that the Taliban wouldn’t want to do anything with her as they are pre-occupied with bigger issues. That sort of calmed her down and she started taking death threats with a grain of salt.
Soon, her company became one of the most respected and sought-after software developers in the country. Sometimes they still experience belittling. Roya shares:
"One of our systems, a Web-based accounting system, cost 2,500 dollars, but they were only willing to give us 800 dollars to 1,000 dollars. The same system sold by companies run by men cost 4,000 dollars." (Source: Los Angeles Times)
Achievements of the Afghan Citadel Software Company
Roya kept on despite the suffocating pressure she’s experiencing from different sectors of society. It did not take long before the company proved its worth and began closing deals with more and more clients so much so that male-IT companies got threatened. When asked about the “biggest success” of her company, she enumerated:
- Build Internet classrooms in Herat, Afghanistan: now we have 8 built in the heart of the city with 35,000 students browsing the World Wide Web and growing to 40 schools and 160,000 students.
- Implement the Examer Educational System for online education: now we have 5,000 registered users and growing to 40,000. They are taking tests and qualify for micro scholarships.
- Build Digital Video Studios in Herat and Kabul, Afghanistan: now we have one in Herat and one in Kabul, we called them Women’s Annex Centers and there we produce and upload videos directed by Afghan young women.
- Sponsor Afghan Soccer and sports: now we sponsor the Estequal male team, and in the process to start with the newly founded female team where the star is an incredible 9-year-old girl called Mona. (Source: The Story Exchange)
Seeing a steady rise in women braving to challenge the norm encourages Roya to keep doing what she has begun. She would eventually find a partner in Francesco Rulli, an Italian entrepreneur.
Partnering with Film Annex
Not all men have the mentality of conservative male Afghans. Francesco Rulli, for instance, was taken by Roya’s resilience and fighting spirit. The New York-based businessman saw Roya featured in a NATO video. He didn't think twice about helping Roya in her crusade to change Afghan women's life for the better. According to Francecso:
“I sent the first $15,000 and within a week, ACS had built up the first classroom. I have an opportunity to do the right thing... I appreciate the fact that this is a woman with the opportunity to do something meaningful.” (Source: The Daily Beast)
It commenced their partnership and to date, Francesco and his brother have already put 120,000 dollars of their money in building computer labs in eight different schools around Afghanistan. One of their beneficiaries is the Baghnazargah High School where women are given access to the internet. Roya said women are more often than not clueless about using the internet because they aren’t taught anything about it. Boys are given the priority because women are expected to only do house chores and care for their children. It is the kind of practice Roya and the Film Annex would like to abolish.
With the help of Francesco Rulli, Roya established Women’s Annex to give her fellow women opportunity to show what they could do. It is entirely managed by women and hosts women-made videos and blogs. One of the female directors who made a video shared how her work enthralled her father:
“When my father saw my video on YouTube, he was very happy and he didn't believe that I made that video and the title is with my name, Suzanna, that is the director. And then I made him believe in me.” (Source: NATO)
Things like that give Roya a sense of purpose and fulfillment. She wants to do more for women in her society. In the same year that she partnered with Film Annex to start Women’s Annex, she also began her livelihood program that would enable women to have their own source of income and free them from solely depending on their husband. She has a weaving project where women are allowed to bring their infants to work.
Meeting David Coleman and John Kerry
Roya’s charisma and guts did not only impress Francesco Rulli but other recognized personalities like David Coleman, an architect in a software company called Common Core State Standards, and John Kerry, former Senator and USA’s incumbent Secretary of State.
David praised Roya’s work in Afghanistan, saying:
“Whether you’re introducing a new school once a week or once a month, the power to reach so many different children and affect so many different lives is staggering, and that’s all through creating that infrastructure. If there’s a separation between men and women, online education can provide, in a completely separate environment, a foundation for women to actually get an education... It allows women to interact with each other and interact with the world.” (Source: Pitch Engine)
After meeting Roya, John Kerry tells the press:
“I have to tell you, I met this morning with 10 extraordinary women who are so courageous and inspirational that it really tells the story of all of you and of everything else we’re trying to do here.” (Source: Film Annex Capital Partners)
Although acceptance of women running their own company still has a long way to go in Afghanistan, Roya is hopeful. Now, Afghan women will be able to see beyond the box where society had conditioned them to believe they belong. Progress is slow but Roya has a potent weapon—technology and persistence.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Afghan Citadel Software Company
- Women's Annex
- Web Television Network Film Annex
- International Center for Women's Economic Development
- United Nations Development Programme
- NATO's Silk Afghanistan project
- Citadel of New York
- Afghan Young Development Project
- Baghnazargah High School
- Afghan National Academy of Science
- Afghan Development Program Organization
- Afghan Higher Education Ministry's IT department
- AINA Organization
- Afghan Development Project
- Esteqlal Football Team
- Afghan Business Incubator
- Afghanistan 2.0
Awards and Achievements
- 2004-2005: Served as the Women activities officer of AINA organization
- 2006-2009: Served as the director of the Afghan Young Development Organization
- 2007-2010: Served as IT Coordinator at Herat University
- 2008: Founded the Afghan Development Program Organization (AYDPO)
- 2009: Completed her bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Herat University
- 2010: Founded the Afghan Citadel Software Company (ACSC)
- 2011: Served as Project Coordinator of the Ministry of Higher Education
- 2012: Began her master's degree in Information Technology from WorldWide Science in Malaysia
- 2012: Helped to develop Examer, an Interactive and Educational Social Networking platform with a Micro Scholarship Payment System
- 2012: Started the Afghan Business Incubator
- 2012: Became the CEO of Women's Annex
- 2012: Partnered with Web Television Network, Film Annex to launch the Afghan Development Project
- 2012: Started supporting Esteqlal Football Team
- 2012: Began the Afghan Development Project
- 2012: Became Partner Manager of Citadel of NYC
- 2013: Named one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People In The World
- First IT female CEO in Afghanistan
- Included in an inaugural class of seven Afghan entrepreneurs as part of the Herat Information Technology Program
- Funded a multilingual blog and video site to give these women a platform for telling their stories
Wikipedia (Roya Mahboob)
Time (The 2013 Time 100)
The Daily Beast (In Afghanistan, Roya Mahboob Connects Girls With Computers)
Film Annex (Roya Mahboob on Afghanistan Education and Economy)
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (TEDx Tries To Bring Digital Age To Kabul)
NATO (Herat businesswoman succeeds amid strong opposition)
The Story Exchange (Time's 100 Most Influential 2013: Afghani Entrepreneur Roya Mahboob)
Voice of America (Afghan Women Help Drive Resurgent Economy)
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (In Male-Dominated World, Afghan Businesswoman Breaks Boundaries, Taboos)
Fast Company (In the Heart of Afghanistan, Entrepreneurs Innovate for Peace)
Los Angeles Times (In Afghanistan, businesswomen must seek a delicate balance)
The Story Exchange (Roya Mahboob: Afghan Citadel Software - Providing Women With Opportunities in Afghanistan)
LinkedIn (Roya Mahboob)
Afghan Biographies (Mahboob, Roya Mrs.)
Pitch Engine (Roya Mahboob Meets David Coleman of Common Core)
Pitch Engine (Champion of Female Empowerment Roya Mahboob Makes It To Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People In The World)
Film Annex Capital Partners (Secretary of State John Kerry Meets with Roya Mahboob in Afghanistan)