Time’s 100 Most Influential 2013: Afghani Entrepreneur Roya Mahboob

Karin Kamp at The Story Exchange By Karin Kamp at The Story Exchange

Roya Mahboob rises above death threats, fighting for women’s empowerment and education with computers, access to the Internet and social media.

Roya Mahboob, founder of Afghan Citadel Software Co.

Roya Mahboob, founder of Afghan Citadel Software Co.

When Roya Mahboob found out she was on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world she thought it was a mistake.

“At first when I saw the email I didn’t believe it,” says Mahboob, the 25-year-old founder of Afghan Citadel Software Co., an IT consulting firm based in Afghanistan that she founded in 2010. “But then I was so happy and honored by this award” Mahboob told The Story Exchange.

Her company develops software and databases for private companies, government ministries and NATO. She employs 25 people, 18 of whom are women, and had revenues of about $500,000 last year.

Read Roya Mahboob on 1,000 Stories

While Afghan society is more open for women than it was during the reign of the Taliban, it is still extremely conservative, with many believing women should stay home to care for their families. And Mahboob has been threatened time and again for choosing to work, especially in the evolving sector of information technology.

Besides growing her company, Mahboob is consumed by a bigger goal: changing the plight of women in Afghanistan. Her weapon of choice is a computer, internet connectivity and social media.

Connecting girls online

She has reinvested almost all of the profits from Afghan Citadel Software into a major program to build computer classrooms with access to the Internet for girls. “The boys are supported financially to learn but families do not support the females, and girls can’t go to Internet cafes,” Mahboob said.

So far, eight classrooms have been built in Herat connecting 35,000 girls with plans to grow to 40 schools, which would reach 160,000 girls across Afghanistan. Some 5,000 girls have learned Examer, an interactive and educational social networking platform with a micro scholarship payment system, developed by Mahboob and her partners.

Educating girls in technology and teaching them to interact on social media has resulted in outrage by many in her community and threats against Mahboob.

“When some parents heard about Facebook they thought we are trying to find a boyfriend for their girls, to watch bad movies and get them to be independent against the family.”

One of the school's computer classroom in Afghanistan

One of Mahboob’s computer classrooms in Afghanistan

But Mahboob sees proficiency in technology as a way to empower women economically because they can work from home, and also socially connecting women who are unlikely to meet due to traditional values. Luckily, Herat’s Head of education, Ahmad Basir Arven Tahari, who is part of the younger generation, agrees and the computer course is now mandatory for girls aged 14 to 18.

“These young women are becoming more independent and on social media they have more confidence to talk openly about the things they want. They are making their own community of friends online. And with social media and target marketing they will get their financial freedom and independence,” she says.

Blogging for cash

Mahboob also founded a blog and video site in 2011 called Women’s Annex, in partnership with FilmAnnex, which aims to empower women by educating them online and giving them a platform to share their stories. Managed by Afghan women, Women’s Annex offers videos and blogs about education, business, and sports amongst other topics.

About 300 female student bloggers are trained and some of them have contributed content to the site and received payment via advertising revenues.

In 2012, she again teamed up with FilmAnnex, this time to show a new face of Afghanistan including documentaries through their channel called Afghan Development Web TV.

“I want to be a role model for females to know they can start their own business and nothing should stop them.”

After Mahboob started her company in 2010 her father was pressured by men in their community to stop his daughter from working and close her business. Her father refused their demands.

“I hope that we are able to improve life for women, and we’re feeling positive that we can.” – Roya Mahboob
Three of her friends were not so lucky and were forced to quit (but Mahboob now has them working remotely from home).

She recalls competing for an Afghani government project and beating out six other male competitors.

“One of our competitors was jealous and he couldn’t tolerate that we won the bid and threatened us,” Mahboob says. She was warned to be afraid for her life if she did not stop working on the project.

A barrage of threats

She received a barrage of threatening phone calls and text messages, which led to several new cell numbers, but the harassment continued. Going to the police, Mahboob says, is pointless saying they would “just laugh or do nothing.”

What is amazing about Mahboob is her reaction to the threats. Instead of being fearful or distraught, Mahboob says these types of experiences motivate her even more to keep growing her firm and working on behalf of women.

“We want to bring changes to our society. Unfortunately, women in most of society are seen as second to men and we are trying to be accepted as human beings and be equal. I hope that all women in Afghanistan one day can be financially independent and have equal rights.”

The future of women in Afghanistan depends to a large extent on what happens after 2014, when presidential elections will be held and NATO troops will leave the country.

“It’s a concern what will happen, who will be the president, what will be the position of women … I hope that we are able to improve life for women, and we’re feeling positive that we can.”

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Karin Kamp at The Story ExchangeTime’s 100 Most Influential 2013: Afghani Entrepreneur Roya Mahboob