Meet The Entrepreneur Changing The Future For Women of Afghanistan

2013 Time 100 Gala - Arrivals

You may have read about Roya Mahboob when the Afghani women's rights pioneer was chosen as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential in 2013.

You may have heard about her role as founder of a successful software company that's creating jobs for women in countries where simply walking into an Internet-enabled cafe is dangerous.

You may even have heard of her inspired use of crypto-currency bitcoin to ensure that female employees without traditional bank accounts receive their pay.

But nothing compares with meeting Roya Mahboob in person. It's tempting to ignore what's taboo in journalism these days, and to describe the female tech visionary in physical terms. Watching her deep in conversation in the center of the room, two clichés rushed to mind: tiny, which instantly conjures the word powerhouse; and small, which practically demands mighty. Is it so bad to respond to this 27-year-old change-maker's courage and charisma so viscerally?

The irrepressible Roya Mahboob triumphs daily over an unimaginable world.

She helps her countrywomen triumph. Powers on despite opposition and death threats. One of Roya's favorite words is "confidence." Her stories ring resoundingly with the word. It pops up as she describes the growing self-esteem that expertise and education -- and yes, a paycheck -- bring to newly employed women in this male-dominated culture. She talks of how the men, initially resistant and disapproving of the change in their wives and daughters, become more supportive when the money arrives.

Over half of the employees at Afghanistan Citadel Software Company are women. Through the efforts of Women's Annex Foundation, the charitable organization co-founded by Mahboob, 55,000 students now have Internet access and are on the path to digital literacy. Eleven computer media labs have been built in Kabul and Herat plus two stand-alone Media Labs.

Mahboob and the Women's Annex contingent have also succeeded where bigger, better-funded platforms have not: creating a revenue-generating model for content creators.

Intent on showing women and girls how to run a successful business, the team developed a film and blogging platform that not only compensates the bloggers but gives them a voice. While being trained in digital storytelling, the students use their expertise to tell the new story of Afghanistan. Their paychecks help ensure they can continue to grow an empowered future.

Mahboob says she and her team aren't just entrepreneurs; they're seeking to be role models. Clearly, they are wildly succeeding on a growing number of countries -- including the U.S. We talked with Mahboob on a recent visit she made to California.

Sarah Browne: You talk about "confidence" and the way financial independence helps increase it. Are there particular changes in confidence that you've seen among your employees?

Roya Mahboob: Self-confidence is the basis of personal success. It is a way to believe in our skills and trust in our abilities. I saw many of our students and employees start to believe in their power and feel confident. They changed their path in a positive way and became successful. Self-confidence was like magic in their lives; a fast way to change their lives.

SB: Who inspires you?

RM: My family is my real inspiration, especially my father who helped and supported me through my previous failure and helped me to be successful now. He told me nothing in life is ever guaranteed, but we should be positive and have productive experiences.

<b class="credit">Sarah Browne</b>
Sarah Browne

SB: You've met many powerful women via your work. If one of these powerful women could mentor you, whom would you choose?

RM: One of those women is Madeleine Albright, who is a very inspiring woman. I like one of her quotes: "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." I'd like Sheryl Sandberg to be my mentor as she is one of the most powerful and admirable women in the IT field. Her book "Lean In" really inspired me.

SB: I love the Superhero Factory project. Giving the young generation a chance to create their own superheroes to be inspired by is a brilliant idea. If there was a Roya Superhero, what would be her super power? What would she say to the children of Afghanistan?

RM: If I were a superhero, I would want the ability to provide digital literacy tools like computers, tablets or smartphones to every women in Afghanistan and teach them how to be financially independent and connected to the world.

I would say that nothing in the life is easy and don't expect things to be given to you. I would say they have to learn about their skill , talent, and own power because I think every one has a super hero inside himself/herself. If you find the right skills and ability you are a superhero -- it doesn't matter who you are or where you are. Good things will came to those whom work hard.

Superhero Factory Woman's Annex Foundation wants to give Afghanistan and its young generation their own superheroes to be inspired by. We are building the Superheroes of the next generation for Afghan students,

SB: What frightens you about the path you've chosen?

RM: When I am working hard and make zero progress.

SB: Would your family have predicted this path for you? What qualities did they see in you when you were growing up that told them you would be a pioneer and a women's rights rockstar?

RM: My family always supported me in my path. They thought I was not a good listener and I did not want to follow others' rules. Instead, I made my own rules. They thought my patience and curiosity would help me to be a pioneer.

SB: What future do you see for yourself? Where will you, Women's Annex and Citadel be in 5 years?

RM: Life is not guaranteed, but I do know that I want to stay in this field and focus on my two new projects: the educational EdyEdy and Artistic Street. I want to expand them to empower children and youth all across the world. Through Women's Annex and Citadel we will provide digital literacy tools and training for women's empowerment not only in Afghanistan but also in all other developing countries.

SB: Aside from donating to Women's Annex, how can we "western" women contribute to your causes? Can we help via social media? What can we do if we have time, energy, and skills we want to put to good use for your projects?

RM: We would love to hear their experiences and histories or any ideas in a forum of blogs and videos that we can share with our users in developing countries to inspire and connect with others. They can also share their technical skills and online training material with us for our future entrepreneurs on our new platform EdyEdy or WomensAnnex.

SB: Could we mentor these future entrepreneurs? Could we create a business incubator program for your entrepreneurs-to-be? You may have heard about a program for women-led entrepreneurs called ASTIA.

RM: We would appreciate if the ASTIA or TechStars program would be started to help our students learn about technical skills and entrepreneurship.

The Women's Annex Foundation is currently operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Mexico and their goal is to expand globally.