Monday, December 25, 2017

We came. We coded. We inspired.

Code To Inspire has been leaving many people speechless, world over. The army of young women are taking the world of STEM by storm, changing the world one code at a time. The brains behind it is Fereshteh Forough. Here's our conversation with Fereshteh.

Tell us a little about yourself.
My family left Afghanistan early '80s because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was born in a small town at the border of Iran and Afghanistan. I grew up in a family of 8 kids. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan, many Afghan families abroad found hope in their motherland again, like my family. We moved to Herat in 2002. We packed everything in a big truck and we took the road from Mashhad to Herat. I was very unhappy to move from a place where I had my childhood friends, memories and dreams, to a place that I only knew through a few pictures in my mom’s photo album and as a war zone on TV. After two months, I participated in the general entrance examination for university. Meanwhile I started to teach English to girls at a beginner and elementary level. I received my university results before Spring. I was accepted in the Computer Science faculty.
When I finished my bachelors in Computer Science, through a scholarship program, I went to Technical University of Berlin in Germany for two years.  I got my master’s in Information Technology. Getting back to Afghanistan, I started my career as a computer science professor in the Herat University Computer Science Faculty.

What would you define as few of the most significant turning points in your life that inspire the work you do today?
When you are a refugee, living life in a place where they treat you as an unwanted guest was not a pleasant experience. Even accessing a basic right like education was an obstacle. What people tend to think about refugees is that, they come to your country to take your job and steal opportunities out from under you and they are burdens on the community, however what it means to me to be a refugee is that, great things can start with empty hands. My main inspiration was my mother. She learned how to make dresses which she sold to buy us school supplies. She taught me to how to be an entrepreneur and make the best out of the least. Life as an Afghan woman is not easy. They are all fighting for their own basic rights that women in many Western cultures wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) ever think about: laughing out loud, speaking openly in public, grabbing coffee with friends. Still though, let me tell you why I am happy to be a woman from Afghanistan. I have learned so much, specifically:
to appreciate opportunities even small ones, to never give up in even the most difficult of situations, the patience and tolerance to fight the hardships of life.


How did Code To Inspire come about? What inspired it?

During my life journey in education, there were many ups and downs which led me to think about how to improve the status quo of education for women in Afghanistan and specifically in technology. Most of the time, when a female student graduated from Computer Science, she couldn’t find the job in the field she studied. Unfortunately there are many factors as to why. As a female graduate in Computer Science, if you get a job offer outside of your hometown, the majority of families won’t let you leave the city. Safety and security is one reason. There is a lack of safe and secure learning environment. That’s why I established Code to Inspire as a social good enterprise in Jan 2015. Later that year, in November, we opened the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan with the aim to educate Afghan women with in-demand programming skills, empower them to add unique value to their communities, and inspire them to strive for financial and social independence.

Could you share a few success stories / anecdotes from your journey so far?
We believe in giving back to the community. Our students are making mobile apps and games that address real local issues. Their graphic and design work, for example, relays a peaceful message to the community
  • Tourism App: A group of our mobile application development students are creating an app to promote tourism in Afghanistan. They want to show Afghanistan’s lesser known side to the world with all its beautiful nature and attractions. They’re working hard to demonstrate that Afghanistan is not just war and destruction, and there are many historical sites and beautiful places to visit.
  • Fight against Opium Game: Inspired by Afghanistan’s national army, our students developed a game in which players fight the Taliban and eradicate opium production. Instead, the fields are used to grow saffron.  The beta version of the game will be released soon!


What are some of your personal challenges in the journey so far - how have you dealt with them?

Before establishing Code to Inspire, during the summer of 2014, I left the job I had to seek a new dream! While I lived off of my savings in the Big Apple, I felt very nervous, sad, lost in the world and any sort of negative energy you can think of was spinning around my head. I had no official job and thought to use the opportunity of using my native language to earn income. I ended up finding a language school and began teaching Farsi. I took as many as classes I could because I needed the money to survive, but that wasn’t my main passion. In my inner heart, I always wanted to do something for women in my hometown of Herat, a city I missed so badly. When first the idea of CTI came to my mind. I talked to as many as people you can imagine, it was just an IDEA right?! Why would someone can trust that this idea would become a reality?! Many people I spoke to were afraid to invest in CTI or even give their time to help. I tried to use social media like Linkedin to reach out to professionals that I needed their expertise to make my dream come true. By growing my personal network and constantly reaching out to people I got to the point where I was able to register Code to Inspire as a legal entity in the United States.

Do you face much resistance to the work you do? How do you address it?
Yes, some of my former students thought I made the organization to become rich?! How on earth you can make money with a nonprofit? For almost one year I worked unpaid to cover the costs in Afghanistan. Some of them mocked me and my work on their Facebook! They thought that it was hilarious for women to code games. They thought women belonged in kitchens and for making kids!
I never replied to their comment as I had a bigger mission to focus on my goal and put my energy on something positive. I believe your actions and outcomes can speak on your behalf.


What's happening next? :)

We are expanding our coding school and to make that happen we just launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise 40K where we can educate another group of 80 girls in Herat, Afghanistan how to code. We are also at the final stage of releasing some games and mobile applications that are addressing local problems.