The entire generation of youth in Afghanistan deserves to gain control over their futures says Roya Mahboob, chief executive of Afghan Citadel Software. When she first sighted a computer at age 16, Roya Mahboob knew she wanted to build a career in technology. In 2010, she became the first tech chief executive in Afghanistan, at age 23. She also founded Afghan Citadel Software (ACS) with the aim of involving more women in her country’s growing technology business.
She recalls growing up in Afghanistan saying, “We are not thinking, we are not supposed to do critical thinking”.
Mahboob was born in Iran to Afghan parents as one of seven children. Her parents had travelled to Iran during the Soviet invasion, and after the fall of the Taliban government, they travelled back to Afghanistan. That was where she began her university studies and learned English.
She founded ACS along with her sister Elaha. She believes that digital literacy can give women a voice in the global conversations, and that it can also open doors for skills and financial independence.
Recalling an incident, she narrates the day when she and a friend walked into an Internet café. A lot of the men stared at them because they were the only two women in the room, but she did not let this bother her. Henceforth, she immersed herself into the world of technology, and never looked back.
“I saw the incredible power of social media and technology in my life, and I saw how it connected me to the world, and that I could work from home, and grow my business,” Mahboob says.
She continues to explain that Afghanistan is male dominated, and that women are not allowed to do social things. They mostly stay indoors and interact with family members and close friends. She describes the women in Afghanistan as being given a “very narrow vision” of the world, and that technology and the internet are the door to the rest of the world.
Mahboob relates the numerous obstacles she faced in Afghanistan’s conservative society when she started Afghan Citadel. Among them was lack of trust from people because they were women. “They didn’t trust us, did not know what IT was, or wanted to pay us less. They put spies on my walls, they threatened the women not to work with me, they threatened me …”
After her futile attempt to find business locally, she devised an alternative strategy. Through social media, she contacted different international companies, asking if they wanted to outsource services in Afghanistan run by women only. Through this, she expanded her network and met Francesco Rulli, an Italian businessman and philanthropist based in New York. With his help, she founded Digital Citizen Fund (DCF), a non-profit company that helps women and girls in developing countries gain access to technology.
DCF has successfully built 11 Technology Centres in 11 schools, two stand-alone Media & Innovation centres and has trained 8,000 female students in digital literacy. Currently, they are planning to expand their program to Mexico and train 5,000 more girls.
In 2014, Mahboob was forced to leave Afghanistan because of the constant threats she received, which also put her family in danger. She is now based in New York, but still keeps close tabs to her projects and the girls and women she is teaching through her technology innovations.
She also mentioned that she and other women are developing a software called Edy Edy, a system that will connect schools and business. The aim of this system would be to grant the pupils practical training and apply skills that will make them employable in the private sector.
She believes that technology will lead the way to a better future, and says that her mission is to empower Afghan women and children through digital literacy, and connect them to a “world beyond their borders”.