Profile: Afghanistan’s First Female CEO – Roya Mahboob Part 1

I have been so bogged down with the sufferings of Afghan women recently that when I saw this I had to share!

This story was republished from The Extraordinary. Written by .

Black and white picture of Roya Mahboob

Film Annex Capital Partners.
Photo courtesy: new.pitchengine.com

In Afghanistan, women’s liberty from oppression and discrimination is still in its infancy. Roya  Mahboob is a pioneer and a trailblazer in a country where women are regarded as property. 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.

At twenty-six-years old, Roya has displayed extraordinary resilience. She founded Afghan Citadel Software Company, now a leading service provider (ACSC).

She is currently the CEO of Women’s Annex, a non-profit that seeks to give Afghan women a platform to express their artistic side through blogging and directing. Profit from ACSC is used to fund internet cafes for women.

From refugee to CEO

Roya Mahboob is the daughter of Akhtar Mohammed Mahboob. She has two siblings, Elaha and Ali. Born in Herat Afghanistan in 1987, her family fled to Iran just after her birth to escape ongoing insurgencies.

They came back to Herat, Afghanistan in 2003. She learned to speak English and worked as a women’s activities officer in then 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.

Roya’s interests in information technology began 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 to.) After witnessing the power of technology and how it can be used to liberalize women, Roya knew she had found her calling.

Fortunately, the United Nations Development Program offered information technology courses for women. She enrolled and completed her bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Herat University in 2009.

The following year, she founded the Afghan Youth Development Program Organization (AYDPO).  In order to empower women, she helped establish Technology Women. An organization of tech savvy university students creating free websites for faculty and other organizations. Realizing that they could make money out of it, Roya and her classmates started their own software company.

After graduating from university in 2009, Roya used the money she saved to open 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, making Roya the first female CEO of an IT company.

Overcoming obstacles

Extra funding was needed and the banks were not helpful. To them (the banks), a woman leading a company is an incredulous idea unworthy of support. That was the first challenge Roya faced as a woman entrepreneur.

Instead of abandoning her plan or leaving to work overseas (where women’s rights are recognized), she chose to stay and manage to raise enough money to employ eighteen employees, most of them women.

The next hurdle they had to overcome was getting clients to choose their services over those run by men. They had to earn credibility, which meant they need to be the best.

Roya experienced overwhelming discrimination. Some potential clients refused to discuss business with ACSC after learning that it was led by a woman. Others, however, openly taunted them. Roya did not back away from the challenge, when potential clients show their contempt at seeing a woman doing what’s supposed to be a man’s job. She says, “This is not just men’s work, and if you don’t believe us, let us do a presentation and show you our product.”

A father’s love

Roya’s father was criticized for allowing his daughter to open her own business. He was told that his daughter was doing something scandalous. Their relatives treated them like outcasts because of the path that Roya has chosen to take.

Roya’s father was supportive. Instead of prohibiting his daughter from pursuing a business career, he stood by her side and urged her on—something that is rare in a conservatively patriarchal country like Afghanistan.

Some of her employees, however, were not as lucky. She had three employees who were pressured to leave the company. Since their company is technologically run, she allowed those three employees to work from home, settling the conflict that arose from their inevitable dealings with men in the office.

The threats

Roya is one of the few women in Afghanistan who drives a car (considered by society as defiance). She had been threatened many times by anonymous people who sent death threats to her mobile phone and email. She decided to keep the number in spite of getting malicious calls or text messages.

At first she was afraid, thinking that the Taliban was behind the death threats. But later, she convinced herself that the malicious calls and messages were from people who closely monitored her. She believed that the Taliban were pre-occupied with bigger issues.

Edited by Gillian Felix

I am fascinated by this story and will be bringing you a part 2 on Roya and her company.

Please leave your comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

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Photo Courtesy Mtholyoke.edu

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