Fereshteh Forough grew up as a refugee, but she learned to become a computer programmer. And she wants to give other Afghan girls that opportunity. So she founded Code to Inspire, a nonprofit that operates a school for female students to learn how to code at a school in Herat, Afghanistan.
The school opened in 2015, and it has taught more than 150 female students how to code. They find programming work in areas like web development, game development, mobile app development, and graphic design. So far, 25 girls have graduated from the program. The goal is to empower a new generation of female tech leaders who can contribute to a foundation for peace in the war-torn country.
But Forough herself hasn’t been to the school since the travel ban would prevent her from returning to the U.S. She manages it from afar in Brooklyn, New York. On April 29, she will hold Code to Inspire’s first annual charity poker tournament in New York. I talked with Forough about Code to Inspire recently.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me about how the project got started?
Fereshteh Forough: To give a bit of background on myself, I was born as an Afghan refugee in Iran during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. My parents fled the war in the early ‘80s and went to Iran, which is a very close country to Afghanistan. I was able to get my high school degree in Iran, but being born as a refugee, there are a lot of challenges, discriminations, and backlash you face. For me, one of the important things was access to education. As a refugee, you had to show certain papers to schools to attend. That was always part of my life growing up, being afraid of not being able to go to school.
I was fortunate enough that I could finish high school in Iran, and then in 2002, one year after the fall of the Taliban, we moved back to Afghanistan. I was able to get my bachelor’s in computer science. Then I participated in an exam that earned a scholarship to go to Germany, where I got my master’s in computer science at the Technical University of Berlin. I went back to Afghanistan and taught as a computer science professor for about three years at the university in Herat.
Based on my experience as a woman in education, but also in technology specifically, and being a professor, I’ve seen a lot of discrimination and threats and backlash from the community toward women who want to be vocal, who advocate for women in education. Because of that, I wanted to see how I can change the situation in a way so that woman can not only go and access the same opportunities and equality as men in the community, but they can also go to a safe place to study coding, which is a 21st-century skill. But the most important thing is how they can monetize that skill, how they can work remotely and get paid.
For that, I founded Code to Inspire as the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan. That was in 2015. We opened the school to about 100 applicants in the first year. We picked the top 50 because we had limited resources. The program is two years long. For the next cohort we had about 120 applicants and we picked 80. The third cohort, which we’re working with now, had about 200 applicants and we picked another 120.
We offer classes in game development, mobile app development, web app development, and graphic design. It’s an after-school program, so the girls come to the coding school after their regular classes, but the school is open. We have mentors in person, on the ground who teach our students. We’re registered as a 501c3 nonprofit in the United States. I’m the founder and executive director. We have a board of directors and advisory board, the majority of them coming from a tech background. That’s a quick summary of what we’re up to.
GamesBeat: How many people are involved in running the school and doing the teaching?
Forough: We have a project manager and five mentors. Four of them are programming mentors and one of them is a graphic design mentor.
GamesBeat: Is the school accredited in some way?
Forough: It’s more like a coding boot camp. We don’t have an educational certification like a university would, although we do work with third parties through which the students can take exams and earn certifications. The most important one is Unity. We’re partnered with them. A new group of our students this month will be participating in the Unity certification, and hopefully we’ll continue with that.
GamesBeat: Did you do any programming professionally before you started this, or is this what you came back to Afghanistan to do?
Forough: I don’t have any experience working for companies. I came to the United States as a visitor after I’d been a professor. That’s where I had the idea and took my first crack at creating the school.
GamesBeat: Have you lived in Afghanistan ever since 2002, or have you been to different places in the meantime?
Forough: From 2002 to 2012 I was in Afghanistan. The only time that I left was going to Germany for my master’s degree. In 2012 I came to the U.S., and from then until now I wasn’t able to go back to Afghanistan because of my immigration status. If I went back, I wouldn’t be able to come back to the U.S. I’d be subject to deportation. So I’ve done all the work of managing the school from here. I’m in New York now. I live in Brooklyn.
GamesBeat: Have you gotten a lot of support for the school so far, from U.S. companies or game companies?
Forough: Yes and no. In broad aspects, yes. I’ve been very grateful to live in New York City. I’m able to go and meet people and talk about the work that we have at different companies. One of our very early supports was Google. We won a Google Rise award, a $25,000 grant, and that money went to initially establishing the school in Afghanistan. Since then we’ve been part of the Google Giving program as a featured charity. I’ve talked at Google a couple of times. We’ve been able to really cultivate a relationship with Google. With other tech companies like GitHub, they had an in-kind donation of their curriculum on how to use GitHub for the school. They’ve also sponsored our hackathons at the school.
I’ve had conversations with people at Unity. Unity, from the gaming industry specifically, feels like the most supportive and amazing partner we have so far. They’ve offered a lot of classes and assets we needed for free. They also sponsored a group of five of our students and three mentors to go to India last year for Unity Unite India. They had the opportunity to go present their work and see other companies. That was a great experience. They’ve also donated participation in the Unity certification program for free. Certainly, Unity has been a great supporter. I’ve actually joined the Unity education advisory board starting this year.
GamesBeat: Is a lot of the teaching taking place online, or do you have a physical location where everyone goes?
Forough: It is a physical location. The school is for free. One of the reasons I wanted to make it free was because a lot of the families who want to have their daughters go for instruction and activities — if they want to invest, they’ll invest in a son because he’s going to be a breadwinner. They invest more in boys so they can have more extracurricular activities. We have internet connections and laptops so that students who don’t have access to technology 24/7 can come to school and use our facilities.
GamesBeat: How is the climate in Afghanistan now in terms of educating girls, especially in computer science? Is this one of the only options, or are there a lot of options available to girls across the country?
Forough: When I moved from Iran to Afghanistan in 2002, you were talking about a country that the Taliban had just left a year before. During the Taliban regime, there were no female students going to school. Less than 900,000 students were going to school, and women were not allowed to participate in the workforce.
During the transition after the Taliban, there was huge progress and development for women. As of now, there are about 7 million students going to school, and 2.5 million of them are women. That’s huge progress, looking at what’s happening in Afghanistan. There’s an increasing number of female teachers as well. When it comes to telecommunications and information systems, 90% of the residential areas in Afghanistan are under coverage. There are about 23 million mobile users. The population in total is 31 million people. About 10% of the population has access to the internet. Women’s participation in the workforce is 19% more than before.
You see the momentum. There’s a lot of momentum for women, especially in education. But I should also mention that it’s not happening everywhere. In the big cities that have better infrastructure and better security, there are more chances for women. Herat, the city I’m from, is one of the biggest and safest cities in Afghanistan, so there’s more support for families and for women. But if you leave the city, in half an hour or an hour you’ll be in villages where the infrastructure is much weaker. They may not have electricity or healthy water. You’re not going to find a coding school there.
To be honest, once I started the school, there were very few talks about women in technology, women becoming part of the ecosystem of the tech field. When we started the school, a lot of people didn’t believe — they thought it wasn’t sustainable. It would just be something momentary. But once we started, after a year and a half, when people were seeing these girls and the skills they learned — they were creating games and mobile apps targeting problems within their community. They were getting paid. Then we saw more momentum in other cities. More boot camps and programs started supporting women in tech. A lot of people in tech are more interested in seeing how they can engage women. So there is momentum, but it’s still not a big stream of access. It’s still a privilege for people who live in a better situation.
GamesBeat: Is your school the biggest resource for women in computer science in the country?
Forough: I can say it is. There are computer science faculty in places where I taught, and faculties of computer science in other cities in Afghanistan, but still, the number of women in those classes is very small. They’re outnumbered. Our coding school is aimed specifically toward women. We’ve done about 15 outsourcing projects worth about $12,000, and all the money went into the girls’ pockets. We’re the only entity in Afghanistan working directly with women. The next step is giving them opportunities to find employment.
GamesBeat: How many students have graduated from the program so far?
Forough: When we started, we had two different goals or missions. One was educational, giving exposure to computer science and coding to girls at an early age. We had students that came from high school, 8th to 12th grade, 14 to 18 years old. They studied a program in web development, and at the end of the course, they were able to create websites. For them, it was more about exposure. It wasn’t as much about helping them find jobs, although a few of them found opportunities for web development. It was fantastic when we learned about that.
Our first group of college students, especially in computer science, they’re the ones where we want to help them with employment and becoming more financially sustainable. We had our first group of graduates last December, about 20 of them. It was a combination of classes in mobile app development and game development. When we reached out to them to keep track of their jobs and other things they’re doing, 95% of them, through what we’ve taught them or through our local connections, found jobs. Either they found a job or they created their own startups and raised funds to work on their own companies. That was amazing for us, to see how it was so transformative for them.
We’ve done a lot of creative games. One of the games we just released, on iOS and Android, is about a girl who’s a superhero. She’s on a mission to rescue her parents and she’s going through different stages and obstacles. Our goal, looking at all the superhero stories that are about men, was to create something about a woman superhero. We wanted to show that girls could be part of that process and overcome challenges. The girls did everything, from sketching and designing the characters on up.
GamesBeat: What is your road map like? Do you have bigger goals for the future?
Forough: Talking about five-year goals, around 2025, I’d love to expand the school within Afghanistan. Every day I get messages and emails from girls around Afghanistan asking me when we’re going to open more schools in other cities. I see that momentum. A lot of girls know about us and they want to go to our school. I’d love to open two to three other locations within Afghanistan and expand the school.
In the longer term, 10 years or even more, it’s about empowering women in developing countries and underprivileged communities. If I can do something in Afghanistan — which to some people is an impossible place, a war zone – I’ll be able to do that in any other part of the world. I’m thinking about other countries in the middle east, in Africa, in a lot of places that have the same situation as Afghanistan. We can scale the program and empower people there as well.
GamesBeat: Did you face a lot of personal risk doing this?
Forough: I don’t know if I should call it risk, but the first challenge was that I wasn’t able to go back to Afghanistan, because of immigration. I technically did everything online. As much as working through the internet is great, I really wanted to see the school. I’ve never actually set foot in the place that I created. I’ve only been in touch with the team on Skype and seen pictures of the girls. For me, to expand the program within Afghanistan and find partners and talk to people and raise more awareness — unfortunately, I’m not able to do that. That’s the challenge I’m facing. It’s very frustrating for me sometimes. My parents are getting old. I haven’t seen them in a long time. It’s a big bag of hassles and things I can’t do for myself.
Besides that, though, once we started, there were a lot of people who thought I was just doing this for the sake of notoriety, without any foundation. They thought it was going to be temporary. The school would shut down. It was just something trendy. To really show those people and prove to them that I believe in what I do, I’ll keep doing as much as I can, as I’m able. It’s been difficult. People comment on our Facebook posts sometimes. We’ll post a game made by one of our girls and they’ll say, “Oh, women and games, that’s funny. Women should be in the kitchen.” When people have a perspective like that, it’ll take a long time to work and change that. We face that kind of resistance.
But thankfully, we’ve always been able to keep the schools safe and secure. We have security cameras. We have a guard. We don’t let anyone come to the school without making appointments. There’s still the presence and the threat of the Taliban in some parts of Afghanistan, even just outside of Herat. We don’t want to put the lives of the girls in danger.
GamesBeat: That’s a lot more to think about, just trying to get people an education.
Forough: Absolutely. I always tell people — we talk about women in tech in general, but for me there are a lot of deeper layers in Afghanistan on top of that, making it more difficult to do something.
GamesBeat: Have you been able to meet with a lot of people in the games business in this process, pitching to them or getting more support for the school?
Forough: To be honest, the majority of the people I know are from Unity. I went to their San Francisco office and made a presentation. That’s how we completed the relationship. I also presented at Unity Developer Day in New York City a couple of months ago.
I’ve talked to Games for Change. I met with people at Oculus and talked about potential VR projects that our students are thinking about. But because gaming is such a new thing in Afghanistan — there’s no game industry, no game companies doing it for a living. We’re making something in Afghanistan that’s never been there before, especially engaging girls and women. For us to navigate things like how to make games, how to monetize games, what the benefit of games can be — it’s a bumpy road, learning all of this.
I’ve met a lot of people randomly. But I haven’t really been able to establish a connection with them around things like outsourcing parts of games. I mentioned at the beginning, but part of it goes to people’s interpretations of what’s going on in Afghanistan. Whenever I say “Afghanistan,” a lot of people, the first thing that comes to their mind is that it’s a war zone. When I come and talk to them about how it is and what we do, it’s difficult to get people on board, to get them feel comfortable and trust that our girls in Afghanistan, their coding is the same as coding by people in any other part of the world. You just have to give them a chance to work on their projects.
For me, that’s the struggle. I wanted to go to GDC, but the costs are so expensive and I couldn’t find a sponsor. I’d really like to go there and talk if I could get a chance. I’m always looking for platforms like that, places that have a bigger audience. Not only because, of course, it would be great if I could find sponsors and donations and mentorship, but just to go and change people’s perspectives about Afghanistan. First of all, what does it mean to be a refugee like me? How can a refugee do something like this? How can a woman in Afghanistan do something like this? Especially right now, with the peace talks happening with the Taliban. They ignored the role of women at the peace table. There’s not a lot of representation. That’s very important for me, to change that perception.
We have an upcoming fundraiser on April 29. It’s a crazy time, securing sponsors and getting people together. It’s going to be a charity poker tournament this year. Hopefully we’ll raise the goal we’ve set.