Giving back and empowering women in Saudi Arabia one at a time
By Amy MacMillan, News@MITSloan
May 4, 2007
SDM ’07 student Nada Hashmi was shocked when she returned to her native Saudi Arabia a year ago and realized how far behind the country lagged in technology.
Nada had spent the previous five years in the United States earning both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in computer science and math. Although she had a prestigious job as an associate computational biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, she worried that her absence from where she grew up would contribute to the talent drain there. And, specifically, Nada noticed that Saudi women lacked in basic technical skills because so many of them took time off to raise families.
"In Saudi Arabia, technology is just catching up," Nada explained. "The offices there are now getting computers into their buildings. They are just getting used to the Internet…but the problem is that women always get left behind." She was especially stunned that many of the hospitals still used paper-based systems despite the resources to implement higher-end systems. "I realized that maybe the people who are educated leave, so the area gets drained. The reason I went back is because I wanted to give back."
In 2005, Nada moved home to work for the College of Business Administration, a private college established seven years ago in the city of Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia. Because it is Saudi Arabia, there is gender segregation, and the 500 women enrolled are separated from the 1,400 male students.
Giving women a voice
In 2006, Nada coordinated a partnership for the women’s campus, with Women in Technology (WIT), which is funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) of the U.S. Department of State, and managed by the Institute of International Education (IIE), to teach Saudi women basic computing skills. WIT’s goal is to empower women by teaching them basic computing and IT skills at a low cost. WIT receives support from Microsoft Unlimited Potential (UP) curriculum and instructor training, and also has partners in Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
"I wanted to do a project that’s good for society and the school," she said. But, Nada didn’t just want to arrange a training center within the college. Instead, she wanted the students directly involved in the project in order to help them develop managerial, as well as technical skills. So, she suggested an enhanced version of the original program, and had the students organize their own non-profit company within the school. This set-up gave students real-world experience, and local women affordable computer training. The students named the enterprise: Student Women Initiative For Technology, or SWIFT. Nada assisted the students in determining a SWIFT hierarchy with a president, vice president, and various departments such as marketing, human resources, finance, and IT. Altogether, about 20 students volunteered to help Nada get this project started, she said. "They ran the company in the sense that they had to market the program and find the customers. We all raised the money for it," Nada said. SWIFT was organized as a semi-autonomous entity within CBA, but the students managed their own funds for the program. Marketing students were encouraged to find local sponsors and independent resources. Finance students oversaw the budget, and MIS students supported the IT efforts. The college students who joined the program were juniors and seniors who had to apply. They were interviewed and selected, just as they would be for a real job. Freshmen and sophomores served as executives. Once the original company was established, the students then interviewed one another to decide who else would be selected for the program.
An outside trainer enabled the students to become Microsoft-certified. These women then taught the entire Microsoft Office suite, as well as the basics of the Internet and e-commerce to community women interested in career development. The women they taught not only learned computer and business skills, but they also learned soft skills such as organization, time management, and leadership skills. "A lot of the students over there don’t work with men. This was the perfect opportunity for them to get the experience of working in a real environment. And, to be able to help society, and help themselves," Nada said. These women are now more marketable to companies, since they don’t need to be trained in computer basics once they are hired at a company.
The real world
The 50 students who were selected to run the program all had excellent academic credentials and community and student service activities under their belts. Nada said one of the most exciting parts of the project was that it really gave the students the sense of working in a real company, and it satisfied a co-op training requirement at CBA.
"They actually went through the same kind of stuff that you would go through in a company. They had to go through finance to raise and manage funds, and they had to deal with a president and a vice president…issues that really happen in a company," she said.
The project won the first runner-up prize in the Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) Collegiate Business Venture Award 2007 under Nada’s directorship. The JEF was designed in 2000 to promote Jeddah’s role as a commercial capital and center of Middle East trade. Nada likened the award to MIT’s $100K competition, except it’s for non-profit projects. "The judges loved the idea that the students were involved. It was very exciting," Nada said.
Since Nada has returned to the United States for the SDM program this year, the project is continuing, and she is still informally mentoring many of the students, although someone else is now officially running the program. Nada said the program’s goal is to eventually offer more advanced computing classes to even more community women.
When asked what was most satisfying about the project, Nada answered quickly, "I think it was working with the students most of whom were my age but lacked the world experiences initially to give them the confidence to believe in themselves. Some of these girls – if you had known them from before – and then saw them after they started…they started believing in themselves. It helped them having a mentor of a younger age group. It’s a matter of seeing that you can make a difference, and this really impacted the students. I am glad I could be a role model for them."
She was also impacted by the women who took the classes. She recalled one woman, a reporter, who had no computer skills before she joined SWIFT. She wrote out her notes by longhand, and then she or someone else had to type them in during the writing process. "But, once we taught her how to use a word processor, it made a huge impact on her," Nada said. "She was able to focus on the story versus how to actually get it done. It made a huge difference in her life."
The WIT program also honed Nada’s own skills. While she coordinated the project, she also taught four classes at CBA, and worked in the administration office, while balancing limited free time to be with family and friends. "I really learned how to schedule my time," she said. As head of administration and the youngest faculty member ever admitted in any school in Saudi Arabia, she was responsible for 75 staff members in finance, accounting, IT, and admissions.
She plans on pursuing further education at MIT, which she anticipates will give her management skills and the ability to tackle complex problems, such as introducing women in Saudi Arabia to technology, from a systems perspective, while still enforcing her valuable technical skills.
"In SDM we look not just for the best and the brightest, but also for those who go beyond using their technical skills to lead significant change," said Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program. "Nada’s initiative exemplifies the SDM traditions of innovation and leadership," he added.
Nada has a BA in computer science and math from Washington College, and an MS in computer science from the University of Maryland. She’s excited about the SDM opportunity. "It seemed to be the perfect blend for me to keep my technical background strong and work on my management skills…and MIT is one of the best schools around."
Nada also referred to the evolving role of women in Saudi culture. Women are encouraged – and even paid a stipend – to attend college and get a degree. "They do have the choice to have a career," she said. Although the role of women in this deeply conservative country is still controversial, economic necessity and population growth are forcing more women into the work force, while there is some talk of reform toward women’s rights. "We’ve had many of these women come in and give lectures to inspire the students. You have to show the students that they can do something like this especially if they have examples of their age group making changes already in the arena."
In spite of some of the limitations of Saudi culture, Nada said women can achieve anything. She said the only barriers to women are themselves. "The opportunities are there. They just need to get up and say, ‘I can do it.’ There is also a way to balance having a family and having a career. They are still struggling with that aspect."
Although Nada grew up in Saudi Arabia, her family – which includes her parents and four sisters – are actually Pakistani. Her father, Dr. Nasim Hashmi, and her mother, Aisha Hashmi, moved to Saudi Arabia for better job opportunities nearly 30 years ago, and all five of their daughters were born there. Dr. Nasim has a PhD in International Business Development and is a vice president at his private company. Aisha has a master’s degree in Urdu literature, and is a writer and poet. The parents encouraged all of their daughters to pursue a higher education, which they have done. One of Nada’s sisters is an MD, and a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital; two others are pursuing graduate degrees at Harvard University; and the youngest one is studying biomedical engineering at Boston University. The sisters are tight-knit and share housing in the Boston area, after years of being scattered all over the globe attending various schools. Their parents visit them at least twice a year.
When she completes the SDM program, Nada envisions continuing to help the society through similar projects.
"Education is a liberation factor. It’s something no one can take away from you. And really, with education, you can empower yourself," Nada said.