Nada Hashmi was shocked when she returned to her native Saudi Arabia one year ago and realized how far behind the country lagged in technology.
Hashmi, a graduate student in system design and management (SDM), had spent five years in the United States earning her undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science and math and finding a great job in her field. But on her return to Saudi Arabia, she found "technology is just catching up. And women always get left behind."
She also noted that since people who are educated often leave, the "area gets drained. The reason I went back is because I wanted to give back."
In 2005, Hashmi 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. Due to gender segregation policies, the 500 women enrolled are separated from the 1,400 male students.
In 2006, Hashmi coordinated a partnership for the women's campus with Women in Technology (WIT), which is funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative of the U.S. Department of State and managed by the Institute of International Education, 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 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. So she helped the students organize their own nonprofit company within the school. This gave students real-world experience and local women affordable computer training. The students named the enterprise Student Women Initiative For Technology, or SWIFT.
Hashmi assisted the students in determining a SWIFT hierarchy with a president, vice president and various departments such as marketing, human resources, finance and IT. 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 other Saudi women.
Hashmi said one of the most exciting parts of the project was that the program provided the 50 student participants with a sense of working in a real company. "They had to go through finance to raise and manage funds, and they had to deal with a president and a vice president," she said.
The project won the first runner-up prize in the Jeddah Economic Forum Collegiate Business Venture Award 2007.
Hashmi still informally mentors the students. When asked what was most satisfying about the project, she said, "working with the students and watching them change and grow."
Hashmi has a B.A. in computer science and math from Washington College and an M.S. in computer science from the University of Maryland. After finishing her own education, Hashmi envisions continuing to help her society through similar projects. "Education is a liberation factor. With education, you can empower yourself," Hashmi said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 2, 2007 (download PDF).