The Codette Project aims to have a sustainable economic impact through providing minority/Muslim women with awareness and access to the tech industry. We chat with Founder Nurul Hussain on how she’s paving the way for minority/Muslim women.
Nurul Hussain, Founder of The Codette Project
KR: Hi Nurul, I’m really glad to have you on our platform. Can you give us some background on what The Codette Project is and how this initiative came about?
NH: At the beginning, The Codette Project was just an idea that I had proposed to Mendaki (a self-help organization in Singapore) as part of a scholarship process. But at that time, I’d already paid off my MBA program and I said to them, “Well, part of the application process is for me to pitch a social impact idea. Can I just pitch it to you anyway and then you can tell me if you like it, and then you can support it instead? They said yes, and that was the initial seed fund for The Codette Project in December 2015.
However, the initial idea was very different. We wanted to create a six month bootcamp for women who are under resourced, such as stay-at-home moms or single moms, and to help them get into the tech industry. Sounds great right? Checks a lot of boxes.
The first six months of The Codette Project after December 2015 was me alone trying to figure out who do I need on my team, how do I build a team, and how to actually make sure this project succeeds. So I built out an initial team of 6 and we decided for our first event that we’d have a tea session so we called it Tea with Codette. We asked the minority/Muslim community, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” and what came out from that was actually, a lot of women were interested in learning tech.
KR: Knowing that, how did you shape the current program that came to be?
NH: There was a demand for access to tech knowledge, but women were clear about what they wanted. They said: we couldn’t do a six month boot camp, because that requires us to give up our jobs, it requires us to really shift around our family lives, and requires us to do all these things which we’re not willing to do.
We said, you know what, there is a demand here. It may not be the demand we imagined, but it’s a need that we want to fulfill. At the core of what we want to do is create a more equitable economic outcome through tech for minority/Muslim communities. So we pivoted to a more modular system, where we offer a wide range of different classes and we do tech workshops. We hosted Singapore’s only women’s hackathon and we were reaching out to different large organizations; we’ve had support from companies like Apple, Google, Zendesk, and Facebook. Now, I have a team of 15. Everyone’s still a volunteer including myself, and we’re still going. We’re still creating more narratives of success for women that look like us. We created a set of stock photos there to imagine what tech would look like if it was run by minority women.
KR: I’m curious to know, how has your organization adjusted to COVID and how are you temporarily moving it online? I understand you’ve recently launched The Codette Cares Project as well–did that come into play because of COVID?
NH: What we see is that there’s a lot more economic distress. People are losing their jobs. A lot of the women in our community are entrepreneurs and facing cashflow problems. There is also an exhaustion when it comes to online classes because there’s so many and there’s this push like learn more, do more, be more, and what we have to remember is that we’re not just at home working–we’re in the middle of a pandemic at home, trying to work.
There’s a lot more stress, especially on women who are often primary caregivers for families, especially in Asia. We’ve had to redefine what our goals are, and how we want to support our community and that’s really where Codette Cares came in. This was the right time for us to do it because there was a clear need, and that’s why we decided what we do is we will provide, not just financial support, but also provide mentorship to women. It’s been both eye opening and incredibly humbling to hear from these women who are just really trying their best to do what they do. We’re really thinking through how we can benefit these women who’ve applied and really respect their journeys.
KR: That’s a wonderful mission you’re driving, especially you know being able to pivot from a more in-person community and then now on to an online one, so I think it’s great you know the community that you’re building around this mission. In terms of the forward looking future, how will you measure the success of this project and where do you see it going within the next five years?
NH: Our measure of success is impact of one person. As long as we have one person or one woman that comes for events or an activity, that’s a success. When we talk about women, we acknowledge them as individuals and as an individual, a woman is a catalyst for change, she changes her own life, or the life of her family, the life of her friends, and the people around her for long-term success.
We’ve also shown what is possible for diversity in tech. We launched the Tech for Good hackathon in 2018 which was Singapore’s first women-only hackathon.
No one thought that a women-only hackathon would work. We got feedback that women didn’t attend hackathons or weren’t interested in this space. We heard “women are not interested in tech.” But we proved that this wasn’t true, because we sold out both times, in 2018 and 2019.
Traditional hackathons within the tech industry have been so male dominated and are structured in a way where they’re unfriendly to women. If you have a traditional hackathon, it’s 24 hours straight over the weekend, and everyone in your posters looks the same. Immediately you discount women, and their possible role as carers, or even simply the fact that they might need to be at home. You discount women who don’t drink, including for medical and religious reasons, if you advertise things like free flow alcohol. You don’t have a prayer or meditation room, you don’t have halal food, you don’t have a breastfeeding room, you don’t have childcare–these are all things which The Codette Project has offered and it doesn’t cost very much other than the time needed to think about it.
We’ve gotten backlash before, especially at the beginning. You know, brown Muslim girls in tech. It wasn’t just people who didn’t believe in us, it was also people who questioned if minority/Muslim women event wanted to be in tech.
At the beginning, it was very really exhausting work to go out and ask others to work with us, like this is something you should care about. If someone comes to you and asks why Muslim women are trying to get into tech and that they are not good enough, that’s not a logical gap that you’re trying to fill. That’s a moral gap. That’s the person sitting opposite you that fundamentally believes you don’t deserve to be there and that you’re not equal. And there’s no argument that you can make to fill that gap. For us, it’s moving forward and working with people in great organizations that do believe we’re equal, that believes that we have something to bring to the table. Just moving to that position has enabled us to really breathe a bit and be in a space where we know that people we work with are able to value us as people.
KR: You’re definitely helping break the mold and defy the misconceptions about women in tech. How can people or organizations be allies to The Codette Project? What’s the best way to support?
NH: Donations are always a way that people can help. We would love to have people also follow us on what we do, so join our mailing list, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn and help us amplify the work we do. During Covid19, some of our plans have been on hold because we do want to have face to face interactions with people and that’s an important part of community building. We’re hoping in 2021, we’ll be able to have more in-person activities so if people are interested, reach out now but be patient with us because we’re still thinking about future possibilities.
KR: Great, thanks so much! What you’re doing is incredible, and it gives a lot of power back to women who may not have the right circumstances to work and be in tech; you’re evening out the playing field and giving women opportunity. We definitely want to continue sharing the work you’re doing. Thanks for your time and looking forward to our next conversation.
In our next chat, we talk about what diversity in tech looks like in Asia and why it matters. For those interested in asking Nurul questions for our next conversation, please send them here by July 19th: https://app.sli.do/event/1pmrsokx
Nurul Hussain graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Hons) in politics and Arabic, and did her MBA at Singapore Management University. In December 2015, she founded the Codette Project. In 2018, she was selected as one of 115 global community leaders as part of Facebook’s global Community Leadership Program. Nurul wants to create better communities, networks, and opportunities, and to diversify what success means in society—to prove that success can look like anyone.
The Codette Project is a non-profit grassroots initiative that aims to bring more minority/Muslim women into technology. The Codette Project is working towards long-term economic change for minority/Muslim women by developing tech skills, building a collaborative community, as well as reclaiming narratives of success to include minority/Muslim women’s stories. The Codette Project runs classes, workshops, panels, networking sessions, and social events regularly, including Singapore’s only women’s hackathon.
Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series, where we interview and chat intimately with thought leaders who are breaking the mold, pushing innovation along, and are trailblazing figures in their space. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee herself, and not KrASIA’s. If you’d like to contribute as a writer or nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can email us at [email protected]