Fereshteh Forough is the founder and CEO of Code to Inspire, a coding school for girls in Afghanistan. She discusses her background as a refugee, how she uses crypto to fund the school and pay students, and how the US military’s departure has affected student life. Topics include:

  • Fereshteh’s journey from refugee to computer science professor to founder and CEO of Code to Inspire
  • what Code to Inspire offers to young Afghan women and what risks they take by getting an education
  • how Code to Inspire success stories are changing the attitudes of student’s families and communities
  • the importance of Afghan Hero Girl, a video game created by Code to Inspire students
  • why crypto payments are a better alternative to PayPal and Western Union for Code to Inspire and its students
  • how Code to Inspire and its students exchange crypto to fiat
  • what the perception of crypto is in Afghanistan
  • how the Taliban is stifling the education of women and how Code to Inspire is attempting to continue its curriculum
  • how crypto companies can offer assistance to Code to Inspire
  • what features and products Fereshteh thinks would the crypto industry actually bank the unbanked
  • how listeners can help Code to Inspire and where to find more information on Fereshteh

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In addition to this week’s Unchained episode with Fereshteh Forough, founder and CEO of Code to Inspire, an all-girls coding school in Afghanistan, I wrote an article that dives a little deeper into her background as a refugee and how she is using crypto to help run her school. Check out “How Crypto Helps This Afghan School, Especially Under the Taliban” on Medium here — and subscribe today!

Episode Links

Fereshteh Forough

Code to Inspire

Code to Inspire Coverage

US Military leaving Afghanistan

 

Transcript

Laura Shin:

Hi, everyone. Welcome to Unchained your no-hype resource for all things. Crypto, I’m your host, Laura Shin, a journalist with over two decades of experience. I started covering crypto six years ago and, as a senior editor at Forbes, was the first mainstream media reporter to cover cryptocurrency full-time. This is the September 28th, 2021 episode of Unchained. 

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Laura Shin:

Today’s guest is Fereshteh Forough, founder and CEO of Code to Inspire, a coding school for girls in Afghanistan. Welcome, Ferestheh.

Fereshteh Forough:

Yeah. Thank you so much, Laura, for having me.

Laura Shin:

So regular listeners to the show will remember that Fereshteh was mentioned in an interview I did with Steve Erlich of Forbes. People were interested in hearing more about her and more about real-world use cases for crypto. So Fereshteh, thank you so much for joining us, especially because world news in recent months has had a direct impact on you and your family. But before we get into those recent events, why don’t we start with your personal story as a refugee and how you became a computer science professor?

Fereshteh Forough:

Absolutely. I was born as a refugee in Iran during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. My parents are originally from Herat, it’s a city in the west of Afghanistan, very mountainous and beautiful. It’s one of the main cities that the heart of the ancient silk road was passing through the city. So, unfortunately, my parents, the same as a lot of other people in Afghanistan had to leave the country and find a safe haven for their children. I was born in a very small town close to Iran and Afghanistan border. I grew up in a big family, eight children. I’m the fifth one. So you can imagine, I’m not the oldest and I’m not the youngest. So I kind of grew up independent and I think that’s really shaped my character. Certainly being born as a refugee, growing up as a refugee, there are a lot of issues you are facing. Not only the discriminations that you’re facing with because you’re just different. And unfortunately, sometimes people look at you as an unwanted guest and they think that you’re here to steal the opportunities from them. That makes it very difficult for you to blend into the community. Then the financial aspects of it. Being a refugee, you will be denied access to certain basic and fundamental rights in the country that you’re in, such as opening bank accounts or accessing education in the school. And that was one of the big issues that we were facing with my family. And I remember that my mom learned how to stitch and make dresses. By selling them, she could bring money to the family and she could invest in our education.

So I guess from a very early age, I learned to be an entrepreneur and how you can start great things with empty hands. And that’s what I learned from my mom. I know the value of education and how it is important. We moved to Afghanistan one year after the fall of the Taliban — when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2002 to Herat and I applied for university entrance and by chance, and randomly, I got into computer science. That was certainly not my favorite field of study. And my family really encouraged me to continue because they said it’s the future. It’s something that we think can help you a lot. And I continued studying computer science. I got my bachelor’s from Herat University, and then I received a scholarship. I went to Germany and I got my master’s in computer science from the Technical University of Berlin. Went back and taught as a computer science professor for about three years at Herat University.

So certainly I guess my life story as a refugee being denied accessing education, and as a woman studying computer science, and teaching computer science in Herat and Afghanistan, the discrimination, the backlashes I faced, the verbal and sexual harassment in the working and educational space. It made me think about how I can change the situation for women, especially in the technology sector. And that’s how it led me to establish Code to Inspire aspire as the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan, January 2015. 

Laura Shin:

And tell us what Code to Inspire does.

Fereshteh Forough:

With Code to Inspire, there are three important pillars of the work. First, we provide a single-gender school, only for women and girls, so that the family feels comfortable sending their daughters to our school. Second, we offer a school for free because a lot of the girls come from a challenging financial background.

And the third, which is the most important pillar of the work, is we offer certain technical skills that can be translated either into job opportunities within the community in Afghanistan, or we can outsource projects to them. So the students can work remotely, or they can be entrepreneurs and create their own company and startups and hire more women. Since 2015, we’ve educated more than 350 students in our coding classes, such as game design, web development, mobile, and also a blockchain cryptocurrency and graphic design class. With our graduates, the data that we have, well pre-Taliban, unfortunately, since a month ago, 70% of our students found jobs within the community and they’re getting paid some of the above-average income salary, which is $150 per month in Afghanistan. We outsourced more than 40 projects worth more than $30,000 to our students. A group of our graduates, about 10% of them, they created their own startups, raised funds and hired more women. And our school gained pre-Taliban was a physical location in Herat, with full time for our students and the classes were being taught in person.

Laura Shin:

And so give us a sense of kind of what girls education and opportunities are in Afghanistan aside from this school. Like, if they don’t have this kind of opportunity, then what does that look like for them?

Fereshteh Forough:

There are certainly a lot of challenges and issues, not only right now, which is a whole different story with the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, but even in the past — infrastructure is a big issue. If you talk about big cities, still there’s a lack of buildings, staff, and teachers and resources for students, especially female schools. That lack of equipments like having laptops, internet connections, and the commute would be a big issue for the girls to leave their house, especially the ones who live far away from the school. If you leave the big cities, in surrounding areas and especially in villages, you won’t have facility for that. You may have access to primary or maybe secondary education, but you don’t have high school just because, again, the population is financially underserved. There’s not a lot of resources for them, such as schools, buildings. The families won’t feel comfortable sending their daughters to travel a long way to go to the next big city to get the education.

So the lack of resources and infrastructure really is a big issue to access equal education, especially for girls and women. And then beside that, of course, the cultural, the patriarchal society. The extremists make it very difficult for the girls to access education. Sometimes families become under the influence of the extremists and won’t let their daughter to continue education. Forced marriages, early marriages, are one of the important factors that the girl is dropped from school because once they get married, the fiance or the husband, won’t let them to continue education. And of course they gain financial issues. Not a lot of family can invest in extracurricular activities. They prefer to invest on the boys’ education because they think that the boy is going to be the future breadwinner, not the girl. So they prefer to send the boy to the school, not the girl. So these are some of the main important factors of why girls education would be very difficult, not only in cities, but also in areas outside of the city for Afghanistan.

Laura Shin:

Can you maybe give some examples of kind of what risks girls face when they do try to seek out an education?

Fereshteh Forough:

Definitely the backlash and the threats they face from either their family members or the community. A lot of times maybe the male members of the family relatives would be against the education. And if they raise their voice, they make those threats. It can be threats such as like, they hit them — violence against women. They lock them at home. Or the extreme way of like extremist burning the schools for girls. We do have incidents of extremists on the Taliban burning girl’s schools, and that makes the family feel so scared and uncomfortable to risk the lives of the girl’s to send them to school. Even like trying to do the commute from one location to another location, they may be abducted by unknown people. So these are like serious concerns that make it very difficult sometimes for families to, even if they want to send their daughters to school, won’t feel comfortable to do that.

Laura Shin:

Since founding Code to Inspire, what impact have you seen it have?

Fereshteh Forough:

There are a lot of inspiring stories of the girls who came to the school and graduated. I can say a majority of the girls who joined our coding school didn’t have access to internet connections. They didn’t have laptops, even basic phones. So they were totally living in an offline world. And with the infrastructure and equipments, we provided it for them, that was certainly life-changing. Not only looking at the educational aspects of it, but all of the financial aspects of it. These are the girls who came to school, they were so shy. They really didn’t believe in themselves. They didn’t have self-esteem. We encouraged them to build their own life around what they’re learning and be outspoken and raise their voice. No one would question them, and we see that like their self self-esteem boosted, they now have social media accounts and write about their activities.

I’ll give you one example of one of our graduates. She came to the school when she was in 10th grade and then we interviewed her and asked her why she wanted to join this coding school. And she said, I want to make money. And we were like, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with making money. And she came from a very financial challenging background. She even couldn’t pay for the commute, but she was so motivated that we sponsored her commute, gave her a laptop to take home. And once she graduated, she was one of the top graduates. And one day she texted me and she said, you can’t believe what I say that I convinced the company that they’re all men that I can make a website for you and take your business online. And they agreed and they going to pay me $200. I was like, wow, you’re so bad-ass at such a young age to convince the companies and men to give you an opportunity. And now you are bringing money to the family, which makes you to have a voice in the family and be a part of the decision making process in the family. And we have tons of stories like that.

Laura Shin:

I was going to ask you: do you feel that the experience that the girls have, that it changes attitudes either in their family or in their communities? Or does the existence of the school in general, has that had an impact and changing attitudes?

Fereshteh Forough:

Absolutely. When we have started a program and we were kind of like posting on our social media about our activities, a lot of people, especially men, very educated in computer science, were like, oh, that’s useless what they’re learning. They are gonna get married. They’re going to like go to the house, clean the kitchen, make babies and stuff like that. And it was so offensive because they couldn’t see that there is a path to financial freedom with what we are trying to do. And after a year or so, when we have graduates and we helped them with jobs and giving them opportunities, they brought the money to the family and some of them actually made double or triple than the men in the family. And the family couldn’t believe that the girl of the family is capable of doing something that the boy of the family is not. And they called us, they start calling us the father, the brother, the husbands came to check the school. And they said, we can’t believe. We see that she is behind the computer. She’s doing something, but we have no idea, but she’s bringing money to the family. And they started calling the relatives and other people and encourage their daughter to join in a school. And we received calls from others. So it became very organic, once people realized that there’s a value on investing in education and the gauze being able to bring money to the family.

Laura Shin:

That’s, that’s great. When you were talking earlier, it’s such a contrast if I think about growing up here in the US. There’s no question that you sent a girl to school. What you’re saying is just very eyeopening for somebody who grew up here. But one other thing I found fascinating was I have seen a video about Code to Inspire where the girls were making video games and the protagonist or the player in the game, they made it as an Afghan girl. And then the video showed that there were Afghan boys playing this game. And I just wondered how do you think things like that have also changed perceptions of girls in Afghanistan?

Fereshteh Forough:

Absolutely. So like beside education, we also want to change the perspective of community towards girls’ education and empowerment. And we’ve been creating different games and apps that are geared towards certain problems in the community. And one of them was the Afghan Hero Girl game that you are referring to. I remember we had a brainstorming session with our students in-game class, and we were kind of like, okay, what would be the next game? And then they’re like, they’re kind of tired of seeing all these like superheroes in the game are mainly men. And then they’re just like targeting certain geographical population. There is a very few female superhero and also like from Afghanistan or from a Muslim country.

So then we’re like, okay, what about we create our own superhero? And then they created the app of Afghan Hero Girl, wearing traditional outfit and going through different stages. It was certainly an eye-opening experience for us too. We couldn’t believe that the game would have such a good feedback. I mean, we have a lot of thousands of downloads, hundreds of comments, and they’re all men giving us comments that, oh, what if you put the arrow here or what if you add this function? So like, it’s great to see that they’re engaged. When the little girls were playing that game, they’re all like, oh, I want to be a superhero like Heron. And I want to like I have that power. I think that’s very, very empowering and important in such a young age when they see a role model in a superhero that they can be that person.

Laura Shin:

So at a certain point Code to Inspire began adopting crypto. How did you guys start using it and why?

Fereshteh Forough:

With cryptocurrency, that’s interesting. I got to know about it late 2013, maybe early 2014. And that was again, because of work that I was doing with Afghanistan. Sending payments, and it was certainly a big issue.The bank system requiring a lot of paper works and it takes a lot of time and all the KYC. And of course it’s Afghanistan. So people are kind of like giving you more hard time when you deal with Afghanistan, especially I guess, for financial issues. Western Union also, we tried, but it was very costly with the fees that we were having to pay. And those fees for a lot. $10 to $15 would be covering a family for a couple of days to have food on your table. And then PayPal is not operating in Afghanistan. So that was also like not an option for us. 

And a lot of the people who were sending money, the girls, were underage, so they didn’t have a bank account. So these issues were very time consuming. Dealing with a lot of paperwork. And it was frustrating at some point. And that’s how I learned about cryptocurrency and at that time, of course, Bitcoin, and how fascinating is the technology. It’s very fast without any third party and so secure, it can just like send directly money to the girls and they can have it. And since then, I got to know more about the technology itself and then how we can help the girls. And we started sending crypto to Afghanistan. And then with Code to Inspire, particularly, we started teaching blockchain technologies, smart contracts, solidity, decentralized apps to our students.

And actually, as of this week, five of our students are part of the ConsenSys Academy, which is very exciting. So hopefully they will finish the course and it will be a great experience for them. And then with the organization itself, we do accept crypto as a donation since 2015. I can say probably we are one of the very early organization who accepted crypto as a donation, but also keep holding it. So that hopefully down the road we can use it for more powerful and like help more population in Afghanistan. And then also sending. Since January, we used to send on and off, but since this January, we only are sending crypto to Afghanistan for our monthly operation. Also, for the care package cash assistance that we are helping our students who are losing jobs and their family. So it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable how this technology can help in such a critical moment where the banks are closed, the Western Union has limited services, and nothing is working in Afghanistan. We are probably, again, one of the very only organizations and people who are using it in such a larger scale.

Laura Shin:

Wow. So I have so many questions about this. But initially when you started describing how you first began using crypto, was that to make payments to the girls for gigs that they did? Or was it to fund your operations, like accepting donations? What was that initial purpose for using the crypto at that time?

Fereshteh Forough:

A combination of both, but mainly for the girls who were using worked for the remote work and we wanted to like send them quicker to that.

Laura Shin:

Oh, I see. And so then once you received that money, and I’m sure this has changed over time, but how are you turning that into Afghanis, which is the local currency?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yeah, that’s a great question. It was so difficult at the beginning because. At the beginning to kind of had to like act as an exchange ourselves because no one knew about it. So if you send crypto to the girls and they wanted to cash out, they would come to us and we would give them cash. But then we found a financial district in Herat that people do money exchange exchange. They change Afghanis to dollars to euro and vice versa. 

And then since kind of like in November last year, we were like, okay, it’s just too complicated and we’re done with all this like third-party and paperwork and everything is just like too much. And let’s see how we can work it out. And then we start investigating and then we found some people in the financial districts of Herat that they said, yes, we can exchange crypto for you.

And then we started at a small scale, just building trust through the relationship with them and see how it works. And it worked so great for us that now that one person is actually about three or four people. So now there are more people who do that. So what we do, we send crypto from our wallet to our team wallet in Afghanistan. And then they go to the exchange and they convert it to mainly US dollar. And then we distribute the cash among the team to pay for rent utility, and also again recently for the cash assistance for our students.

Laura Shin:

Oh, so they’re actually turning it into US dollars. And then I guess later on the, when they need the money, then they put it into Afghanis or something?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yes. Then they can go to any money exchange there and convert their dollar to Afghani if they want.

Laura Shin:

And for those individual sellers that you’re trading with, are they associated with any of that kind of you know Craigslist style sellers, like Local Bitcoins or Paxful? Or are they just kind of like independent people that offer this service?

Fereshteh Forough:

They’re independent people that they offer the services.

Laura Shin:

Oh, interesting. Other than Code to Inspire, how popular is crypto in Afghanistan or what other people are using it for?

Fereshteh Forough:

To be honest with you, I think since last winter, crypto got more momentum in Afghanistan and we did have a lot of people who reached out to me, either from colleagues or other non-profits who reached out, and they said, oh, like, we see that, like you do a lot of crypto, can you give us a little bit of like how it works? We’re interested to explore that because again, the financial difficulties we’re facing. And we connect some of them to this money exchange person that we know and trust. 

Even recently, a couple of weeks ago, again, because of the humanitarian crisis that’s happening in Afghanistan with everything and the bank closed and the Western Union, more nonprofits are reaching out to me, humanitarian aid is reaching out to me and ask how we are handling it. And I’m kind of like putting them in touch with the people that we know. And hopefully that actually would be a way that it opens the door for cryptocurrency to be adopted more.

Laura Shin:

Huh. This is just so interesting. And so for the community around your school, like the girls and their families, and people just who know generally about Code to Inspire, what would you say that their perception is of cryptocurrency now, because of all this?

Fereshteh Forough:

So first of all, it was very unknown to them. They were like, what is this? I can’t touch it. It’s like over the internet. They were like, is it a scam? Do you want to scam us? People had a lot of different thoughts about this. I hear them because like they used to do this old system of only keeping cash under their pillows. That’s how they kind of like saved their money. So when you go and tell them it’s money over the internet, they’re confused. Especially when they don’t have basic digital literacy, then that would be more difficult to talk to them about this. But then once we started sending to our own team, as an example and how they used it for their own, we could pay for our rent.

And then we start sending the cash assistance to our students. And now the family’s getting it. Now, when people, at the end of the day, they see the cash, they understand what’s the work flow of it. But also like how it is important, the privacy aspect of it, how you can control your money. Because in geographical locations like Afghanistan, it’s always been under conflict, war. The political system changes a lot and each of them come and they have their own agenda. It is really difficult to trust in the centralized system, the banks and the governments, because you don’t know what kind of revelations they bring. And then for example, even right now, a lot of people who left Afghanistan, who got evacuation, majority of them left their bank account behind, and they don’t know if they can access that bank out anytime soon. God knows how much money they had in it, but they had a decent amount of number. to be able to carry your finance with yourself outside of the conflict zone. That’s a very big lesson that a lot of people are learning. And I think crypto will change that and help the people to realize that it’s important to be as much as independent, especially if you’re living in a conflict zone.

Laura Shin:

This is so interesting that you’re seeing all this because I feel like there’s, for the longest time in the crypto industry, there’s been an idealistic notion that crypto will help the unbanked. At least here in the US, it doesn’t seem to have happened to a great extent. So I’m glad to hear that people seem to be benefiting from that in Afghanistan. 

I just want to get a sense: do you still feel that it’s not very widespread and it’s just kind of like a small number of people in the know, or do you feel like it’s kind of like something that people are hearing about quickly?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yeah. It’s not really widespread, but I guess like within the international community and people who are sending aid to Afghanistan, that’s something that they are investigating and are open to explore because they all of a sudden have faced a blockage of like sending aids to Afghanistan. And they also don’t want to send the money to the banks with this situation. So they’re exploring ways that firsthand send the money to the people who are in need. And that’s the only way. So that’s great to see that now the international community and the aids are looking at crypto as a way for how and secure to send funds instead of relying and sending money to the banks and to the governments. 

Laura Shin:

All right. So in a moment, we’re going to talk a little bit more about the effect of the withdrawal from Afghanistan of US troops has had there, but first, a quick word from the sponsors who make this show possible. 

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Back to my conversation with Fereshteh. So you’ve kind of been alluding to the impact that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has had there. But for now, for all that you described about Code to Inspire, what is the situation now? Is the school functioning, what has happened to the girls and their families, et cetera?

Fereshteh Forough:

Well, the situation on the ground is certainly very devastating. Not only because a humanitarian crisis is happening right now — banks are closed. There is no job economy. It’s falling apart. And you know, a lot of people are dealing with hunger and even they don’t have money to cover basics necessities. And that’s what we are also like dealing with our students and their families who about 80 of them reach out to me, and they said they have even not having a bread at home. And it’s very difficult because the majority of them lost jobs, and especially women. But despite the humanitarian crisis, of course, education, which is a fundamental human right. And everyone should have access to education, no matter of their gender identity or any differences. It’s getting a lot of backlashes in Afghanistan — since the fall of Afghanistan did, sorry.

Since Afghanistan fallen to the Taliban on August 15, I can say that that was the first day that Herat, my city, after two weeks of resistance, was captured by the Taliban. And for me watching the videos of Taliban walking through the city was very heartbreaking, tragic. I remember that day. And for the next couple of days, I cried a lot because I couldn’t believe that just things are on unfolding so quickly like that. And all the work that we’ve on and everyone else has done this past 20 years may be taken from us. And then unfortunately within one week, so quickly, the entire Afghanistan has got into all the influence of Taliban. And when people say Taliban 2.0, they changed, I don’t think they changed, because if they’ve been changed, the situation right now wouldn’t be devastating, right?

First of all, we closed the school because we didn’t want to. We closed the school before, even two weeks before, when the attacks happened around the city, because of the safety of our students. The school is still closed because we don’t know what going to happen if we open the school in person, even though we are a single gender school. The Taliban shouldn’t have an issue with that.

Regarding the education. The Taliban allow the girls to go to school only from first to sixth grade. And then four days ago, they announced the first day back to school and with their announcement, they only said the boys can go to school from first to 12th grade. So they let the boys from seventh grade to 12th grade and other private institutes, religious school go to school.

But not women. No girls from 7th to 12th grade are allowed to go to school still as of now. And also the universities, they had conversation with the board of universities, but they only had conversation with the male board and the professors and not women. And they kind of like make an excuse that they say, oh, we’re thinking about separation of the classes, but the high school of the girls in Afghanistan are already separated. You know, the schools are separated, the building is separated. So why they don’t let the girls go to school? Well, university, yes, there used to be mixed classes, but not the high school. And that’s why you can’t trust them because they’re not clear and they are, of course, preventing girls go to school.

And the same as the university and also work. We had like students who used to work in offices that they used to work and now they’re not going there because they’re not allowed to go. And they don’t know if they can return to the offices and work. So it is a strain that all these millions of girls who had hopes, who had dreams, and every day they go to school. Now they’re home and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. And their future is not clear.

Laura Shin:

I saw you tweeted that girls there are texting you messages like I am afraid for my life, I haven’t eaten these past days, and slept in different houses overnights for my safety. And I wondered, so this was from a few weeks ago, and I wondered, has that changed at all? Is the comfort level a little bit higher now? Or are the girls still living in a state of fear?

Fereshteh Forough:

Not really. Definitely the girls are still living in a state of fear and trauma. I still received messages from girls that they’re like, I lost hope. I wanted to do this and that, but I don’t think… if there would be a possibility for me to have education outside of Afghanistan, will you help me? So I received a lot of emails and texts, not only from our students, but from people that I haven’t met and they asked for help. And it’s so heartbreaking to see that a functioning government. And I don’t all deny that there was corruption in the previous government. There were still people who were against women’s education, work, and employment. It wasn’t a perfect government, but at least it was functioning. My school was open, and I could help the girls to get an education and a lot of girls around Afghanistan could go to school. But with this government, it seems everything is closed only for women.

And they just like totally ignoring half of the community and the society. The girls are going through a lot of trauma. I mean, like we weren’t able even to continue any of our classes virtually because they just can’t concentrate. Some of them left the city with their family. They are in other cities. Some of them left the country. Some of them their house got shot by the Taliban or because of the explosion, the house got destructed. So just, I can’t imagine you’re dealing with all that, you still have the motivation to continue and will have hope for your future.

Laura Shin:

And so are you just kind of in an indefinite holding pattern with Code to Inspire? Or is there any sign that would kind of make you feel comfortable opening it again? And, also, when you talked about how you can’t do virtual classes, I didn’t know how widespread the internet would be in homes. I didn’t know, is this something where they could kind of take these classes in their own homes or do the coding work in their own homes?

Fereshteh Forough:

There’s two possibilities here, right? I mean, maybe I would be able to keep the school open under certain rules and circumstances. And, sure, why not? Because that space was the safest space for the girls and they had access to a lot of resources. And if that space can be open and of course they would be safe. Why not? I’ll keep the school open, and that will be great. But for whatever reason, if we wouldn’t be able to keep the school open, of course, virtual is what we’re going to pursue and do that. But within the next month or so we hopefully have a better understanding of what’s the agenda and how we can move forward. But absolutely I will continue my work ritual. I make sure the girl has a laptop and an internet connection at home. We put all the content we have online and we help them to continue to classes the same as before, but virtual, in a safe space at their home, and then help them to find jobs remotely, which right now we still have about like three clients that about eight of our students are still working and do their projects online, which kept them hopeful. And I think that’s one thing, then we will continue no matter what.

Laura Shin:

Yeah, I did see that back in 2018, Code to Inspire, did start a partnership with Bounties Network to allow girls to collect bounties in ETH for fixing vulnerabilities in code. Is that something you’re still doing. If not, like, are there other ways that the crypto community or that blockchain technology generally can help in this situation?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yeah, that was actually a very exciting project that we worked with. We had, some of our students get engaged to some small projects. It was great. Right now we are not that much involved, but it was certainly a great eye-opening experience where I was students to work in such platforms and then get to know about crypto. 

And as of now, yes, I mean, we are trying to find people who want to help us with their skill and expertise, and if they can help us to create a very strong, private, secure, online platform, educational for our students, and then people who have experienced teaching coding and help us with different sets of programming languages, to create videos so we can share with our students or want to be a mentor and help our students with their codings. With the companies, definitely if they want to offer internships for our students, part-time, full-time projects and work. I mean, these are the opportunities that we would be able, by giving a laptop, and buying internet package for our students, helped them to get motivated and continue what they do from the safety of their house.

Laura Shin:

And there was also been a lot of talk and, and work, on things like decentralized identity solutions or decentralized mesh networks for offering internet. Is that something that would be helpful in this situation at all?

Fereshteh Forough:

To be honest with you, I don’t know what would be the Taliban agenda regarding the internet censorship. I don’t know if they are going to censor or are they going to track people or what would be their agenda on that. Because, for example, before their attack to Herat city, they actually bombed an internet tower and an electricity tower. And that actually was a huge damage to the entire Western region. The whole city in the Western region were all offline for a couple of weeks. Of course, with the work we do and if it should be virtual, then that would be a big issue. So I think it’s just like, again, depends on like how they interact with the infrastructure, if they’re going to bring any damage, any censorship, tracking people. And these are like the factors and variables that we really want to take into consideration and make it as private, encrypted, and safe for the girls even to have an online identity.

Laura Shin:

Okay. But so far it sounds like the financial part of crypto is what has been most useful for your school. 

Fereshteh Forough:

Yes

Laura Shin:

In that regard, one question I had is, I’m assuming and correct me if I’m wrong, that perhaps the cryptocurrencies that most people donate are bitcoin and ether and they’re also the most liquid. But at the moment, or really for kind of a while now, they’ve both been experiencing somewhat high fees on the base layer chain. Does that affect you at all? Like I noticed today, the date we’re recording, the average transaction fee on bitcoin is about $2.50 cents. And for ether today, it’s like a little under $4, but a few days ago is highest $7. So I didn’t know if that has affected you at all, or if it’s not something that if it’s something that the sellers don’t really count.

Fereshteh Forough:

We really haven’t faced issues with that. And again, with the person who exchange crypto for us, they don’t charge us like a crazy amount. We want to make them happy and keep them happy to do business with us. So we pay a very small fee to them. But so far now we haven’t been much influenced by that. And again, the fact that we are using this technology, in this situation, it was like the best tool that’s just enabled us and helped us. So we are very happy with the way that we are managing our finance and sending money to Afghanistan.

Laura Shin:

So from your perspective as somebody who does use crypto a lot in a very crucial way, are there any kind of like requests you would make to developers in the industry for tools? Or for certain types of technology that you feel would be useful? Or just anything you feel that entrepreneurs in the space could think about?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yes. I still think that, as you said, when we talk about crypto and we say the notion of it was to help the unbanked and under served communities, I think is still probably a lot of the solutions that come out. It’s for more privileged people who do have access to banks, who do have credit cards, or some sort of financial freedom and living in a more relaxed community. So any solutions, especially for people who live in constant conflict and war and displacement — either to keep their identity private, to keep their documents private, and that can carry with themselves any part of the world. I think that’s something that’s very important. How you can keep your documents somewhere very private that you can access, but also like you can use it because down the road, when you’re a refugee, you leave everything behind. Even carrying certain documents would be very dangerous for you because then they can identify who you are. And that would be a big issue. So that’s something if there are solutions around, would be helpful. 

And also in case of finance. Solutions, if exchanges or any apps or any solution, that can help people not only rely on the local exchange, but like create a more faster and easier way for them to access the crypto market, will also would be able to cash it out. I mean, right now, if you want to create accounts on different exchanges to KYC, which is understandable, but it would be very difficult for a lot of people in Afghanistan, just because a lot of them don’t have proper documents on identification. And that’s one step that won’t let them to even create an account, let alone to use that exchange in everything.

Laura Shin:

Yeah. Well, that’s what I was talking about when I was mentioning blockchain based identities. I don’t know of any that are kind of in widespread use. Is that something that you’ve looked into at all?

Fereshteh Forough:

No, to be honest with you, I don’t have any knowledge around it.

Laura Shin:

I don’t feel like I’ve heard kind of a lot of concrete work in that area. That is something that I think could address these issues that you’re discussing. So as we’ve been discussing throughout this interview, there’s clearly a lot of sexism and discrimination that you have faced in Afghanistan as a woman. But this is an issue in a lot of parts in the world and here in the US, and just in general, you could say in the western world, like Europe and the US, there aren’t as many women in crypto or involved in blockchain technology as there are men. And I just wondered from your experience as a woman in tech, in Afghanistan, do you have any advice for bringing more women into crypto? Or advice to women in the field who feel that they’re facing sexism and discrimination?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yes. It’s an interesting question because I can say I have a thick skin now and don’t get bothered. I went through a lot. Generally speaking, I’m a risk-taker person. I’m not really bothered by all these issues. 

But what I think from being different, just a refugee hiding my true identity in Iran as a refugee and then a woman in technology and Afghanistan being very outspoken, social, which cost me a lot. I think being indifferent, even as like a woman in a group that they’re all men, it’s beautiful because you bring a different perspective to everyone else’s perspective who is similar. So you have actually way stronger voice than the rest of the group.

You think you are outnumbered, but actually, your voice is stronger because it’s your opinion and the value you bring to the table is much more different and might be things that they’ve never imagined. So I think even if you walk in a room — it doesn’t matter if it’s like a tech meeting, crypto space, any space, that you walk in and you are one of the very few women, or the only woman, you should be so proud that you are in that group, because those people actually give an opportunity to see a different perspective. So for me, I think you have to just go for it. And those single number of women in those meetings are actually opening the doors for other women to walk in. So it is an opportunity for us to take it and change the environment. And of course it’s not an easy path. I’m sure a lot of women face a lot of sexism, terrible sexual harassment, and any other backlashes. But I think it’s that I can be the one who can open the door for the rest. Then sure, I’ll take it. And I’ll like lead that path.

Laura Shin:

Earlier in the episode, you said that you had a lot of inspiring stories like that one that you told about the girl. And I wondered if you wanted to share one more.

Fereshteh Forough:

Yes. We had one other student that she was working with a client here and working on the graphic design. And she was also coming from a challenging financial background, but she was a brilliant student, very great graphic designer. I really liked her work and we picked her for doing the work for them. And she worked so well that the client were like, oh my God, you are so happy with her. And they used to pay her like $10 per hour. And then they said, now you’re going to pay you $30 per hour. And with that money, she used to use the laptop that we were given her to do the work because she didn’t have a laptop. She not only makes a lot of good money that she bought a laptop for herself, but also like paid for the education for the brothers and also helped the family. And that was like when she had texted to me and she said, I couldn’t believe the day when I walk into this school, I could make this money and I can buy a laptop for myself and now do the work and help my family. It’s just like unreal. And like, that was the whole world to me to see that like her life changed like that.

Laura Shin:

That’s so great. I love it. So for listeners who were interested in helping Code to Inspire what can they do? Where can they go?

Fereshteh Forough:

Well, we are a non-profit registered. So we are a tax-deductible organization, both for you know, fiat currency and cryptocurrency. So if they’re interested to support us, sponsor students, especially with the cash assistance that we’re dealing with now or purchasing equipment, they can check out website codetoinspire.org and they can donate to our cause. Besides that, we are looking for people who are interested in what we do right now and care about the future of African girls and their education. We would like to have their expertise, as I said, in the case of building a virtual system. If they’ve been teaching, coding, used their materials and curriculum. If they are looking to hire our graduates and students, we are happy to have a conversation. So many possibilities, any opportunities that they think, would certainly change lives and would be really appreciated. So we are very open to have conversations with them.

Laura Shin:

Great. And where can people learn more about you, such as like a Twitter handle?

Fereshteh Forough:

Yes. my Twitter account is @f_forough. That’s my Twitter handle.

Laura Shin:

Well, thank you so much for coming on Unchained.

Fereshteh Forough:

Absolutely. Thanks for having me. I appreciate that you gave your platform in such a difficult time for Afghanistan to shed some light and just raise more awareness in this about what’s the current situation in the future for women above mechanist.

Laura Shin:

Yeah. And I really wish you and all your students, the best of luck navigating this time. And I really hope everything works out the best for all of you.

Laura Shin:

Thanks so much for joining us today. To learn more about Fereshteh and Code to Inspire, check out the show notes for this episode. Unchained is produced by me, Laura Shin, without from Anthony Yoon, Daniel Nuss and Mark Murdock. Thanks for listening.