Cover Nurul Jihadah Hussain, founder of The Codette Project (Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow)

The founder of Singapore-based non-profit The Codette Project on celebrating inclusivity in the tech industry and the importance of all kinds of women being represented

Since its launch in 2018, people have made a lot absurd assumptions about The Codette Project, a Singapore-based non-profit that helps minority and Muslim women gain tech skills. Some accused founder Nurul Jihadah Hussain and her team of hating men, while others argued that minority and Muslim women aren’t really interested in tech. When Hussain floated the idea of an all-woman hackathon in Singapore she also met with resistance. “A lot of the pushback was people saying: ‘If women wanted to be in tech, they would be already’. But that is so patronising,” says Hussain. She went ahead anyway and held a hugely successful event in 2018, one of many initiatives hosted by the non-profit celebrating inclusivity in the tech industry.

One of Hussain’s key goals is to prove that no matter what background someone comes from, they can be successful in tech. She is also a strong advocate for making industry events more inclusive and accommodating to women. The Codette Project’s first hackathon made headlines as a breastfeeding room, multi-faith prayer and meditation room were all provided, as well as halal and vegetarian food, all things almost unheard of at tech conferences in the city and even worldwide. “The second year we held the hackathon we offered childcare,” says Hussain proudly. “We want women to be able to bring their whole selves to the table in their participation in the tech industry, because we know women want to do it. This is why we take [things like this] so seriously.”

Today, Hussain, who is a 2022 Gen.T honouree, has emerged as a globally recognised diversity advocate. In 2018 she was named one of 115 global community leaders as part of Facebook’s Community Leadership Programme. Two years later, she was named one of Singapore’s Top 100 Women in Tech (SG100WIT), an award organised by the Singapore Computer Society (SCS) and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). Since The Codette Project officially launched four years ago, it has attracted the attention of major tech companies including Google and American software company Zendesk, who have provided substantial financial support.

While the tech industry is among the most powerful in today’s economy, it’s also notorious for its lack of diversity. Hussain is seen as a pioneer who is looking to change that equation. While she never specialised in tech—Hussain studied politics and Arabic in Edinburgh before completing an MBA in Singapore—she has always been passionate about the field. “If you are looking at long term economic growth, especially for the minority and Muslim community, then I believe that the tech industry is the most level playing field for success,” she says, adding that she has a broader definition of tech that reaches beyond merely coding or software development. “We define tech quite widely, so it's really everything from user experience and design to social media management.”

Hussain came up with the idea to start The Codette Project in 2015 when Yayasan Mendaki, a self-help group focused on the Singapore Malay and Muslim community, gave her the opportunity to pitch a social impact idea for the Ridzwan Dzafir Community Awards (RDCA) which offered a scholarship. After researching various initiatives across the world, she came across Black Girls Code in the US, which struck a chord. “This was something that I felt very inspired by, so I thought how can I do it in Singapore?” she recalls. Mendaki ended up providing her with initial seed fund of S$7,500 in lieu of a scholarship. Hussain had just finished her MBA and was in the midst of job hunting, but she immediately started building a team for the non-profit. Today, Hussain works full-time as a career coach at a university while running The Codette Project, as is the case with her entire team of ten who are all volunteers working for free.

Currently, The Codette Project runs classes and workshops on topics including HTML, UX design and social media as well as panels, networking sessions and social events. All the events are free aside from a commitment fee, which is fully refunded upon attendance. In 2019, The Codette Project launched its Codette Cares scholarship, which provides recipients with S$1,500 funding and mentorship for six to nine months. The first scholarship was for students and business owners, while the current focus for the scholarship is on students studying tech-related subjects.

Since starting the non-profit, Hussain admits that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. As part of the Facebook Community Leadership Programme, they received about US$50,000, which helped see them through 2018 and 2019, but when Covid hit they were in the red until they were contacted by Zendesk, who offered them funding in 2020. “Honestly, I thought it was a scam. I thought ‘We've never worked with them before, why would they give us money?’” says Hussain. “When I finally got on a Zoom call, I realised it was real. I started crying and the lovely person from Zendesk started crying. That was honestly a miracle that really has helped us.”

Earlier this year in March, The Codette Project staged a photo exhibition of the second edition of its Success Looks Like This photo series, which showcases examples of minority and Muslim women in tech and shares their stories. Hussain says this is something that was missing when she was growing up. “For me the question has always been: ‘Where are the people that look like me? And where are the people of diverse backgrounds and starting points?’ That's a question that I think should be asked more, because if we look at gender from the simple lens of ‘Let's have more women,’ we may be replicating some of the current inequalities by just having the same kinds of women represented,” she says. “Obviously it’s a journey and having more women is better than having none. But we can and should do more than that, and that’s where we come in.”

At the time of the exhibition Hussain was heavily pregnant and she ended up delivering her baby just one week later. Asked how she’s juggling being a new mother with a full-time job and a rapidly growing non-profit, she replies candidly. “I don’t know. Am I managing? I’m grateful to have a lot of familial support, which a lot of women don’t have,” she says, adding that her team is the backbone of her success. “One of the most unfair things about these interviews is that [journalists] just want to talk to me like I did all this on my own and I really didn’t. My team is so talented and they're all doing it for free.”

While the organisation’s impact is hard to measure, Hussain says more than 4,000 women have participated in their events and workshops. She has heard anecdotally that it's given them more confidence. The scholarship programme, for instance, helped one woman to stay in school when she may not have been able to otherwise. She shares another example of a woman who followed the non-profit on Instagram for two years before working up the courage to attend an event. “Our measure of success has always been just one woman. If even one woman believes that this event or workshop that we run is good enough for her, that's a win because women are amplifiers of success. They do this, then [they share with their] friends and family, and that creates long term impact.”

See all the honourees from Singapore on the Gen.T List 2022


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