Rakhshanda Rukham has been working in tech and women empowerment since she was 21. A developer for Google Developer Group Dhaka, a “leader” in Women Techmakers Bangladesh, the young software developer founded Begum.co, a platform that provides solution to social problems through a participatory structure.
The website acts as a platform for training and advices on a range of issues including entrepreneurship, technological knowledge and lifestyle choice advices. It won the BRAC Manthan Digital Innovation Award 2016. She is currently working as Venture Manager at Preneur Lab. Among Preneur Lab’s products, there is one called ‘Dost Bot’ which can talk to adolescents about their unique problems and offer solutions.
Fintech talked to Rakhshanda to find out more.
FINTECH: Tell us about your background a little bit. Did you think you will become an entrepreneur or work in the area of women empowerment, when you were a student?
I went to Rangpur Cantonment Public School and College. I did my undergraduate in Dinajpur, where I studied CSE and majored in telecom. At that time, I did think that I will do something that will have an impact on the lives of people. I was engaged in organizations and used to carry out activities with other girls while at the university. Dinajpur obviously didn’t have the many facilities available in Dhaka. So, knowledge about technology wasn’t as widespread. I felt that these students are missing out on a lot and they should have the same opportunities as someone studying in Dhaka. I wanted to do something about that, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do much if I join a regular job. This is where you need an entrepreneur. That’s when I started a project which became ‘Begum’.
FINTECH: Tell us about how it began.
As a woman, I felt that we have a certain distance with career experts in different professions or simply our professors or teachers. Particularly, in the professional field there is a gap in communication for some reasons between women in general and the relevant people. I wanted to do something on that. I was a student then, and I thought a lot about how to put that idea into an actionable framework. So, I started the website of Begum and started building connection through it. I started writing and creating awareness through that. We also started providing short training courses for women so that they can work alongside their study. That grew into arranging internship for them. We also provided help for women who wanted to work from home.
Near the end of 2016 we introduced an option where people can ask about a problem they are facing and we will try t provide a solution. We reached out to different universities and to the corporate sector to set up an arrangement where the experts in these areas will work as counselors for answering these queries and providing solutions.
So, to illustrate the kind of questions that I thought needed expert advise, a woman asked me: “I have been working in a bank for seven years. But i want to switch job now. What should I do and should I do it at all? Fathers and husbands can’t answer these questions. And if I ask the elders they tell me to stay in the current job. Should I listen to them?”
So, you can see here that they are not getting the right answers because they don’t have the right person to ask. That is the core idea from which Begum grew.
FINTECH: But this is not limited to women only now, is it?
That’s true. Even though we started with women in mind and it was meant to help women, there is not reason now why men can’t or shouldn’t take the advantage of this. Many men ask questions too. And they are absolutely free to do so.
FINTECH: You said you arrange internships. Tell us more about that.
We are creating a network with a number of companies and connecting people to these companies. We also offer internship with us. We offer online and offline courses as well, for minimal fees. We say that ‘Begum is the 360 degree solution for women empowerment.’ In our blog we write about health, sexual health, nutrition, etc. We also encourage women to write for us. Overall, they can gain knowledge, learn many things and implement those in their lives through Begum.
We have a section that keep users up-to-date about what jobs are available throughout the year. We have fashion and lifestyle blog as well. Ultimately, we want the progress of women. We work towards that and doing everything we can.
FINTECH: Do you set an age limit on who can engage with you?
No. Any woman of any age, from any social segment can engage. This is not just for the youth. We connect to all women.
FINTECH: Which year Begum was launched officially?
I started the blog page in 2015. The ‘questions and answer’ and courses started in 2016. So, official launch would be 2015. At that time we used to travel to remote areas to train them, create awareness about health issues. We trained underprivileged women in Dhaka as well.
FINTECH: Why there are less women in tech in your view?
Prothom-Alo ran a feature on us in 2016, where the report cited that percentage of women in the IT sector in Bangladesh is less than 10. I think one of the factors is that our women are anxious to take initiative and get into this sector. There is a fear also surrounding study of science and technology. Women are underperforming in the maths or just not feeling interested. I think this is a problem of mindset. There is a lot of opportunities for networking in Dhaka, which you don’t have out of the capital. If we can dispel the the fear women will enter the field more. There needs to be better promotion for this.
FINTECH: One of the main obstacles for women entering jobs is societal. Are you doing anything on that?
Many jobs in the corporate and IT sector require quite a lot of time. Sometimes you have to take your work at home. Sometimes, you finish late at night. This is frowned upon in our society. This is really holding women back, because there is now so much opportunities in the IT sector. You can do a lot from home, like emailing and providing services to the clients.
When I started working, I felt that this need to change. And the question and answer outlet actually provides the support for this and women find implementable solutions for their problems.
FINTECH: You were a ‘top speaker’ at the ‘Google Developer Summit 2016’. Tell us about that.
My topic at the Google Developer was ‘Empowering Three Thousand and Five Hundred Women.’ I had worked with Google Developer program for a long time before that. That took me many different places and I talked to many women. I got connected to so many women through that. At the summit they asked participants to write on our work. So, I wrote about that experience. That got voted as the top selection and that’s why they asked me to speak as the ‘top speaker.’. There were participants from approximately 150 countries at that summit. I think people really appreciated my work.
FINTECH: What is your future plan and where do you want to see Begum in five years?
I have always wanted for women to progress in professional life. One of my focus has been to see people who are facing many difficulties, overcome those. So, my vision is to provide through Begum a support system that enables women to do that.
In five years I want to see Begum as the biggest connection platform for women, through which women of all walks of life come together. And whenever there is an issue of providing support from women, Begum will be the first place people will think about.
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