Nurul Hussain — We’re all struggling against systems not meant for us

Profile picture of Nurul Hussain

Nurul Hussain is a globally recognized community leader and non-profit founder. She founded The Codette Project in 2015 on the belief that minority/Muslim women deserve success and that tech will help them get there.

Nurul has 10 years of global experience in diversity and inclusion, student-focused and coaching environments, building online and offline communities, and marketing and copywriting. She’s globally recognized as a diversity advocate and community builder and one of Singapore’s Top 100 Women in Tech 2020. Nurul is committed to inclusion, diversity and building ecosystems for long-term impact.

We’re so excited to welcome Nurul Hussain as our latest Tech Sister! 

Why did you start The Codette Project?

The Codette Project came out of a realization that tech is the most level playing field, and I wanted to build something entirely different for minority Muslim women. This is very important because we’re so underrepresented in the tech industry. But this is also an industry where there’s access to knowledge and training at every level of expertise. You can define and create your own opportunities for yourself. 

This means that tech can help create long-term economic success for underprivileged communities. In other industries like medicine or law, there is generally long-term financial success for professionals. However, to actually become a part of those industries takes a lot of time and money. And that cost is something that a lot of people, especially women, find difficult. By comparison, tech is so accessible. So much of tech is about putting together the skills you want to do what you want to do.

What were your experiences in founding the Codette Project? 

The seed funding for the Codette Project came from a local Malay/Muslim organization. It went toward funding our first events and lasted about eighteen months. The first six months were just me on my own trying to figure out what to do. Then I brought on board my initial team of six people. We’re now approaching our fifth anniversary and have grown to twelve people.  

Everyone on the team, including myself, has a full-time job outside of The Codette Project. We’re all volunteers. This is because we believe in all of our funds being completely redistributed to our programs. Our programs are free, outside of commitment fees that get refunded when people show up. We do this because we want our programs to be as accessible as possible.

It’s definitely been a journey for me to figure out what to do, how to manage a team, where we go from here, and what we do. I think a big issue is that we don’t see many organizations run and led by Muslim women. There are very few organizations that Muslim women can look up to and feel like this is an organization they want to emulate or be a part of. That’s definitely something I’m very conscious of. Many organizations and the people I looked up to either went astray or could not create the change they wanted.

But I’m happy now to be in a position where I can see so many minority Muslim women in Singapore and worldwide, working on different projects, like Tech Sisters. We’re defining and taking charge of our stories, narratives, journeys, and successes. This is important because it redistributes power and representation away from traditional gatekeepers. 

The diversity in minority/Muslim organizations deserves to be recognized. Solidarity is essential. We don’t prescribe how you should be a minority/Muslim woman. There’s no test of “minority/Muslim-ness” that you need to pass. We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome. If you feel like this is the place for you and want to be a part of it, we want you to come. 

How does the Tech for Good Hackathon compare with typical hackathons?

Our first Tech for Good Hackathon was actually the first women-only hackathon in Singapore. People were pretty doubtful about it, but we sold out in two weeks. I think that those doubts often come from the idea that tech norms are neutral, but that’s fundamentally very wrong. Tech norms are created by groups and systems that may not consider women as consumers and do not have women at the center of their user experience. It sounds crazy to exclude half the population like that, but it’s true. If women aren’t coming to an organization’s hackathons, that means they have a user experience and design problem. They need to go back and figure out what they’re doing that’s making women feel unwanted. 

We offer meditation/prayer rooms at our hackathons. Most large tech conferences don’t even have this. But it’s just a quiet room that’s there for anyone who needs their own space, no matter their religious background. During our second Tech for Good Hackathon, we offered childcare and a breastfeeding room. These things are so basic, they don’t really cost much. But organizers don’t think to include them because women aren’t considered key users.

We want our events to be as accessible as possible, so we don’t set any prerequisite knowledge requirements. Anyone can come in, and we’ll teach them design thinking, prototyping, user experience, and user research. Then they go and create these great ideas, real solutions to actual problems. 

Many people in tech think that a diverse team is something visual; a few token faces in the team picture. They don’t consider the benefits of having a team with diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking.

What’s the future for the Codette Project? 

I think what has happened with COVID-19 is that many negative impacts disproportionately affect women and minorities. This is true even in tech in Asia, where women are also more likely to take on additional caring roles, including for children or the elderly. 

I would like The Codette Project to have more opportunities where people can meet. There’s really no replacement for the kind of solidarity, community, and encouragement that happens when women share their experiences with each other. Like those serendipitous interactions that occur when you hear someone say something that resonates with you, and then you work on something together. These moments of connection that women have with other women are something we really treasure. I want to get back to doing them somehow, especially as this will be our fifth anniversary. 

We want to understand more about our community and their needs during this time, and that’s why we launched Codette Cares. This was an initiative that was really important to us and started two years ago. One of our team members donated some money on behalf of his mother when she passed away. That money went to scholarships and funding for minority Muslim students and businesses and eventually became Codette Cares. We launched it during the lockdown because we knew this was when many women would need extra help. Alhamdulillah, we got some more funding from Zendesk, so we’re hoping that this is something we can continue to do. There’s still an evident and strong need within the community for support and more things like this, especially during this period. We just want to be there to support them.

You were the only Muslim student in a class of 800 students in your high school. How did that experience affect you and your work in diversity and inclusion?

That’s a great question! At the time, as a young person, I didn’t really understand the implications of what it would mean to be so alone. I was the only Muslim in my year group out of 800 students. I enjoyed a lot of things about my education, like my classes and friends. But looking back, a lot of it was also very lonely. It was simple things like explaining halal food and making concessions about the kind of things you’re able to do. It was always kind of really struggling with your identity. I’m not super connected as an alumnus as I might have been because I see so few people who look like me. 

It also raises questions of access and opportunity. I was fortunate because I could attend the school, but many people may feel like schools like this aren’t for them. And quite often, they may be right. But it doesn’t mean that minority/Muslim women shouldn’t go there. If there aren’t minority/Muslim women in a space we should ask how to make this space more welcoming for these women. We shouldn’t be asking what these women are doing wrong – because often they haven’t. 

That shift in narrative is a lesson I learned from my own experience. I think that minority/Muslim women are consistently underrepresented. We need to ask organizations at what point in the pipeline do these women drop off. For example, 40% of a company’s applicants might be women, and they hire 8%. Another company might have 10% of applicants be women, and they hire all 10%. Those are two very different pipelines. 

We need to ask how do women move up in these organizations? Do these companies give referral bonuses to help with hiring? Referral bonuses can help people better fit into the team culture. But they can make an existing diversity problem even worse. There are many questions about the employment pipeline for underrepresented groups that companies really need to sit down and think about.

What’s the thing that you’re most proud of? What did you do, and why is it so special to you?

My team. Having and keeping a team is really one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. And it’s always tricky. But I’m really proud of the fact that we’re still here and doing this work, alhamdulillah. 

What is something in your journey that you regret or wish you did differently?

I wish that I met my team more often before the coronavirus pandemic. No one thought that this would happen, and everyone just moved to Zoom. But there’s really no replacement for people.

What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?

I’m really most grateful for the fact that I have a support system. My husband and my sisters have always been very supportive. Even when it’s challenging. Many people just look at the last 18 months and think we’ve always been a success. I’m very grateful to them for seeing that, but the first 18-24 months of the Codette Project were the most significant to me as the founder. I was asking, can we even survive as an organization? Is this a viable idea? How will we make this happen? I will always be very grateful to the people that really believed in me during that time, no matter what. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Our long-term goal is to see 10% of the global tech industry at every level be minority Muslim women. That’s the least that we deserve. I would love to be the starting point for solidarity for minority/Muslim women of all different backgrounds.

One of the things I tell young students is that you might be in a company without a safe space for you to practice your faith, like pray or fast. The people that often have your back and support you are people who have also had the experience of being a minority. Or they’re of a Muslim background but may not be practicing. Or they have a Muslim friend. And to have allies, you have to be an ally in solidarity. Understand that we are honestly all struggling against systems that are not meant for us. We should be very aware of this and look for ways to show up for other people and communities who need support.

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Nurul. Jazakallahu Khair! You can follow Nurul Hussain on her LinkedIn. You can also check The Codette Project to see the incredible work she and her team are doing and how you can get involved.

If you liked this story, be sure to check our other Tech Sisters Stories and get to know the amazing talent we have in our community.

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