This article was originally published by Forbes.
Firuzeh Mahmoudi founded the first civic tech startup focused on Iran. She and her team are building apps like a Yelp for rating public officials and women’s health trackers—in heritage languages that are currently banned from official use. She is using entrepreneurship and technology to help create a more free society. And she is doing it from across the world.
This is the story of Firuzeh Mahmoudi, founder of United4Iran and IranCubator, the first civic tech-focused startup incubator in Iran. She is also a creator of civil justice apps and a businessperson. Her business? Creating social good in a country she loves.
“Our mission is to improve civil liberties in Iran, and we do that in three ways,” says Mahmoudi, 45, who spent four years working for the United Nations in countries across the world as an international project coordinator before becoming a founder.
“We improve human rights. We support the civil society in any way we can. We build civic engagement and civil society through technology. That’s what IranCubator is.”
Long before Mahmoudi became an entrepreneur, she grew up as a young girl in Iran. A few years after the war between Iran and Iraq started in Iran, in 1983, she was taken by her father (who she’d never lived with) to the US. At 16, while back in Iran visiting Kerman, her mom’s hometown, Mahmoudi was detained for five hours by Iran’s moral police. The reason? She had briefly taken off her headscarf. Her hair was showing in public.
But this is not the story of a victim. This is a story of triumph. This is the story of a woman and an entire country.
What many people don’t know about Iran is that it is one of the most educated, tech-literate populations in the world—and a highly progressive one as well. In Iran, nearly as many women graduate from college than men—according to the latest tertiary school stats from the UN Statistics division, 49% of college graduates are female. The population is young and liberal-leaning (as evidenced by the prevalence of “white marriage”). According to Mahmoudi, there are 40 million smartphones in the country, with a million new ones added every month. They use apps like Facebook, though they have to use a VPN proxy to do so. Only government officials are currently legally allowed to use Twitter. By necessity, Iranians are tech-savvy.
That said, the government is not open—particularly when it comes to technology, communication and civil liberties. Media channels are state-run. Right now, the silencing of journalists is common. While there is a strong desire for women’s rights, Iran currently excludes women from a variety of undergraduate studies in college—including computer science, electrical engineering and business management. Iran leads the world in executing juvenile offenders, persons under the age of 18. And Iran criminalizes LGBT people.
Mahmoudi is fixing that.
“My mom was left behind when I moved with my sister to the US,” says Mahmoudi. This gave Mahmoudi the unique perspective and passion to help support those inside in a way that she had not been able to do when she was younger. “I was helping family members get us out of the country who didn’t have the capacity and the resources. I realized how good it felt to be able to play that role. I built my purpose: ‘Okay, when I’m in service to others is where I feel really strong,’” says Mahmoudi. “[And I realized] in particular, women and minorities are the ones that I needed to be of service to. The most basic things that we take for granted can land you in jail in Iran.”
Mahmoudi realized that there wasn’t anyone focused on apps made for civic engagement inside Iran, so she built a team to create IranCubator. She works with 30 consultants and partners in the Iranian-American community. She also has a staff of 10 in her San Francisco Bay Area office—most of whom are Iranian, and were still in the country until 2009. “I really worked hard in bringing in resilient people…people who are smart, creative, kind. It’s so important to be kind. How you do the work, and how you show up, is that critical. If you try to make the world a better place, you’d better be nice. If you want to make the government be nicer, you’d better be nice, too.”
She and her team, based in the San Francisco Bay Area are creating apps like the Iran Prison Atlas – a database of all the country’s political prisoners, the judges who sentenced them and the prisons where they’re held. “We believe how these people are treated is a litmus test for our country,” Mahmoudi explains.
They are building an app women can use to track their ovulation cycles and periods. It also acts as a Trojan horse; as you dig deeper, it includes all sorts of information on women’s rights, including how to have equal rights in a marriage. (In Iran, divorce rights for women—as well as the right to equal custody of their children afterward—require a document signed before the wedding ceremony.) “This one’s not specifically targeting the richer women who are living in Northern Tehran. It’s an app that aims to engage people who live in rural areas, or not be as well-off or educated or perhaps more conservative or religious,” Mahmoudi explains. “Once you get in the app, you realize there are other parts. They include information on one’s rights as a woman in a marriage. Or basic concepts that may be completely foreign to them. Like maybe say, “Hey, do you know there’s a concept called ‘marital rape’? Even if someone’s your husband, they can’t treat you this way.”
Mahmoudi and her team are also developing apps in heritage ethnic languages of Iran—there are 30, but only Persian is officially allowed. “Having apps that are in peoples’ mother tongues not only enables them to use it, but it just gives a sense of ownership that people would not otherwise have,” says Mahmoudi.
Right now, IranCubator is building a dozen apps. The first is launching in late January. Named RadiTo, this app works similarly to YouTube, but for radio instead of TV, allowing people in Iran to broadcast channels about the topics they care about. Someone can create a channel about LGBT rights or about children and education in their language. “Whatever they want—they can have a secure, safe platform to broadcast their message,” Mahmoudi explains.
From an operational perspective, this isn’t easy. Mahmoudi and her staff aren’t just building a startup. They’re operating from the other side of the world, working for users with whom they cannot directly communicate. “Any startup is challenging and has so many hurdles. For us, it’s another level, working with so many security challenges,” says Mahmoudi.
The biggest challenge of all: they cannot go back to Iran. “The Islamic Republic coined me as an anti-revolutionary fugitive in one of their articles,” Mahmoudi says. “Half of my staff are refugees who got out.”
So how do they build apps that work within the country—and ensure that they are safe for users?
They draw on the knowledge and contacts of their most recently-emigrated staff and community members, Mahmoudi says. They quietly work with social activists within the country. And, Mahmoudi says, they use technology to do all of it. “People download the apps we build. Most people inside Iran have Android phones, so most of the apps are Android. To serve people who don’t have phones or have iOS, we also make websites or Telegram Bot—Telegram is the most-used social media currently in Iran.” The bot allows people to capture the information and record or review it privately. It’s the equivalent of allowing people to view content within Facebook Messenger.
Mahmoudi and team also work to build their apps in a way that ensures the safety of the people using them. All of their apps are open source – anyone can go in and see the app’s source code. As Mahmoudi says, the motto of “first do no harm” is huge when you’re in this line of work. “Our goal here is to improve the lives of those inside the country,” she says. “Making sure we do things securely and thoughtfully is number one.”
Ultimately, the peace and security of mankind are dependent on mutual respect for the rights and freedom of all. That comes down to the willingness of people to take action—which is Mahmoudi’s primary goal. The questions she is trying to answer: How do we engage hundreds of thousands of people, not just leaders, but a broader group of people? How do we get individuals who want to take small action? “Rightfully, understandably, they don’t want to go in prison, but they’re willing to take smaller, civic engagement actions which are critical and in numbers, can really build up as well,” Mahmoudi explains.
“One of the lessons I’ve learned is that one person can make a difference. There’s a saying: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”