Coding in Kazakhstan: Girls Power Fund and the Transformative Impact of Technology

This Feature appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

An Interview with Dinara Auyelbekova

Dinara Auyelbekova is the Founder and Director of Girls Power Fund, an organization that designs and delivers innovative solutions to address gender inequality in rural Kazakhstan by promoting girls’ access to STEM education. The Journal spoke with Dinara to discuss the progress Girls Power Fund has made in training the next generation of software engineers and technology leaders, the ability of technology to bridge the gap between rural and urban young women, and the difficulties of founding and funding a new organization in the face of societal challenges.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Introduce us to the organization you founded and currently run, Girls Power Fund. Why did you start this initiative, and what is some of the current work that you’re doing?

Dinara Auyelbekova (DA): During Covid in 2020, I took a gap year because I wanted to figure out what I want to do with my life. It was trial and error. I tried different things during this year, and I ended up starting the Girls Power Fund.

We work on empowering girls in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math, and we provide different trainings in those fields so that girls can pursue careers in STEM. And what motivated me is that I live in a very patriarchal, conservative society. If you see the statistics of women representation in business, in politics, in all STEM fields, it’s a very tiny percentage. There are also a lot of instances of sexual assaults, rapes. There is no law that protects women in Kazakhstan, so if a woman goes to the police and wants to report a domestic violence case, the police will probably will not consider it, and they will try to cover it, to hide it, and just won’t take this report. So I was fed up with this stuff, reading it on the news. And there was no change.

I decided that I wanted to start empowering girls earlier, because it’s hard to work with the victims of domestic abuse and empower women after traumatic events. I decided to work with the root cause and start empowering girls at the younger age, so that they hopefully won’t end up in financial abuse or domestic abuse. It usually happens when girls marry young, when they marry at the age of 18, especially in some regions of Kazakhstan. Then they don’t get higher education. They start giving birth. They have 5 kids at the age of 30, and then obviously, they can’t do anything. They can’t get out of the situation because they don’t have any means to sustain themselves and their children.

So I believe that education is like the cliché that can solve this problem. Education helped me to achieve all of my goals. I was lucky because I studied in a good university, I know English, and my parents were really invested and supportive, but soon I realized that it’s not the case for everyone in my country, and I decided to help provide what I had in my life and what helped me in my life, so that people would be able to fulfill their potential and hopefully not end up in situations like this.

JIA: To achieve your goal, you could have focused on language instruction or soft skills development, but you chose STEM material. Why did you choose to concentrate on STEM in particular?

DA: I think I chose it for several reasons. First, I think STEM is more meritocratic than other fields, and you can achieve more by—I don’t have any evidence, but it feels like in politics or finance, you have to have a lot of personal connections and men are helping men, all of these games and stuff like that. But I think in STEM, if you’re good, it doesn’t matter for your boss, or for your company if you’re a woman or a man.

And now, the thing is that there is a lot of demand in this field so people can get jobs. Girls can get jobs, and also it pays better than many other fields. And it’s also fairly easy to teach tech skills. You can go through a boot camp, very short courses, or for the girls that we train it takes 3 months. They can get some freelance job after a 3 month course, so it’s very quick. We can see quick results, and they can see quick results, and it feels very empowering. However, in other fields, I think it takes a longer time to build this foundational knowledge that you can apply to your career.

JIA: How did you go about designing the curriculum? Was it mostly drawing on materials and resources that you already had, or did it require a great deal of research, especially to get the level appropriate? Presumably you were interested primarily in working with girls and young women who had limited experience.

DA: Yes. So our program is centered on project-based learning, so that in the end they have to create a project, they have to pitch it, and they have to apply for different competitions. And I think it’s very good, because they have tangible results, unlike in many courses where they just give you lectures and materials. And then you don’t understand why you’re learning this and how you can apply this and what are you going to do at the end of the course.

That’s the first thing that we use, and overall, I hired trainers and consultants. First, it was volunteers when we didn’t have any money. I asked my friends who were working at Google or McKinsey or any other big international corporations, and they developed the training. What is good is that they also are professionals in their fields, so they know what the girls will actually need in the field. I feel that Academia in Kazakhstan is, from the sense I got, very far from industry sometimes, and people just do stuff that they will not use in their jobs and careers.

So we are focusing on that, but we had to adjust. In the beginning, our courses were too advanced. We would do coding and stuff like that, but then we realized that some girls just need maths or physics tutoring because they lag behind in school. They’re afraid of taking exams and feel bad about lagging at schools. So we pivoted, and we started to offer those services as well. We are very audience oriented. We have about 3,000 Instagram followers, and we just text with girls in DMs to see what they need. It’s very informal, and we always ask what they want to see, what support they need, and we try to base programs on that.

JIA: To that question of audience, how did you reach out to and recruit the girls? Was it based on existing networks, or, again, did you have to tap into other people or institutions that were already working with them?

DA: Yes, it’s very hard to tap into institutions, especially schools, because it’s very closed or bureaucratic, or people get suspicious. Because teachers are afraid that we’re going to brainwash them. Especially when they hear that we do it for free, everyone asks, “Why are you doing this for free?” They afraid that this is a scam. Parents are very suspicious of that. So that’s why we don’t work with institutions yet, because we need to build that credibility, and we need to build that connection, and it’s very hard. There’s a lot of resistance.

What we do is we work through social networks, through chats. We send out information to everyone. There are thematic groups in different social networks. And we post things like this, “We’re doing this program. Resend it to your friends or anyone who is interested.” Or we do Instagram ads so that people can see it on there and apply. When it’s a free program, I don’t think you have a problem with recruitment. 

JIA: Take us back to 2020. How did what was going on with Covid factor into both how you built the organization and some of those initial cycles of recruitment and programming? How did that influence who were who you were accepting, but also who was who was able to sustain involvement?

DA: I think it’s different for Kazakhstan, because 2020 was the year of Covid and April 2021 is when I founded the organization. I think there were no restrictions in Kazakhstan like this, with Covid. There were a few times when we were worried about doing offline events, because you can’t exceed a certain amount of people in the same room. And I remember in October 2021, we were still figuring out whether we can do offline events or not, how it will look, how many people we will have, and the rules are always changing. For example, today there are no restrictions, and a week from now they can say, “There is an increasing number of people who got sick. So you cannot do this event.” Our events are done in small cities, so we have to plan in advance. We have to travel there to do the programming. I think that was the main reason.

But as I said, we started online, so it was pretty easy, and I think it’s very good to start online, especially when you don’t have money, and when you’re starting in Covid, It’s very cheap, convenient, and easy. Then, 6 months later, we started doing offline events. But it’s one- or two-day workshops or teaching events. I think we also did very well in using the hybrid system. The biggest part of the course will be online, and then we’ll meet for a one-day or two-day event. And I think that’s very good also because people missed offline, and in-person, meetings.

JIA: If you’re starting out mostly online and then shift to in-person, how do you think about how that supplements the online instruction?

DA: I think it’s more about building a community, because when we travel to the cities, and we get this connection offline, I think people get more real. They are more honest about their problems, and they can get this connection of who I am. They can trust us. We can trust them, and we can develop and build other programming based on that. So I think it’s nice for building a community and to get to know girls better. It feels good for everyone.

You can tell that sometimes it’s hard, especially after Covid, to stare at the screen all the time, all day after school. You have school in Zoom, and then you have our courses in Zoom and get tired. People are happy to get out of Zoom and meet in person. They appreciate it more than before.

JIA: Tell us about how you have leveraged technology, besides Instagram and Zoom, to both develop the program and then also conduct outreach. Do you see technology as a potential leveling between rural and urban, if you can provide that extra boost for some of these girls? Is it possible that then start to equal out some of those gaps?

DA: Yes, I definitely think that technology is very important, and it’s a miracle that will help, in a lot of ways, to do everything that you said. It’s not that we use some developed technology. It’s just Zoom, Typeform, Google Forms, Instagram. Also, we use different websites like Thunkable, where you can teach and start with very basic programming, an hour of code. All of these websites have been very helpful to reach out and also to teach girls, and we utilize and maximize the use of technology as we can.

And yes, I definitely believe that it will decrease the gap, because we get a lot of comments that girls who wanted to do pursue careers as teachers or in the social sciences, they change their minds. And now they want to enter university and study computer science, and they are like, “Oh, wow! That’s not that hard. It can be fun, and I just realized that I can do it, and it’s very easy, and it’s something I can do.” We also encourage them to use technology in their projects, and we show them that there are a lot of resources you can use to improve the quality of life in your community through technology.

JIA: A quick follow up to that: Is programming more geared towards university admissions, helping girls discover if that’s what they want to do and then also developing a portfolio that they can then use in that process, or is it more towards career development where they could go through the program and then emerge with skills that then could lead to an entry level position. Or is it both?

DA: it’s both, but mostly the first track where they discover interest in STEM, and then we encourage them to participate in competitions, like the Technovation Challenge or other different national and international competitions, so that they will gain this confidence. Then, they will have something to write about in their motivation letters.

Very few of our girls actually start careers after they finish our courses. I don’t think that our courses are at that level that we can provide employees who are ready for workforce. But some of them are very talented from the beginning, and they just need this little push they get from us, and then they’re like, “Hey, I got this contract there. Wow, we didn’t expect that too much.” Yeah, that’s pretty cool to hear.

JIA: Previously, you had mentioned that the programming was initially a little too advanced. Tell us what pivoting looks like, both with the girls providing feedback and your team incorporating that feedback and making changes. Is it something that happens constantly or only at the end of a recruitment and program cycle?

DA: First, I have to say that there is a third party besides me and my team and our participants in the program. The third party are donors. They have their own agenda, and they want to see their own programming, especially in the beginning when I had to raise money and we were just a new organization. I would just write a proposal and write a program based on what donors wanted to see, because I needed the money to be able to go faster and to be able to provide higher quality programming. So it’s hard to find a balance because donors want to see advanced programming. They want fancy words. They like STEM, they want sexy programs that are very popular nowadays, and they want to write cool reports.

But what we saw is that some girls needed more basic programming. We tried to combine their needs with donors’ agenda. So we also tried to offer a different level of programming based on their needs. If donors fund more advanced programs, then we select more advanced participants. But sometimes, when we need tutoring, we ask our followers for donations, and we say, “We have this new program, and we just need a small amount of money. If you want to fund a certain girl, here’s her story if you’re interested.” We have many followers, people who work already and earn decent salaries and want to help. But they don’t have the time to build an organization like me, and they want to contribute in some way. They can be a volunteer, if I can train them, or they can donate money. So sometimes we’ll leverage that.

It’s very hard to balance it out, and we do it after every program. So we get the feedback. We have evaluations before and after to find out the progress that girls made. And we gather this feedback, and we see: we had a very low retention and girls said that it was hard, there were flaws in the recruitment process, maybe we didn’t explain well what to expect. We do it at the end of every program, and we see if it’s a good program so everyone will have high retention. We’ll then repeat it. If not, we make adjustments.

JIA: You and your team have certain goals that you’d like to achieve. Obviously, donors have requirements. The girls have their needs. You’re operating in an institutional framework in Kazakhstan that you said is difficult in its own ways at times. How, then, do you manage stakeholders?

DA: It was complicated, and it was hard. I didn’t have a mentor, and that’s why I’m really happy that I got into the Obama Scholars program. My mentor is Sarah Holloway from SIPA, and when I was writing my application a year ago to get into this program, I was writing that I want her to be my advisor, and now she is. I got an executive coach. And also, I have other scholars who have been doing this work for like years. I can ask their advice.

So it’s been a great relief, because in my environment I didn’t have anyone. There are some trainings, but I think civil society and nonprofits are only now starting to build up in Kazakhstan. Or maybe I just didn’t have experience working with them. But there are, I think, very few, and I didn’t have an opportunity or a chance to reach out to someone. I was just too busy writing proposals and doing programs in operations. There was a cycle: writing a proposal, getting a grant, doing the program, getting feedback, and then again and again, so I didn’t have time to think about my strategy around managing the expectations of everyone.

But I think the most important thing is just to do your job very well. Then the donors will be happy, the girls will be happy, and the team will be happy, if you have a genuine interest in helping. And also, I think it’s not that hard: we’re distinct from all of the other nonprofits because we use technology and create different, interesting programs. I hate the programs that include lecturing, when everyone just sits and listens to lectures. So we try to make it more interactive. We make hackatons or we make games, and we try to make it very engaging for girls. I think that people can see it.

But I had to learn how to write reports because it takes a lot of bragging and exaggeration, in some cases. You just learn it on the go.

JIA: What was it like sort of working with other people who were in a similar position to yourself through the Obama Scholars program? What did you learn from some of your peers?

DA: It’s been incredible, because I learned a lot of very specific things, such as how do you build a board of trustees? This is not something you can Google or you can take a course on. Maybe there is an instruction on Google. But then you have specific questions: How do you choose your board of trustees? How often do you meet? What do you talk about in your meetings. I think it’s very crucial and important to know about things like that.

And another thing is this feeling when you can understand, when people talk about, their failures. They didn’t get grants, there were a lot of problems with managing expectations of stakeholders. How they overcome these problems? And realizing that you are not alone in this journey. We talked a lot about how isolating it is to be a leader of a nonprofit, and how you can’t really share it with your team because you’re always expected to be the one to save face and be positive and driving everyone to success. But it’s nice sometimes to take off that mask and to rant about the reports, or about donors, or about anything else that you can’t really discuss with your friends who work in the corporate world, when they don’t really understand what it’s like to be a leader of a nonprofit.

JIA: Can you provide some context about what the nonprofit space looks like in Kazakhstan and how your organization is differentiated?

DA: I can only tell from what I sensed, but I think it’s very biased and opinionated. I don’t have any data to support this or any prior knowledge about the system of nonprofits in Kazakhstan. But from what I experienced myself working with and in nonprofits and observing is that many nonprofits are outdated. They use old programming, old concepts. And they are just boring in some sense. I don’t know how to put it.

But for the last 2 or 3 years, there are a lot of young people like myself who start organizations which are very creative, which are disruptive, and do amazing work. And I think it’s a very recent notion, and I hope it will continue to be like that. In terms of like being different, we try, as I said, to be very informal. We try to be close to our target audience, and we try to understand what they want. We don’t work with government, like many other nonprofits in Kazakhstan. That’s like both an upside and downside, because it prevents us from getting a lot of resources and outreach. But at the same time, it’s easier not to work with government for me personally, because, as I said, it’s hard to reach out, from what I experienced. You email the school or call the school or local government. Then they don’t answer you at all, or they will just say no. So I think it’s the fact that we don’t work with government. And the fact that we leverage technology and try to be creative and get close with our target audience. I think that’s it.

JIA: Where do you see the organization going, or where would you like to take it?

DA: I’m in the process of figuring it out right now. As I said, it’s been great to be a part of the Obama Scholars program, and I’m exploring what else I can do. Because I want to—it’s hard to struggle for funds all the time, write proposals. It’s been really hard to raise money. It was easier in the beginning, but then we hit a plateau, and it’s been very hard to get all of these rejections. I am now working on starting a global business around mindfulness and manifestation to help female founders to avoid a burnout and get to their goals with ease and joy.

JIA: Girls Power Fund is itself very entrepreneurial. Where you think that comes from?

DA: That’s a very interesting question. In my family, people would always say that we are not entrepreneurial, we don’t have this in our blood. It’s been very hard to fight this generational belief. And I think it’s very different in the US, where you have this notion about entrepreneurship and how cool is that. It’s different than Kazakhstan, I think, in the sense that people are more cautious. There is different culture and context here.

But for me it’s been the pursuit of freedom, because I like being independent. And I realized three years ago that I won’t be able to work in the office, because first, I will always have limitations in terms of money that I earn. When you’re an entrepreneur, you can earn more. Even if you’re a nonprofit, you can get as many grants as you can. So there are no limitations in that. And there are no limitations in how you plan your day, because sometimes I feel like in the office you can’t get out. I’m productive in evenings and at night, and like I to use this time to do my work and do a lot of different things, like meeting people, that I wasn’t able to do that when I was in the office. So I think not being limited in the way I form my day, and with whom I work. I can make any program. My freedom is important for me.

JIA: Any parting thoughts?

DA: Everyone should apply for Obama Foundation Scholars program. Even if you are doing some social work, you don’t have to be a CEO or a founder of a start-up or a nonprofit. You just have to do social impact. This program helped me a lot and changed my life. So I would encourage everyone to apply to the Obama Foundation Scholars program and see how it will work for them. It’s been a great experience and I got a lot of support, a lot of new skills and knowledge that I can use in my life.