If you have the opportunity, always give someone who is really different from you a chance. That's something that we see throughout, with the women in our community. We know that she's capable, we've seen how capable she is. Are you going to be able to take that risk to give this capable person a job that she's going to be able to do?
- Nurul Jihadah Hussain
Jeremy Au: Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.
Nurul Jihadah Hussain is the Founder of The Codette Project. Operating since 2015, The Codette Project is a nonprofit ground-up initiative to improve access and opportunities for minority & Muslim women in technology. The Codette Project runs classes, workshops, panels, networking sessions and social events regularly, including Singapore’s only women's hackathon. She wants to create better communities, networks and opportunities, and to diversify what success means in society – to prove that success can look like anyone.
She is one of 115 global community leaders selected into Facebook's inaugural Community Leadership Programme. Nurul also sits on the Gender Advisory Panel for Accelerating Asia Ventures, an independent and award-winning startup accelerator in Singapore. She has led on multiple steering committees at Yayasan Mendaki, the leading self-help group in Singapore uplifting the Malay & Muslim community’s resilience, education and adaptability. She is the Chairperson leading a team of experienced founders to help create better ecosystems and support for minority & Muslim entrepreneurs. She had previously been on the steering committees for CLF Labs, a platform for youth in organizations to adopt intrapreneurship, as well as Digital Transformation for the the Malay Muslim voluntary sector.
Nurul graduated with an honors Master of Arts in Arabic and Politics from The University of Edinburgh and a Master of Business Administration from Singapore Management University. She has worked in higher education, Japan and Singapore’s banking system. Her hobbies are reading fiction, cooking and crochet. You can support her work by going to www.thecodetteproject.com
Nurul Jihadah Hussain: Hi, Jeremy. How are you?
Jeremy Au: So good. So glad to have you here and share your domain expertise and authority on diversity and inclusion here. For everyone who's listening, everybody wants to know, what has been your leadership journey.
Nurul Jihadah Hussain So, when we talk about my leadership journey, I want to start a little bit in the past. Which is, when I went off to University, in the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and that was the first time that I had really been involved in Interfaith work and work around women, as well. So, that was really interesting for me because I was the Vice President of the Islamic Society. I was a women's representative as the chaplaincy and a lot of the work meant that I was surrounded by women from very different backgrounds who were very committed to making things more equitable for the people around us. Edinburgh was this great city where people were really just so lovely and so warm and from so many different backgrounds that it helped me reframe a lot of my ideas as to what doing work for a cause meant. Because people weren't afraid to get their hands dirty, weren't afraid to lead from the ground. And it was something that I learned a lot from.
Then I came back to Singapore. I basically hung out with my parents for a while, did a couple of different jobs. And I went to Japan and I worked for two years in Kochi City, Kochi Prefecture which is this tiny prefecture on Shikoku Island and it's not really a place where people visit. And I worked as a teacher in elementary and junior high schools in the Japanese public school system. It was very different from anything that I'd imagine. So, the women that I met were incredible. They'd work all day, go home, take care of their kids, do their marketing and then come back and do a lot of the pastoral care that we needed. Because the schools I taught in were honestly schools where it was very difficult for students, a lot of my students weren't from families that were well to do. A lot of them were from homes which may be considered incomplete. For me, it was just an incredible experience to be there and to experience that amount of sacrifice and work that these women put in to hold the kids together in school.
Then I came back to Singapore again, did my MBA at SMU, Singapore Management University, for one year. And I always say, "It's completely worth it because that's where I met my husband." Then in December 2015, I had the opportunity to start a social impact project that became The Codette Project. I built it really from scratch. It was only me doing the work for the first six months and then to just get initial team of six to get together and be like, "What are the things that we can do to get more minority, Muslim women into technology?" And then now we're at about 15, there are 15 of us who are all volunteers working at the Codette Project.
Jeremy Au: Why is leadership so important to you?
Nurul Jihadah HussainI think for me, when we talk about leadership, what I really look at is ownership rather than maybe more traditional ideas of what leadership is. So, it's not you standing at the front or you taking credits. It's you really understanding that for your project or any work it is that you do, the leader is the person that at the end of the day says, "It's honestly my responsibility for everything that goes wrong or goes right in this project." And even if it goes right, quite frankly, most of the time it's because someone else in the team has stepped up and done the work but you need to take ownership of the things that go wrong, as well. So, it's doing the work that needs to be done.
At the beginning, it was me understanding that if I didn't go out and I didn't pitch Codette by myself to people and I didn't ask random people, "Would you like to join this?" Then it will be my failure.
Even now, it's to understand that I need to know every part of the business, the work that we do. I need to know, how are we doing outreach for social media? How are we creating content that goes out? Are people who are coming to our events feeling positively impacted by this? And to understand how everything works and to take responsibility for my lack of knowledge. I'm not saying I'm an expert at any of these but lot of it is really looking at, why is it important for us to do what we do and how do we keep on improving it so that we make the impact we want. So, I think at a very basic level it's looking at, right now, online content because obviously it's coronavirus. We can't do a lot of the in person meetings that we like and we love.
But to look at from our community, what are the pain points that people have right now? How can we address that? So, it's creating a lot more Instagram lives, which we've done. Just talking to women about what they're doing, what they've been up to and how they can do better. It's about providing pieces of content that I hope are inspirational or at least a relief from a lot of the stresses people are going through at the moment. It's about providing more information. For me, a lot of that is actually a form of leadership because leadership is about putting the community that you want to serve and the impact that you want to make at the center of everything that you do and then everything else becomes secondary.
Jeremy Au: You know, that's been such an important insight. And why did you even get started on this journey? How did you get started in your domain and leadership journey?
Nurul Hussain: So, I always considered Codette a startup. We are nonprofit, everyone's a volunteer but it is a startup in many ways. When I was doing my MBA in SMU, I had the opportunity from Mendaki to pitch for a scholarship. Part of this scholarship was that I actually had a pitch for a social impact project. What I pitched was called The Codette Project, even though what I proposed was very different. So, what I had proposed was actually a six month long training program for underprivileged women to go into and then they'd graduate and get into the tech industry. And bear in mind at this time, I really did not have very much experience at all in the tech industry. Mendaki was very supportive. They gave me what was my initial seed fund of $7,500 in lieu of a scholarship.
Then I went out and asked people, "Well, what do you think?" So, the first six months was me asking people who would then become my first team. Like, "What do you think? What do you think you can contribute? Do you think this is a good idea?" One of the most amazing moments I had was that there was at that time a tech conference in Singapore and I think it was the first tech conference of its kind. They had given out free tickets for female founders. And I was like, "Yes, okay. I'm going to go for this." I went there, and I realized because they had given free tickets for female founders, there were actually a lot of women from across Asia and a lot of minority women.
That's where I met the first person, other than my sister, to be on the team and her name is Zee. And she's a co-founder of a design brand called PlayPause that she runs with her husband. I did not know her, we were randomly introduced. Because I had gone through the app that they give you at these conferences. I basically messaged anyone that I thought would be interested in Codette. And someone I had messaged was like, "Well, I think you should meet Zee." And he said, "Okay, I'm going to link you to her." That was how I met Zee. Then I met the other people of my initial team randomly, as well. So, that gave me the confidence to start our first event. And that was an event which we called, Tea with Codette, which was asking the people within the community, "Well, we're interested in doing something around women in tech. How do you think we should do this? Would you be interested? Is our initial idea good?"
And what came back was that people were like, "No, we do not want to do a six month long program. I think it's really unfair for you to ask women to do this." Well, they didn't say it's unfair. I think we thought about this a bit later on, but what women wanted was the ability to choose for themselves where they would want to go. That's really looking at more modular classes, modular events that fit into their journeys and their career journeys. So, we pivoted and we looked at, minority women representation in tech as a whole. Basically, all our events up to now are really looking at this community that is so underrepresented, as well. And it's growing. I think, for me at every stage has been a challenge because obviously I've never done anything like this before.
It's my first startup. How do I grow a team from six people to 15? How do I get started on Instagram and get views? How do I create an ad on Instagram? How do I ask for funding? How do I pitch? And a lot of this at every level was completely terrifying but you do it. The first tech convention I went through, like I talked about. Didn't know anyone there. I went there for three days and just talked to anybody I could about Codette. That helped me so much actually later on pitching to anyone. Because I was like, "Honestly, if I could do that with nothing to back this up, then right now with the results that we're seeing within the community, there's nothing to fear."
Jeremy Au: What hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?
Nurul Hussain: I think the biggest hurdle was in this process of convincing people that Codette is something they should invest their time in, invest their money. And if they are part of an organization or just give us your support in terms of collaborating. We really started at a point where people were a lot more unwilling to consider that diversity and inclusion is important.
The things that were the most difficult the first few years were going out and trying to ask people like, "Would you support the projects that we're doing? Is this something that you believe in?" We saw people from our community. So, minority Muslim women across the board were like, "This is a great idea, whatever you need us to do, we'll do." But it was people who were not within the community who really pushed back and asked questions that now seem completely insane. Questions like, "Well, do minority Muslim women even want to be in tech? If they wanted to be in tech, they would be in tech." That circular logic doesn't make sense.
And you can't argue with those people. What we realized actually, after these comments that we would get randomly. Sometimes you'd go to a networking event and someone will tell you that it's not a problem of logic, which is why logically speaking to a lot of these people didn't work. It was just extremely exhausting for me and my team. It's a moral failing, there's a moral gap. And the people who are asking these questions are really saying, "Well, I'm asking this question because fundamentally I don't believe that we're equal. And I don't believe that you should have a place here and you need to justify why you exist." We're not doing that work to bridge that moral gap because I think that's something that individual needs to do. So, what we're trying to do and say is, we're trying to really work on building the relationships with people who value us as who we are. Who understand that we don't need to justify why we exist. That they don't need to justify why they're working with minority and Muslim women because diversity and inclusion is important to them.
So, we're moving into doing the much more rewarding work of actually not having to do that moral bridge and to justify ourselves. Because honestly, it just really made us feel bad all the time having to say, "Well, I know it's worth it because I've met the people in my community and the women in my community are amazing. And I've seen them, they show up, they do the work, they're interested." They just want to know, will you let them in? And to move away from that and saying, you know what, we know what we have and the value of our community. If you know this as well, and you can address the inequalities within your organization by working with us. And even by working on your own, to make sure that your opportunities are more accessible to women who are underrepresented than you're people that we want to work with." And that's been such a relief.
Jeremy Au: Who are your role models in real life?
Nurul Hussain: When it comes to role models, I do look at my community first, for people who I can see that I really need to learn from. And looking at my team as women who have come together, honestly, I don't pay anybody anything. It is what I do. I ask them to show up and they've shown up for me despite everything. Like Zee and her husband have shown up and helped us run events on birthdays, on the eve of their wedding anniversaries. And they've always said, "This is a priority." And that's despite everything else that's going on in her life. For me, that honestly sometimes shames me into understanding that it is worth the sacrifice of the late hours and the effort and the tiredness that you get because there are people that believe in me so much.
There are people that have reached out to me. Liyana Fauzi is someone that's now on my team. She's been in GovTech. She's just graduated from her Tech MBA at NYU. And she reached out to me after we hadn't been in touch for about 10 years. Because we went to the same secondary school and she was like, "Well, I'm doing this at GovTech and I think if you're interested in learning from my experience, if there's anything I can do. Can we collaborate?" I was like, "Yes. Yes, please. Thank you." Her ability to just reach out and be brief and be like, "Yeah, I want to do this," has been amazing. We have Anastasia, who moved to Singapore from Australia for basically, her first full time job. She was like, "I really want to find a community." She turned up for Codette, she started volunteering. This is a story that we hear over and over again. Each member of my team has a story that for me, inspires me. When I look at, why am I doing this? It's my team. It's not just my team as individuals, it's who we represent.
Another thing that we get sometimes at Codette is that people assume, because we're about Muslim women, we hate Muslim men, which is a terrible myth. It's not true because we've had Muslim men support us from the very beginning. I have a Muslim guy on my team, Hakim, and he's shown up every single time. Even though I've said, "Well, you're probably not going to get a lot of recognition for this because I am going to say that it's about the Muslim women from our team and you may not be featured as prominently." He's like, "Fine, the cause is important and that's what I'm here for." It's about men like Hakim, like my husband, like Zee's husband, who've turned up every time and just been incredibly supportive allies. The men who've basically shown up for events because they're supporting the women in their lives who want to go but too nervous to go alone because it's their first event. We've seen them turn up for our panel sessions. We had a session called, He for She, which featured mostly minority men talking about how to be allies. This is a story that really doesn't get told and which I would never have heard, if I hadn't done the work that I do now.
The richness of the examples that I see from my team, from the people that I see doing the work that I do, is enough that I don't have to look too far for examples of people who are really owning their work. Who are being leaders who are sacrificing for a cause that they in for the support of the women in their lives. I feel like being around them, being around examples of who I wish I was and who I want to be, has been really helpful in helping me become a better leader of the project that I want to be part of.
Jeremy Au: What are the common myths that you encounter in diversity and inclusion work?
Nurul Hussain: So, this links to the question I answered before, which is really around the question of who has responsibility in addressing inclusion and diversity. It's not the responsibility of underrepresented communities to keep on making the case that we deserve to be included. I think that should be a basic moral fact. Everyone deserves to be equally represented and that talent is equally distributed across all communities and all groups. It's really opportunity that's not equally distributed. The work to overcome that difference really has to come from organizations of all different kinds, from people, from communities of all different kinds. So, say, "Yes, this is an issue that needs to be solved."
I think that a good example of an organization, a couple of organizations that have been clear about the fact that this is something they want to put in the effort for. Even though it is a long-term journey, it is something that people need to put in long-term effort, put in work, put in money for. You look at the large tech organizations like Google and Facebook, who at least in APAC, at least in Singapore are being very clear that they're investing in community leaders, they're investing in women. They don't do manels, which is so widespread in Asia, across the tech industry. It's widespread in Singapore across the tech industry.
You will have a panel of all men. And sometimes, the only woman who's there is perhaps the moderator. Sometimes the moderator is still a man, as well. And that’s terrible but organizations like Google and Facebook are really looking at, no manels. They are looking at pushing back against this and that's a great first step. I think when a lot of these organizations say like, "Yes, this is something we're committing to." Then women in my community who asked the question, "Well, even if we're interested in tech, will anyone hire us?" Can look to these organizations and say, "Yes, organizations like Facebook and Google will hire you because you're good enough and it doesn't matter where you're from or what you look like or what you wear." And that's a very powerful, powerful thing to do.
Jeremy Au: That's so true. What support or resources are available for others considering a journey similar to yours?
Nurul Hussain: Okay. So, I think, if we're talking about inclusion and diversity, obviously there’s not as many resources in APAC in Singapore. There are also increasingly more International Programs. I was on a Facebook program, which was an International Program in 2018 and there are a number of International Programs around inclusion and diversity that people should reach out to. What my experience was with Facebook was that I honestly did not think that I would get it. When I actually got the email that said, "Well, you're into the second round." I was like, "Is this a joke?" When I got the email that said you're actually in, I couldn't believe it. I had to really check, is it real? So, I think a lot of it is reaching out and looking for resources, not just in Singapore but International.
Looking at organizations in Singapore. Mendaki has a couple of different funds, which people can apply to specifically for that. They're increasingly more, I think, independent funds that people can look at it from people like the National Youth Council for projects that you're passionate about.
In terms of Codette, we're trying to build an ecosystem which is redistributive. So, we're getting more resources for people to support the community. So, we've launched something called Codette Cares, which is for minority Muslim women who are either students or business or project owners to get a little bit of funding and a year's worth of mentorship for them to really get to the next level in their business or in their studies. We're really hoping that does translate into a wider network of people, just reaching out and helping underrepresented communities.
Jeremy Au: A lot of people really see diversity and inclusion as a win lose dynamic. I've personally benefited from looking at it more as a win win model. What do you have to say about the upsides in diversity and inclusion?
Nurul Hussain: Okay. I like this question. I think there are two main ways to look at it but both, I think, are positive. So, I think the first part is the business case for diversity and inclusion. And that's really saying, "Well, if you have a more diverse executive committee, a more diverse board, a more diverse anything, if your organization is basically diverse throughout, then you're looking at more resilience. You're looking at being more aligned to your consumer base. You're looking at understanding things from very different perspectives." That, I think, is quite convincing. I think McKinsey's put up quite a good series of research papers, which is really on diversity. They've said that there is something which looks like there is a correlation between more diverse organizations and better business results. So, in terms of profits, that works.
I think there's also the other aspect of it, which is that if you're a business, can you not also be a business for good? That's a moral question for businesses. Which is like, "Yes, you claim to treat your employees like a family. You claim to do this for the community. You claim to do this but on a very practical level, are you able to commit to the moral understanding that everyone deserves a chance to be part of your organization and to do that?" I think that commitment is a show of moral strength that companies and organizations really should think about and say like, "Are we able to do this? If not, why not? Where are our moral failings?"
It's a good exercise to ask leaders, "Where are you in your company that you're able to make these decisions?" And say, "Yeah, this is something I want to get behind because I believe in it." I think it's both of those things. There is the business aspect and there's the moral aspect where I think businesses really have no excuse in saying they don't believe in inclusion and diversity because it's simply the right thing to do.
Jeremy Au: For startups that are very young and small teams, what are some recommendations that you have that are easy for them to slowly roll out more diversity and inclusion for their teams?
Nurul Jihadah Hussain It requires an act of faith, which is that when you are putting out your job description or when you're hiring someone to track your own data and say, "Well, at what point in this process and this pipeline, the different candidates dropping out? Are women dropping out at the beginning? Are they not even applying?" I think that's a big question. So secondly, are they dropping out perhaps after their interview? if you actually notice this, then you can be like, "Well, is there something here that I need to fix?" Go back and fix that. If you have the opportunity, always give someone who is really different from you, a chance. I think that's something that we see throughout, with the women in our community. It's just really who is the person that's going to give this woman a chance. Because we know that she's capable, we've seen how capable she is. Are you going to be able to take that risk to give this capable person a job that she's going to be able to do? If you're a startup, you're used to taking risks. So, you might as well take this one. And that's honestly, my challenge for startups.
Jeremy Au: We've seen that technology has been one of the few industries that has a more open playing field because of the huge hunger for talent, wherever they are. So, they've often been leaders, in not just searching and sourcing but also promoting diversity and inclusion as a way to not just do the right thing but also to accelerate your own search for great talent, wherever they are. Like you said, "Whatever they look like." What are your hopes for the technology industry for the next bound of work?
Nurul Jihadah Hussain: So, our goal is to see 10% of the tech industry at every level, be minority and Muslim women. I think for us, that's a very clear goal that we can work towards, that will be representative. Muslims are about one fifth of the world population. And when we look at women being 50% of that, then that sounds pretty proportionate.
And I think that we do need that at every level because what we can see sometimes is that you have a lot of representation at a very high level and disproportionate representation at a very low level. So, it's the middle level really that count and looking at the pipeline of talent, being intentionally built by organizations to say, "Yes, we'll make these structures better, we'll do this better." And I think an example of how people can do that is just look at what the structures are for a hackathon. We believe we're the first hackathon in Singapore to offer a prayer room, to offer a space for women to breastfeed, to offer childminding last year.
That's very different from the traditional idea of a hackathon, where you're looking at 24 hours, 48 hours, beer and pizza. That by definition really excludes people who are able to go for it. Women are still most of the primary carers for both younger people like children and the elderly. Women, especially in Asian communities, are expected to be home at night. To be able to stay overnight, does exclude women from more traditional households. And to look at like, "Well, women from different faith backgrounds. If you have a space that's just for women to rest or meditate or pray, no matter of their faith background, then that's really inclusive for everyone. To make sure you have Halal food, you have vegetarian food. Whatever it is that people need to enable them to just fully show up to the tech industry and just bring their talents without having to be exhausted by the negotiation of their culture in these spaces, is I think, what needs to be done.
Jeremy Au: For people who are underrepresented in their communities and industry, what advice would you give to them about representing their professional experience in their LinkedIn and personal brand?
Nurul Jihadah Hussain: I think the biggest thing I would say is that they need to do what they need to do to get ahead because fundamentally it is unfair for a lot of people where they are. I'm not going to lie about it, and it is unfair. So, make sure that you do whatever it is you need to do to get the money that you're worth, to get the positions that you need to go to. Don't feel like you're in debt to organizations or institutions that fundamentally are not people. You shouldn't expect loyalty out of a lot of these organizations and institutions, especially if they haven't shown that to you.
So, create your own trajectory. Make sure that you are tracking the credit that you should get for your projects and the things that you're on. Reflect that in your CV, reflect that in your LinkedIn and build networks of people in places that you want to go to. If your goal is to work in Google and Facebook in 10 years, start building that network now and just keep going. It's not going to be easy, but I think it's worth it to have that goal and just keep going for it. Even when it's difficult, as it will be.
Jeremy Au: If you could go back in time, 10 years, what advice would you give to yourself?
Nurul Jihadah Hussain: Learn coding maybe. So, I think 10 years ago I would have been in Edinburgh and being like, "Well, what do I do next?" And I think for me looking back, really the understanding is, " Well, as long as it's a choice that I can reflect on and learn and experience I can learn from, then it's a good choice." I think too many young people are like, "The first decision I make after University is the make or break decision. The University I go to is the make or break decision." Really, there are very few make or break decisions. I think it's really about, "Well, whatever it is I'm going to do next, I'm going to do it wholeheartedly and do it in full view of what is it that I need next. Do I need the experience of working for a large organization? Do I need to earn money immediately, because I need to pay off my study loan? Do I need to do this?" And I think I'd have told myself, "Well, maybe do some of the work to know yourself better and figure out where do you want to go?"
Jeremy Au: You mentioned that your hobbies, cooking and reading fiction and crochet. What is it about those hobbies that make you enjoy them?
Nurul Jihadah Hussain: I think the fact that they engage very different parts of my brain. So, if you're cooking something, right? You have to pay attention when you're cutting vegetables. If not, that's an accident waiting to happen. But that's a very different part of your brain that's worrying about, "Well, did I reply to this email, the correct tone? Have I done everything that I was supposed to do?" And I really like that part because I feel what we don't do enough of is, we don't do enough acts of creation where you're creating something that you can see that's useful, that's productive. And I think to have that aspect where you're creating something is incredibly important. I read fiction because it's like, your mind goes blank and you're like, "What is next in this story?”
Jeremy Au: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining the show.
Nurul Jihadah Hussain: You're very welcome. Thank you so much for having me. I've really enjoyed this.
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