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[Tuning In] The Founder of The Codette Project, Nurul Hussain, on how to measure the success of a social enterprise

Written by Julianna Wu Published on 

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Founder Nurul Hussain gives insights on challenges with building and sustaining a social enterprise financially.

Ask Nurul questions about diversity and inclusion, societal impact, hackathons, and other burning questions on Slido

The Codette Project aims to have a sustainable economic impact through providing minority/Muslim women with awareness and access to the tech industry. We chat with Founder Nurul Hussain on how she’s paving the way for minority/Muslim women. This is the second conversation we had with Nurul, recap the first one here.

Our community members can ask questions in Slido

Nurul Hussain, Founder of The Codette Project

KrASIA (KR):  The Codette Cares Project has closed its applications and announced the recipients. Can you share more about how it went?

Nurul Hussain (NH): Our applicants were all really interesting, both in the way that they were looking at what their needs were, as well as what kind of support they wanted. I think the mentorship aspect [of our project] really speaks a lot to women who are starting their own businesses, as well as students, who feel like they are excluded from a lot of traditional forms of mentorship. So we decided to provide mentorship to all applicants who have been interviewed.

I think it’s also clear that COVID-19 has an economic impact on every level. When you look at inequality, there are always communities that are more adversely affected, and I worry that coronavirus is going to deepen some of these divisions and impact women and minorities more.

KR: This brings us to one of the questions from Slido: Tech, capital, and faith are three of the most important drivers to change the world. What do you think is the role [of resources], and how can we better use them to achieve change, especially in a post-COVID-19 age? 

NH: Part of the issue [of COVID-19] is that no one has been in this situation before. We have step back and say, well, what else can we do? We have to figure out, as societies and as communities, how to identify and impact people who are at risk.

I love that question because that person was, I think, coming from a place in which they really felt that you really need those three things [in order to take action]. But we need to question that belief. Capital, for example, is important. But what capital looks like, and how it should be distributed—there’s a lot of different ingredients to that. Something we’ve done very different is that we don’t have any paid staff. We want to make sure that the economic capital we receive flows to actually impact the women in our programs. We’ve had to take a step back and say, if this is the case, then I can’t expect anyone to work for The Codette Project full time. Everyone, including myself, has a full-time job that’s outside [of the project].

If you really want to create social impact, then you need to be very clear about what your needs are first. How much do you need per month to survive? How much time do you have? What’s one cause that you’re willing to spend your 30, 40 hours a week on, outside of your work?

KR: What do you do when you feel strongly for your mission, but then one day start doubting the journey? How do you rally yourself to continue rallying the larger team for this mission?

NH: These two questions… [come] from a place where we’re very used to measuring social impact by traditional capitalist measures. You can’t judge social impact in that way. Social impact fills gaps that have been left behind by public institutions and corporations, without a lot of the resources that these organizations have. If you’re running a social impact initiative, it should be long-term, [and] your measures of success are very different.

For me, it’s been very clear that no matter how much work we put in to fill these gaps, this is not something that we may be able to achieve in our lifetime. Today, you might not be able to see the long-term results of your work. But if you believe it’s important, then you just have to keep going.

The Codette Project was featured alongside other Singaporean non-profits in a collaboration with the Women of Now digital exhibition.
The Codette Project was featured alongside other Singaporean non-profits in a collaboration with the Women of Now digital exhibition.

Be open to the fact that the way that you do [things] will change. When we started the project, we really thought that what we needed was a bootcamp. But that wasn’t what people wanted, so we shifted to modular workshops instead. This is us [putting our community] and their perspectives at the center. We give them the space to decide what success looks like and help them facilitate it for themselves.

It’s very normal [to have doubts about your social impact journey]. You should have doubts; I have doubts regularly. You have to go back to the ‘why’ [and] ‘how’ of you doing it. Sometimes it might just be a question of [whether] your basic needs being fulfilled. Is it just kind of you figuring out, can you do this on top of another job? And that is a valid question as well. The social impact cause may not have to be your entire life for it to be impactful.

SEE ALSO: [Tuning In] Founder of The Codette Project, Nurul Hussain, Aims to Redefines Success for Minority/Muslim Women

KR: Everyone on your team holds a full-time job outside of working on The Codette Project. What drives you to continue fighting for this cause when, in actuality, it is a lot harder than starting up a regular business?

NH: I think the biggest difference is that when you start a business, you’re hoping to make a profit. When you take that away, it actually makes [The Codette Project] easier to run, because I am not responsible for my team’s wages.

We definitely still have financial worries – every year it’s a question of funding. But if, for example, we have no funding in one year, we can just create online content. We can do things for free. But if you’re running a business, you can’t. You must earn a certain amount every month, every year, in order to survive both for yourself and for your employees. That’s why the model that we have, which is where we all work and do The Codette Project on the side, has worked for us.

One of my personal key performance indicators (KPIs) is that I must have dinner with my husband at least six times a week. To me, that’s a measure of being able to balance the things that are important in my life. So that’s something that I work hard for.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, a former Minister and Member of Parliament in Singapore, with a winning team from the Tech for Good Hackathon in 2019.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, a former minister and Member of Parliament in Singapore, with a winning team from the Tech for Good Hackathon in 2019.

KR: What was the biggest difficulty you faced when the project started, and perhaps even till now? Is COVID-19 one of them?

NH: Financial sustainability is always a problem. Our hackathon is the only women-only hackathon and we never charge anyone for it. It’s our biggest one-off cost per year. So that takes a lot of funding and support, and it’s definitely an ongoing challenge.

With coronavirus, what has been very painful for us is the inability to meet the people of our community in person. There’s no replacement for the natural way that people talk to each other and befriend each other. To see the women in our community get strength from other people who are in the same situation, to be able to hug someone else, to take their hand. No matter how good technology is, that’s something you can’t replace.

The programs that we’re doing now are very different. We’re doing one-on-one mentorship, we’re doing more online content that hopes to continue to help the women in our community.

KR: Our last question from Slido is a general one: Do you have any advice for those who are interested in starting their own social enterprise? 

NH: When you’re creating a social enterprise, your community should be the one leading it. I’m very clear that minority/Muslim women should be the heart of my team, because they are the community that we want to work in. If you’re working in a community that’s tutoring underprivileged children, for example, then people from that community should be part of the decision-making process at every level.

A lot of people who are very well-meaning just forget about that. They come from a good place where they’re like: I have this, I want to give back. But we need to reframe that. How do I, with what I have, give someone else the power to make that decision for themselves and their community, instead of it being about me and people like me?

For people who want to work in the social impact space, it comes back to your needs. Some of the most amazing groups I’ve seen have come from others who are balancing their jobs as well as their caretaking responsibilities, or they have their own business. Everything is possible, as long as you’re very clear about your own priorities. Be clear about who the community that you want to serve, the how of it, the exact executions, the details of it.

KR: I often hear from my friends that they want to make some impact on society. [For example,] I want to make a change, but I’m not confident about my abilities. When is a good time to start an enterprise?

NH: That question really should be rephrased to: What else would you do with that energy? If that energy is really something you believe in, it doesn’t matter if you see that change happen or not. It just matters that you’re going in the right direction.

For example, if you are in a company and you want to hire more women, it might just be referring to more women, every day, for every job. We might never see the direct result of it, but [someone] else might see your actions and think, yeah, this is something I need to do too, and that creates a knock-on impact you might not even be aware of.

It goes back to something we talked about earlier, which is that we can’t measure impact by traditional capitalist models. People who want to make a change have to really understand that. All you can measure is your intention and the direction in which the energy of that intention flows.

KR: We’ve come to the end of the questions that we’ve crowd-sourced from our readers. Do you have anything to add?

NH: I think if we want to measure social impact, there are other frameworks to have in mind. It’s about whether we’re redistributing power, access, and representation. These are all measures that we can be comfortable with. It’s like the example of referring more women to jobs. That’s something where it’s not a financial KPI, but you can do it and be like, “I referred a lot of women to different jobs” or “I hired more diversely this year”. Even if you want to say something like—I committed to one student, to stay with them every week for one year to just help them in whatever they needed help with—that’s enough.

KR: I personally do some kind of coding, but I’ve never been to a female-only hackathon. I hope to participate in one of those, but I haven’t coded since 5 years ago. 

NH: Actually, our hackathon doesn’t require any prior skills. I think what intimidates a lot of women is that there’s a lot of prerequisites, like coding tests. We actually think there are no prerequisites. You just show up, and we do three classes, three workshops, that everyone has to attend. It’s generally prototyping, ideation, or design thinking, and then they go and actually execute the project.

KR: What is the demographic of the attendees of your previous hackathons? 

NH: It’s very varied. The last one that we had in 2019, we actually had somebody that came down from Malaysia, to do it over the weekend! It was such a wonderful surprise to learn that.

The youngest person in 2019 was nine. She had come the year before when she was eight. We loved seeing her turn up again with her mom. In 2019, she actually did the pitch as well! On the other end of the scale, we had a mom who was in her 40s, children who were in their teens and 20s as well. We had students, professionals, women from all sorts of backgrounds.

Participants of the Tech for Good hackathon listening to final pitches from different groups in 2019
Participants of the Tech for Good hackathon listening to final pitches from different groups in 2019

That’s really rewarding, because you have people who may not have met each other [before] or had a chance to meet anyone like that, and they come together to realize and create these ideas.

A lot of the emphasis in traditional hackathons on being able to prove yourself beforehand, through coding challenges and things like that, is exclusionary if the organizers are not providing the support for people to actually get to that level. And that’s something I really want to push back on. When [people] want to attend your hackathon, you must give them the support they need in order to actually get there.

KR: It’s been a really inspiring conversation. Thank you again for joining us today, Nurul. We wish you all the best with The Codette Project. Thank you for listening to this episode. We’ll be back with more exciting content from our other hand-picked thought leaders from all the industries. Please stay tuned.

Nurul Hussain graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Hons) in politics and Arabic, and did her MBA at Singapore Management University. In December 2015, she founded The Codette Project. In 2018, she was selected as one of 115 global community leaders as part of Facebook’s global Community Leadership Program. Nurul wants to create better communities, networks, and opportunities, and to diversify what success means in society—to prove that success can look like anyone.

The Codette Project is a non-profit grassroots initiative that aims to bring more minority/Muslim women into technology. The Codette Project is working towards long-term economic change for minority/Muslim women by developing tech skills, building a collaborative community, as well as reclaiming narratives of success to include minority/Muslim women’s stories. The Codette Project runs classes, workshops, panels, networking sessions, and social events regularly, including Singapore’s only women’s hackathon.

Tuning In is a new KrASIA series where we interview and chat intimately with thought leaders who are breaking the mold, pushing the frontiers of innovation and are trailblazing figures in their space. To read similar stories, please hop on to Oasis, the brainchild of KrASIA. 

Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee herself, and not KrASIA’s. If you’d like to contribute as a writer or nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can email us at community@kr-asia.com.

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