Nuzhat Minhaz is three years into her undergraduate degree program at the Rochester Institute of Technology and her work is already extraordinary. She came to Rochester as an international student from Bangladesh with heart, grit, and award-winning ideas. If you ask her, she will walk you through a brief history of her home country of Bangladesh, tell you how it fits culturally and geographically with its neighbors in South Asia and how a quick advancement in technology, among other factors, led to a massive increase in cybercrime. She wants you to have context and you will want to listen. “I knew I wanted to do something about it so I [worked hard] to be able to study here and pursue that path.”
In her few years at RIT, while balancing a significant school load, work co-op, working as a Residence Advisor, Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant and balancing a meager social life, she has carved out an organization that has connected hundreds of victims to the help they desperately need. And as if that were not enough, she also organized Bangladesh’s first virtual all female hackathon, connecting young women to careers, job experience, team building and workshops in a range of tech related fields that they otherwise would never have had the opportunity to pursue.
Nuzhat is almost half my age and from a completely different part of the world, but our timelines of technological advancement were similar. I came of age in the United States in the late 1990s, which means I was playing Oregon Trail on giant desktop computers in elementary school, flirted on AIM in middle and high school, got booted off dialup internet when my Mom picked up the kitchen phone to call Grandma. A select few wealthy friends had flip phones in high school, and then it was lightning speed going from iPods to iPads to carrying our entire digital lives around in our pockets. This wild advancement in technology completely changed our way of life within the span of about a decade and led many a Millennial to pursue work in the tech industry. While our lives differed vastly, Nuzhat experienced similar tech advancements at parallel ages. And so here we are, it is 2021 during a global pandemic, chatting on Zoom on this snowy evening in February. I get to interview this brilliant female mind in the tech industry who is using her expertise to create positive change one website, one case of cybercrime, one hackathon at a time.
It was in March of 2019 at RIT’s Women in Computing Hackathon, a twenty-four-hour collaborative computer programming event, that PrivaC was born. Big tech companies like “Microsoft, Unity, JP Morgan all come in and give you problems to solve or themes to work on. I described my idea for the website for cybercrime victims to other participants at the hackathon who I wanted to team up with, and their first reactions were ‘Why don’t they just call the police?’ But it goes far deeper. Blackmailing, sexual harassment, threats, financial fraud – it’s very vile, cruel and violent.” And cyber laws are “loosely and vaguely held” in Bangladesh. If these crimes were committed outside of the world wide web, there would be means to investigate and potentially prosecute, but “the minute they are extended over the internet, the system blames the victim.” Nuzhat knew she could not tackle the issue at its root. YET. But what she could do is use her newfound resources at RIT and her developing understanding of code to tackle bits and pieces of the problem. “So overnight at the hackathon, the mentors helped me build a website with a chat interface to help people get resources they need. Over two hundred cases in the last year have been handled by the PrivaC team that Nuzhat built from a website she developed overnight at an RIT hackathon. These are the kinds of possibilities hackathons are providing for young women.
Award Winning. That’s Nuzhat. JP Morgan gave her website the push it needed with their award for Best Hack for Social Good. From here she was able to snag the help of her department and truly bring her vision to life. “I gathered a team of responders – counselors, guides, mental health experts, legal advisors. Once I gathered a team, they [took] up most of the work and for me, now, it’s mostly putting pieces together and moving forward. It works out well for me. I work 3-4 jobs simultaneously outside of my academics. At the end of the day, I’m a student from another country and I have to afford my degree.” Because of her experience at RIT’s hackathons, Nuzhat wanted to contribute to the STEM industry in Bangladesh in the same way. “If I had the opportunity to build this [website] at a hackathon where I had mentors help me out, I thought women in [Bangladesh] should get to experience the same.” And so, out of PrivaC was born PrivaShe Hacks, Bangladesh’s first all-female virtual hackathon, and Nuzhat was at the helm.
She gathered 16 judges from big tech companies in Bangladesh, obtained sponsorships and came up with diverse prize categories. There is abysmal representation of women STEM in the US, and it is even more disproportionate in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi women in the workforce are pushed into marriage and motherhood before a career can take off, even if they have a college degree. Nuzhat entered her program at RIT armed with the drive to change this.
In pitching PrivaShe to potential Bangladeshi sponsors and recruiters, she was met with some opposition. “I don’t think your girls are going to have the skills” she was told. She countered “no, you’re just not giving them a shot. That is where Sean came in and said he wanted to sponsor us on behalf of Site Hub. With sponsorships, we were able to hold workshops to build specific skills [for the participants] to be better prepared for the hackathon.” With Site Hub and the handful of other sponsorships, prior to PrivaShe, participants were able to attend workshops on app, game, and web development, music production and robotics.
When Sean McKay, President of Site Hub, stumbled upon Nuzhat on LinkedIn, sponsoring her hackathon was a no brainer. “Site Hub is a small organization, the dollars don’t come easy, but my decision to sponsor Nuzhat’s Hackathon, PrivaShe, was an easy one. I knew Nuzhat was a visionary when I first spoke with her on LinkedIn and she told me of her ambitions for this hackathon and her friends/family back in Bangladesh. I related heavily to ambitions to start something new and make an impact and I knew that her first year would set the pace for future events. Not to mention, the investment in the event went right to empowering women, providing a professional atmosphere to the event, and prizes for the winners. That’s just a good ROI.”
PrivaShe was a colossal success. On July 16th and 17th of 2020, 150+ participants, between the ages of 12 and 30 of a variety of technical and non-technical backgrounds, gathered virtually to pool their skillsets. According to an article in the Dhaka Tribune, “using their team building and communication skills to build their projects, the participants from both technical and non-technical backgrounds successfully displayed all the traits that big corporations seek in employees in the 21st century.” Nuzhat is beyond proud of her participants and the success of PrivaShe. “One of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh hired from the hackathon and told us ‘Wow, you really sent a child prodigy.’ Prior to the hackathon, they were not confident in these skills and now they knew what they brought to the table. It was so great to witness.” This is how Nuzhat is using technology for the greater good and why her work is award-winning. “We faced all kinds of barriers, even when we were hosting the hackathon. There were a bunch of people who thought we were teaching people how to hack. It’s been a crazy ride.”
PrivaShe 2020 Hackathon participants developed a range of tech related services to better their communities. Bandhubi, an app that connects women to reproductive healthcare providers and to companies that deliver menstrual products and care packages to users won the award for Best Project for Education and Awareness. Another team of young women developed ReLeaf, an app that encourages citizens of the city of Dhaka to use urban gardening to offset the affects of global warming in their community. This project won the awards for Best Visual Design and Best Community Engagement Project. The five participants of that created ReLeaf took their project to a Hong Kong based charity foundation called 24 Hour Race. They won $2580 to further their efforts. Best Hack, Best Project for Women Empowerment, Most Innovative Idea; these are just a sampling of the prize categories. Each winner is given the ability to run with their project and improve the lives of community members in the process.
Sponsorships are crucial to future PrivaShe hackathons. Sponsors provide participants with workshops, the event itself and prize money to further develop their projects. There is not yet a date set for a hackathon in 2021, but the bar has already been set. “The next time I do the hackathon, it will be much bigger,” but for now, Nuzhat is focusing her energy on the next stages of PrivaC. She will be begin efforts on coordinating the PrivaShe 2021 Hackathon at the end of her current semester at RIT. “When I first started PrivaC I don’t think I was getting any schoolwork done. I didn’t have that big of a team.” She has a knack for compartmentalizing, to be able to tackle her enormous workload and multitude of jobs and projects. Monday through Friday, its classes or a work co-op, Friday through Sunday, she catches up on what her team has going on in Bangladesh. “That’s how I’ve been managing my time. With PrivaC, I try to make the most of my breaks and dedicate my weekends, catching up with what my team has done and setting things into motion for the next week.”
I hang up my Zoom call with Nuzhat. It is 9:30 pm on a Monday night. I am ABUZZ. She truly has something, IS something special. A magic, a drive, an intermingling of talent, work ethic, and good conscience that all of us should watch and learn from. “I don’t do anything that I don’t enjoy. All my work, whatever I do, these are all things that I’m passionate about, so for me it’s easy and fun.”
More hackathons, please. And may we all aspire to be more like Nuzhat.
All images provided by Ms. Minhaz.
Minhaz, N. (2021, February 8). Personal interview [Personal interview]
PrivaShe Hackathon 2020 by PrivaC: Virtually Creating Education and Employment Opportunities through Technology & Innovation during a Global Pandemic. (2020, October 10). Dhaka Tribune.