One man’s quest to build an all-girl hacker house in Nepal
It all started with a picnic. Today, the scope and vision for Beyond the Four Walls is much more ambitious, but the fundamental goal remains the same — to empower the girls of Nepal with education, so they can create for themselves the life they want to lead.
Women in rural Nepal work all day, everyday. They wake up before dawn to cook breakfast over slow burning coals, and then repeat the process again for lunch and dinner. They wash dishes and clothes. They feed livestock. They tend to the garden. They take care of babies, clean the home, and nowhere in this never-ending litany of domestic tasks is there time or need for education, or fun.
“Nepal is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman,” said Beyond the Four Walls founder Wolf Price. “After primary school, they are indentured into marriages filed with isolation, heavy labor, and pregnancy.”
A lost generation
Price first visited Nepal over a decade ago and fell in love with the country. In 2010, he began filming a documentary to share his experiences and raise awareness about how women there live. The film initially told the story of a picnic held by a local community organization for elder women in a village to give them a full day of freedom and enjoyment. For many, it was the first day-off of their lives.
That short film turned into a much longer one called “Within the Four Walls,” meaning the four walls of the home that Nepali women are bound inside for most of their lives. However Price wanted to do more than document hardships, he wanted to change them.
“After 10 long trips to Nepal in 10 years, these girls are my sisters and daughters. At the very least these girls are close friends,” Price said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m fighting to prevent a lost generation of girls.”
Price initially founded Beyond the Four Walls as an endowment fund that provided direct education grants to girls, so they could pursue their “otherwise broken dreams.” Then he took his vision a step further and began building cyber “resource centers” in remote locations for young women to run. The objective was to give women access to computers and the Internet so could learn and develop practical skills. Putting management of the centers into their hands also developed entrepreneurial and business abilities, and enabled them to earn a little money.
The dream of hacker house
Beyond the Four Walls has grown and undergone major changes over the past year. To start, it moved its cyber resource centers from extremely rural locations into higher population areas in order to have a greater impact. Now, it sits across the street from one of the top engineering colleges in the country, and thousands of students pass by the office everyday.
“We discovered that we needed to be positioned in higher population areas to meet our goals of finding talented girls who just need a small boost to achieve greatness,” Price said. “Now we can serve around two dozen girls per day. We have also found that a productive method is to create real business partnerships with the girls who join our tech hubs. We want to blur the line between working for us, and using the hub as a way to find work in ICT or just have a place to study.”
Other changes include a mentorship program, where Beyond the Four Walls hosts teachers remotely or in-person to work with the girls. The organization also introduced a sponsorship program where people can donate as little as 16 cents a day to give a girl (who doesn’t work there) unlimited access to the center. This “scholarship” covers the $5 per month membership fee, which in turn covers the costs of rent, Internet, and backup electricity, since Nepal faces around 12 hours without power a day. Price aims to attract enough sponsorships that the headquarters can open a rooftop Wi-Fi garden and cafe. And that is just the beginning.
“My goal is start a tech community from scratch with women at the front from day one,” he said. “I want to establish a hacker house — a residential accelerator and the first IT park in Nepal with cutting edge classrooms, dorms, office space, labs, gardens, security, kitchen, and public space. My vow is to establish a permanent venture fund, and invest at least $1 million in girls every year. In a country where many people live on $1 per day, the view of women can change if there is a nationwide fund that invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in smart girls.”
Price said that in his experience, Nepalis are not opposed to women receiving education, but the opportunities have to be there. Girls generally need financial support to pay for uniforms, books, or a place to live if the school isn’t in their village. School also needs to provide a clear path to earning income for it to seem worthwhile to the family. For most girls in Nepal, especially those in rural areas, these stars rarely align. Price has seen far too many young, talented, ambitious girls married before their 18th birthdays, often to much older men. He said domestic abuse and suicide are also rampant, because women do not want to be forced into marrying and reproducing before they are ready.
“Girls only need a little help, like coworking spaces and mentors, and they will work like their life depends on it — because it does,” he said.
Girls education and female equality have been hot topics over the past couple years, and are only becoming more so. Mountains of data clearly show that empowering women leads to stronger economies, improves the quality of life, and advances other goals surrounding poverty, health, and the environment in the developing world. At the same time, girls in tech (or the lack thereof) has attracted the spotlight in the U.S.. While there are many factors contributing to the tech gender gap, a major one is education. There are fewer girls studying computer science at every successive phase of education.
What hasn’t been thoroughly examined is the area where these two issues intersect — Why is it important for girls in the developing world to receive computer education? So many reasons.
Technology is playing a major role in driving the economies of developed and developing countries alike. This is about more than sending Snapchats or calling an Uber. It’s about building new infrastructure for health and education. It’s about connecting entrepreneurs with microfinance loans. It’s about access to agricultural information and mobile banking, which gives millions access to financial services for the first time.
Technology is improving the lives of people who need help at the most at a breathtaking speed. However, while women and girls make up a disproportionate amount of the poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised, they are seriously under-represented in the creation of new technologies. This not only excludes them from valuable career opportunities, but also from participation in shaping what lies ahead for themselves, as well as for their homes, communities, and countries.
In today’s increasingly digital world, computer education needs to be an integral part of overall education efforts if women are going to have equal access to opportunities. By teaching and supporting women in tech in Nepal, Price aims to give them greater career options, while also fighting against entrenched gender norms and discrimination. The goal is to give Nepal’s millennial girls a chance to create a better future.
“We want the girls to become local catalysts and help spread this model, to help more girls before it is too late,” he said.