Data Science in Development: A Bangladeshi alumna’s professional journey

By Anodya Mishra

When Riffat Ashrafee joined the inaugural Civic Tech Institute at Equitech Futures in January 2023, she had been in the workforce for nine years. Though she had worked on data analysis before, she said, “Through the Civic Tech Institute program, I gained a better understanding of collecting and analyzing data. I looked at problems from a different lens and took a more informed interest in data science.” 

Riffat completed her bachelors in Business Administration, majoring in Human Resource Management and Finance from BRAC University, Bangladesh. She was highly motivated by the Human Capacity Building aspect of her studies, and worked in Human Resource Operations and Recruitment departments in the first year of her job. Thereafter, she worked for four years at BRAC, one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations headquartered in Bangladesh, holding multiple positions during her time. 

“I worked at the Social Innovation Lab at BRAC,” she shared, “where I led the Youth Incubation team and used Design Thinking approaches to prototype, design and pilot multiple youth empowerment projects”

Currently, Riffat is an Evidence and Learning Manager at Simprints, a global nonprofit technology company based in Cambridge, England. She leads the organizational learning strategy by conducting comprehensive impact and learning reviews of projects and oversees the development and maintenance of a robust learning library. 

Riffat mentioned, “Throughout my career I have predominantly worked in project management, and my new role offers me a great opportunity to institutionalize project learning and develop frameworks to design better projects.”  In November 2019, Riffat was selected to attend the UNLEASH Innovation Lab in China, where she participated in immersive innovation challenges focused on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “This was a great learning experience, and I met a diverse group of people. Incidentally, I found out about Equitech Futures through a member of this group!” 

At Equitech Futures, Riffat was initially selected for the Applied Data Institute in 2022, but she realized quickly she was too stretched to fully commit to the program. 

“I was under the misconception that this course would be like any other certificate course online, but I was proved wrong in the very first class. I knew I couldn’t have done justice to the program or to myself. It was a difficult decision to drop the Applied Data Institute program, but I walked away with a profound sense of wisdom from something Dr. Bhasi Nair shared on the first day: you are a finite being with finite abilities. I still use that piece of advice whenever I am trying to gauge my life priorities. In January, when I received an admission offer for the Civic Tech Institute, I was determined to give it my all. I cleared my schedule and ensured that I committed 30 hours a week to the program.”

The Community Action Lab and the Writing Lab courses contributed immensely to Riffat’s learning experience at Equitech Futures. 

"I thoroughly enjoyed each and every class of the Community Action Lab. If there is one thing I am immensely grateful to our faculty, Thomas Murray, for teaching us, it is the power of deliberation over debates. Despite my years of experience in community engagement, I learnt simple yet powerful tools that can inclusively bring diverse groups and mindsets together to drive positive change. In Writing Lab, Dr. Krittika Bhattacharjee encouraged us to engage in 10 minutes of daily freehand writing practice. As I had been disconnected from immersive writing for a long time, this routine played a crucial role in enhancing my writing skills. I see a clear difference in how I frame narratives now.” 

She further added, “Dr. Abhilash Mishra, the founder of Equitech Futures, has been instrumental in laying my foundational knowledge of Machine Learning. The discussions on the biases but immense possibilities of AI has inspired me to expand my work on ethical frameworks for digitization." 

Riffat acknowledged Equitech Futures for catalyzing a transformative chain of decisions in her journey. After completing the Civic Tech Institute, Riffat engaged in learning more about AI and data science and how it fit into her strengths and interests in project management. She took up self paced courses online, and she is now exploring masters programs which align with her interests in data science and social impact. 

In her current work place at Simprints, Riffat is an active member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) taskforce. This group commits additional time after working hours to create DEI policies in the organization. “We want to ensure everyone’s voices are heard, and we analyze our projects from a lens of DEI,” Riffat explained. 

Riffat also serves as a mentor for a platform called Baak Network, Bangladesh’s first 360 degree virtual mentoring platform for women by women. Her mentorship focus is to foster self-confidence, promote awareness about emotional wellbeing, encourage empathetic leadership, and support setting up of healthy personal boundaries among her mentees.

When asked about her advice for future scholars at Equitech Futures, Riffat shared, “Be intentional about why you are joining this program. Equitech programs are rigorous and challenging, so be ready to commit yourself. Also, come to the class with an open mind and questions. Be sincere with the assignments: they are not a checkbox activity; the faculty does provide feedback on your work. Don’t try to breeze through the course because then you are not utilizing the considerable resources. Courses on data science and AI are usually very expensive, but you have been selected for a fully funded program, so value that. And finally, embrace the community. You will learn a lot from them.”

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