Hey Change Maker!
My guest this week is Mariam Nusrat or Breshna. Breshna transforms ordinary people into empowered content creators and allows everyone to create, share and monetize their own web3, hyper casual games, that not only have immense entertainment value, but also facilitate purposeful communication.
We begin the podcast by talking about Mariam’s background and what she does. Mariam emphasizes that she is not a software engineer by trade – she built Breshna for people like herself who are not necessarily tech-savvy. Her journey began eight years ago with the launch of GRID, otherwise known as Gaming Revolution for International Development. GRID is a nonprofit gaming studio that aims to build low-cost, mobile games to influence positive behavior change. Taking inspiration from Canva, a free online graphic design tool, Mariam began to wonder, “Where is the Canva for video games?” She questioned why people couldn’t make their own video games without knowing how to code or design. This led to the birth of Breshna, a game making platform that allows anyone to create their own video games without any coding or design skills. Breshna means “lighting” in the Pashto language, and it refers to the lightning speed at which video games can be made using Breshna.
Next, we talk about some of the games that Mariam has seen created through both GRID and Breshna. Since GRID’s launch, many impactful games have been built to educate people on topics like reproductive health, climate action, financial literacy, and COVID-19 awareness. Mariam describes a game created in partnership with Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health to raise awareness around reproductive health in Nepal. The game was built using local Nepalese language, avatars, characters, art, and music. During the first month of the game’s launch, the game was downloaded 10,000 times, with many of the downloads coming from youth who had never played a video game before. The game successfully educated people in the Nepalese community and broke through the stigma surrounding reproductive health conversations. With Breshna, Mariam has seen a variety of games come out on different topics: politics, holidays, prom proposals, math and science education, animal welfare, and climate action, to name a few. In the last year alone, 5,000 video games were made with Breshna.
We then discuss the cultural implications of making games with Breshna. Games can be made in any language for free using Breshna, which has democratized the process of creation. Growing up, many of the games Mariam played featured white characters and western music and art. In stark contrast to this experience, Breshna features 2,000 game assets that reflect a vast diversity of avatars, backgrounds, and landmarks. Presently, the team at Breshna is building a feature that will allow users to upload their own game assets to further reflect the local culture of the user building the game.
After that, we shift topics to discuss Mariam’s role as a woman of color in tech. When she first entered the tech world, media interviews always declared her gender, culture, and color in headlines: “First Pakistani female in gaming industry”. While Mariam values calling out these characteristics for the purpose of creating role models, she envisions a world where these gender, culture, and color descriptors are no longer groundbreaking. She goes on to describe how both the gaming industry and the venture capital world are traditionally very male-dominated. However, her biggest hurdle was her own imposter syndrome. According to Mariam, “There are so many barriers that you create for yourself because you think you have to check every box in order to belong, and I think that’s been my biggest hurdle, and that’s also been my biggest strength once I learned how to deal with my own imposter syndrome.” For Mariam, deciding to claim space in the gaming industry has been transformational for her. She remarks that while imposter syndrome is very personal and experience-specific, women still need to claim space by showing up and not asking for permission.
We continue the discussion on the role of men versus women in the tech startup space. Currently, only 2% of venture capital is going to women-founded startups. Mariam remarks that there are two things that perpetuate this problem: (1) There are not enough women startups out there, and (2) Venture capital is a network-based model, and most of these networks are male-dominated. Mariam explains that women-founded companies actually have a higher return on investment. She makes the following comment: “…it’s a business case to be made: investing in women is not something that’s a feel-good checkmark that you do, it makes sense for the business.”
Within the context of her own experience, she describes how many people have assumed that she has a male co-founder. Some advisors have even suggested that Mariam needs to have a male co-founder in order to be taken seriously in the tech startup space. She’s also been asked what her plans are for a family, and when she is going to have kids. Mariam remarks that every “no” she receives inspires her to just work that much harder to prove people wrong. She explains that many of us have internal biases that we may not even realize exist, which is all the more reason why conversations like this are important. Mariam’s goal is to surround herself with a diversity of culture, thought, and lived experiences so she can continue to grow, both professionally and personally. Mariam also provides some advice to women who have interests or hobbies that might be considered traditionally “male”, but want to work or play in those industries anyways. She encourages women to find a community and just go and contribute. Mariam emphasizes that people should focus on adding value and show up with an agenda of giving first.
After that, we discuss Mariam’s former career at The World Bank. The World Bank is a bank that provides loans to countries that are linked to international development projects. Mariam worked at The World Bank for 12 years with 22 different countries in education policy making. Her time at The World Bank taught her that education is often presented through boring mediums. This inspired her to start GRID as a way to make purposeful education fun. Mariam remarks that entertainment should not be considered a luxury, but rather a medium for purposeful communication.
Next, we talk about how Mariam has seen technology positively impact some of the most vulnerable. She describes how the Pakistani government was able to vastly increase the country’s COVID-19 vaccination rate by threatening to block people’s SIM cards. Mariam explains how technology can allow people to leapfrog traditional institutions, demonstrated by Kenya’s leapfrogging of traditional brick and mortar banks to online banking. She has seen first-hand the impact technology can make on education, financial literacy, and skill development.
As we wrap up the episode, we talk about who inspires Mariam and why. Mariam calls out both Melanie Perkins, the founder of Canva, and Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Bumble, as inspirations to her. When asking how listeners can partner with her to change the world, Mariam encourages people to try Breshna. Breshna is truly for anyone who wants to tell a story or has an audience to engage. She invites listeners to drop her an email, find her on Twitter, or reach out to her for a free demo of Breshna. Listeners can visit https://breshna.io/ to learn more, or follow Breshna at @gamingfordev on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.