The Inclusive Economies Lab is a program that leverages the Pitchworthy platform and learning methodologies to discover, map and support innovative projects that can improve employment opportunities and conditions for migrants, refugees and marginalized workers in the MENA region.
As part of this effort, we hosted an insightful Q&A session with Naila Saba of GIL Entrepreneurship Programme and Zeina Saab of SE Factory’s coding bootcamp (both projects of Nawaya Network) on September 26, 2019. In this blog post, we uncover the learnings and key insights from this conversation.
First we heard from Zeina Saab and her experience building the SE Factory:
“There’s a huge demand for coding skills globally and we recognized this need several years ago, and at the same time there’s thousands of people graduating with the foundations of computer science but they aren’t getting hired. So we investigated and went deep, we examined the supply side and the demand side. We realized that low income communities don’t have access to the proper resources to help those graduates get hired.
We found 3 main things:
- The gap exists because the universities are not preparing the students for what the companies are looking for and that’s even truer for low income students because they go to second tier universities and they have to take part time jobs to cover their academic expenses. The unfortunate reality is that these degrees are worth less because what they learn in universities is not enough to qualify them for the job market. So we built a curriculum that answers these technical difficulties.
- We also went to the companies to investigate this issue and what we found out is that they’re not only looking for technical skills but also for soft skills. We saw that someone who has strong technical skills but weaker soft skills is not necessarily going to get hired. So we integrated that in our program with great results.
- The third issue was lack of access to a network and connections. Low income youth don’t know who to talk to and live in their own bubble. It takes hard work to build a network and we needed to tackle this directly. So we decided to bring the employers to the students and we now have a 90% employment success rate for over 120 graduating students in the last 3 years.”
Zeina then explained the need for sustainability and showed us how they build their revenue model.
“Sustainability is really important in this field. We’re transitioning to become a social enterprise now that we’ve validated our model. So we’re thinking about revenue streams. One of them is the fee that students pay, which is only $100 for a 14-week bootcamp. The whole point is to give equal opportunity to low income students. We thought also of two key elements to grow our revenues. The first was getting the companies to pay. And the second element is that since we have a good track record of employability, we’re asking the alumni to pay us back a small portion of the tuition fees.”
Zeina then told us about the creation of Nawaya and partnerships.
“It was established in 2011 before the refugee crisis with the goal of developing the talents of at-risk youth. In 2015, when we realized the impact of the refugee crisis, we decided we had to grow bigger. We saw a significant number of youth who are struggling to find jobs and generate income and social entrepreneurship has become a big thing. So we started to think how can we innovate by using the skills of at-risk youth and help them create micro-enterprises.
We managed to grow a partnership with UNICEF. My SE Factory partner Fadi Bizri introduced me to the UNICEF folks and we didn’t have much of a partnership to discuss yet as I was thinking we were too small for such a partnership at the time. A few months later, the country director of UNICEF invited me out to lunch and told me she wanted me to work on something with them. So I was invited to share our work in Finland. It became urgent and critical to do something bigger and I proposed something in 2016 and very luckily it’s been working out beautifully.”
Next, we heard from Naila Saba of the GIL Entrepreneurship Programme.
“We train youth 18-25 from underprivileged backgrounds and vulnerable communities. We give them a chance to pitch for funding. They come into an incubation program where they get to work on their ideas. By the end of it, they launch their micro enterprise with the hope that they will sustain, grow and also create job opportunities down the line.
We’ve trained over 5000 youth and launched over 820 projects. We also have expanded and we’re working with other NGOs as add-on programs to their trainings. The hope is that we can turn skills into micro-entreprises and create job opportunities
One of the key issues we see with small entrepreneurs is that you don’t know where to start. It’s very difficult to start without support. That’s why programs like these and Pitchworthy help launch businesses. You need to keep in mind the benefits of networking within the program and outside of it. Youth entrepreneurs don’t know how to leverage their immediate communities. So programs like these open doors to larger ecosystems for networking and collaboration opportunities.”
These two presentations were followed by a Q&A session.
What are some of the best practices for young entrepreneurs?
Naila: If you have an idea, or you’re good at something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be successful. From day one, you need to be communicating with your customer and asking for feedback and testing. Testing, iterating, changing, improving is really important. Getting as much feedback from your core customer is the key to success. And market research also involves understanding your competition. It’s a mistake to think that you won’t have competition, because any idea will have a competitor.
Some great best practices include spending time with sales on the ground and trying to experience the problem first hand. Getting down and dirty will uncover many more ideas and help you build your value proposition.
Zeina: Two of the most important things which have already been mentioned include networking and researching the competition. But also, upskilling yourself. Learning as much as possible about as many things as possible. I learned about launching a business, social media, documentary film-making, accounting. It’s important to learn, be curious and want to grow.
What were the incentives for companies to pay SE Factory and what were they getting out of it?
Zeina: The first two years we were offering graduates at no cost for the companies. When we started rolling this out, we had a focus group and we called in the companies we had in the network and explained the situation to them. There was a little bit of pushback but then they realized that they need what we’re offering and it didn’t affect us in any way. We have over 50 companies in our network who have committed to paying SE Factory if they hire from the graduate pool. If they don’t do that, they have to do the training themselves, and they don’t necessarily have the capacity to do that.
Naila: When you’re alleviating a large pain for companies, they’ll be willing to pay for it. Recruitment is a really long and complicated process. SE Factory reduces that onboarding time and makes it easier. Don’t be afraid of charging if you’re providing quality. Understand how much of a pain in the wallet the process is and how much they’re going to save when you come in with your process.
Do you think your model would work in other fields than coding?
Naila: Try to be a social enterprise from the beginning and to find your revenue streams. Upskilling alone doesn’t lead to job creation. The SE Factory model would work but in skilled industries where it’s a pain to find qualified candidates. Find your revenue streams from day one so you’re not dependent on grants from the beginning.
When you’re starting your project, set up your media channels and create a lot of noise around what you’re creating. The more good news you bring out and the more you network, the more top of mind you’ll be for companies.