Grad start-up goes to competition
Competing against eleven other Boston area colleges to demonstrate their entrepreneurial talent, two graduates of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management will represent Brandeis at the annual HUBweek Beantown Throwdown on Friday.
Heller graduates Wafaa Arbash M.A. ’17 and Jennie Kelly M.A. ’17 will pitch WorkAround, a startup they created which connects businesses with refugees in need of work. The company won the 2016 Heller StartUp Challenge. In the last year, WorkAround has worked with a variety of clients, continuing to grow and develop their business to meet the challenges of the modern refugee crisis.
Through research for her thesis for her dual Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development and Coexistence and Conflict, Arbash began to formulate the idea for WorkAround. Looking at the Syrian refugee crisis, Arbash realized that there was a massive population of “talented, educated and highly motivated” people who nevertheless were unable to work because they “don’t have access to the local economy,” she explained in an interview with the Justice.
Looking to solve this problem, Arbash researched the possibilities of connecting them to the digital economy, while simultaneously talking to Boston businesses to see if they would hire refugees to do work online. These ideas became reality when Arbash formed the WorkAround team with Kelly, Shai Dinnar ’20, and Shadi Sheikhsaraf M.A. ’17 for last year’s Heller StartUp Challenge. WorkAround worked with their first customer in April 2017, and currently has eight client businesses. They officially registered as a company last week.
In an interview with the Justice, Kelly elaborated on the importance of employment, explaining that when refugees are not employed, the divide between citizens and refugees in host countries is only exacerbated.
“If they don’t have any money, they aren’t going to the corner store and meeting new people in this new community and becoming integrated,” Kelly said. “Instead they stay this kind of ‘Other.’” A benefit of WorkAround is that it gives refugees a way to make money they can spend in the community without “taking jobs away,” because anyone can work for the company, Kelly explained.
WorkAround employees do a variety of electronic tasks such as data entry, translation, image tagging and audio or video transcription.
As Kelly explained, when choosing what kind of jobs WorkAround should focus on, the team wanted to ensure the business structure accommodated the unpredictability of refugees’ schedules and living arrangements.
To make the work flexible to suit refugees’ hectic lives, WorkAround created the idea of “microtasks.” Businesses hire WorkAround to complete large projects, which Arbash and Kelly then break down into smaller tasks which can each be accomplished in twenty to thirty minutes online. These microtasks are then given to refugee employees, who can choose if they want to finish one while running other errands or if they want to work for hours on task after task.
While the online employment is currently unregulated, the WorkAround team has worked to make sure they are following both American and international laws. With international regulations regarding refugees changing every day, the task of establishing legitimate, stable employment for displaced people requires constant research and coordination with foreign governments.
The biggest limitation WorkAround has faced does not come from international laws, however, but from the United States government, according to Kelly. “About 40 percent of people who register [for WorkAround] are Syrians still living in Syria,” she said, “but because the U.S. has sanctions against Syria, we cannot send any money into Syria, so we actually can’t work with [them], which is infuriating.”
One of WorkAround’s goals for the future is to make its work increasingly available for people who have mobile phones but not computers. Arbash said she hopes WorkAround will soon partner with online universities “so [refugees] can improve their skills so they can get better jobs.” Another of her goals is to make WorkAround her full-time job.
Winning the Beantown Throwdown would help Arbash accomplish that goal. The first place prize is $12,500 of legal services from Morse Barnes-Brown & Pendleton, as well as a meeting with public relations firm CHEN PR, according to the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge, the competition’s host. Kelly hopes a large crowd of University students will be there to support their team and to connect with other innovators.
Only Arbash and Kelly will be representing WorkAround at the competition, but they wanted to give credit to the other team members. Dinnar left the company in August to be a full-time student, but Sheikhsaraf is still a member, although she is currently working in Iraq for the U.N. Refugee Agency, according to Arbash.
When asked what her advice was for Brandeis students interested in pursuing innovation and entrepreneurship, Arbash said, “If you see any problem, and this problem keeps you awake at night, it means you need to start finding solutions.”