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Q&A | March 16, 2023 | 1 Min Read

Unlock the Middle East’s potential for women in tech

Iliana Montauk on what Western companies gain by scouting and hiring farther afield

When Iliana Montauk launched a Gaza-based start-up incubator in 2014, she quickly discovered a rich pool of female engineers who were struggling to find jobs in the region—despite having graduated at the top of their universities with world-class skills.

Spotting an opportunity to link local jobseekers with U.S. and European tech companies, she went on to co-found Manara in 2020, a startup teaching computer scientists from the Middle East and North Africa the technical and soft skills to secure jobs and succeed at tech giants such as Meta and Google. The startup has since secured $3 million in pre-seed funding led by Stripe with additional funders including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, and others.

Workflow recently spoke with Montauk about why the region is bursting with talent and what diverse perspectives can bring to companies.

My first day in Gaza, there were sonic booms overhead from war planes. At the same time, 60 startup founders were pitching their ideas to me. They lived in an environment that was used to receiving international aid but they told me: “We don’t want aid, we want private investment because we have valuable business ideas.” So that was part of what inspired me.

When I moved back to the Bay Area I worked at Upwork, which specializes in connecting employers with remote talent. We had the entire freelance marketplace available to us—and we still struggled to recruit. This made me interested in going beyond the typical referral networks. I knew from my time in Gaza that girls are outperforming boys in high school math, which translates to women studying computer science and electrical engineering and all these other technical fields at the same rates as men. And yet, in places like Palestine where the majority of STEM graduates are women, those women have difficulty finding employment after graduating. So the original idea for Manara was just that I wanted to hire these women to my team.

It’s hard to build products for people who are not represented on your team. So, Muslim FinTech solutions that are specifically aligned with the Muslim world, right-to-left languages and solutions for women that might be specific to Muslim women—these kinds of products are hard to build if you don’t understand your audience. The religious background is also diverse in this region, and so is the language background.

Another experience that a lot of people in this region bring to the table is the experience of conflict and growing up in conflict zones. And that creates a whole other perspective, when you maybe didn’t have access to the same infrastructure and you’re developing code knowing that you might not have internet or electricity for portions of the day. There are other parts of the world that might have similar challenges.

I think one reason is that there is friction on both sides of the market—on the talent side and the demand side—to find each other. Businesses are always going to do what’s easiest; it’s really hard to put in extra effort and innovate when it comes to hiring. Some of the friction on the talent side is that people don’t have a LinkedIn presence or resumes that make them discoverable. Frankly, even in the region, we have companies in Dubai and Saudi Arabia and other places asking us for help finding talent for their own talent pool, because it’s hard to identify it.

At Manara, we’ve designed a whole process specifically for women because otherwise we’ve found that the men come in droves but the women, who are just as qualified, don’t even try. Part of that is a lack of confidence at every stage and another is a lack of expectation from the community. To counteract that, you have to have lots of role models and lots of opportunities for women to connect with.

I think there is a short-term recalibration that ultimately will be useful for the world and also for companies and innovation to come from more diverse places.

But what’s really important for any company that cares about diversity and undiscovered talent is to not pull back on those investments at a time like this. Otherwise, people who don’t believe it’s possible are going to confirm that it’s not possible. And then that message is going to get passed on and all the momentum is going to have to get rebuilt again from the beginning.


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