Meet #MCFinalists WorkAround

Written by Wafaa Arbash, Founder & CEO of WorkAround
 

Microwork has become one of the buzzwords of the new economy, as a way for many to supplement their incomes or work flexibly around other commitments, such as childcare or school. For some, though, it may be much more. One MassChallenge startup, WorkAround, is working to make it a path to a new life for the world’s estimated 22.5 million refugees. Bringing together companies that need to outsource small tasks and displaced people seeking to earn an income, this startup led by Brandeis University alumni is an ambitious social enterprise looking to transform both refugee aid and the often-misunderstood gig economy. WorkAround’s goal and overall mission is to rebuild dignity in refugees through economic empowerment by connecting them to online work, allowing companies to maximize their internal human potential while contributing to a more socially just and productive world.

WorkAround originally started as student research, until only afterwards the true potential of the project was realized. Wafaa Arbash has collaborated with both corporations and NGOs, with more than five years of experience working with social development. During this time, she was working on her master’s degree in Sustainable International Development and Coexistence and Conflict Resolution. As part of her thesis, she began researching better ways to aid the millions of people worldwide fleeing war, hunger, or other crises.

The rest of the WorkAround team is diverse, with members from Iran, Israel, and the US. They also benefit from having different skills and backgrounds.

  • Shadi Sheiksaref has more than eight years of experience working with refugees and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, and earned her dual Masters in Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution

  • Shai Dinnar has worked in technology startups and has conducted international business development strategies and partnership building in the U.S., while researching cognition as a neuroscience student.

  • Jennie Kelly has an MBA in Sustainable International Development and private sector experience.

We decided to connect with Wafaa to learn more about her, gain insight of what WorkAround is all about and what it means to them to be in MassChallenge.

Wafaa moved to the United States from Syria four years ago, with the intentions of staying only two months. With the situation in Syria, she decided to stay and get her graduate degree. She eventually found herself at graduate school at Brandeis University studying Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. While writing her thesis, she often came back to the issues in Syria. She always imagined finishing school and working with NGOs to help people struggling with displacement, providing tangible aid. She is passionate about helping refugees who suffer because of restrictions by their host communities, but she soon realized that many solutions already in place are simply not sustainable.

“I was really thinking about what I could do; what people really need… What really is important is to earn an income.” – Wafaa Arbash

This is how Wafaa and her team came to the idea of “micro tasking.” The idea is to connect refugees with large companies so that the refugees do small tasks, such as data entry or transcripts, remotely. These tasks can often take a long time, which many companies find tedious for their full-time employees. By outsourcing these tasks, companies benefit while giving refugees a source of income that can help them get back on their feet.

Her intense research of the refugee issue and its potential solutions is how Wafaa found the Brandeis Innovation community. After winning the Heller Startup Challenge and becoming part of Brandeis Innovation, the WorkAround team found themselves in a network of mentorship and support. Whether it was workshops or having access to mentors that they call nearly every week, Brandeis Innovation supported WorkAround in reaching the next level. Team members maintain their relationships to their Brandeis Innovation mentors, which are vital to continuing to solve each obstacle they encounter. Joining MassChallenge has enabled them to expand their relationship-building, connecting with the wider ecosystem of Boston’s startup and nonprofit communities.

As with all startups, the problems that must be solved often emerge as the works gets started. WorkAround is dealing with a population that does not have access to a bank account, which can be challenging when dealing with large corporations. This is where building connections has proved to be invaluable. In fact, there are other groups that are trying to help refugees with work opportunities. They all understand the underlying issue of figuring out a way to help that will make a lasting impact. Being able to compare strategies makes it easier to create a viable social enterprise, one that’s based on real-world feedback.

“Everyone understands that there are many refugees, and we cannot just give them food – we need to empower them to find their own economic opportunities. That is what we are all trying to figure out – what is the best way for economic empowerment for refugees?” – Wafaa Arbash

WorkAround understands the refugee aid landscape well and already knows how to differentiate themselves from other social enterprises working in the space. They’re not trying to create an office space for refugees; they are just trying to create a safe virtual space where they can log in and work no matter where they are. They are also working to partner with universities to provide online education for displaced persons so that they can continue learning. Since most had to stop their educations due to restrictions in their communities, this is another vital piece of the puzzle in getting people on their feet as quickly as possible.

The work that they will be doing with individual refugees is only temporary, as they state in their mission statement. The goal of microwork is to provide a path to independence through income, job training, and the emotional boost that having a job provides:

“We are not trying to keep the refugees on our platform forever, it is only a temporary solution so they can move forward in their life” – Wafaa Arbash

Wafaa and her team see MassChallenge as a way make WorkAround a strong social enterprise. Though they hope to be only a very temporary part of any individual refugee’s life, they want to build a long-term infrastructure to deal with the challenges of people in transition. Shifting their focus to the business side of social enterprise is key, and something they see their time in MassChallenge as critical to achieving:

“We really need this innovation… We don’t want to keep studying everything in theory, we need to be able to create and be smart about finding solutions to social issues and bring this to the business side of it. We need to be sustainable.” – Wafaa Arbash

Having access to the mentorship and ideas that MassChallenge provides will help them make Workaround’s vision actionable, helping more people regain their dignity, hope, and opportunity to contribute to society.