They want to bring jobs to jobs-starved Lebanon. They also want to do something that has been tried many times and rarely been crowned by success: mobilize direct investments into Lebanon from the country’s large global diaspora. Specifically, they want to seed job investments—work opportunities that can be located anywhere in the world, yet be done by people in Lebanon. They have combined both missions into one vision that they are chasing. “They” are a cheerful group of successful expat professionals with a brand-new online venture that can be found at jobsforlebanon.com. To learn more, Executive talked, naturally remotely by video conference, with jobsforlebanon (J4L) team members Roy Baladi and Neal El-Jor Taouk in San Francisco, Natasha-Christina Akda in New York, and Yalda Aoukar in London.
As you are telling me, your initiative for creating jobs for Lebanon has met with a very positive initial response and is moreover already evolving. How do you explain that this initiative is so successful with the diaspora? And as your platform is changing, will J4L activities still be focused mostly on channeling remote jobs for Lebanese freelancers, as was said in some early reports, and do you expect partner organizations to help with scaling in terms of job offers?
Yalda: The reason that this is really resonating is because [faced with the problems in Lebanon] there was a lot of appetite from the diaspora to get involved. But they were not knowing how to get involved or what the right channels are.
Roy: Starting with the vision that we have for ourselves: [We envision] that one year from now we will have a very reliable source of jobs for Lebanese where people can export their skills without necessarily having to export their bodies. This becomes a reliable source of jobs, a reliable source of income, and an alternate economy. To get to that level, we aim to unite the Lebanese diaspora wherever they are, having a global expat network with a simple message: Hire a Lebanese in Lebanon.
Neal: The beautiful thing about this movement is that it is growing and changing shape as it grows. Even though we started as an initiative to bring jobs to Lebanon as freelance opportunities, we are now in talks with several industry-specific agencies in Lebanon who are interested to partner with us to open it up to even contractors. This is making it scalable on the Lebanese level and even more beautiful is that the movement is going to be scalable to other countries.
You seem to be working on modifications to the J4L approach also on the demand side, meaning its functionality for Lebanese job applicants. Can you elaborate?
Roy: What we are doing right now in Lebanon is to start making it easy for not just individuals to say ‘I am interested in this job,’ but also for teams, so that they can come in and say, ‘We are a team of creatives and can take over a project.’
Do you want to operate continually as a not-for-profit enterprise, as a civil society organization (CSO) or non-governmental organization (NGO), or as a for-profit social enterprise? Are you working toward a commercialization model and are you seeking to monetize the site, for example by charging commissions from talents who found a freelance job via J4L?
Roy: After talking about what we will be, an NGO or a [Certified B Corporation], we have decided to be an NGO. We want to be self-sustainable as an NGO but we are not looking at this as a for-profit venture. This subject is where Natasha comes in.
How do you want to sustain J4L then beyond the initial phase of enthusiasm-driven volunteer work, which is how you appear to be operating at this point?
Natasha: This is a question that every entity and organization has to confront. The team of volunteers has thankfully very early on started to look at the long-term sustainability for the organization and the movement, and how do we plan our next steps and how do we institutionalize these next steps so that we can continue to exist and serve in the long run. As Roy said, the original conversation ran between either incorporating as a non-profit or as a B-corp. These were the two main options just because this team wants to make sure that the mission and spirit of the movement are legally protected at all times. This is not about money. However, money is required to make sure that this process can continue in the long run.
How are you planning to obtain this money?
Natasha: They have started by creating a non-profit organization that is a self-sustaining social good enterprise. There are also different ways built into the model so that they are going to be able to monetize the business and structure that they have implemented. The board of directors has already been identified. As [the movement] starts to get larger and more time is taken up, those roles are going to morph from board of directors to officer roles and at that point there will be a conversation about how we take this to the next level. Right now I think this is still premature because all energy, all effort, and all finances are dedicated to the movement and not to the individuals.
Has each participant in the founding team contributed and pooled hard cash to make this vision happen?
Roy: We have so far funded it ourselves.
How do you plan to sustain the movement’s operational momentum and growth in the long run? Do you have targets or KPIs, key performance indicators for monthly increases in a) the supply of job opportunities and b) the number of job applicants?
Neal: We meet on weekly basis to discuss everything that happened in the past week and what we plan on doing in moving forward. We have four initiatives within this movement, one being the product function where we do everything to improve the product to make sure that we can provide the best service possible; we have the marketing department that is in charge of everything creative and branding, as well as of course social media. We then have a business development function that is in charge of the ambassador program, the partnership program, and any other outreach that needs to be done. Finally, there is legal. Each of the four functions has their own set of KPIs, all of which feed into a main one, which is to seed as many jobs as possible and get candidates which will then hopefully translate into new hires.
To go into the practical side of the matchmaking between candidates and job givers: Are you vetting prospective job suppliers and vetting prospective job seekers in any way or just trusting everyone to be honest? Do you do background checks?
Roy: In the product, there are three ways in which you can vet the candidates. The first thing that you can do with the product is to compare. It has an algorithm to give a ranking to each candidate relative to the job. So you start with an ordered list with a percent fit of every candidate to every job. The second thing is that based on the responses of the candidate [via a variety of presentation formats], the algorithm can read their command of the English language, or the German or French language—40 plus languages in all. That is an objective metric done by a third party that tests the validity of a person’s skill. The third tool that you have are background checks.
Are these functionalities connected to the Smart Recruiters software as part of the backend package?
Roy: Correct. Smart Recruiters is a company that is ten years old, has 80 engineers, and that is supporting more than 4,000 companies all over the globe using it at this very moment. We have the ability to use that product in order to repurpose it for jobsforlebanon. So yes, it is in the back.
How are you then protecting J4L to not become a marketing outlet as a covert profit-oriented enterprise, or from being perceived as a marketing outlet for Smart Recruiters?
Roy: Smart Recruiters has done the one percent pledge, giving away one percent of the equity, one percent of the product, [and] one percent of the time of employees. I look after these CSR initiatives. It is a cost for Smart Recruiters to offer the software for free for Lebanon and it is the same thing for Germany and Ireland, Australia and the other countries, but this is also part of the mission of Smart Recruiters.
So you as president of the NGO will be the guardian to make sure that Smart Recruiters doesn’t use this network and the movement’s social good centered outlets as a way to gain influence and make money?
Roy: Yes. As the president, I look after that, and our whole team does too. But also every partner that comes in and connects with us is offering something as well as getting exposure. So as we partner with BDD, they are offering their office space at cost for our community that gets hired. [In turn], they will get advertisements on our platform. Similarly, [this applies to] any partner that comes in. Every piece that comes together is going to benefit from exposure and good will coming out of it. This is part of the collaboration. It is a fringe benefit of being part of this movement that you are betting on and which will help grow an economy.
Natasha: I want to add to what Roy was saying. We as a team are very conscious of the risks and the entire team is very protective of the mission and the underlying philosophy and spirit of the work that is being done. As part of that, from a legal standpoint, the social good components are actually being built in as part of the contracts that we are developing with our future partners so that we can make sure that we protect the product itself and the nature in which it is presented to the world.
As your name hints to jobs in Lebanon, how far are there restrictions requiring candidates that want to join the community to be Lebanese or live in Lebanon? Could I for example, as someone who has lived some 23 years in Lebanon but is a German expatriate here, be eligible to be among the talent on your platform or would you say, ‘No, you are not Lebanese and can’t participate’?
Roy [chuckling]: There is no way for us to restrict this. This product is an open product where anybody can create a job and anybody can post a job. When you post a job, anybody can apply. However, there is a lens. The campaign that we have is geared primarily toward calling on Lebanese, wherever they are in the world. Also [we aim] beyond the diaspora, if you are not Lebanese and want to hire someone in Lebanon, because the [availability of] talent [for hire] in Lebanon is honestly very high at the moment. This is because of the layoffs and unemployment that have been done due to a systemic issue, not a job performance issue. I am meeting people with 15 or 20 years of experience that have been let go. So there is a skill abundance in Lebanon at the moment; our main campaign is calling on anybody who wants to hire those people without making them leave the country. However, anybody can apply and if they do and are well vetted and get the job, this is excellent.
In your initial outreach to the Lebanese diaspora, did you start using any existing database of Lebanese expats or did you work on peer-to-peer basis?
Roy: Peer-to-peer. We did a bit of information research in terms of journalists and in terms of the embassies and their contact information and charted [those groups] but we did not [use practices found elsewhere such as scraping websites for jobs]. With us, it was zero catalysts and zero jobs. [The network] populated organically.
From a Lebanese perspective, the issue of the diaspora has what everything in Lebanon has, namely a political connotation and not necessarily the most innocent one. Do you, as a movement, have any political links in Lebanon or internationally with political organizations in the diaspora?
All in unison: No.
Do you have any partnerships with any Lebanese bank as part of their CSR activity, financial intermediaries, with someone like IM Capital or anybody in the venture capital space in Lebanon, with the Capital Markets Authority or Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank?
Roy: Everybody is shaking their head.
So you are all financially outside of Lebanon and emotionally inside of Lebanon?
All interviewees: Yeah.
And may I presume that—merely in an operational sense—it was almost serendipitous for J4L that the coronavirus struck in the Middle East just at the time when you were ready to start rolling?
Yalda: We are going to see a massive shift to teleworking. Everyone in the world is now working from home and a large part of the jobs that are now being conducted remotely will continue to be conducted remotely. That can only serve our mission. It is our hope that due to its highly skilled, multilingual population that has a very strong aptitude as well in the field of technology, Lebanon will become the destination of choice [to hire people that work remotely], at least for its diaspora.
In the promotional video there was the number of 16 million mentioned with respect to the diaspora, but this is a wide count and a bit of a popular myth considering that this includes millions who are descendants from people who emigrated three or four generations ago. What is your addressable market as far as entrepreneurs in the Lebanese diaspora who can create and offer jobs?
Natasha: You will be surprised. I have family in Mexico, distant relatives, some of whom have not even been to Lebanon but they eat their grandmother’s [Lebanese food]. As soon as we launched that promotional video, third generation Mexican-Lebanese were telling me that they loved it and were sharing it with their network of 25,000 people that are part of a Lebanese club in a district of Mexico City. Let’s not underestimate the power of the emotional ties of the Lebanese.
Also I think that 16 million [as a target outreach number] would mean that we are limiting ourselves. [Stipulating an] addressable market of 16 million people for me is really underselling ourselves. Lebanon has extreme talent to offer to the world. Our aim of connections with the Lebanese diaspora is our first step.
So you want to reach job creators internationally beyond the Lebanese diaspora?
Natasha: Yes. In our team of 23 people, we have people that work for Facebook, for Google, and for some of the largest corporations in the world. If at some point we can forge partnerships with these huge organizations, [this would be] a power that goes beyond the 16-million diaspora.
Would it then be correct to say that you want to scale up from the job givers among the Lebanese diaspora to other mega-large corporations or even SME job givers all around the world who are not linked to the Lebanese diaspora?
Neal: That would be safe to say. One thing to mention is that, before the launching, we took part in a conference and participated in a hackathon. In this conference it was very interesting to see the feedback from non-Lebanese people. I was positively shocked how emotionally touched non-Lebanese people were by this initiative.
In wrapping this interview up, do you have a target ratio regarding job offers versus applications? It seems that you now have about ten or 11 ratio to one in terms of applicants for each job. But as it has occurred especially in times of high job demand that 500,000 people sometimes apply for something like ten available jobs. This can be a strong deterrent from any job initiative. What is our target ratio in this regard?
Roy: It takes roughly ten applications per interview and ten interviews per hire, so one percent of people who apply get hired. So it takes about 100 applications for one hire. Right now we are trending at about ten or 12 to one. Our KPI is the one—the job. Our focus is really on maximizing the number of jobs and maximizing the number of hires and everything else will fall into place. Yes, we can fall into the trap of getting too many applicants to very few jobs. We are very focused on this issue and that is why our KPIs are the way they are and why our organization is broken down into departments that are focusing on those KPIs.
It seems that you are applying time-tested or newly orthodox recruitment methodologies, including assumptions of ratios on what real chances job applicants have when they apply. Do you plan for any education effort for candidates to explain how big or small their chances are when they apply?
Roy: Yes. As Neal was mentioning, we have four departments. In the product department, we have product and product education. We are putting in motion right now video tutorials that reach the two segments, the candidates and the hiring managers. This includes education and surveys to keep our finger on the pulse of who is coming into our system.
From all that you have told me, you are not looking to terminate your project after the corona recession ends, whenever that is. You are in this for the long haul and envisioning an institutional future that is open ended and benefiting from the worldwide shift to more home office work and remote work. Is that correct?
Roy: Yes. As for where we want to see us in a year, we want to see very large hype and first of all a large number of Lebanese—we cannot put a number to it yet but internally we say 50,000. Visions are sometime based on bets so let me say we anticipate 50,000 jobs happening in Lebanon with jobs that they obtained from jobsforlebanon and partners. Anybody who is working on this mission, is a partner of ours. [In addition to the 50,000], we [foresee] another pipeline of 100,000 plus jobs that are on the platform and ready to hire and make this a sustainable major sector of the Lebanese economy. That is what we are hoping to see in a year.
Our analysis piece on the J4L initiative can be read here.