Manara (YC W21) – Connect Middle East engineers with global companies

Hey everyone! My name is Laila and with my co-founder Iliana I’m building Manara (https://www.manara.tech/). We support software engineers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to get great jobs at tech companies worldwide. These companies appreciate being connected to skilled talent that is diverse and inclusive (50% of our engineers are women).

I grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza. My dream was to become a Silicon Valley software engineer. Eventually I hacked my way there successfully, becoming a software engineer at Nvidia. I like to joke that the hardest part wasn’t escaping Gaza in the middle of the 2014 war, but rather, my first interviews... which I totally bombed. ;)

Once I got to Silicon Valley, I was surprised at the lack of women. In Gaza, more women study computer science than men! I was also surprised to learn how hard it was for companies in Silicon Valley to attract the talent we needed. During interviews with candidates I’d often think, “I wish I could hire my friends in Gaza. They’d be great.”

That’s when I re-connected with Iliana. She and I had met in Gaza when she was running Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), the first startup accelerator in Gaza. Her work was widely covered and has a few threads on HN including https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11858963. Iliana asked me “How can we produce more success stories like yours?”

I told her that engineers in the MENA region don't lack talent, but they lack other ingredients. They're mostly not aware of opportunities outside their region, and even if they are aware, they think you have to be a genius to work at a company like Google. Also, they have no idea what sorts of resumes recruiters want to see and don't have brand names to put on them. They don't have referral networks to get their foot in the door. And they're completely unprepared for the style of interviews that tech companies go for. As we talked further, it became clear that all of these problems would be fixable with the right kind of coaching and support, and that bringing this growing talent pool to the global job marketplace would benefit both sides (accelerating the success of global companies, while redistributing wealth to the region).

We developed an approach to address those gaps - and it worked. Just last week, 67% of the people we referred to Google for internships made it past the hiring committee (they’re now waiting for their job offers, so if you work at Google and have internship headcount, let us know!) We’ve heard Google interviewers say several times, “This is the best junior engineering interview I’ve ever done.”

I want to emphasize that we are not a zero-to-hero bootcamp. Manara is a career accelerator for skilled software engineers at all levels with a focus on junior engineers. Students learn the technical and soft skills they need to pass interviews and get introductions to companies with jobs that are either remote or on-site (in Europe or Canada). We charge an affordable fee to both candidates and companies, only if a successful match is made.

We focus on MENA (and specifically Arabic-speaking countries in the region) for a few reasons. On the business side, that's where we're from and where our connections are, so we understand the dynamics and have comparative advantage there. Second, the region has a huge opportunity: the youngest population in the world, 2x more university graduates than 10 years ago, women studying computer science at high rates (in some countries more women study CS than men: 52% in Palestine, 62% in Tunisia, 70% in Qatar), and so on. Third, it lends itself to scale. Our graduates have a high sense of affiliation and loyalty to the region, which means that as soon as we place 1 candidate at a company that’s growing, s/he comes back to us looking for 3 more to hire.

But we’re not building Manara just for business reasons; rather, we were motivated to launch Manara for social impact reasons. The unemployment rate for recent college grads is ~60%; for women who studied CS, it can be as high as 83%. It pains us personally to see highly talented friends of ours struggling to find (meaningful) work. We originally planned to build Manara as a non-profit, but after lots of research, we realized that a social enterprise approach would better support our mission: the pressure of becoming self-sustainable forces sharper thinking and execution, and will make it possible for us to deliver this solution at scale.

A powerful part of our impact is the community we are building. Students study in cohorts. Within each cohort, they compete to see who can solve more coding problems, and form strong bonds and support each other. Students also meet volunteers from tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Wayfair, Stripe, etc for mentorship and mock interviews once they achieve certain milestones (e.g., 100 questions on Leetcode). This leads to high motivation and retention. It also gives them access to professional networks like those Americans have when graduating from universities like Stanford. Often these networks later help them with their job hunting: just last week, a candidate got an interview at Uber thanks to a referral from one of our volunteers who works there.

Our volunteers love the chance to use their professional skills to mentor engineers from untraditional backgrounds. Several told us that they spent years looking for an effective way to contribute. One recently wrote to us, “I'm in awe of the work Manara is doing. I love interacting with my mentee and providing mock interviews - so thank you for giving me a platform to be able to support these students.”

If you're hiring, check out https://www.manara.tech/hire-engineers. If you'd like to get involved or join our newsletter, check out https://www.manara.tech/get-involved. Most importantly, we can't wait to hear what you think, wherever in the world you might be.

Over to you, HN!



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andrey azimov by Andrey Azimov