Salam Al-Nukta, Cofounder and CEO of ChangeMakers Syria

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As many of my readers may know, Salam is the Arabic word for peace. Salam Al-Nukta, the Damascene Cofounder and CEO of ChangeMakers Syria, highlighted this point right at the beginning of our discussion. In preparing this post, I found a John F. Kennedy quote about peace that I felt poignantly described the journey that Salam had shared with me: “Peace is a daily, weekly, monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.”

Salam’s academic and entrepreneurial path has spanned nearly a decade at this point, and covered a variety of subjects, but a few things have remained constant. First, her mission to promote equal opportunity, especially between genders. Second, a refreshing willingness to try new things without fear of failure. Third, and finally, an undying positive outlook. Throughout Salam’s story, these traits have clashed with old barriers, whether they be societal, geographic, or economic. Rather than retreating in the face of those barriers, she’s continued to push forward, changing opinions and building new structures, not only for herself, but for her broader community.

The flagship new structure of Salam’s journey is ChangeMakers, an organization established in  Damascus that introduces young people to the possibilities of a career in coding. Salam and her friend Eyad founded ChangeMakers in 2016, while still working on their undergraduate degrees. Even after moving to the Netherlands a year ago, Salam continues to manage Changemakers remotely. Read on to learn more about Salam’s inspiring story, as well as her plans for the future. 

Can you start by introducing yourself, where you grew up, and your journey to where (and who) you are today? 

I’m really proud that my name means “peace.” I come from Syria and the Arab World and we really need peace right now. I grew up in Syria and had not lived anywhere else until I moved to the Netherlands in June of 2019. I absolutely love life here. It’s very enabling and empowering. I’ve visited a few other places in the world – Taiwan, South Korea, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, but I hope to do more traveling in the future. I have one younger brother, he’s a dentist and I’m so proud of him.

I spent eight years studying biology at Damascus University in Syria. I was very passionate about genetic modification because I thought that to build a better world, we need to positively modify human genes. I had initially hoped to do medicine in order to get into that field, but I did not get the grade required to enter my university’s faculty of medicine, so I studied biology instead. 

As I progressed through my university years, I grew more and more focused on teaching and inspiring. Around six years ago, I got to know entrepreneurship, first through a TEDx, where I met my best friend Eyad. We started to discuss potential future projects and goals. I loved these things, but the years rolled on and I still hadn’t graduated with my biology degree. As my time spent in university grew, so did the feeling that I was a failure because I couldn’t graduate. Everyone who had started school with me had already finished and gone on to other things. 

Two years ago, I met my husband and decided to move to the Netherlands. That’s when I said “enough is enough.” I quit my biology degree in the middle of my last semester. I was only about a month away from sitting for my final exams, but I felt this is not something I neither deserve nor want, so why should I collect a certificate that I won’t ever attempt to have a career with? I moved to the Netherlands and started studying International Business Administration at Tilburg University. 

Finding  a suitable university in the Netherlands took a while because my high school diploma was nearly ten years old at that point! Tilburg University accepted me though, and I’m really happy that they did. It’s been a year and a half and I’m due to graduate next year! Today, I don’t regret my decision to quit Damascus University at all. My family wasn’t very supportive of it – they worried I would be pushed away from education, and never be able to complete it – not because I’m not able to do it, but because I will be busy with other things. Eventually though, we all realized that the flaw is not in me, but rather in the traditional education systems which do not care to cater to the different needs and talents of youth. 

Your passion for inspiring eventually led you to co-found the organization ChangeMakers in Damascus. Can you tell me that story, as well as what ChangeMakers looks like today? 

Changemakers was founded in 2016. At that time, Eyad and I did everything together. We had volunteered for the UNFPA, and one evening, we were sitting with the representative there and we were just telling him about what we do and what we’re passionate about. He basically told us “why don’t you guys pursue your passion and change the world for the better while fulfilling UNFPA’s mandate – Providing women and young people with opportunities?.” 

He asked if we know “Girls Who Code,” which we did, and we talked long about how the world will look to Syrian young girls if we support them to explore their potential in that field.

We started spending our days and nights planning things out. We wanted ChangeMakers to reduce the gender gap in the tech field by providing programming skills to both girls and boys and empowering young people (15-18yrs) to truly become “whoever they want to be.’ Even if they ended up deciding to not pursue coding as a career path, we wanted them to at least know enough about the field to make a well-informed decision about their futures. This point was especially important for girls because girls were not even given the opportunity to explore the field and determine if they wanted to pursue it or not. Our goal was (and still is) not to convince girls to pursue programming as an education or career path. Our goal is to give them the tools and information to decide if they want this or not. 

We were also confident that programming skills alone were not enough to make a “change-maker,” so we included interpersonal skills in our first pilot, which went really well. We found out that young people, when given the instruments to create something, can unlock their hidden talents. However, we also observed that this first pilot was too long, so we decided to take away the interpersonal skills and replace it with “entrepreneurial skills” for our second pilot. 

After this second pilot, we concluded that the time wasn’t ripe to introduce young Syrians to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship had quickly become very trendy, to the extent that young people thought it was right and convenient for everyone, regardless of the timing. In reality, infrastructure, economic situation, policies for starting a business, and the social environment were not yet well-equipped for very young people (15 – 18yrs) to take such a risky journey. We didn’t feel right encouraging them to become entrepreneurs only to have them surprised that they can’t get basic access funds, or even legally register their businesses. We felt we were creating another problem by basically leading young people into an insurmountable wall. The allure of entrepreneurship was so strong that some people thought they could quit school and succeed as entrepreneurs. They believed entrepreneurship was the glittery escape from all other broken endeavors. That’s a really dangerous risk for these young people to take, especially in Syria. As you can guess, we decided to not continue with entrepreneurship, and to focus instead on programming and leadership skills – two of the most needed skills in today’s rapidly progressing world, yet two of the least addressed in the Middle East and worldwide.

Fast forward to today, we’ve had difficulties with finding a physical place and maintaining our courses “in-person.” We’ve decided to build these courses online and provide young people with easy access to programming courses. That’s what the team has been working on for about the past year.

So currently, ChangeMakers is focused on programming and leadership in online courses?

Yes, programming is still the main concept, but we do cover communication, leadership, innovation, the tech industry in general. We also decided to expand our focus beyond high school students (15-18 years old), to include university students.

When students complete a program with ChangeMakers, is the hope that they will be getting tech jobs in Syria, or elsewhere in the world? 

Although we’d love for them to improve their programming skills, we do not teach them with the aim that they become full-time programmers. Our main goal is just to introduce the topic to them and give them some basic skills. If they decide to become full time programmers, they are other resources available for them, both with us, and elsewhere.

However, many of those who graduated from ChangeMakers have pursued very prestigious education, both inside and outside of Syria. Three ChangeMakers alumni have received scholarships to study in the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal, respectively. Some others have received scholarships to go to private universities in Syria. There have even been a few that have founded their own startups and other social initiatives. We’re very proud of them and we don’t force a career path on them. 

Can you tell me about the challenges you’ve faced with Changemakers?

The main challenge that faced initially was simply finding a physical location. I can imagine for other startups looking for a place for physical activities could also be very costly. Fortunately though, we were already funded. What makes finding a place so difficult? Well, you need somewhere that is accessible and safe. We’re inviting young people to come, so it needs to be in a central place that parents are familiar and comfortable with. 

We used to host our events in halls not built with this kind of training in mind. We had to modify these spaces to fit our needs. For example, we would ask young people to bring their laptops, but that would also exclude a huge market segment that needed courses like this. We did not want our courses to be for the “elite” (i.e. young people whose families can afford laptops). To avoid this, we requested more funds to equip the initiative with laptops. We also eventually found a more permanent space, which we could outfit for our needs.

When you undertake projects with the U.N., you need to follow certain regulations around expenditures, reporting etc. One of these posed a real challenge for us. They told us that we had to pay financial compensation or allowances to our attendees. We really did not want to pay attendees because we believe that young people must come to these courses out of their own motivation. We did not want to give them financial incentives. Plus, this would destroy the broader market for these kinds of courses in Syria. Young people wouldn’t participate in free courses, or courses they had to pay for, because they would be getting paid to do ours, undermining our efforts to foster a fair, competitive market! We overcame this by keeping allowances very low, just enough to cover transportation only. We depended on the students own motivation and it worked.

Let’s move on to Changemakers’ achievements. What are you most proud of?

I’m really proud that we did not have a significant drop-out rate. I think only 3 out of 50 participants in our long term programs didn’t end up showing up to the graduation ceremony, but finished the course’s requirements.

I’m also really proud of our female to male participation ratio, which we ensured was 1:1. Given my observations of other local and global organizations, it seems very hard to accomplish that. They’re always looking for ways to ensure that women participate. We did this by being really involved, not just on social media, but in-person, with the participants’ families. We invited them to introduction and graduation sessions to keep them in the know throughout the journey. Even those families that didn’t really seem to care about our work, and only attended those sessions because of a nagging kid, eventually became our allies. They saw and came to appreciate the value that we were providing their kids. There was one family, when their older daughter finished their course, they insisted that their younger daughter participate as well.

Finally, I’m really proud of the values that we implanted. Programming is important, and many of the students discovered it for the first time through us. Beyond that though, collaboration between both sexes and gender equality is important. I feel like we helped drive that message home.

Could you tell me a little bit more about empowering young women and girls. What are the challenges that they face in Syria, in particular in this field? 

I’m very passionate about empowering young women. 

The tech field is obviously a male -dominated field that women are not really encouraged to pursue. If a woman gets into tech at any university in Syria, people think she’s “boyish”, she doesn’t take good care of herself, she doesn’t plan to have a family, and even that she’s not “beautiful.” That’s why we focused on showing the young girls female role models. These coaches were amazing, not just in tech, but in life in general. They were beautiful! We wanted girls to see that going into the tech field doesn’t mean they are less “feminine” than any other girl. 

Beyond the tech field, women face more challenges in general. Doing anything requires more “permissions” than boys. If a girl wants to leave her house, they need their family’s permission. That doesn’t apply to boys, especially at later ages. A 15-year old boy doesn’t need permission to go out. For girls, even their twenties, they still need permission to leave the house. Boys also do not need to report where they’ve been and with whom, but that’s not always the case with girls. 

Women’s responsibilities have also increased. Before the crisis in Syria, they weren’t really expected to work much outside the house. Now, even though women are working more outside the house, they still have to do housework too, which leads to this accumulated pressure. They need to finish their day jobs and then come back to take care of the house. Taking care of kids only exacerbates this challenge.

What do you think are the skills that have led you to be successful as a leader?

Anyone who wants to accomplish something needs a vision; not necessarily a clear vision, but a vision. Since I was very young, I knew that I was passionate about Rights. I did not know that I would grow to be passionate about Women’s Rights specifically, but every time that I saw a child crying, I felt like this should not be the case. I refused to accept unequal opportunities because of things like gender, social class, etc.. 

As I grew up, so did my sense of responsibility, which helped focus my vision. I started to be more passionate about Women’s Rights, especially their right to access the same opportunities as men. I think this mostly came from what I observed and experienced in the community around me. I was always thinking “if I’m allowed to do this, why would another girl not be?” Or, for example, if a boy can travel  – traveling was the most provocative issue to me – why can’t a girl of the same age? I had this goal in my head – I want to travel alone at least once. I wanted to prove that it’s okay, that I wouldn’t lose a piece of myself. So I started to look for opportunities to travel, and eventually I found and got many!

Other traits I’ve found important are curiosity and a constant desire to improve. There are always more skills to gain. There is always more to learn. You don’t need to be perfectionist, but you need to keep looking for better ways to do things. 

Finally, I would say networking is very very important. A strong leader needs to foster good relationships, not just with VIPs, but also with their teams. I’m really proud of my team, and anyone I’ve worked with in the past. We chose each other very carefully. To be successful, people need to build a good network around them. That network will nurture your vision, support you in focusing it, and even accomplishing it.

Do you think it’s getting easier to start companies in Syria? Do you see hope for entrepreneurship there in the future? 

I haven’t been in Syria for about a year now, but I don’t think it’s easier to set up businesses. I do think that people are more resilient, stronger, more educated, and more determined. If you’re looking in from the outside, you would think that there’s no way to establish a startup in Syria. It’s very hard to do financing, there’s no online banking, there’s no way to get funds from investors, and people are barely feeding themselves. Despite all of that though, Syrians are doing really amazing things. 

So it’s not necessarily easier, but people are tougher and they’re more resilient. When there’s need, there’s a possibility. Need is growing and so are possibilities.

When you finish with your degree, what’s your dream project, or the next thing you’re excited about working on?

My life mission is that opportunities are distributed more equally and this is only accomplished if we collectively work toward it.

I’m actually working on my dream project now! I recently received an assignment to explore how the Netherlands can support entrepreneurship in the Middle East and fill the region’s current gaps. The Netherlands has been ranked very high in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship, eas to set up businesses, etc. so they have a great interest in supporting and transferring their successful experiences in entrepreneurship and young people across the world. In the future, I would love to continue to focus on supporting entrepreneurship and economic advancement in the Middle East, specifically among females. 

I want to focus on females because I feel like the programs supporting “female entrepreneurship” right now center on cooking and sewing, the stereotypical things that fall in a women’s “domain”. To me, this is not female entrepreneurship. Female entrepreneurship is actually empowering females to do whatever they want to do, let it be cooking OR leading a tech startup. I think there’s a huge opportunity in shifting this mentality, and shifting how organizations approach fulfilling communities’ needs and solving world issues. An organization can easily claim they are supporting female entrepreneurship by going and buying more sewing machines. This is great, it allows women to support themselves, but it doesn’t allow them to think out of the box. It puts them in the box and seals it! I want to see organizations trying the hard way, not the easy way. Hopefully, when I finish my education in the Netherlands, I will pursue a Master’s degree and continue to work on these projects. 

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