Mays Alwash and Hani al-Dajane, Founders of Yalla! Let’s Talk

To read this interview in Arabic, click here / اضغط هنا للنسخة العربية

Those that have read some of my previous posts, as well as interviews with people like Marwan Abdelhamid, know that I’m really excited about the concept of a global Arab community unhindered by national borders. Not only do Mays Alwash and Hani Al Dajane’s paths embody that concept, their initiative-turned-startup Yalla! Let’s Talk (YLT) actively works to promote and foster it. 

Launched in 2017, Yalla Let’s Talk has made a mission of tackling topics and narratives often left untouched by the Arab diaspora community, and lifting up the voices of young Arabs living outside of the MENA region. A quick scan of their website, and you’ll find content ranging from the stigma of mental health in the Arab community, to queer identity in the diaspora, to resources to support Palestinian voices. With nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram, YLT has tapped into a community ready to listen and contribute to these conversations. 

Last summer, Mays and Hani took the bold step to build a business around this initiative. As a PhD student and corporate lawyer, respectively, in addition to managing Yalla Let’s Talk, neither of them has an abundance of free time. That said, they recognized the importance, need, and potential for the space that they’d built, and realized that to make that space sustainable, they needed to build a media company around it. 

Read on to learn more about Mays and Hani, and the evolution of Yalla Let’s Talk.

Can you start by each doing a short introduction of yourselves, Yalla Let’s Talk (YLT), and what it means to you?

Hani: My name is Hani. The “why” of YLT on a personal level has always been the same – to share diverse narratives that would otherwise go unheard, with the purpose of building and fostering inclusion. This is really the core of what it means to me to this day.

Mays: My name is Mays. To me, YLT is a place where I can meet like-minded individuals, people who have shared similar struggles, and connect with them on a deeper level. We’re trying to make a change. I fostered some of the most meaningful relationships in my life through YLT. No plug here, just being honest! 

Before diving too much further into YLT, I’d love to hear for both of you more about your personal and professional background. Where do you come from, what do you study, and what are you doing full-time?

Hani: I’m Palestinian. My grandparents are from a village in Yaffa, but I was born in Kuwait, and emigrated when I was six to Canada. I went back to Kuwait for high school, and graduated there – a back-and-forth that is more common than you’d think, by the way. I’m the co-founder of a law practice called Emerge LLP, where I’m a lawyer for startups and small businesses. We’re dedicated to becoming the top law firm for entrepreneurs in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Mays: I was born in Iraq and I grew up in Dubai. I moved to Canada when I was 18, and I’ve been here ever since. I am finishing my PhD in molecular biology, with a focus on cancer research, inflammation, and biotherapeutics. What I’m going to do next is the question of the century haha. Seriously though, there are a lot of avenues a PhD graduate can pursue. I am currently exploring them and talking to different people, and I’ll be making my decision in the upcoming months is all I can say for now. 

I’d love to hear about the origin story behind YLT. How did it come about, and when?

Hani: It started in August 2017. I had initially launched YLT as a YouTube channel due to the lack of Arab representation I saw in the media, even in conversations that concerned the Arab community and world. At the same time, I was going through my own personal identity crisis – not just around whether or not I was being too Arab, or not Arab enough, but also more generally. So I thought, why not find a way to get answers and create resources publicly? As a typical millennial, I thought YouTube would be a great place for this. The videos ended up being more powerful than I thought, and I had a larger audience than I expected.

Mays and I have known each other since the first day of undergrad. That’s over a decade at this point. We’d already organized events together at this point. So I asked her what she thought about taking these YouTube videos, and turning them into something bigger. We joined forces, and turned YLT into a youth-driven, community initiative. 

At that stage, we were much more of a “movement” than a “startup.” Then, in the summer of 2020, Mays and I started to appreciate just how powerful the idea behind YLT was, and we still felt really passionate about creating a new kind of space for Arabs living in the diaspora. The need still exists for a space that amplifies our stories and lifts up others in the community that are doing amazing things. If we don’t lift each other up, who will? If we don’t take control of our narrative, who will? So in the summer of 2020, during the pandemic, we incorporated YLT as a company and started our journey as Yalla! Let’s Talk. Inc. 

How do you go out and try to find diverse voices, and ensure that YLT is presenting a diversity of stories?

Hani: We have ourselves, and three part-time employees, and then everything else is community driven. If anyone comes to us and wants to get involved, we take them under our wing. Mays does an incredible job making sure that their content matches our voice. That content then informs our content on instagram and our virtual cafes. 

Is it mostly people reaching out and proposing topics to you? Or are you going out there and finding these writers and content creators?

Mays: It’s a combination of both. Some people who write for us have engaged in our virtual cafes previously. They’re genuinely engaged in the topics that we’ve spoken about. They get inspired after a cafe session, they reach out, and say “I’d like to write about X, Y, Z.” We also try to encourage people during the cafe sessions to get involved, we tell the audience that we’d love to hear more from them. In general, some people approach us, then in other cases, we see that people are sharing about something on social media, and we think it would make interesting reading for the community. In that case, we’ll reach out to that person and ask them to write something for the platform. 

What are the different channels that you’re putting content on, and how do you try to tie them together? 

Hani: The simplest answer is that our website is the platform that brings everything together. It’s operated as an online magazine. You can listen to a podcast directory that we’ve created. You can read articles, find events, see which virtual cafe interests you, etc.

Then from the website, we trickle down to Instagram — our Instagram is inspired by the website and inspired by it, in one way or another. Those are our two main channels, and then we add the cafes as a version or space where we can get together in real time

Mays: We also had a conference prior to the pandemic in February 2020. We pride ourselves in being the biggest conference in the year, because no conference happened after (laughs). It was really cool though, we had 400 arab millennials come to that. We had people share their stories on stage. I’ll add that having the cafes online and virtual have actually worked out very well for us, because we can make them global discussions. 

Are there are any big events, publications, or activities that stand out as successes when you think about YLT’s history up to this point?

Mays: I’m curious what Hani would say, but for me, the two highlights are both events. The conference in 2020, and the Valentine’s Day event that happened in February 2021, which was really incredible. We had Arabs and Arab-American influencers talk about dating in the Arab culture, as well as performances. It was really fun … it was one of our biggest virtual events, and it really highlighted our shift to becoming a media company. 

Hani: I do agree those are two of our biggest accomplishments. One thing I would add that made the conference special was that it was community driven. So there were a whole bunch of youth leaders that organized that conference. So much gratitude to them. I’m really proud of the fact that it was community driven.

The third event that I’m really excited about is coming up this Saturday. This weekend, we’re interviewing Suhel Naffar who’s coming in to answer questions for those that want to enter into the music scene. Something like this, I don’t think is readily accessible, especially now in the pandemic. Bringing performers to showcase their talents as well. Again, goes back to telling stories through music, writing, or just speaking.

How do you measure the success of YLT? 

Mays: As a business, we obviously look at things like the number of website visits and our engagement on instagram, but I think that’s pretty straightforward. In terms of overall mission impact, we look at how much conversation we’re starting, whether during an event or in the comments section. Those are the real measures of our success.

How do you think each of you have grown in this journey thus far?

Hani: It’s funny because Mays and I asked ourselves that question not too long ago. I think there’s a personal level and a business level. As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned the advantages of moving quickly, for example. Just having more people doesn’t mean increasing efficiency. I’ve also come to really appreciate the importance of focusing on role clarity – looking at specific tasks, determining the right person for those tasks, and then paying for it on a contractual basis. 

From a personal standpoint, I think what I’ve learned over the years is to be more empathetic,  and hearing people’s narratives can actually make you a more empathetic person. This means listening to someone speaking about a topic that you don’t think you’re that invested in, or someone that you may disagree with, but always go in with an open mind. I think YLT has created a special space for these kinds of stories. 

Mays: On my end, I would say on a professional level, this is cliche, but actually getting things done. I think there’s a culture in business in general, where people talk about ideas, but it takes time to actually bring them to life. Within a startup community, especially for us, I’ve learned the importance of doing things, bringing them to life right away, and carving out specific times –  let’s say once a week – to sit and reflect. I think that’s super important. In the startup environment, and throughout this world, everything moves very fast, and you have to stay caught up. You have to always be executing. Then pause every so often to reflect.

From my personal perspective, I think I mentioned it earlier, but basically having meaningful relationships. Same thing as Hani, I’ve grown to be even more empathetic. You see your struggles and you connect with other people, and you realize how small your problems can be. You hear different narratives, and try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Honestly, to me, it’s a very fortunate place for me to be in. I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

What are some of the biggest challenges that YLT has faced to date? What do you think about the future? 

Hani: It’s a very interesting question. One of the biggest challenges is going from being an initiative to being a company. Putting that proper structure into place. When you’re in the initiative stage, the concept can stay more fluid. If you want to be sustainable, you have to build some structure in, you need to make sure that you’re lean. The team, right now, is really Mays and myself and we have part-time employees. We’re trying to give them an opportunity to learn, as students, and it’s also a huge value to us, and a way to validate our business model. We’re hoping that, instead of having one writer, we can have 10-20 writers producing more content while taking back their narrative.

Mays: I would second Hani with that. Shifting mentality is tough. When we moved from a youth initiative to a company, there’s also a mentality shift that we needed to go through that we weren’t aware of at the time. We had to learn that as we went. There are so many differences between running the initiative and running the company. As with any startup in this world, we’re working on our business model, and this is a bit trickier for us because we’re mission driven. We could do many things to deliver our mission, and they don’t necessarily have to be tied to profit. At the same time, as a company, we need to sustain ourselves. It’s been interesting to work on this business model for us, definitely a big learning experience. 

Hani: Just from a legal perspective, when we were an initiative, we were operating as a non-profit organization.

What are you thinking as a business model now?

Hani: In terms of monetization, it really comes down to working with brands and offering them different verticals to amplify their message. The brands we work with have an opportunity to  sponsor our events, as well as receive branded content from ourselves and the Arab influencers we work with. 

How can people get involved? How can people support what you’re doing? 

Mays: People can get involved by just interacting with our content. If they’re interested in writing themselves, they can get in touch with us via email or DM. We’re here basically to amplify their voices. They could write about anything that interests them, anything that shares their point of view. Come to our virtual cafes, meet other people in the community. We have a great time, and people have worked it into their weekly schedules. People have already made connections, even across borders, by coming to those events.

Hani: I do want to also encourage more and more people to write. Anyone can do it. We’re here to help anyone produce content, we will work with you and edit your work to make sure it’s presentable and ready for publishing. It’s a good learning opportunity. 

At this point, we’re not looking for investors per se. We’re looking for more and more companies to start supporting Arab-based media companies. As Arabs in the diaspora, this is a space that hasn’t really been tapped into before, and if we have companies that believe in what we do, and actually engage in marketing services, and we can write about them, then it’s an added benefit for everybody. Marketing in 2021 is all about engaging in conversations and it’s not a coincidence that our name is Yalla! Let’s Talk. We are creating a conversation around your brand. That’s how we see companies helping.

This is a lot of work. How do you stay motivated at the end of the day to dive into working on this? 

Mays: I think it comes down to two things. Basically seeing the impact on people on a personal level … I see what these conversations are doing to people and how it affects their lives. That would motivate anyone, to be honest. It’s really powerful and keeps me going. I especially see that in events, that’s really fulfilling.

The other thing is having a co-founder. I don’t know how people run businesses on their own. I think having a co-founder is so important, because everyone has their high’s and low’s, and the partnership helps pick each person up during their lows.

Hani: I agree with everything Mays said, and then I would just add that it’s really important to remember your “why.” Why you started something, it really does change things. The reality is, when you’re running any type of business, you’re going to have tough days. You’ll have amazing days too, and when you do, celebrate it, but when you have days that are hard, it’s important to ask and remind yourself “why do I care about this? Why am I doing this?” 

Exactly like Mays said, having a partner is so important. One thing to keep in mind, Mays and I have very demanding full time jobs. We definitely put ourselves under a lot of stress (laughs), but when we remember why, and try to keep having fun, it makes it worth it.

What are some near and long term goals and projects? When you look 10-15 years down the line, what do you want to have accomplished? 

Hani: For the next year, I really want to continue the engagement and keep bringing people together. Whether that’s through events or social media, that’s what we hope to do. One other that we have on our mind in terms of specific goals from a business standpoint is to at least have one, large scale digital event each month, and to really build out our YouTube channel with more content, more subscribers, etc. 

Now in terms of 15 years, long term, it’s interesting because I think we could take YLT in so many different directions. What’s so important is just staying true to the mission. In the long term, we’d love to bridge the gap between Arabs in the diaspora and the Arabs in MENA.. So bring these kinds of conversations to Arabs living in the Arab world, not just the diaspora.

Mays:  I agree completely with Hani. We could also think about scaling horizontally, because we have a significant part of our audience who’s also non-Arab, but they identify with our content. The topics we talk about resonate with alot of people outside the Arab diaspora. We’ve had people like Italians, Indians, all over who message us and come to our events, and are interested in what we’re talking about. I could see us scale this to other cultures.

Could either of you envision this being a full time job?

Mays: One could dream .. I would love it if my passion project could become my full time job. Working with the community, seeing that impact every day, it’s extremely fulfilling.

Hani: Funny enough I already feel like it’s a full-time job (Mays laughs in agreement). I love being a lawyer at this stage in my life. I love working with startups. I really care about it, and I feel a sense of satisfaction when making a service with others. That said, of course I love working on Yalla! Let’s Talk. They are two different passions and I’m just doing my best to build them with an incredible co-founder in each business. 

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