Majd Zkiyah, Founder of Syrpronet

Majd Zkiyah is a man on a mission. Having studied and worked in three different countries, and left his homeland of Syria at 17, he knows firsthand the challenges of building a career in societies where most people equate “Syrian” with a word like “victim.”

Majd’s mission is to change that perception, and lift up the image of skilled, qualified, professional Syrians across the globe. He launched Syrpronet, a global network for Syrian professionals, in September 2019 to promote this vision.

Majd has a full-time role as an engineering project manager-Strategy and Conflicts in Infrastructures, does freelance strategy and business, Engineering and Management consulting, trades as a steel brokerage, all on top of Syrpronet – his passion project. Like I said, he’s a man on a mission, and nothing, including a couple extra hours of sleep, can hold him from pursuing that mission at 110%. I had a great time speaking with Majd, learning about Syrpronet, and discovering the unique mentality and perspective that’s led him to launch it. I hope you enjoy our interview!

Can you start by introducing yourself and your background?

I’m Majd Zkiyah. I’m 28 years old and currently based in the Netherlands. I’m originally from Syria, but I’ve spent almost half my life – since the age of 17- outside of Syria. I completed my studies in Civil Engineering and Project Management in three universities, across Egypt, Russia, and Germany. Doing this double major took a while, but I finished my Bachelors degrees in 2017, the year I came to the Netherlands. That year, I started my Masters in Delft in Engineering Project Management.

In addition to your studies, can you tell me a bit more about your professional career? 

I started my career as a junior project manager, working part-time on top of my studies. It was the same year I started my Masters, so this was quite a busy period for me. This project manager position was in infrastructure, working on pipelines for onshore-offshore projects. I’m still working in that domain, now as a strategic specialist. That is my full time job. I also recently launched my own business, ZKYAH Consulting, where I take on projects mainly in Engineering and Management. On my own, I also trade as a steel brokerage, acting as a link between steel producers and their clients. On top of it all, I launched Syrpronet, which we’ll talk about in a bit. Sometimes it feels like too many, too many, too many things. We call them with too many watermelons in one hand. This comes with positives and negatives.

How many hours do you spend per week on each project that you’re working on? How do you find time to work on them all?

Everybody that knows me, knows that I don’t sleep that much. There’s just not enough time for that! Evenings and weekends are for my business and for the network (Syrpronet). The weekdays are for my full time job. I typically spend 40 hours (or more) each week on my full-time role, but when it comes to Syrpronet, I don’t even count the hours. I think I normally sleep about four hours each night. Sometimes I’ll get up to six (laughs).

Tell me more about Syrpronet. How did the idea come to you?

The network has multiple stories. It’s not only a network, it’s not only a club.

I’ve seen too many stereotypes internationally of the image of Syrian professionals, and of Syria in general. Unfortunately, these images inform the thinking at most organizations and big companies, which leads to a victimization of Syrian professionals looking for jobs. They are viewed as ‘not qualified’ and skilled professionals ready and able to contribute to the organization. Obviously, this can really undercut and undermine all the work that I, and so many others have done to become experts in our professional domains.

This led to the idea for Syrpronet – why not create a club of elite Syrian professional profiles to showcase our community’s talent, and nurture it? I took the idea to some people I trust, and explained my vision for it. They were supportive, and we started doing some background research. We found that no initiative like this exists. So I got to work, doing all the legal registration, and building connections with the people that would become our first members. After about a year of preparation behind the scenes, I announced the initiative on social media and started with a very close circle (5, 6, or 7 people, maximum). Now the network consists of 252 elite, professional profiles in 24 countries across the globe.

I’m 100% for changing the impression and image that the West has of the Arab world, and Syrians have especially suffered from those negative stereotypes in recent years. What are some of the unique elements to this initiative that sets it apart from other professional associations?

I’ve seen too many initiatives launch, and then immediately feel that they need funds to keep running. Creating this reliance on funding, however, can make the organization too fragile when crises occur. When COVID hit, for example, the funds dried up, and many of these kinds of initiatives just died away. At the same time, Syrpronet thrived, because we were not dependent on any entity. We were independent, with no funds, no external influences, no political or religious directions, no social activities, and no financial exchanges inside and outside the network. We only “trade” in professional expertise and knowledge.

Can you tell me more about the activities and events that the network has hosted for its members? 

I started the network in December 2019, about three months before COVID hit. We were able to hold six events focused on career and skill development, before the pandemic started. We’ve kept a similar structure since those first events – each department has a board manager, and we schedule events for each discipline or department that we have in the network.

Once COVID hit, we had to move all our events to virtual webinars, but the goal remained skill development. For example, we did training on software programming languages, leadership skills, or how to launch a new company. We’ve hosted multidisciplinary events, only focusing on improvement and growth. And sometimes our events are public. And we kind of discuss giving a dialogue over a specific topic. As soon as COVID restrictions decrease, we want to host a big opening event in Amsterdam for our network, where we invite all of our ambassadors from across the world. 

Since you launched the network, Is there one event, or moment that stands out to you as the thing you’re most proud of? 

There are so many moments, but one that stands out is a great example of how the network added value for its members. With COVID’s impact on hiring, many companies dropped internship programs, leaving less open intern positions for the same number of applicants. A few members told me that they had specifically lost an internship after COVID hit, that they had previously been accepted to. We were able to create an internship program for them within our network, and register it for credit with their university. We really saved the day!

Today (the day the interview was conducted) also marks a really important milestone – we launched our new website today, which is the result of over 600 hours of work. Seeing the beautifully designed pages, with pictures and profiles of hundreds of elite Syrian professionals, that just swells me with honor. It’s living proof that other people care about the vision and mission of the network. Slowly, but surely, I do believe that we’re changing the image of Syrian professionals for the better.

What is the structure of the group? How do you make sure that things run smoothly, and that you can execute on your goals? 

In my opinion, every culture has its own specific way of communicating. I’ve studied in three different countries and three different cultures. Launching a network of entirely Syrians requires combining the Western business culture, as well as communicating to the Syrian mindset. That mindset, in my opinion, defines itself by not being managed, or not being controlled. So I take a very flexible approach – I’m not asking people to do something. The managers of each department – they are not asking their teams to do anything. Everything runs on individual initiative. We just tell our professionals- this group is a green field for you. Go and do whatever you want, whatever you think will be fruitful for yourself and for others. The professionals themselves get motivated, and they use the network to launch their own projects.

The network doesn’t need financial income to sustain itself. Think about it this way – instead of going to the supermarket and buying a bottle of milk with money, I go to the owner of the supermarket, and I ask them, do you need any professional support? Do you need someone to work on your financials, or your branding? I will do that for you, in return for this bottle of milk.

We trade experience and support with each other. This may seem like a surprising method of “sustainability,” but it’s worked thus far. We’ve built everything you see today with 0 financial funding. For example, we have developers inside our network that built our website. What do they gain from this? They establish new contacts, they build their network, and they build their portfolio. We just launched the first Syrian business magazine, designed by Syrian graphic designers in our network. That’s another public example where these skilled professionals can display their work. Personally, I launched my own company with experience in Engineering and Management, but none in marketing. I worked with marketing advisors in our network to improve my marketing, and in return I’ve helped them with management strategy, or networking. We look for “win-win” connections, where every party benefits.

There’s no beating around the bush that the Syrian diaspora has quite a disparate range of opinions, perspectives, and connections to Syria itself. How do you handle this diversity inside a single organization? 

For one thing, we have no no projects happening on the ground in Syria, and we have no future intentions to. That would be against the official registration for us here in Europe and I will never mess with such rules. In general, I’m very careful to keep the right atmosphere for everybody in the network by not taking on any projects that don’t have the group’s full backing. As a rule, we don’t want the network to be involved in any political directions. I have refused to do interviews with organizations that have a political agenda, because I respect the people within the network all have their own opinions and I can’t speak on their behalf. The network is based on the transparency and trust between us. We do have professionals in Syria, but they’re not doing any projects. 

This all requires a sensitive balance – a very tiny mistakes can ruin all of this. At the end of the day, this network’s value comes from its professionals, the internal resources. Taking on more projects is much less important to me than ensuring that all members are happy. I am not their manager. I didn’t hire them, and they don’t work for me. This is for everybody.

Can you tell me a bit more about how the network supports company founders and entrepreneurs? 

My brother and I have both started (separate) business that we’re supported by the network. One huge benefit is simply the exposure that we can offer new businesses. We have built a large following online of engaged Syrians, interested in supporting other Syrians. This is a great community for businesses to tap into. Beyond that, we have folks in the network who have experience with starting new businesses. They know the right processes to follow, how to think about a business model, how to do a SWOT analysis, how to raise money from investors, how to write a financial plan, etc. New founders can benefit from this type of strategic guidance.  

As a general rule though, we don’t want to be too “in your face” about the network’s involvement with the launch of new businesses. The entrepeneurs are the ones driving these projects forward. We’re just here to support them. 

If a Syrian anywhere in the world reads this interview, and they’re interested in becoming a part of the network, what should they do?

We have several procedures for becoming a professional advisor within the network. We have junior advisors, who are mostly students that want to gain experience in a specific domain. Then, we have senior advisors who are actually working in those domains, and can provide advice and mentorship to the juniors. 

We have a certain set of criteria for people to join. For completely new applicants, we have three interviews – the first one with our internal “HR” department, then with someone in the specific department that the person is interested in, then a quick one with me just to get to know them. As I mentioned before, we try to be very intentional about our advisor community. The other approach is via internal recommendation – if someone inside the network refers you, and can vouch for you, then I do a quick call with you, and the person who recommended you. We trust our advisors to recommend the right people. 

It’s really important that, however someone learns about the network, that they understand what exactly it is (and isn’t) before they join. This network is strictly professional, and about improving the professional image of Syrians across the world. We need every new advisor to buy into that goal, support it, and stick to it within the network.

You talked earlier about how many hours you work each day. How do you stay motivated to work so hard?

This is a very important question. Honestly, one thing that’s motivated me is the number of people that didn’t believe in the idea of this network. I want to prove them wrong. Don’t misundertand, I love getting compliments, or hearing that I’m generating a positive impact for my community, but I also love proving people wrong. 

When it comes to time management, I don’t like to waste time on any other stuff. I don’t have social media, except for Linkedin. I just don’t see them creating value for me. As we talked about, I don’t sleep too much – only a few hours each night. With 19 hours or so each day to work, you can accomplish alot. I dedicate 8 hours to my full time job, but then I still have so many more to invest in the network, invest in my own company, and invest in meeting new people.

Where do you see the network in 10 years?

I hope we’ll have another interview in 10 years to talk about how this all plays out. Hopefully, we’ll be talking about megaprojects completed by the network. 

I envision us growing into a large, worldwide organization that provides opportunities for Syrian professionals. I want a Syrian to be in any large city in the world and know that they have a group standing behind them, ready to support them in their professional endeavors. I know too many people right now who are working in jobs that they are extremely overqualified for. I want these people to get what they deserve, and not accept less just because of others’ perception of their country of origin, I think it’s my duty to find the solution for that, to provide such an opportunity for them.

I really wish you all the best in these goals, and I couldn’t agree with you more. There are too many people from the Middle East, and other parts of the world, that have to accept jobs that they’re overqualified for, and it’s a waste of talent. It’s a waste of expertise.

I enjoy these challenges. I relish in them. Like a F1 race, If there are no road curves, then you won’t enjoy the champagne of winning.

That’s quite a great attitude to have. It’s a tough one, but I like it. 

It is a tough one. It is also realistic. That’s the world that we live in, and the struggles are only increasing. If you’re not prepared, and not ready to deal with those struggles, you’ll fall behind. Some people have no experience coping with crisis, and when crisis hits, they freeze. The people that have experienced crisis all their lives are the ones that are ready to survive and thrive in those environments. It’s almost second nature to them. I call it the marshmallow concept. If you are biting stones your whole life, and someone comes and feeds you a marshmallow, you probably won’t even notice you’re chewing anything at all. Dealing with constant crisis can make people so resilient, that when they face problems in a more stable environment, it should just feel like eating a marshmallow.

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