Dunya, Yara, and Rama – Founders of Ektos (Young Tech Leaders of the Middle East)

A few months back, I shared a spotlight of two fellows from this past summer cohort of Young Tech Leaders of the Middle East. I can’t speak highly enough of the program, so today, I’m back to shine the light on three young women – Dunya, Rama, and Yara – and the project they worked on as a part of this program – Ektos.

To start out, can each of you just introduce yourselves?

Dunya

I’m Dunya. I was born and raised in Sulaimanyah, Kurdistan, Iraq. I’ve studied computer science, and I have a technology background from the University of Sulaimanyah. Currently, I am working as a Reporter & Features writer  intern with the American Entrepreneurship and Innovation center (AEIC)  at the American University in Sulaimanyah. I stay involved in many activities, mostly revolving around technology business leadership.

Yara

I’m Yara. I live in Lebanon, and I graduated from architecture school one year ago. I’ve always been interested in design, and wanted to pursue a career in that field. Last year, after my graduation, I did an internship at a software company as a UI/UX designer, and then I landed a job at another software company that is more focused on a dental SaaS product. 

Rama

I’m Rama. I’m Syrian, but I live in Kurdistan, Iraq. I majored in Translation. I am a translator, but I also teach at the British International School in Kurdistan. Next month, I’ll start working for a Dutch website called Fanack. I’m interested in the fields that are concerned with children’s rights, psychology, and education.

What led you to apply to participate in Young Tech Leaders of the Middle East, the program that you recently completed?

Dunya

Our country has been a war zone since I can remember. That makes it really hard to find something to help you grow your skills, and learn in a simple, straightforward environment. Fortunately, the internet can give us some access to that type of education. We can meet new people and we can widen our network. Thank God I came across this opportunity. I tried my best to do well in the application essays and they were not easy! 

I really wanted an opportunity like this though. I felt like I wanted to take my career in a leadership direction, in the world of tech. I also had positive experiences participating National Model United Nations Association. They’re great to meet more people, and to also improve my skills. That’s why I joined and I’m very happy that i got accepted. 

Yara

I applied because I’m switching careers. I want to have more experience and get to know more people in the tech field, and I’m interested in leadership and technology at the same time. I found  the program through a post on Facebook, and it caught my eye because it wasn’t only technology-focused, but it also included leadership. Like Dunya mentioned, the application process was challenging, but that made it so rewarding to be accepted, and it was really beneficial in the end. 

Rama

I found out about the program through my supervisor. I always look for new ways to learn new skills, and then find a way to connect it with my current ones. I don’t like to have a fixed job. So I tried to learn a lot of things and be more flexible. So for me, it was about widening my perspective.

Can you introduce Ektos? The project that you presented at the end of the program?

Yara

Ektos is a Greek word meaning outside because the app that we worked on, was a networking app for students to upgrade their networking skills outside of college.

Who is the target user, and how did you decide to focus on this market?

Dunya

To apply for this program, we all had to submit a project idea in our essay. Then, we had to discuss as a group and pick one topic. We settled on this idea because we all have the shared, recent experience of studying at university. As we mentioned, our target is university students, mainly in Iraq.

In the Middle East, many students at public universities are not very driven – they just show up for their course work, but they don’t make connections, and they don’t interact with others. Once they graduate, they are lost, they don’t know what to do, they don’t know where to go, they have no network, no experience. We came up with this idea to help them network, inside and outside their universities. The goal would be to create a community where students can positively influence each other to network and improve skills.

Could one of you describe the product a little bit more and its main features?

Yara

The idea is very simple. I like that. It was very simple at the beginning, because it focused on networking, and not on other skills, like other apps that students use. 

The main features are events, and groups. Each student can create events and groups, and share those with other people. When a user first signs up on the app, they enter their areas of interest. So it matches them with events that they would be interested in. Based on feedback we received during the program’s workshop day, we added a mentorship feature that is mentorship, for alumni to sign up on the app as mentors that can answer questions from current students.

During the program, did you talk about business models? How do you envision this app sustaining itself financially?

Rama

We covered this a bit at the end, but we wanted our product to be mostly student-focused. To be honest, I don’t think students here are financially ready to Invest in the app. One possibility for revenue though, would be partnering with places that students visit to study, like cafes. It would be tough to make money off students though. 

I interviewed a student from the business department, and he suggested that, in the future, this could be a platform for connecting ambitious students, who have projects in mind, with potential investors.

Which one of you submitted the idea? 

Dunya

It was me. I’d already been working on this idea, and I had done some research on the market in my area. So I was one step ahead. Rama and Yara added so much to this idea. The idea went from simple to sophisticated. They have added so many features to it.

Many other countries, but especially in Canada, USA, and Europe, universities obligate the students to do extracurricular activities to widen their vision. Here, universities don’t push you to be extra active. I think that’s one of the main differences between the Middle East and the universities in America and Europe. We do have some activities here, but they are not professionally led in an organized manner. Most of them are driven in the direction of politics, they give you what you want in order for you to support their party. We are just young people who want to learn and improve ourselves.

For Yara and Rama, what was it about this idea that spoke to you? 

Rama

I studied at the same university as Dunya. Unfortunately, the country is sinking in corruption and public university students are struggling. I feel like my experience at university was so frustrating. There were things that could have made it more meaningful. We had students with great ideas who tried to start clubs and events, but these efforts were scattered. The idea of the app was to bring these efforts together, and make them more structured. Once a culture gets rolling around these ideas, more and more students will want to emulate them. We don’t want to be the ones to organize everything, we want students with great ideas to reach more people and be more effective. This will make their experience at university more meaningful.

Yara

I was in a private university, but I knew a lot of people in public universities. I saw the gap between them. For example, my friend, he is from the same university as me and he founded a club and managed the club on his own, but the university doesn’t really help. Even our private university doesn’t really help students to create their clubs and to have an interactive role and university.

What role did each of you play? How were the responsibilities divided up? 

Yara

We did a lot of brainstorming together. In each meeting, every team member worked on something and then we assigned responsibilities at the end of the meeting. And mainly I was responsible for the design core of the app. 

Rama

We always ended up with a lot of ideas like different crazy ideas and then we would meet with our mentor Areesha Banglani and she would ask us logical questions that helped us actually put ideas together into something viable.

Dunya

I wished that the program was longer than one month. There was so much we could do, so it was a busy month, for sure. Most of it was brainstorming, learning new things, getting to know each other, and trying to bring up all these different ideas together. 

Are you going to keep working on this? Is the project gonna have a life after the program?

Dunya

I would definitely say yes. I think this project can move forward and it can be expanded more than what we already have. We can add so many other features. 

What are some of the major things that you learned from this program? How do you think that it will help advance your career?

Rama

For me it was the Human Centered Design topic. I really love the way one of the mentors described it as a mindset, which means you can really apply it to almost everything. Like if I am designing my lessons, if I have a humanitarian project, it really can be applied to everything. I also expanded my network, which was amazing. 

Dunya

I agree. The Human Centered Design was really great. It was really beneficial both when working with technology and just living your life personally. It has impacted me in my daily routine. It was really beneficial. The sessions we had were very structured, smart and organized. The mentors were really helpful, especially for me to have a mentor based in another country. That was an eye opener, and definitely my network has gotten better.

Yara

In addition to the Human Centered Design workshop, I really liked the session where we discussed giving and receiving feedback. As the only designer in my team, I like to give and receive feedback a lot, even from other team members, such as developers and project managers. I am meeting with my mentor every two weeks, and we are discussing goals and portfolio reviews.

What are some of your goals for the next year? If you look at yourself in 10 or 15 years, where would you hope to be?

Yara

I have a goal to grow my freelance career next to my full time job and build a personal brand in the design field. 

15 years from now, I’m really not sure!

Rama

I hope that I will be able to finally work on my humanitarian project. I am trying to design a project that teaches refugee children skills of emotional social learning, emotional regulation, and technology leadership. I noticed in Iraq, that even if a workshop wants to improve the well-being of children, they always target parents, or teachers, but they never actually help children learn these skills explicitly.

Dunya

A personal goal I have for the next year is to bring this project into life, and let people know what we are doing. 

Where do I see myself in 15 years? I hope to stay just as driven and enthusiastic to learn and improve myself. I hope to get my PhD and widen this project. I don’t want this project to only be in this city. I wanted the whole Middle East to know about this. 

Is there anything else that any of you wanted to share?

Rama

I would say that we really need more programs like this Young Tech Leaders of the Middle East, and I already asked my mentor to help me find similar programs. Other programs on similar subjects here are usually just someone reading slides, but this workshop was very practical, we all learned a lot. We met a lot of interesting people that we aspire to be like. I hope that there will be more professional programs that target people from the Middle East.

Dunya

University students really need help. They need guidance, especially in my area. All the university students in every university deserve the opportunity to explore themselves through activities outside the classroom. The more they have exposure to these activities, the better they can determine where to go with their career. 

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