Meet the Somali Swede who uses tech events to foster more diverse startups
- 04 April 2019
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Orten.io is a Swedish networking and talent development organization focusing on diversity and tech. It takes tech events to the parts of Sweden populated by minority communities to build a more diverse startup scene in the country.
It is open to all, but founder Zakaria Hersi says that they “focus mostly on women and people with immigrant backgrounds, 18–35 years old.” Zakaria is a Swede with Somali heritage, and he started Orten.io in 2016 following his experiences and those of his immigrant friends in the search for work within the Swedish job market.
“Orten.io was created so no other person of colour, migrant, or female has to go through what I went through,” he told My Salaam.
Sweden, and especially the capital, Stockholm, has a vibrant and thriving tech startup industry. “But those who control these companies or the wealth are usually middle-aged men who are from a tightknit network,” said Zakaria. “I see lack of diversity among management, founders and at board levels.”
He says there are many factors that have created this situation, and those who are now successful usually had access to the right networks, knowledge and opportunities. “Most of the tech founders went to the same exclusive university and get supported by the successful alumni. … We as immigrants don’t have this network and can’t tap family or parents who work in banks or larger companies to help us get internships.”
He told us of two of his friends, a Palestinian and an Iraqi, each with two advanced degrees and a Mensa membership, who just could not find jobs. Instead, they started a business together to commercialise the ideas of another friend, of Iraqi heritage, on real-time data compression. It was unsuccessful, but it gave Zakaria a taste for entrepreneurship.
He moved to East Africa, and after an internship, he started a router distributorship business. Within a year, his revenues reached SEK 5.1 million ($550,000). He sold the business and returned to Sweden in 2011 with the intention of finding a normal 9-to-5 job after two years of slogging in his own company.
About 300 applications and four months later, he had had no success, so he tried a different approach. He changed his email address from Zakaria Hersi Abdulkadir to Sakarias Hersi, as Abdulkadir sounds very Muslim, Sakarias is a common Finnish name (and therefore could be Nordic), and Hersi sounded neutral enough. When he submitted the same applications with the new name, positive responses started pouring in. This proved to him that there is a structural problem within Swedish job market that alienates certain sections of Swedish society.
With Orten.io, Zakaria hopes to alleviate the problem of discrimination and lack of opportunities for minorities. “We first of all create events [where] only women or people from minority groups can speak. Speakers share their personal journeys to success.”
In addition, under the Orten Academy, a frontend development bootcamp, selected candidates who show talent are trained for three to four months on a part-time basis, equipping them with the skills to get an internship or a job once they graduate.
“The biggest issue we are trying to solve is the shortage of 70,000 developers in Sweden in the coming three years,” said Zakaria. “At the same time, we are also tackling the issue of unemployment among immigrants, who form 60 per cent of the unemployed. There is huge potential to provide Sweden with a talented diverse developer workforce.”
Miski Ahmed, 25, is one of the people who have benefitted from Orten.io’s outreach programme. She applied to and got a spot at Orten Academy in 2017. “The whole process and the education were very rewarding. I learned a lot, made friends who became like family, got to learn how to make contacts in the IT industry and somehow break my own barrier, which was to dare to bet and not limit myself. So it was both professional and personal development for me at Orten.io and at the academy.”
The first course at their Academy had over 200 applications, of whom 10 were placed. About 80 percent of their graduates found placements. This autumn, they will offer 20 seats, and they plan to offer more each time.
Miski said, “Today I work at a web agency called Web Tech Media Group, which I love. I admire my fine colleagues: all thanks to this initiative that Zakaria started.”
(Writing by Susan Muthalaly; Editing by Seban Scaria firstname.lastname@example.org)
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