Meet The PE Class Of 2018: Aline Sara, Founder and CEO of NaTakallam
The 2018 PE Intensive, taking place April 13 & 14, brings together the the top 200 female founders from the PE Venture Competition for hands-on workshops and mentorship in New York City. Among the 200 are 10 finalists who have been given the additional opportunity to participate in the pitch competition on Saturday, April 14 for a chance to receive a $10,000 grant and a spot in a five-week accelerator program hosted at Rent the Runway’s headquarters.
In the week leading up to #PEIntensive18, we’re featuring the 10 pre-selected finalists (two additional wildcard companies to be chosen during the Intensive will also present at the live pitch competition) and introducing them and their companies to our PE Community. Visit our 2018 PE Intensive website to meet the entire #PEClassOf2018, join our mailing list for Intensive updates, and follow Intensive highlights and behind-the-scenes with hashtag #PEIntensive18.
Aline Sara is Founder and CEO of NaTakallam, which gives refugees an income by connecting them to language teaching and translation opportunities online. NaTakallam is a social venture that connects Arabic learners around the world with displaced persons/refugees for language practice via Skype and has partnered with NGOs and companies to hire refugees to do translation work. In addition to providing displaced people with a viable and rewarding livelihood opportunity, NaTakallam helps foster intercultural exchange and raise awareness around the refugee crisis and the daily challenges of fleeing conflict zones.
Aline sat down with Barika Edwards, Co-Founder and CEO of OweYaa and a PE Class of 2016 Finalist, to chat about social entrepreneurship, supporting refugees in the current political climate, and what she’s most looking forward to at #PEIntensive18.
Photo courtesy NaTakallam
Barika Edwards: I haven’t seen you since we we competed in the ELLE Impact Awards! I remember you traveled to Paris for the final pitch competition, and you travel back and forth from France quite a bit. How do you balance travelling with running your company?
Aline Sara: At NaTakallam, we work with refugees who are, for the most part, not based in the U.S. (mostly in Europe and the Middle East). We have an office in Paris, and our main hub is in Beirut, so travel is part of our [company culture].
I actually love travelling! I go back to the Middle East on a regular basis (that’s where I’m from originally), so I’m used to being all over the place. I’ve always moved around a lot: my background is in humanitarian field work, and I’ve worked as a journalist in the field, so I’ve worked in a number of countries, including Turkey, Cote D’IVoire and Haiti.
BE: How large is the NaTakallam team now?
AS: We’re about 5 full-time staff, four part-time staff, and four amazing interns spread across three offices. In New York City, we’re based at WeWork through Columbia University Startup Lab, which is heavily subsidized, and then in Paris we are at a large startup campus, which is partially subsidized by the French government. France wants to make Paris a major startup hub and trying to leverage tech and innovation, so we applied and were able to get in at a discounted rate.
The majority of our team works remotely, so we don’t really have “headquarters.” Just a desk or two at these co-working spaces.
BE: Oh, wow! That’s a lot of growth since last year!
AS: Yes! and we’re quite spread out. Right now staff operate as independent contractors, but we’re looking to get to the next step where we can provide payroll and benefits for the team.
BE: We’re in that stage right now—for the past two months we’ve really been ramping up our HR.
So, you probably get this next question a lot: what does NaTakallam mean?
AS: It literally means “we speak” in Arabic. The name is a reflection of the fact that NaTakallam’s original idea is conversation exchange for people who want to practice conversational Arabic.
Arabic is a very complex language. People usually learn a formal, almost “Shakespearean” version of Arabic when they take language classes, but when you want to speak with people on a day-to-day basis, you need to know conversational Arabic, which can vary based on the region. Conversational Arabic in Morocco is very different from conversational Arabic in Syria, for example.
When we started, we were a platform for people who wanted to practice their conversational Arabic. The vast majority of refugees from places like Syria (there are about 5 million refugees living outside of Syria today), are stuck “in limbo” in counties where they will never gain the refugee status that gives them the legal right to work. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees stuck in refugee camps. The idea of NaTakallam is that by leveraging refugees’ native language skill and the remote gig economy, we can provide them an income opportunity that also allows them to share their language and culture.
There are many highly educated refugees. People tend to assume that refugees are poor, uneducated people, but if anything they are not only highly educated, but also super hardworking and resilient. So part of what we’re trying to do is change the narrative around refugees and give people the opportunity to directly connect with refugees instead of via the media or politics.
Photo courtesy NaTakallam
BE: Changing narratives around groups of people is definitely something our startups have in common. There are a lot of assumptions about our target groups—yours being refugees, mine being veterans/military spouses. Do you feel like you miss opportunities on customers, partnerships or funding because of the misunderstandings other people have about refugees?
AS: The group of people we’re aiming to support is a population that some groups of people see in a terrible light, which has definitely created some challenges. Unfortunately in today’s political climate here in the U.S., refugees have certain labels, specifically refugees from the Middle East. I can’t say for sure that we’ve missed out of funding because of that, but I do realize that we’re not pitching funding that’s completely neutral. Most of our funding has tended to come out of the United Nations or World Bank—I tend to pitch for funding that I know I have a chance of getting.
BE: We’re both social entrepreneurs, and we face unique challenges. What do you think are the major challenges facing social entrepreneurs today, and how are you working towards alleviating the challenges we face?
AS: Yes, it’s very challenging to be a social entrepreneur. I remember reading an article on the two types of work that are likely to lead to burnout: one was founding a startup, and the other was humanitarian work!
At NaTakallam, we’re improving people’s lives on an individual level, and there are people relying on the company for their survival. It’s really hard for me to manage that I’m dealing with people who have suffered tremendous loss: they’ve been tortured, lost their families, and now they’re in this limbo where they may not be able to get any work to support themselves. And while I’m thinking about the impact on people’s lives, at the same time I’m thinking about the pressures of running a business. It can get overwhelming. It’s important to remember that I can’t do everything and can’t save everyone—that’s the only way I prevent my own burnout.
On the other side of that, it’s so fulfilling when someone tells me that I am improving their lives and giving them hope. That is everything to me.
On that note, what inspired you to start your business, Barika?
BE: I’ve been working in social entrepreneurship and nonprofits, and one of the biggest things that really drives me is that there are a lot of people who have dreams they want to achieve and things they want to accomplish, but not everybody can follow the linear path of going to college, getting their dream job—not everybody has that opportunity.
An option for a lot of people from low- and middle-income families is to go into the military, but when they come home, they are ostracized and left out of the larger community. They still have those dreams of accomplish certain things in life, but they haven’t solved the initial problem of not having the network or connections that can help them to get the job they want. My passion is bridging the economic and cultural gap between veterans and the community.
AS: It is so important to connect people to community.
BE: It is! And speaking of community, what about the PE Intensive are you looking forward to most?
AS: I have to say that i was really impressed by the variety and choices of the workshops. There are some areas that I definitely struggle with [business-wise], and I’m so happy about being in a space where i can explore those topics and really capitalize on being around all the mentors and workshop leaders that will be at PE this weekend.