Bridging the Talent Gap Between Silicon Valley and East Africa Through UX
Shipra Kayan’s company Siriforce is bringing QA careers to college-educated refugees. She wants to see more companies like it.
Shipra Kayan is an entrepreneur who never exactly sought out entrepreneurship.
Now a Product Evangelist for Miro, she also spent several years leading design and UX at companies like Upwork—an organization that helps professionals connect with freelancers.
Shipra joined the board of the African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC) in 2018. During her work with the AEC, she gained a more intimate understanding of refugee camps, and spent a year investigating how remote work could offer opportunities to people who have been displaced.
Shipra then founded Siriforce, a QA services startup that bridges the talent and opportunity gap between Silicon Valley and East Africa.
We sat down with Shipra to understand how she found herself in entrepreneurism, how Siriforces has changed the lives of her employees, and where she sees Silicon Valley going next.
dscout: Can you walk me through some of the early stages of Siriforce? How did East Africa become a place for you to identify this great talent and great knowledge that was being underutilized?
Shipra: I joined Upwork in 2010. Early in my career, I was drawn to the idea of flattening the world. I was an immigrant myself, and I knew that I could easily still be in Thailand or in India and not get the opportunities that I was getting to do here in Silicon Valley.
So the knowledge that talent is everywhere but jobs are not, that's what drew me to Upwork. I was there for nine years. It was a big part of my personal mission to democratize work.
Through my time at Upwork, I started understanding when and how companies decided to contract tasks out. I understood that they don't have the time to nurture talent when they're contracting.
They just want the best output as quickly as possible. So the differences between contracting something out versus hiring in-house, that was really key knowledge.
With Siriforce, I've been very deliberate. We're not going to scale fast. We're going to move very slow. We're going to be deliberate. For me, this is serious. It's people I care about. We are profitable, completely self-funded, and primarily mission-driven not profit-driven.
Was there a marker moment or a conversation you had where you realized, ‘I want to do Siriforce’ or something like it?
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur or do anything related to social work. I cared, but I didn't think I would be the one doing it. So my entire time at Upwork, I was just happy to be there to support this organization.
I left Upwork and at the same time, took on a board seat at this organization called African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC). A few years ago, I took a sabbatical from Upwork and spent three months in Rwanda.
I was running a tech incubator for AEC in Kigali. My husband's mom is Kenyan. So we have connections to East Africa. We go back there often. I had spent time in Rwanda running the tech incubator, but never interacted with refugees.
The moment that this idea really was sparked was when I joined the board of AEC and went on a board retreat. AEC supports entrepreneurs, and we had started supporting entrepreneurs in refugee camps.
If you haven't been to a camp, you’d probably think like I did that it was full of people in acute situations who were running away and needed basics. Food, health, shelter. That was my perspective of refugee camps. It wasn't a place of commerce.
We went to Kakuma in northern Kenya to see what the operations were like. And when I was there, all of our staff were refugees from the camp. The camp had been around for 20 years, and 100,00 people were living there.
It was exactly like the one of the villages in Rajasthan, which is my native place. It's a village with some main streets with shops. There's commerce, there's a bank, there's a gas station. It's a town.
Many of the folks have gone to college and then came to the camp. So there's a lot of really educated folks with literally zero job opportunities. The only thing they can do is start a business, which is usually a grocery store or a farm or something like that.
How visiting refugee camps sparked a study—and an idea
When I was there and I was hanging out with our staff at the camp, it was just this realization moment of, why aren't they on Upwork? I took that question of why aren't they on Upwork and turned it into a year-long research project.
I was talking to one displaced person a week, trying to see if I can get them to succeed on Upwork.
After a year I realized, no I can't. Perhaps the way to start something would be for me to start an agency and leverage my reputation to kickstart something here, some way to get jobs to the region.
Bridging the gap between refugees’ skills and Silicon Valley’s needs
There's this talent pool of people who are kind of stuck in a place where they can't use that talent. Ideally in my mind, they would just go on a platform like Upwork and get hired by somebody in the west.
Going back to what I knew from my days at Upwork, people want to hire someone that's done it before, when they're contracting it out. A lot of the organizations in the development space that I was also speaking to were trying to improve the livelihoods of refugees. They were coming from development, and they were hoping that somebody in an organization would hire a refugee and support them and coach them and mentor them.
But that doesn't happen if you are a mid-level manager in an organization. It's easier to donate to a charity than to hire an entry-level remote contractor and spend hours training them.
The gap was that these folks had never set foot in an office, much less in a Western context. While they had critical thinking skills, they didn't kind of really understand how workplaces work, how work gets done. So that was the disconnect there.
My process to design Siriforce was in some ways the opposite of the design process. I started with a “product”, a set of people that I knew were talented, and instead of looking for a problem to solve on the demand end, I started with the supply. This is the talent that I have. What is the demand that we can generate for this talent?
I considered analytics and machine learning that would require a couple of years of in-depth training. They would still be in a place where they have book knowledge, but not real-world knowledge because they lack those conversations about how an office works.
QA jumped out as I was just brainstorming and mind mapping as a skillset where I have special interest as a designer. I did a lot of QA. I loved working with QA people.
It's also easy enough to grasp for someone that's a good entry-level job into tech. So that's how I landed on QA and it was from there on, it was an experiment to see if you can get some people interested and go from there.
Launching Siriforces for QA help and developing talent
I think it was week three or week four into working with our first customer when I dropped in to a zoom call between the head of engineering and Siriforce’s QA lead. Here is this white engineering manager from the midwest troubleshooting with a Burundian woman that's logging in from Rwanda.
She was so knowledgeable about the product, and he was obviously looking to her as the expert. That moment of just slipping into that Zoom call and seeing that interaction was the moment I knew Siriforce was going to work.
To see those unlikely bridges being built, a woman in a hijab explaining bugs to a Silicon Valley engineer, those are the connections that our world needs to build empathy for each other. It was a life-changing moment.
You have a distributed team. Talk me through what Siriforce is like today. What are you still learning now having been almost two years into it? What are some of the goals and what's next for Siriforce?
The way the company works, we're fully remote. We're about eight people now. We started as a five person team. We just added a few members, and all our work is in Google Drive. We work in Slack. So every time we get a customer, we create a shared channel, a shared folder.
We have a principle of no private channels. So all conversations are public. Of course there are shared channels with the customers, but all of our work is about as public as possible.
We work in pairs with customers. It is a way to not feel isolated. Part of that is, there's always one lead and somebody that's an associate who is learning and growing.
Another reason we work in pairs is because of the locations folks are in. For instance when Beirut had that horrendous blast, they didn't have internet for a few days. We want to be able to provide our clients with continuous service.
When you slip back into the Miro world, what’s your approach to management or mentorship? How has Siriforce impacted your work outside of Siriforce?
I think my work and network in tech allowed me to be the bridge. But it was also very frustrating because whenever I spoke with people about Siriforce, the conversation always veered off to ‘How do we scale?’ And it was always scale, scale, scale.
And with Siriforce, I've been very deliberate. We're not going to scale fast. We're going to move very slow. We're going to be deliberate. For me, this is serious. It's people I care about. We are profitable, completely self-funded, and primarily mission-driven not profit-driven.
How Siriforce has changed her views of Silicon Valley
Over the last 10 years, I feel like Silicon Valley has been building for Silicon Valley. We're building products for each other and trying to sell them to each other.
I do think that the proverbial bubble is not great. We are very revenue focused here, profit at all costs for growth. In doing so, perhaps we're losing touch with people who are not in Silicon Valley. What do people outside our bubble need? What does the world need? The next set of companies that succeed will be the ones that solve human problems, sustainability being one of them.
Success stories at Siriforce
We have a couple stories of team members who—because of their work with Siriforce—were actually able to relocate. We had one team member able to move from Rwanda back to Burundi, where her family is.
She was in Rwanda as an economic refugee, but because this job can be done from anywhere, she decided she'd rather spend the time with her siblings and her parents and she's back in Burundi and just thrilled of course.
We have another team member that moved from Lebanon to Turkey. Lebanon is a very hard place to be right now. It's better than Syria, but it's a very hard place. And for her to be able to move—she did this all by herself, she orchestrated everything—and still keep a stable job, that was incredible.
At least one person on the team is not a refugee anymore because of Siriforce. That’s honestly perhaps the goal. Can we reduce the number of refugees?
Addressing the growing trend of displacement and refugees
The number of refugees is going to keep increasing, especially with climate change, we are going to see more displacement. We need people to start thinking about how to solve for this mass displacement that is coming upon us. Our current system of refugees spilling into hostile neighboring countries that don’t allow them opportunities to integrate and find employment—it is not sustainable.
The reason I like talking about Siriforce is because I want to inspire other people to do what I'm doing. Start a company, hack your reputation to bridge a gap. If you have an idea that will make the world more even, just do it—don’t wait for the right time.
I hope to run Siriforce full time at some point, and build a company that will last generations. If anyone wants to try starting an agency like this, I'm more than happy to give advice and support. I just want to inspire a thousand Siriforces.
Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.
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