Founder and CEO | Chatterbox
What is Chatterbox?
Chatterbox is an online and in-person language tutoring service, powered by displaced people. We train and employ refugees and internally displaced people to teach their native languages in the booming language learning industry where they are able to earn a living and improve their employability. At the same time, we are able to offer really interesting language learning services that help language learners overcome their biggest challenge, which is maintaining motivation. Our social impact and profits are positively aligned – people learning with Chatterbox learn as well as they do because our tutors are highly educated and engaging educational professionals who sadly would otherwise be unemployed because of chronic barriers to refugees finding employment where they’re based. At the same time, teaching provides a way for refugees, skilled refugees in particular, to get back into work that they find meaningful and can help them springboard into other opportunities.
What made you want to become a social entrepreneur?
I wanted to become a social entrepreneur because I wasn’t happy with how the world was organised and wanted to be a part of creating positive change in the system. Social entrepreneurship sounded like an exciting field to become an activist in for many reasons –it’s got the attention of policymakers and also the business world. I think it’s a really interesting model for sustainable social impact and there are a lot of success stories where profits and purpose have been positively aligned. I had just graduated from a degree in Economics when I started out as a social entrepreneur which influenced this decision as well.
How did you come up with the idea for Chatterbox?
I come from a refugee background - my close family and much of my extended family are refugees from Afghanistan, and I was too. I saw first-hand how much untapped talent there is in the refugee community – my family members are doctors, dentists, lawyers, lecturers who were unemployed and shouldn’t have been. I want Chatterbox to become the preferred home of refugee talent.
What made you want to work in the refugee space?
I wanted to work in the refugee space because I was a refugee, so it’s a problem that I understand relatively well. I think when people want to start social enterprises or initiatives of their own, they should try to tackle the problems they understand the best because understanding a problem is the first and most important step towards developing a solution to it. That is not to say that people who aren’t personally impacted by a social issue can’t have a voice in developing solutions – they should simply try as far as possible to work in close collaboration with the people who are impacted to gain crucial insights and perspectives. When I started working in the refugee space, it was on a programme called Year Here, which is a postgraduate programme in innovation and social entrepreneurship here in London. At the end of that programme we are encouraged to start our own social ventures. I took a trip to Calais to investigate the refugee situation in Europe and found that most of the people volunteering and working there were Europeans - not many of whom had personal insight into the refugee experience, and it showed me that the way that they looked at Calais and the way I looked at Calais was very different because my experience was coloured by my background having visited places like Afghanistan, whereas others working in the camp perhaps hadn’t had that same contextual understanding of the people that they were trying to help.
That’s partly why Chatterbox has offered a rather novel solution to refugee underemployment, in recognising refugee skills and talent which very few people would otherwise come across because they wouldn’t personally know the army lawyer that is now a taxi driver or the surgeon that is now unemployed. I know these people; they’re my uncles and my aunts. Perhaps where other people would have seen a refugee, someone most people would dismiss as uneducated and lacking in skill, I knew wasn’t always the case. My background helped me to identify a solution that someone with different experiences would have taken longer to find, or not found at all.
Building on this - what do you think is a key misunderstanding people have about refugees, and how do you address this through your work?
A key misunderstanding is that all refugees are uneducated, unskilled, and work-shy; none of these things are true of the refugees in my family, my extended family, and the refugees that Chatterbox employs. When I started up Chatterbox, I found that of the 120,000 refugees living in the UK, about 20% have high level degrees and education according to data from the EU. Clearly there is a huge cohort of extremely skilled and talented people in the UK who are currently also largely impacted by social issues such as unemployment and underemployment. When they are employed, it tends to be low skilled, low paid and sometimes even exploitative. I address this issue through my work by trying to channel the unharnessed talent of refugees into skilled spaces, currently in online education in the language learning sector, where we train and employ refugees to teach their native languages to individuals like your readers, as well as universities and businesses who purchase language tuition for their members.
As an entrepreneur, you don’t necessarily have fixed hours – how do you make time for yourself?
When I started I definitely didn’t make enough time for myself, which is not sustainable! Around a year and a half into my journey as an entrepreneur, I started to make it a point to carve out personal time; to get back my weekends and spend time with my family and friends. It’s important to recognise that burnout is real and you’re not going to be of any use to anyone if you’re unhealthy and unhappy – not least your organisation. I often do still work weekends, but I think one of the luxuries of being an entrepreneur is that you can make your own hours - you can sometimes meet a friend for brunch during the week and you technically don’t have to worry about running out of holiday dates! I also get to travel for my work which can be fun in itself.
What do you feel are the challenges you face as a female working in this space?
There are some specific challenges to being a female entrepreneur – not least the additional difficulty there is in fundraising. Fundraising from investors is essential to growing some businesses. Chatterbox is a tech business which means that we need to fundraise a lot early on to ensure that we can get our digital product up and running in a sellable condition. I definitely have faced challenges fundraising as a female entrepreneur that my male colleagues would not have faced. There have been very particular kinds of interactions with investors that aren’t helpful. This is somewhat harder for me to judge as an individual but the evidence is clear that female entrepreneurs are taken less seriously by investors and invested in less because of bias that makes it appear like they’re less bankable. This does open up great opportunities for investors who aren’t biased in that way because there are many female led ventures that are underfunded or unfunded and would make great businesses. I hope this won’t be too much of an issue for Chatterbox going forward because it’s an idea that deserves to exist.
Are you faced with gendered expectations of your behaviour/job?
Absolutely! I think that one of the impacts of being female is that people undermine your expertise and your achievements. I was once sitting around a table with a couple of clients who had just purchased a big order with us. I was feeling very joyful that this had happened, but at the same time they made a really undermining comment about my appearance that they definitely wouldn’t have made to a male team member. It’s just something that you have to battle with to achieve your goals, but that kind of thing is a bit of a downer.
How do you stay motivated?
Meeting up with my mother, who is the inspiration behind Chatterbox. She’s my biggest critic and my biggest fan! Usually she’ll prod me to think about areas of the business that are important and will give me a really valuable perspective on it – herself being the civil engineer who Chatterbox was designed to help.
I also love hearing from our learners and tutors. It’s really motivating to see your theories come to life, whether it’s the social impact you wanted to create or the satisfaction of your paying customers. It’s equally motivating to hear feedback on where we can improve.
Have there been any specific instances that have reaffirmed your commitment to your work?
So many! One of the most affirming experiences in my Chatterbox journey was the first of our annual tutors gatherings. We held our first gathering last year. Our tutors came to our office in London from all around the UK to meet each other, to learn from tailored workshops on tutoring, and to reflect and provide feedback on their experiences. Most of the feedback they gave about Chatterbox was reaffirming – there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing or hearing first hand, the impact that your work is having – we have a solid theory of change, detailing how we want to positively impact the careers of refugee professionals. To see that theory of change come to life through the testimony of our tutors was really inspiring.
Talking more broadly about social entrepreneurship – what advice would you give those that are looking to follow a similar path? Are there particular organisations that you would recommend to get involved with?
The advice I would give to people following a similar path towards social entrepreneurship is if you lack knowledge or networks, join one of the now numerous programmes like Year Hear, which would give you a solid grounding in practical tools and approaches to social entrepreneurship as well as an enviable network of practitioners, investors and partners. It is patently true that you do not need to be working in a refugee camp to help refugees. One of the things we learn as Year Hear social change fellows is to try to ignore the ‘reductive seduction’ of other people’s problems. This phrase frames the mentality of desiring to go to other people’s homes and countries and trying to solve their problems for them as somewhat problematic. The UK has social issues including refugee integration that needs to be addressed. As citizens of this country we are well placed to solve the problems of the UK. This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of impact to be had by going abroad and working in the field or in refugee camps for the right people with the right skills, but I think that the majority of people can have a huge impact in their backyards if they look to do so.
Bethnal Green Ventures is another organization that backs Chatterbox and they’re wonderful. Nesta are a think tank - they tend to have programmes around innovative technology based social innovations and they’re really worth getting on board with your idea or learning from if you can.
What are the next steps, for both Chatterbox and yourself? Do you plan to continue working in the refugee space / ed-tech for your next venture?
It’s way too soon to start talking about my next venture. With Chatterbox, we’re not quite done with our second year since starting up. The next steps are growing our sales – so if anyone reading this interview is interested in language learning that is impactful for both the learner and the tutor, they should get in touch! The WiFP audience can definitely become a part of the future journey of Chatterbox in that way – help bring Chatterbox to your school, university, workplace, or learn with us directly.
What is one thing you wish you’d known before you started working in this field?
I wish I had known to get a female mentor. I have a lot of mentors who help me with various areas of the business and the vast majority of them are male. As I’ve progressed in my career and my journey with Chatterbox I’ve learnt that a lot of the experiences I am having are gendered. I’m now actively looking for a great female mentor to guide me through this journey and I wish I had done that sooner.
And finally –
The first thing that springs to mind is Harry Potter – I’ve read this series far too many times to go on record, but lets just say that both the books and audiobooks are involved! I think they explore lots of interesting and important social issues in an entertaining way.
Favourite place that you’ve travelled to and why?
I really enjoyed visiting Nigeria on a British council mission last year. It was the first time I’d left Europe in 10 years I was really excited by the entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship that I encountered. I think it’s going to be really exciting to see the country flourish and I’m really glad to have made some friends there
The one I went to just this evening was great – it’s called Pueblito Paisa in Seven Sisters. It’s a Colombian restaurant in the heart of northeast London. It’s very authentic; the kind of place where it’s hard to order if you don’t speak Spanish. I absolutely love the fact that we have these microcosms of cultures in this beautiful city!