Brandeis startup employs refugees, wins honors

WorkAround employs 300 refugees and is getting noticed by investors

wafaa arbashPhoto/Amy Goggins

Wafaa Arbash (left) accepts her first place award at the Beantown Throwdown from MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge Executive Director Katja Wald

A startup co-founded by Wafaa Arbash, MA’17 took home first place in the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge Beantown Throwdown, a prestigious startup competition held as part of HUBweek in downtown Boston.

At the Oct. 13 Beantown Throwdown, WorkAround won over 11 other teams from local universities including Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Boston University. WorkAround also won legal and marketing communications services and a guaranteed place at the MIT Enterprise Forum Cambridge Startup Spotlight event in June 2018.

“This was a great experience.” Arbash said. “It was incredible to compete with top universities across Boston, all of which had teams with great ideas. It is an honor.”

“I think this was great exposure to the Boston ecosystem,” Arbash added. “Winning the Beantown Throwdown is an encouragement to us to keep going.”

The victory was only the latest win for WorkAround, an online platform that connects refugees around the world with employment opportunities in the U.S.

Arbash came up with the idea for WorkAround at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management as part of her master's thesis. Then she quickly teamed up with Heller classmates Jennie Kelly and Shadi Sheikh Saraf and Brandeis undergraduate student Shai Dinnar ’18, to compete in the 2016 Heller Startup Challenge. That team worked to develop the business idea into a more concrete plan, pitched it to a panel of judges, and took home first prize in that challenge. WorkAround went on to win a Brandeis SPARK grant, took first place in two other startup competitions, won the IBS three-day startup competition and were finalists this year at MassChallenge – Boston’s world-renowned startup accelerator.

Arbash’s efforts with WorkAround have put her in impressive company. The same day the company won the Beantown Throwdown, Arbash was also on the same stage as luminaries such as Atul Gawande, Malcolm Gladwell, Abby Johnson and Michael Bloomberg at HUBweek, an annual innovation expo featuring entrepreneurs, thought leaders and public officials held at Boston’s City Hall Plaza.

Founded last November, WorkAround is still in its early stages but is beginning to produce results, but Arbash and her team have already forged relationships with several businesses and her efforts have found employment for more than 300 refugees from nine different countries. The work so far has included data entry, transcription and translation.

WorkAround’s mission is close to home for Arbash. She is Syrian and still has family and friends in her native country living through the ongoing civil war.

“While I was studying at Brandeis, Syria always came up in classroom discussions,” Arbash told an audience at HUBweek on Oct. 13.  “For my classmates it was a subject, but for me it wasn’t just a subject: it was home, it was family and it was my friends,” added Arbash. “When the time came for me to write my thesis, I knew I wanted to find a solution for Syria. I didn’t want to keep describing what was happening in my country. And that’s how WorkAround was born.”

Arbash sees WorkAround as a sustainable, long term venture that will lead to more opportunities for refugees. It’s her dream to help as many displaced people as possible – in the hope that they will be able to turn their big dreams into reality someday, too. The United Nations estimates that nearly 75 percent of refugees in the Middle East and Africa have internet access and 44 percent have at least some college education – which makes WorkAround an ideal fit for many educated refugees and prospective employers.

“We’re providing these displaced workers with opportunities because we believe they deserve to be in control of their own lives,” said Arbash. “Find your passion and follow it – when you find a problem that keeps you awake at night, keep pushing and be consistent. Solutions always exist…if you’re determined and you really want to do it – you believe."

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