How to Improve Workplace Diversity By Hiring Iraqi Talent

Commitments to addressing diversity in the workplace have been ever-increasing. For a long time, research has shed light on the serious lack of diversity in managerial roles and boards. However, civil unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 have pushed organisations around the world to express their solidarity with the Black community, ethnic minorities and underrepresented identity groups. This included pledges to fight discrimination and promises to enhance diversity.

However, solidarity statements issued by organisations on social justice and diversity have come with a feeling from many employees and consumers that companies are attempting to respond to racial injustice movements, without actually changing their internal cultures and attitudes.

A recent report by McKinsey and Company on Inclusion and Diversity confirms that first, companies with more than 30% women executives are more likely to outperform companies where this percentage is lower. Second, the outperformance is higher for diversity in ethnicity than for gender. Put simply, the most diverse companies financially outperform less diverse companies. However, while managers are well-intentioned when reiterating economic payoffs when hiring more women and people of colour, the case for diversity cannot be merely measured by increased profit.

Research findings from the 1990s and still supported today have shown organisations with diverse workforces foster teams that are effective in their ability to rethink how work gets done and how to best achieve their goals. This research also emphasises that those that reap the benefits of a diverse workforce are those that adopt a radically different approach to understanding diversity. For most, ‘diversity’ in the workplace is about the number of people of colour and/or women i.e. anything not white, male or straight is considered ‘diverse’.

This meaning needs to change. Tapping into diversity-related knowledge and experiences for organisations to truly learn how they could perform better is how true diversity can be achieved.

Diversity should be about more than hiring from our local communities, cities or even country and ticking boxes. For true diversity to flourish, a global approach and broader vision needs to be adopted. This also means looking for employees in the unlikeliest of places.

Stories from Freelancers in Iraq

In Iraq, the government is dealing with the consequences of occupation, war, instability – all in addition to the ongoing pandemic. Unfortunately, the dire need for employment and producing highly skilled graduates is not on the top of the to-do list. Amidst this instability, the tech industry in Iraq has witnessed a less mature market, under-formed tech and startup sectors, and is being built through bottom-up approaches and the non-profit sector. As a result for many fresh graduates in Iraq, the economic environment has not been the most encouraging to start a business. For most graduates, the priority is simply getting a job.

“Hiring from Iraq has been one of the best decisions we’ve made, we are not only harnessing and growing incredible talent but also seeing those skills passed down to the younger generation which gives them a goal to work towards”.

Randa Bennett, Co-Founder, vHelp

A growing number of global businesses have looked to hiring remotely and globally. This has included hiring talented graduates in Iraq to join their teams. Not only has this offered companies the identity-related knowledge and experiences that bring about true diversity, it also contributes to economic growth and reduces the strain on local economies recovering from conflict. An example of a business that has done just this is vHelp.

Founded by entrepreneurs Randa Bennett and Patricia Salume, the award-winning London-based fintech startup has been focusing on its app, which was created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The app focuses on reimbursing volunteers for expenses incurred whilst helping people in their communities. In addition, vHelp has been supporting volunteers providing Covid vaccinations and testing. After securing funding for launching the app, vHelp needed a software developer.

Randa Bennett and Patricia Salume, co-founders of vHelp

Being originally from Iraq herself, co-founder Randa was very much aware of the challenges young and talented people in Iraq face when looking for employment. This sparked an interest to hire a developer from Iraq to work with vHelp remotely. Through connecting with Iraqi Innovators, Mohammed was recommended as a candidate, and after two interviews, they haven’t looked back since. 

Mohammed’s Story

Mohammed has lived in Erbil since 2006 after leaving Baghdad due to the security situation. He was always passionate about programming, but with an immature tech market in Iraq, well-paid job opportunities were limited and freelancing brought about its own set of challenges. “I’ve always been interested in remote work. For over two years, I’ve been polishing my skills to be able to work remotely, reading guides and listening to podcasts about the benefits and challenges of remote work”. So when he applied and was selected to work with vHelp, Mohammed was quick to adapt, bonded really well with the team and has come up with creative initiatives and solutions. In addition to the valuable experience of working with an international company, his skills and knowledge are being harnessed in his work. 

One thing both Randa and Mohammed wish was less of a challenge is the absence of a solid financial infrastructure for smooth international payments with Iraq. Whilst straightforward payment transactions with some countries means that hiring and/or outsourcing is simple, not many banks will accept transfers to Iraq. They were able to navigate through this by using international financial payment services that create virtual bank accounts, yet the process was still quite complex. Better enabled infrastructure for smoother remote hiring would help encourage employers to look for international talent. 

Whilst we currently live in a world where companies are being forced to adapt to remote-first practices, job candidates in Iraq are equipped with experiences that make them particularly adaptive in uncertain, challenging and unpredictable circumstances. What Randa has found particularly valuable is the diversity in experiences and perspectives that is brought to the table.

“High unemployment rates for young people in Iraq means that so much talent is wasted. There are many young passionate people who are engaged with global trends and practices but unable to apply their knowledge. Hiring from Iraq has been one of the best decisions we’ve made, we are not only harnessing and growing incredible talent but also seeing those skills passed down to the younger generation which gives them a goal to work towards”.

Randa Bennett, Co-Founder, vHelp

Asma’s Story 

Asma, based in Erbil, faced a rocky path after graduation with limited local job opportunities and attending job interviews for organisations with limited budgets. Having met expats in Erbil and hearing about their experiences, she grew curious about remote work opportunities with companies across the world. Through a connection at Iraqi Innovators, she applied for a virtual assistant position at a US-based company and was hired. With her aptitude for learning, she got promoted to project manager, working on product quality assurance, managing interns and various financial and admin aspects. Asma has found even some of the more mundane aspects of remote work to be enriching.

Her experience working in Iraq involved a lot of chasing people over the phone to get tasks done, slowing down processes and wasting valuable time. Working in a culture that fosters open communication through online platforms has reduced much of the hassle she faced when working for local companies.

Asma working from home

“Young people in Iraq should work towards continuously improving soft skills. Sometimes, it’s the simple things like writing an email and communicating effectively that makes a difference”.

Asma, who is working remotely from Iraq with a US-based employer

Having mentored young people in Iraq, her US-based employer knew that many motivated people had talent that was under-appreciated by local employers. “Tech and creative skills are not concentrated in any one location, and no one has a monopoly over being a genius. The internet provides a level-playing field for remote hiring that has only become more relevant with the pandemic”. International hiring has brought the tech company different perspectives as well as a diversity in skill sets. 

International Hiring For True Diversity

By considering international hiring, businesses can create more space for true diversity whilst paving the way for conflict-affected developers, designers, copywriters, product managers, etc to build promising futures for themselves and their communities. Working with NGOs and networks on the ground can help employers in finding the best talent and linking them with the right jobs.

Most organisations have chosen to take the easier route to diversity, yielding limited change or effectiveness. International hiring means truly harnessing diversity and embracing differences as a source of knowledge that fosters a culture that supports learning, trust and continuous improvement. Hiring talent globally, conflict-affected countries included, will create a generation of digitally savvy remote workers who will train and share their skills with future generations. Not to forget that these people can also launch businesses and employ others in their communities, leading to more job creation.

Khamael Al Safi

Khamael is passionate about understanding the work of startups and the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly those in Iraq. She is also passionate about helping young people build employability skills for the job market and has taught subjects in entrepreneurship, organisational behaviour and psychology to undergrad and postgrad students in London and Dubai. Having worked in consulting for both the private and public sector in the Middle East, she has been involved in training and advisory on corporate governance and accountability, as well as building open, trustworthy data ecosystems.

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