“In the United States, student internships and work study programs are common, even for high school students. Mention something like that in Dubai, and people will merely laugh,” says Zohayr Khan, founder and Director, Dubai Minds, an online portal linking high school students in Dubai to internship opportunities. According to Khan, Dubai Minds aim to do away the “awkwardness” surrounding young work experiences, and instead, make them acceptable and celebrated in the workplace.
At first glance, the venture may look like yet another job matchmaking portal, but look harder and you notice something that stands out: the startup was launched for the student community by high school students. Dubai school students aged between 16 and 17 years are the ones who are balancing academics and operating Dubai Minds as a non-profit organization since December 2014. Dubai Minds’ team of six includes four people dedicated to acquisitions, all students, who spread the word about Dubai Minds at their respective high schools. Students must be at least 15 years old to intern at Dubai Minds’ affiliated companies, and internships are unpaid. Being a non-profit service, Dubai Minds does not charge any fees or commissions.
Running on contributions from family, friends, and a donation from InfoFort, the enterprise is currently in its beta stage, and seven companies are officially registered with Dubai Minds, with over 120 internship applications received, and around 15 internships secured with companies that include big names like Aramex and Bayt.com. When asked about their decision to go the non-profit route, Satvik Garg, co-founder and VP, Dubai Minds, says, “By making Dubai Minds a non-profit organization, we can do this on a larger scale and offer this unique experience to every student in the UAE. Most importantly, we wanted this educational opportunity to be open to all students in Dubai, regardless of their financial state.”
Speaking about a MENA startup that inspires them to keep going, Khan says they are inspired by Careem and are awed by the fact that co-founder Mudassir Sheikha “left a comfortable job and took a calculated risk” in entrepreneurship. “Careem has a great cost structure, a wonderful founding team, and a mission that sets it apart: to help others. Whether it’s about helping Captains earn a living in Dubai, or getting users get to the places they want, Careem helps everyone. We want to do the same at Dubai Minds,” says Khan. The founders add that they perceive starting up young as a double-edged sword. “It makes you stand out from other ventures, people want to listen to your story and it is also easier to take a risk but, it is hard to convince people elder than you of your competence and win their trust,” says Khan.
What are your top three tips for young entrepreneurs to start a business in MENA?
KHAN: Firstly, start early: the quicker you start, the quicker you fail, and the quicker you improve on your mistakes. Second, ask questions and have a mentor: Without my connected group of mentors, I wouldn’t be able to make Dubai Minds what it is. Whenever I need advice, I seek their counsel and they assist me willfully. Third, be self-confident. Do not think that being 15 or 20 or even 25, for that matter, makes a difference. You do not have any disadvantages associated with your age. I personally spin it as an advantage: being young, you are more flexible and have a greater capacity for failure.
Can you share any frequent response you get from people when you attend events and conferences?
GARG: Many adults and professionals reacted by being very impressed, and sometimes shocked that we were able to set up Dubai Minds during our time in high school. Many of them also become eager to support the Dubai Minds program and register on the website as potential companies wanting to host internships. The immense amount of support and encouragement from the corporate leaders and professionals in Dubai has been a key factor in the success and establishment of Dubai Minds.