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UAE-Based Hiring And Networking Platform Pupilar Is On A Mission To Break Biases In The Recruitment Process Maimuna Rashid and Aqsa Khalifa, co-founders of UAE-based hiring and networking platform Pupilar, are on a mission to eradicate unfair and biased recruitment practices.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

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Maimuna Rashid and Aqsa Khalifa, co-founders of UAE-based hiring and networking platform Pupilar.

I first met Maimuna Rashid in the summer of 2017, at the end of a career counseling session, when we both were university students- Rashid was a bachelor's student at the time, and I was in the last year of my MBA degree. In the midst of our conversation on career prospects and the like, I can vividly recall a moment that left me awestruck for many reasons, but mainly for the clarity with which Rashid spoke to me. "Aalia, I hope you realize that many companies will not hire women like me," Rashid told me then, gesturing toward the niqab that she was wearing. "If ever you get the chance to speak up for us, and against all this judgment, please do! Because there is so much bias against us. They see what I wear, and they immediately reject my job application."

When I jog my memory back to this moment, I realize now that this was when I was first made aware of the issue that Rashid has set out to solve as the co-founder of UAE-based youth hiring and networking platform, Pupilar. "I come from a problem-solving approach to all the challenges life has given me- instead of complaining about it, I am all about creating a solution for the obstacles I face," Rashid tells me, when I reconnect with her again in 2023 for this interview. "During my early career hunting days, despite winning over 50 awards at university and being a driven youngster, getting jobs was a pure challenge. I have always been true to my cultural identity with the niqab- something I am deeply proud of. But often, being the only one [niqabi] amongst the job applicants, I felt the reservations and biases on the very first step itself, until I would speak up, or I was given an opportunity to prove myself through my work. After that, I was always able to win hearts, and help change people's expectations."

In a fateful (and unfortunate) twist of events, Rashid wasn't the only one struggling with job-related challenges: in another part of the same university, facing her own set of unique hiring hindrances was Aqsa Khalifa. Khalifa would eventually go on to become Pupilar's second co-founder. But at the time, despite being dubbed a "star student" at university owing to her exemplary academic and extracurricular achievements, Khalifa found that she simply couldn't land a job owing primarily to her age.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I have heavily invested in building myself and tried everything- design, theater, sales, marketing, public speaking, sports, you name it!" Khalifa says. "I had a great track record [at university], was blessed with awards and accolades year after year, and was often admired by my mentors. And so, naturally, I'd always aspired towards a successful career. But to my surprise (shock), the reality of the world was different. I soon realized many classmates, along with me, struggled to land a decent job for months and even years. I could see how it negatively affected mindsets and stunted their career growth in the long run. I strongly believe everyone has the right to earn their رزق (Arabic for livelihood). Maimuna and I may have had our own unique and varied struggles, but our visions have fit in exceptionally well right from day one. This is why I embarked on this journey of founding Pupilar."

Maimuna Rashid and Aqsa Khalifa with their Pupilar team. Source: Pupilar

Pupilar was founded in 2019, but the platform became fully operational in the UAE only in March 2022. Having witnessed firsthand how different biases can deter deserving young candidates from getting a job, Rashid and Khalifa decided to build a hiring model that omits unconscious biases. The duo soon realized that the key to creating such a shift was to do away with an age-old practice that is, at times, synonymous with the idea of hiring: curriculum vitaes (CVs). "Most fresh candidates do a poor job with their CVs," Khalifa says. "Moreover, it is always difficult to base a judgment over CVs; you'll always miss out on good potential hires if you don't meet/get on a call with them. And so, the Pupilar hiring system connects the youth with the industry by prescreening through role-based challenges, and goes beyond CVs by creating personalized skill-based profiles. At Pupilar, we implement a skills-first recruitment process."

The first step in a candidate's Pupilar journey thus involves a preliminary analysis stage, wherein the Pupilar team -through the help of application forms as well as discovery calls gauges an idea of what a given young person's skillset is. "After identifying where the candidate stands, he/she is directed towards [available] workshops, if they wish to receive additional coaching or fine tune their skills," Khalifa explains. "Following that first stage, candidates are directed towards creating skills-focused profiles to apply for jobs. Based on the job openings, candidates get access to apply through our channels, and get much needed visibility via their Pupilar profiles. After this stage, the candidate's profile matchmaking with companies begins." Now, to help companies make optimum use of such a skills-based model, Rashid and Khalifa devised two types of hiring options: talent sourcing, and skills sourcing. While talent sourcing opens access to a general database of candidate profiles on the Pupilar platform, skills sourcing involves more role-specific tests that can be curated for a given job description.

"In a cycle that can run from seven to 30 days, corporates thus get access to top profiles to interview," Khalifa explains. "The entire system is modeled to create a feedback loop for the employers with our team as we cater to their requirements until the star candidate is found. In contrast to traditional practices, Pupilar's talent sourcing method serves as a one-stop-hub, and enables companies to connect with talent from across universities. On the other hand, our focus on skills-based hiring allows us to provide customized hiring solutions for our clients. By identifying the specific skills and qualifications needed for a particular role, the company can target its recruiting efforts more effectively, reducing the time and cost associated with traditional hiring methods. These challenges are designed in collaboration with industry specific experts who outline the frame- work with which we can assess the candidate's skillsets for the given role. We've conducted more than 80% of our hiring cycles using our skills-first approach."

The Pupilar team at the Challenge for Youth event. Source: Pupilar

Now, most hiring stories end with either a letter of acceptance or rejection. Pupilar, however, has ensured that every "no" can serve as a source of growth for job seekers that use its platform. "Even if a young person is not offered a job, receiving feedback can help them understand what they did well, and where they fell short," Khalifa explains. "The job search process can be long and anxiety-inducing for many young people. Plus, when there isn't any actionable advice for them to make use of for a prolonged period, it also creates an inability to take feedback. And so you see so many young people quit jobs at the first sight of perceived problems. Receiving feedback, especially when it is constructive and supportive, can help young people improve themselves and become more competitive candidates in the future."

Today, with over 5000 monthly active users on its platform, Pupilar has conducted over 95 hiring cycles for more than 60 companies in the UAE. "Having identified over 121 universities and higher education institutes in the country, Pupilar provides companies with access to a database with over 54,000 youth- but with over one million youth in the UAE, that number is just 5% of the total market!" Rashid reveals. "We currently have access to over 20 universities, and have helped over 500 youngsters land jobs. With our ability to offer 10 times faster intern placements for young graduates, we've recently onboarded over 41 new client companies as well. We have also been recognized at some of the region's biggest events such as Expo 2020 Dubai, GITEX, and Step Conference."

One of the most important milestones for the startup, however, came when Khalifa and Rashid got to pitch at the University Entrepreneurship Program organized by Dubai-based innovation hubs Dubai Future Foundation (DFF) and Mohammed Bin Rashid Innovation Fund (MBRIF). "After one year of minimum viable product testing, we were invited to pitch at the launch of DFF x MBRIF University Entrepreneurship Program, where we emerged as winners," Rashid recalls. "Following that, we were granted a space at AREA 2071 [a Dubai-based innovation ecosystem] by the DFF team. That was certainly a game changing moment in our journey. We've also been privileged to work in the past with Dubai International Financial Center, Dubai SME, Dubai Youth Council, GITEX, Dubai World Trade Centre, and we are currently in talks with the UAE Prime Minister's Office as well as Dubai Electricity and Water Authority."

A networking event within the GEN2XP initiative. Source: Pupilar

In yet another effort to make Pupilar a platform that operates beyond the periphery of traditional hiring practices, Rashid and Khalifa have also incorporated in-person networking opportunities for the platform's users. The most significant manifestation of this approach is GEN2XP, a community that has seen over 500 young people join in its first four months. "At GEN2XP, our young members come from diverse disciplines, backgrounds, and nationalities to connect over shared career interests and grow through diverse perspectives," Khalifa explains. "We host exciting sessions every two weeks, which are free to attend and allow networking with many young people and experienced individuals at once." The Pupilar co-founders have also ensured to include UAE's companies at such events to help them get more acquainted with the nation's youth. "We often bring in corporate professionals at our incognito sessions, where the youth do not know that there is a business leader in their midst," Khalifa adds. "This way, they are less intimidated, and the conversations are more free-flowing! Such initiatives facilitate mature dialogues between Pupilar, the companies, and the job-seeking youth."

Keen on keeping this positive momentum going for their startup, Rashid and Khalifa show no signs of slowing down. "We envision Pupilar to be the future of hiring for youth," Rashid declares. "Having received grants of AED75,000, we are currently looking for investors to raise a US$500,000 seed investment. We are open to angel investors who are keen on youth tech, HR tech, and the region, to take it global. The forthcoming season for Pupilar is about getting really competitive in our expertise by incorporating video-based data analytics services to enable mobile recruitment through launching our tech app." It's thus clear here that Rashid and Khalifa aim to remain steadfast on their mission to change the lives of youth in the UAE, and I get further proof of this mindset of theirs when I asked them about what keeps them going on their ongoing entrepreneurial journey.

"We always drew from the belief that at the end of the day, if you've got what it takes, the world will surrender," Rashid replies. "As founders, our zeal and commitment to build a solution never stopped us in our tracks. We've always prioritized investing in ourselves as individuals to become an unstoppable force no matter the odds, made sure to stay humble and learn wherever required, built and kept the right people by our side, and, alhamdulillah, overcame any hiccups. When the world is on your side, discrimination stays out of the door!"

Related: Paths To Progress, A Forum Staged By Heriot-Watt University Dubai, Female Fusion, And Entrepreneur Middle East, Spurs Conversations On Gender Equity

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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