Ghida Ibrahim, data scientist at Liberty Global talks her journey in social entrepreneurship through Rafiqi
Ghida Ibrahim, data scientist at Liberty Global talks her journey in social entrepreneurship through Rafiqi

The academic and career path of Amsterdam based data scientist Ghida Ibrahim is inspirational to women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and women planning to join a STEM field. Speaking to LeLaboDigital’s blog editor, Ibrahim, who founded Rafiqi, an online learning platform for enabling crowd mentoring of young refugees, talks the project she co-founded to match volunteers with refugees seeking help to find jobs, build up their IT skills, or become entrepreneurs. Ibrahim’s resume reads like a true multitasker: She is currently a senior analyst/data scientist within the Advanced Analytics department of Liberty Global. Liberty Global delivers IPTV, video on demand, and cloud recordings through their Content Delivery Network (CDN) to over 15 Million customers in 10 countries. Ibrahim develops predictive, econometric, and descriptive statistical models to reduce customers churn, enhance current delivery of multimedia products, and create new business opportunities for the company. She is also a member of the leadership committee of Arab Women in Computing, where she focuses on developing programs for boosting technology and entrepreneurship knowledge among women in MENA. Finally, Ghida Ibrahim was nominated in 2016 as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, joined the board of the Amsterdam Hub of Global Shapers and was appointed as one of the 25 expert members of the Global Future Council on the Future of Computing, a World Economic Forum think-tank reflecting on the evolution of computing and how to use new technologies to enhance the public good.

While in contact with newly arriving refugees in Europe, Ghida Ibrahim noticed that many of them are highly skilled but extremely lost. On the other side, despite their best intentions, many of the locals lack a proper understanding of the refugees’ context. Being exposed to both worlds, Ibrahim decided to use ICT and the Internet to bridge the gap between refugees and their new communities, and to give each local a flexible tool to mentor a refugee. Beyond intelligently matching refugees and mentors, Rafiqi aims at providing a user-friendly web interface for enabling mentor-mentee interaction as well as pro-actively pushing relevant e-learning resources and opportunities to mentored refugees.

Below, Ghida Ibrahim answers a few questions for us on her academic studies, the challenges of being a social entrepreneur, her feedback on being a woman in tech, and why doing a Ph.D. was beneficial to her entrepreneurship journey.

Tell us more about your studies
I have started my studies as an ICT engineer at the Engineering Faculty of Saint Joseph University in Beirut before moving to Telecom ParisTech, France’s leading Engineering School in the field of ICT, for pursuing my Masters in Engineering. During my Masters, I did my internship at the R&D division of Orange in Paris and was offered afterwards to do a PhD there in collaboration with Telecom ParisTech. My PhD focus was on introducing a control architecture and decision-making mechanisms for optimizing web content distribution and delivery in the future Internet.

What is Rafiqi?
Rafiqi is an e-platform for intelligently matching refugees to people who can mentor them online (and potentially face to face) to help them develop new skills in demand in the job market, apply to jobs and open their own businesses. Furthermore, Rafiqi aims at supporting refugees along and after their mentorship, through framing their mentorship in an online journey where they can access relevant e-learning material, interact with their mentors, track their progress, and be matched to relevant post-mentorship opportunities. The main goal of Rafiqi is to facilitate the economic and social integration of refugees and at closing the gap between them and their host communities.

Which lessons you wish you knew before developing Rafiqi? And how would you do things differently?
I think that lessons come from experience, particularly failures. This is why I do not regret doing some things wrongly or not efficiently enough when starting Rafiqi as the team and I are learning along the way. A main lesson that I would like to emphasize on is that, when starting Rafiqi, we thought that the online space was our main medium for reaching our target group. Experience revealed that this assumption was wrong, especially at the beginning. Attracting our first users happened through a direct interaction around a drink or a dinner. Now that more new comers are interacting with us in real life and are testing our ability to help them, they are starting to incite their friends to go online and subscribe to our website. So, as an early lesson, I would say that face to face is crucial for building a trust relationship, which can then form the basis for an online success. This statement is particularly true when it comes to social-driven projects and initiatives.

Do you think that having a PhD and especially a researcher mind-set was a plus in your social entrepreneurship journey?
Having a researcher mind-set definitely contributes to being a better entrepreneur. Conducting any research work, particularly in a PhD context, involves understanding the state of the art, formulating hypothesis about a problem to tackle, testing assumptions, developing a solution, testing the solution and re-iterating. Similarly, successfully developing a social initiative requires understanding the target group needs, tracking a meaningful problem, double-checking whether the problem is valid or not, proposing a solution, testing it and adapting the solution based on target group feedback. The process of continuously formulating and testing hypothesis is a major component of being both a researcher and an entrepreneur.

Who would you reach out to in order to expand the Rafiqi platform?
I would reach out to many categories of people/organizations:

  • Refugees/new-comers interested in mentoring opportunities
  • Entrepreneurs, IT professionals, HR specialists and career coaches interested in mentoring refugees
  • Corporates, start-ups, incubators and freelance initiatives interested in nurturing and accessing refugee talent
  • Other refugee organizations and initiatives
  • (E)-learning and education organisms
  • Municipalities and other public entities

The usual question: How is it to be a woman in a predominantly male milieu?
Being a tech woman in a male dominated milieu is a challenge and an opportunity at once. It means that you will often be the only woman in the room, that you may need to over-prove your capabilities to be listened to or to be taken seriously, that you will be exposed to some kinds of implicit or explicit biases… But it also means that you can bring in your unique vision of how products and processes should be like, which is very likely to be different than the opinion of the rest of the people in the room. It equally means that you can be more easily noticed and that the expertise that you bring will be more visible.

What advice would you give for aspiring students who want to major in computer science?
I would surely encourage them. Computer science is not only a growing field, it is also a field that allows you to build cool applications and Software that is likely to shape not only the ICT industry but other sectors including energy, health, supply chain and the social sector. Once they get into the ICT field, I would advise them to always keep an appetite for learning new concepts and technologies. As it is an exponentially evolving field, any knowledge that you gain is likely to be out dated and obsolete in a few years. So keeping yourself up-to-date is definitely your way for maximizing your impact.

Diana Joumblatt
Founder & Director, LeLaboDigital
[email protected]