They Don’t Work with Buttons: Yousra Rashwan on Tapping the Potential of Upper Egypt’s Software Developers

How Giving People a Chance Allays Talent Scarcity

Olympe Scherer
Staff Writer at Plentyworks

6 min read

Most Computer Science students in Cairo find jobs as soon as they graduate. They get snatched up by big multinationals such as Microsoft, Google, or Vodafone, in Egypt but also in Germany, Sweden, or the US, making it hard for Egyptian tech companies to hire the best talent. The reason is multifaceted. On one hand, Egypt shows much promise as a tech market, but even so, Egypt’s tech infrastructure is concentrated in Cairo, the capital, leaving the rest of Egypt to catch up in terms of employment and digitalization. On the other hand, brain drain — a phenomenon where many highly educated people seek jobs outside of their native country — may explain why it’s difficult to find software developers in Egypt.

Or so it seems. Yousra Rashwan encountered this workforce shortage firsthand as the HR Director of a software development company based in Cairo. 

Rashwan had contacts in Upper Egypt from a previous job. She spoke with the Dean of the Faculty of Computer Science, President of the University, Head of the IT institute at Assiut University and glimpsed at the potential of the tech workforce there. In September of 2019, Rashwan fully devoted herself to Venusera, her own startup. The idea was to train and employ young software developers for corporate clients’ software needs. Today, by hiring from a population often ignored by tech employers, Venusera secures talent that is both highly motivated and diverse: the team is currently equal parts men and women, which currently isn’t the norm in Egyptian tech companies, or in tech companies around the world, for that matter.

Upper Egypt encompasses a large region south of Cairo. Assuit, the city where Venusera is based, is around 400km south of Cairo.

While 1 in 5 Egyptian women believe it isn’t culturally appropriate for them to use the Internet (OECD, 2018), the government has committed to raise the participation rate of women in all fields from 4.2% to 35% by 2030, according to a report called Egypt Vision 2030. In March 2018, tech company Motoon hosted a conference to amplify the voices of Egyptian women in tech. One of the partners, Women Techmakers Cairo, is committed to providing visibility and resources for women in computer science. Rashwan is confident that Egypt is ready to welcome more women into the tech workforce.

“This is not one of the industries where there’s preference for one gender over the other,” says Rashwan. “We had a demo to a customer who is in a very specialized sector, and now when he speaks to us he refers to the female technician by name. He said, ‘She knows exactly what I know about the industry at the moment.’”

As many as 90% of women in Egypt cover their heads, according to the New York Times. But Venusera recruits software developers by setting aside the applicants’ religion or their decision to be veiled. 

“When we’re choosing [applicants], I don’t like to see a picture on the CV,” says Rashwan. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter… It’s the attitude. If they’re willing to learn, we give them training.”

Rashwan recalls a specific instance of being on the phone with a potential hire. She could hear his positive energy through the phone. When the Venusera founders held the technical interviews, he was on time, well-dressed, and polite.

“When we held the technical interview with him, we watched his body language,” says Rashwan. When the young man didn’t know an answer, he focused all his energy on finding it as if it were life or death. Although his technical solutions weren’t the best, Rashwan and her colleagues appreciated the way he thought and decided to hire him. In the end, their decision paid off. He, like the other hires, is incredibly motivated about learning. For example, the young employees race each other to finish watching the instructional videos that Venusera provides them with.

The name Venusera is inspired by Venus, the Roman goddess, and highlights the company’s equitable female representation.

Venusera’s Upper Egyptian hirees, who’ve had fewer employment opportunities, are very motivated by the opportunity they did get. Venusera does not take that for granted. Two of the employees (one young man and one young woman) are empowered to act as technical leads among their peers. Venusera’s approach is to let the technical lead of each software team present demos directly to their clients. Of course, Rashwan and other members of management support the technical leads by attending these meetings, but the idea is to empower their young employees with real responsibilities.

“We brag about them, how good they are.” says Rashwan. “Their work doesn’t go unwitnessed.”

To Rashwan, who worked 9-to-5 jobs for twenty years of her life, founding and managing Venusera is fulfilling because it engages her core drive. 

“I believe that you rise by raising others. It makes me feel better when I see them improving. Nobody teaches you that, that’s how you are.”

Her main piece of advice as a longtime HR director?

“You have to put the human factor first. They’re just human, they don’t work with buttons.”

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