"I want to solve real-life problems"
At the same time as Sharbel Dahlan arrived in Sweden to start his EIT Digital Master School, his cousin arrived from Syria as a war refugee. Dahlan had travelled for about six hours; it took his cousin fifteen days. The war of his motherland inspired Dahlan to work on innovations to help refugees. He dedicated his Master School thesis to the topic.
Dahlan was born in Aleppo and grew up in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates from the age of two. There, he completed a bachelor's degree in computer engineering at the American University in Dubai, and took an internship at the Technical University in Delft in 2013. His first job was as a business development manager at a small company in Dubai. After eight months, he felt the need for a change and started a new journey.
Why have you chosen to study at the EIT Digital Master School?
"My brother, who then was working in Eindhoven, tagged me in a Facebook post from the EIT Digital Master School. "Check this out," he said. It looked very cool; especially the mobility programme. You study at two technology universities in two European countries, plus a business minor as part of the degree as well. I did not want to be solely involved in technical studies. I am interested in the impact engineering could have on lives. I wanted my studies to be around learning how to solve real-life problems. So it sounded like a good deal. I applied for the Digital Media Technology programme (now: Visual Computing and Communication) and got a place. I moved to Stockholm in 2015, to Helsinki in 2016, did my Summer School in Paris and had my graduation ceremony in Madrid in 2017."
Why have you chosen the Nordic countries Sweden and Finland to study?
"Several reasons. Finland and Sweden are really advanced countries, both now have a vibrant startup scene. I also made some of my decision making on the fact that I have relatives in Sweden. I thought it would be good to be somewhere near them. Aalto University in Finland offered a specialisation in Hypermedia, and since I was interested in pursuing a career in web development, I went for it. So it was a combination of the tracks, my future and having relatives close by."
You dedicated your thesis on the integration of foreign people. How did that happen?
"I have friends and relatives who fled from Syria, like my cousin in Sweden who took the hard route to get there. It took her, her brother and his four-year-old son fifteen days to get to Sweden as refugees. Their plight inspired me, but I did not have any thoughts about startups back then. The idea only arose at the EIT Digital Summer School, when a friend wanted to team up and create a solution to help refugees. We worked on that, pitched our idea and won the business challenge. That triggered the idea that this subject could be worth working on more. That is why I decided to make it a subject for my master thesis."
What is the thesis - your app - about?
"It is about integrating foreign talent into Finnish society. Arriving in a new country is challenging. Newcomers come here after escaping life-threatening dangers. They have nothing. That is totally incomparable with how I got to Finland as a student. I soon assimilated into the community and found my way. Each country has a different policy for integration. Since I was based in Finland, I focused on solving the problem there. The thesis is about the concept of a web application that would help newcomers to showcase their talents to local organisations by having short 10 second video profiles. Local organisations can search talent based on tags. In this way, both organisations have a way to find relevant talent and newcomers can practise their selling skills."
How did you proceed with your thesis, did you start your own company?
"The outcome of the thesis was the concept of the app TalentPal. I ended up with a high-fidelity prototype. Then, I worked on it with a co-founder in Finland with whom I teamed up for a pitching competition at Digital Prototyping Weekend by The Shortcut. We won tickets for Slush! We were trying to launch our app and find incubators to invest in the concept and validate the prototype further with more users. In the spirit of running lean, the first prototype of our application was on Instagram. We brought the prototype to the phone. Then, what happened was that I started working as a software developer for a startup and my cofounder got busy doing other things. We were not able to dedicate the time the project deserved, so we decided to freeze it. We might pick it up later, but it is important to know what you want to focus on."
Now you are a software developer?
"While I was wrapping up my thesis, I worked for a startup for three months. Then I went back to Dubai for the first time after more than two years away from home. I pushed the reset button there and found a new job when I got back to Finland. Now, I work as a software developer at Holvi, a Finnish company that provides financial services for entrepreneurs. I work on the financial infrastructure of the service."
How do you see your future, will you be picking up your startup?
"Who knows? The fact that I started working for a company does not mean I have stopped the idea of working on my own project. It's just not for now. I want to grow first, gain experience and get on top of my technical skills so I would be better equipped in case I want to run my own business. Right now, my job at Holvi, which aids entrepreneurs in their finances, helps me solve real-life problems and that is what matters to me. I think it is important to work on something meaningful. I aim to become a senior software developer within three years and in five years' time, who knows? It is hard to plan so far ahead."