Mursal Hedayat is an old friend-friend-turned Board Member of Birdsong’s. Having done the same post grad, we met Mursal before she became the founder of Chatterbox. Having arrived to the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan with her family at the age of three, the current crisis has always been an issue close to her heart, and in her community.
It was during this time that her mother, “a kick-ass civil engineer, with experience spanning the globe, who spoke four languages including English fluently” struggled to find work. From frustration that her mother couldn’t find suitable employment that made use of her intellect and talents, and the fact that Britain’s own native speakers have a shocking language deficit, her startup Chatterbox was born.
On what she's working on right now.
Well, I'm working as ever, on Chatterbox, but it's a slightly different company to the one it was when we last spoke.
We've just had a huge capital injection in order to scale an online language learning platform...that helps not just refugees, but women returning to work after having children, older people that have been impacted by COVID related redundancies. People who experience similar dislocation from the job market and similar marginalisation when they're trying to get back.
They can benefit from this solution originally developed for refugees, helping them to break into work using their existing language skills, and our software.
On her upbringing.
I'm grateful for my cultural intelligence. If you're an outsider in an environment, it forces you to develop skills, like really high levels of emotional intelligence, but also the ability to kind of operate in different environments really well, because you're looking and watching, and trying to understand how to have an impact there, rather than just doing the thing that you know works, for you, in your home environment.
So I think that's why I'm grateful, I think, for my outsider, kind of experience that being a refugee in the UK has given me, a lot of skills that perhaps other people don't have. And that's essentially what's allowed me to build the business that I'm building today.
"The usual age for a successful entrepreneur is actually in their forties. So the concept of a young entrepreneur being you know, hugely successful...is not realistic. "
On starting a company in her twenties.
The usual age for a successful entrepreneur is actually in their forties. So the concept of a young entrepreneur being you know, hugely successful, in you know, the image of a Facebook founder or whatever, is not realistic. And so the reality is, having started my business at 25 or 26, I had a lot to learn.
And it was really hard to develop the networks and the knowledge that I have now, that other people who would have benefitted from several years of work would have had too. So I would say it was much harder than if I'd done it later.
However, it made me into a huge risk taker. I had a huge risk appetite, I had nothing to lose, and even now, you know I have nothing to lose but to go all in as Chatterbox. So you know, those two things counteract. I'm a lot more fearless in the design of my organisation, you know, it's a globally distributed, remote organisation. Hugely flat, agile. Huge amount of self authorisation from my team. And I think that's probably been a good thing, to offer a different perspective on organisational design.
So I wish I could have done both, maybe start off in my forties, and travel back in time into my twenties and start Chatterbox. But that's a dream for the future, time travel.
On the best professional advice she was ever given.
So this was on Year Here, where I was a social innovation Fellow, and it really opened my eyes up to what an open goal there is, to have positive change to society. If you can just bring yourself to start to address the kinds of problems we have. And it was the founder, Jack, who told me that "It might look like everyone knows what they're doing, but they don't."
And that's a real secret. You know, everywhere up to the Prime Minister, people behave as if they know the answers, and are doing the right things, and most of the time people are just making it up as they go along. I think when you have that realisation, it gives you that confidence to try and find a solution, without having all the right answers from the beginning. Though I think a lot of people, from certain backgrounds, try to give the impression that they do.
And what's toxic about that is that a lot of the conditions that we live in, people assume that it's been done that way because there's been a whole bunch of really intelligent white men who've historically decided "this is how gardens should be laid out, this is how the banking sector should work." But the reality is, they didn't. They knew very little, they assumed a lot. They did the best they could do at that time, as we do, throughout human history. So we have just as much of a right to say, actually, this garden isn't that well organised, all the way up to the banking sector.
On what fills her with optimism.
Hmm. Not a lot these days, there's a lot of crap stuff happening. But I think Gen Z are super cool. I highly recommend everyone go to President Putin's Instagram right now, and see the comments from Gen Z. They are hilarious.
They're funny, they're switched on to social issues in a way that previous generations perhaps haven't been, apart from maybe ours. And I can't wait until the take the reigns, and turn everything into a meme, and connect the world globally, with the friendships they have internationally.
"The concept of the Nation State...that's a quite new concept. People had way more mobility. Humans are a migratory species. so baring that in mind, that it's actually a huge policy, and shift in perception, that's actually going to lead to a solution."
On what we can do to help in the refugee crisis.
I think nothing but wholesale change, in the refugee and migrant system in the world, will do what needs to happen. In terms of addressing the historic levels of displacement, that are going on. I'm not quite "no borders" as your t-shirt slogan says! But, it's something that radical that's necessary.
And just to colour this with one of the reasons I believe that, is that countries have only existed for a few hundred years. The concept of the Nation State, where every single inch of this planet has been cut off, into set squares, the certain, powerful, usually male leaders control, that's a quite new concept. People had way more mobility. Humans are a migratory species. so baring that in mind, that it's actually a huge policy, and shift in perception, that's actually going to lead to a solution.
"I think what we can do in the immediate term, is to show that we support refugees, and to show our leaders that our empathy does not stop at a border line, and our love extends to everyone on Earth. The we feel just as much pain when we watch a Ukrainian mother crying in rubble as we do women in Yemen, or wherever."
I think what we can do in the immediate term, is to show that we support refugees, and to show our leaders that our empathy does not stop at a border line, and our love extends to everyone on Earth. The we feel just as much pain when we watch a Ukrainian mother crying in rubble as we do women in Yemen, or wherever.
And yes we do feel a certain connection to our homelands, but that doesn't mean that we don't care when terrible, preventable things happen elsewhere. The minimum thing we can do in those situations is to not force them to stay in a burning house. I think that's something that everyone can get behind - that perception shift. People opening up and talking about their beliefs there, and counteracting some of the nationalism and xenophobia that's rising up as well. Just showing you support that view is important.