Earlier this week, the Internet Society published the booklet Enabling Digital Opportunities in the Middle East. Using research created by the Internet Society, ESCWA, and Wamda, it shows what positive and practical steps can be taken to increase digital opportunity and spread its benefits to all of society. Layal Jebran is one person who’s helping to make a difference.
Layal Jebran is the type of person who can give an interview on the phone while giving directions to her friends while walking through the streets of New York City looking for Thai food. She’s the type of person who can start multiple companies while traveling the world giving motivational speeches and accepting awards. To call Jebran a multitasker would be an understatement. In the startup world, she’s more like a superhero.
“I started as an activist when I was 12 years old,” Jebran said. “And my first startup happened my second year in college.”
That successful startup used the Internet to connect freelance advisers to clients who needed them in the Middle East, but like many entrepreneurs, Jebran didn’t stop there. Lyl Big Designs led to other projects, and she continued developing several different ideas into reality, one after another after another. Why does she do it? Because she can, and because someone has to.
“Everyone told me I couldn’t do it. I come from a very small town, and no one believed in me, so I showed them,” Jebran said. She is a real example of success and achievement through the Internet in business in the Middle East, and she’s doing her best to make sure her home region soon catches up.
As countries around the world face a digital revolution, the Middle East has an opportunity to develop the Internet in a way that produces its content, services, and even infrastructure, if the countries in the region come together to make sure no one is left behind. In a new report, the Internet Society’s Middle East Bureau is reminding governments, corporations, tech experts, and society as a whole that we can’t underestimate the fundamental changes that faster, more affordable access to the Internet has brought and will continue to bring to humanity.
It sends the clear message that to build a prosperous digital future in the Middle East, humans need to be at the heart of the Internet.
Right now, people in the Middle East use the Internet more for socializing and entertainment than for commerce and business, but with the Middle East’s large population of well-educated but under-employed young people, some of the emphasis is on digital startups. In this arena, Jebran is an expert.
A mix of wanting to help the people of the world and wanting to prove herself has skyrocketed Jebran to success several times over in her short life. And when Jebran succeeds, she takes whole regions with her. For Jebran, it’s all about access.
Internet shutdowns, blocking, and other restrictions have slowed online growth in the Middle East, causing problems not faced by other regions.
“I fear the Internet will be regulated where it should be free and fair for everyone,” she said. “Even if they can access it, they might be monitored, and when you are monitored, you become a different person. Everyone has the right to be themselves.”
So Jebran thus uses her knowledge, sphere, and connection to build others up and takes on causes that preserve our Earth and its societies.
“You need grit for this,” Jebran said. “I’m persistent, and when I put my mind to something, I do it. I can also always pinpoint people who can help, and it’s nice to integrate with people from different backgrounds.”
While her background is in architecture and design, Jebran calls herself more business oriented these days, a skill needed in her roles as CEO and COO of her two current companies, respectively. She’s in charge of negotiations, investments, and cash flow. She delegates the coding and the fundraising to her hand-picked teams.
“I’m planning to change the world, bit by bit,” Jebran said. “To change that world, you must change the approach to education.”
She’s referencing inclusivity here, as so much online learning takes place in English. Her startup, Moubamrij.com, is a platform that teaches programming in Arabic, via online courses, specifically for Arab people living in non-English speaking countries. It just officially launched in January 2017, and Jebran said the program already has 5,000 subscribers in Russia alone.
This company helped earn Jebran a spot as a TechWomen Fellow this year, which is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She also holds status as a Changemaker for the Changemaker Exchange in Dubai.
The titles and awards mean little to Jebran, however, when compared to the good she can do in the world. Layla is also a partner and COO for the smart location-sharing app Waynak, which has been simmering for the past year and a half and is about to go huge, with major investors jumping on board. The app works with network triangulation on the phone, and people can pinpoint their locations through that.
“If you order an ambulance from the app, the location gets sent to the Red Cross, and the dispatch sends the link of the map to the car, and they can pick you up from there,” Jebran explained. “Or if your car breaks down, you can click on our app, and they can pinpoint you and send help your way.”
To Jebran, starting companies is as commonplace as updating Facebook or drinking coffee. Any skill becomes normalized with practice, and Jebran breaks down her process as if showing people how to ride a bicycle.
“We build the product, make sure it has a landing page and gets subscribers, then build the whole website,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Then we build a cash-flow statement, go to competitions, interest investors, and you pitch your idea. Then you pray to God,” she laughed.
Her process works, though, and when the investors sign on, she uses those funds to hire people to grow the company and make it accessible to those who will need it. The funds also help create exposure and make the process move more quickly, both necessary in the age of the Internet. It is with the Internet that Jebran rests her hopes and fears, and through the Internet that she is making such grand change.
“I want the Internet free and available to everyone. Everyone has the right to learn on the Internet, money aside,” she said. “That’s how you truly change the world: with equal access for every person.”