Trailblazing women of UK tech: Mursal Hedayat

Orla Browne, March 8, 2019 3 min read

At the age of three, Mursal Hedayat came to the UK with her “kick-ass engineer” mother. They were refugees. Mursal and her mum were warmly welcomed to the UK, but the employment opportunities afforded to her talented mother in Afghanistan, had evaporated in transit. This story in many ways is not unique. It is estimated that 38% of Syrian refugees in the UK have a university degree, while their unemployment rate stands at a staggering 70%. Thankfully Mursal Hedayat was not satisfied with the status quo, and decided to do something about it.

While in Afghanistan, Mursal’s mother had an accomplished career as a civil engineer. She had been one of just five students in her class at Kabul University, and was so successful and respected that she was sent to represent her country at a United Nations Women’s Conference in New York. But her experience as an proficient professional in Afghanistan translated to consistent un- or underemployment as a refugee in Britain.

Mursal recognised from a young age the huge amount of unrealised human capital in refugee populations. She’d seen it first hand. The idea that her mother couldn’t get a suitable job was ludicrous, very likely representative, and a problem that must be remedied.

After graduating with a degree in Economics from Leeds University, Mursal became a Year Here fellow, learning the skills of social entrepreneurship. It was there that she started Chatterbox, “an enterprise created for refugees, by refugees”.

Chatterbox employs refugees as tech-enabled language tutors of their mother tongue. Working in-person or remotely, tutors earn an income at or above the Living Wage, become more integrated in their new communities, and can build a strong CV of performance in their adoptive countries. Her inspiration for Chatterbox? Mursal said “I just want to make the experience that I’ve had coming to the UK, the welcome, the opportunity, be extended to all refugees.”

While successfully extending opportunities to refugees, Chatterbox is also helping to solve the UK’s £48bn language deficit – the cost to the economy due to lack of domestic language skill. Many British business are reticent, reluctant, slow or inept when it comes to international expansion and building international trading relationships, due in part to a paucity of language ability within their workforces. While much of the world does speak English as a first or second language, as former German Chancellor Willy Brandt put it “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language, but if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Chatterbox humbly ask “if you‘re going to learn a language, why not change someone’s life at the same time?”. Their language support stretches to over a dozen languages, including Arabic, Spanish, French, Persian, Turkish and Mandarin. Half of their tutors are teachers by profession, while the other half are professional graduates unable to transfer their careers from their native countries. This means that a British lawyer specialising in Middle-Eastern finance can learn Arabic from a Syrian solicitor, something that would be cost-prohibitive were that person not a refugee. So they’re helping close the gap between refugees and the labour market, improving economic productivity, and making language learning more efficient too.

Mursal has been listed in Forbes’ 30 Under 30, named an MIT Innovator, and is one of the FT’s Top 100 Most Influential Leaders in Tech. Chatterbox has received recognition and support from Bethnal Green Ventures, Nesta and the Red Cross, and last year won the Varkey Foundation‘s educational technology award.

Since starting in 2016, Chatterbox have now employed over 80 tutors, and taught in excess of 3,000 students. Their courses have some of the highest completion rates in online learning.

Mursal has said “a life worth living and well lived is one where you feel appreciated by your community.” Well we certainly appreciate you, Mursal.

Women in tech, London, Early Stage