It has been simultaneously uplifting and disheartening to see the outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees over the past few weeks. Uplifting to witness the humanity and strength as people rally together to provide critical aid for those in need, and disheartening to recognise the imbalance in attitudes towards European refugees compared to those displaced in past humanitarian crises.
It was this subject that kicked off my conversation with Mursal Hedayat MBE when I caught up with her yesterday. Mursal is founder and CEO at Chatterbox, a social enterprise tech platform that connects skilled refugees and other marginalised communities with corporate clients looking for language teachers. I was privileged enough to meet Mursal 18 months ago, when I was asked to interview her and take references for a VC fund investing in her business – and this week I was keen to catch up, congratulate her on Chatterbox’s recent fundraise and hear her thoughts on the current refugee crisis.
“It just hadn’t occurred to me that there might be different ‘levels’ of refugees,” she said, seeming tired after a busy few weeks for her and her team. “It does seem like this group is being treated better than groups of displaced people in the past.” But she doesn’t dwell: “we should always focus on the glass half full – and turn this into a watershed moment to transform attitudes towards refugees for good.”
“We should always focus on the glass half full – and turn this into a watershed moment to transform attitudes towards refugees for good.”
Shifting attitudes towards refugee and marginalised talent sits at the heart of Chatterbox’s mission. “I built my company with an understanding that there are lots of skilled people with qualifications and a professional background who are currently out of work,” Mursal explained. “The only reason that they’re being overlooked is because they’re from historically marginalised groups that are consistently undervalued – refugees, mothers returning to work, or older people going through career changes, for example.”
Mursal knows intimately the challenges faced by people looking to re-enter the world of work. Born in Kabul, Mursal and her family fled the Taliban when she was four years old, arriving in the UK as refugees. Despite both having qualifications and serious professions in Afghanistan – her mother was a civil engineer and her father a maths professor – neither of Mursal’s parents found skilled work in the UK.
Mursal’s mother, who in Kabul had frequently represented Afghanistan in a professional setting, remained unemployed for a decade before taking up a job as a cleaner in the community. “It was heartbreaking to watch a woman like my mother not be able to fulfil her potential,” Mursal told me. “I knew this was the problem I was looking to solve – I wanted to right what felt like a burning injustice.”
“It was heartbreaking to watch a woman like my mother not be able to fulfil her potential, I knew this was the problem I was looking to solve – I wanted to right what felt like a burning injustice.”
Forced to adjust to life in the UK, Mursal had a somewhat unconventional education. “We moved between council estates in London when I was a child so I went to a couple of different primary schools.” Life changed when Mursal gained top marks in the entrance exam for Camden School for Girls, and her mother begged the school’s deputy head to admit her, despite living outside the catchment area. This effort proved well worth it: Mursal was admitted to school, became Head Girl and eventually went on to read Economics and Mathematics at the University of Leeds.
Chatterbox was founded a year after Mursal graduated, against the backdrop of the European refugee crisis. Chatterbox trains and upskills marginalised talent as language teachers and connects them with corporate businesses, simultaneously breaking down barriers to employment and providing a solution for the growing demand for foreign language training in the UK. Today, Mursal counts Microsoft, Unilever and McKinsey among her client base, has a team of more than 25, and was recently shortlisted for Veuve Clicquot’s Bold Woman Award, which recognises game-changing entrepreneurs who are transforming their field.
She hopes to develop Chatterbox into a broad-based platform for marginalised talent. “There are at least 40 million people in the OECD alone who have qualifications and degrees but are long-term unemployed or underemployed,” she tells me. “We’re in the midst of a massive labour shortage in AI, online sales, data analysis – so why aren’t we looking to find, train and upskill these people?”
“There are at least 40 million people in the OECD alone who have qualifications and degrees but are long-term unemployed or underemployed.”
We agree that the current crisis in Ukraine may be a tipping point. “When I first pitched Chatterbox, no one believed that there were enough highly skilled people who fitted the criteria I was talking about. But today, we’re seeing a sea-change in attitudes. It’s taken a European refugee crisis for people to understand that being out of work doesn’t mean you’re not good enough to work.”
I wonder what her biggest learning has been? “I learn something new every hour in this job,” she laughs. “But one major lesson is the importance of hiring. Bringing in exceptional people is the best thing you can do. When it comes to building our team, it’s either a ‘hell yes’ or a ‘hell no’. Never settle for anything less than a hell yes.
“People also often want to know what it’s like being a female entrepreneur. It’s undoubtedly harder for women than it is for men – but I’ve come to realise just how much I love a challenge. It’s fun to be able to break through all the glass ceilings.”
Quick fire questions
Where were you born? Kabul, Afghanistan
Where did you go to school? A couple of different schools before Camden School for Girls, then Leeds University.
Who are your mentors? I have many mentors, and lots of different people I text when looking for guidance. But Google is probably my best mentor! And my mum, Patuni: she is the original founding insight of Chatterbox and my source of daily inspiration.
What is your favourite book?: Harry Potter by far – I have read them all many times.
What would you like your legacy to be? I don’t really believe in legacies. I think we should pay far less attention to people who are dead or no longer relevant. But I’ll tell you what I want my impact to be. I want to create wholesale change in the refugee system worldwide. Change is way past overdue.