Replacing Brain Drain with Brain Gain



Hello everybody, and welcome to the podcast. We're here today with a very dynamic guest, Ronit Avni. She's an entrepreneur whose firm is called Localized. Her firm and her staff and team work with top employers and global professionals who can offer career advice and expertise to students. 

She's also been a founder and former executive director of Just Vision, a nonprofit organization that creates digital media, award-winning films, news analysis, and public education campaigns in North America and the Middle East. So welcome, Ronit.


Thanks so much. Great to be here, Joe. 


First off, you are the founder and CEO of a company called Localized, and it's a young company, it's been around for a couple years. Why don’t you tell the audience here about Localized and, you know, the pain point that it was designed to solve. You know, what was the original thesis, and part of that, you know, talk about why university students in the Middle East and even beyond the Middle East are having trouble connecting with global companies, you know, specifically in their search for career opportunities.


Absolutely. So we're going through a sea change right now on many levels. The pandemic, of course, changed the way that we interact, it changed the way that we learn and the way that we hire, and the way that we work in terms of moving online. But even without COVID-19, those trends were happening anyway, where there was shifting to global recruiting, global hiring, remote and distributed teams, and 85% of the world's population reside in emerging markets, places like the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, Latin America, etc. 

And in these regions, students are enrolling in higher education in huge numbers. So to put that in perspective, in the US, there are about 20 million students a year enrolling in higher ed. When we're talking about emerging markets we're talking about over 100 million students. And that's slated to keep growing, to get to close to a billion by 2050. So huge, huge numbers are going to be going to universities, going to other post-secondary courses, with the expectation that when they come out the other end they'll be able to find jobs. 

And one of the challenges is that the labor force, the ways that we work, are changing so quickly that it's really tough for any university, any training institution to keep up. You know, if we're talking about FinTech or ed tech or med tech or AI or renewables, or any of these sectors that are tech and data enabled, there's just exponential change taking place. And most career services professionals, and even a lot of professors, if they've been out of the labor market for a few years, then they might be out of touch on the titles of jobs that students are going to be applying for, the kinds of things and the kinds of skills that are going to be required. 

So, fundamentally, one of the things that's really needed is a way for students to hear directly from people in the workforce, who can say, “Hey, these are the kinds of roles we're hiring for. These are the gaps that we see. These are the skills that we're looking for. These are the kinds of opportunities that are going to be available to you in six months or 12 months or 18 months.”

Now, if you attend an elite institution, you know, a top university, you have that, by virtue of your alumni network, right? The alumni are sharing this kind of information all the time. They're conducting interviews and informational interviews with students and recent graduates. But for most students from all over the world, that's not readily available. And it doesn't have to be if industry experts are able to share their expertise directly.

And so the way that Localized works is that universities and other talent hubs sign up to our platform, and we connect students and recent graduates with those industry experts, people who are really at the tops of their fields, who are able to share what they're doing, what they know, what they see coming, and the advice they have to offer. 

And then we also enable employers to come onto the platform, because, you know, as I mentioned, 85% of the world's population are in emerging markets. And the majority of them, by the way are under the age of 28, and so the majority of the world's workers and future workers are in these markets, and yet it's really tough to recruit them in digital ways.

Right now, usually companies would go and attend their in-person career fairs in an auditorium or in a gym on a local campus. Now obviously with COVID that wasn't possible, and so universities started to think about alternatives. And so we actually hosted the first Middle East and North Africa-wide virtual career fair.

We had several hundreds employers, we had about 10,000 jobseekers attend. And when we surveyed the employers, they shared that the majority had never recruited virtually for fresh talent before, but that a greater majority actually planned to do so moving forward. 

And so that gives you a sense. So our tagline is experts to guide you, employers to hire you.


That was unbelievable, that 100 million student number, quite compelling actually. And the pain points across many different stakeholders: I heard students, employers, schools and organizations. From what you told me yesterday, some of your biggest customers are universities, Middle East and in Africa, as well as North America. How do these universities benefit from partnering with Localized?


Absolutely. So, the universities sign up for a number of reasons. Number one, they want to expose their students and recent graduates to as many industry experts as they can across fields, and it's unreasonable to expect that they would have relationships in everything from, let's say, sustainable construction, all the way through to IoT in med tech, Internet of Things in medical technologies. And so many universities, whether it's Columbia in New York or whether it's a university in the United Arab Emirates, they sign up in order to provide their students with that access to those experts on a daily basis. 

We also have an HR coach in residence who used to work at Stanford, and leads learning and development at a large technology company in Silicon Valley, who does CV reviews and resume reviews on a weekly basis. But in addition, they sign up because they can host their own career fairs, internship fairs, and they can also attend our virtual career and virtual internship fairs, as well as enable their students and recent graduates to access employers. 

So it's that suite of services that is an enhanced version of their career services but with more of a global lens, and also with a lens toward emerging technologies. So really understanding where is the world going, not where is it right now.


So you brought up technology, so let's talk about those big tech companies. They're coming to Localized to help them with their recruiting efforts. Why couldn’t they find people through their existing recruiting channels?


There's no question that that the major tech companies have a huge pipeline of applicants, right? But they're always making sure that they have a more diverse pipeline, that they have a more global pipeline, that they're top of mind in certain circumstances, just to make sure that they've got as robust a pipeline as possible and so. 

And also, frankly, we make it easy, right, because we've got so many universities across so many countries. We've got over 60 countries represented. We have top universities across the Middle East, across North Africa, we have six universities in India, we've got one in Beijing, some really excellent talent, all in one place. And so by coming to us, they're able to access that talent very quickly and very efficiently.


So you help them curate through the talent, that's pretty interesting. So, on the topic of talent, you know, what are the typical educational backgrounds of the students and the young professionals who engage on your platform?


I would say engineering and business are the top two majors represented, but then it's a wide range - everything from translation to architecture to communications, marketing design, some health sciences. So it is quite a wide range. 
In the United States we have students from campuses across the country through certain fellowship programs that have signed up to Localized. We have a lot of students who are focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and everything that comes with that - math and statistics, etc. So it's a pretty wide mix.

We're focused… because we're focused on jobs that you can potentially do remotely, although not exclusively, we tend to attract companies and experts that can relay their expertise virtually, right? So if you're studying nursing, let's say, we would not be the platform. If you're trying to, you know, fix a, you know, an air conditioning unit, we wouldn't be the platform. But if you're thinking about effective robotics or effective computing or you're thinking about consulting or cybersecurity, even if you're thinking about it through a marketing lens or through a sales lens, Localized is a great place.


One of your compelling offerings which I'm hearing here is that Localized is really good at connecting schools and students to experts, so it's a classic platform where you're bringing all these different stakeholders together. And these professionals, these experts that you actually bring to the platform, they actually are from the culture of the students, they actually speak in their language and they can offer tremendous insights and practical tips for, you know, careers and interviewing and things of that nature. 

So, how did this come to be, what was the idea behind it? Where did it originate and why actually did the experts come to Localized, what's their motivation?


So one of the fundamental beliefs underpinning Localized is that it's really important for students and for recent graduates to see people like them working in every kind of job. And internally we have this jargon that we refer to as “proximate role models,” the idea being that you want to see somebody that you look at and you think, “Wow, if that person could do that job, maybe I can too.”

And, you know, we have an expert who has shared his insights on the platform repeatedly. He is in charge of, I believe his current title is in charge of Product Marketing for all of Google for the Middle East. And he talks about how when he was a senior, when he was a student, a Microsoft employee came and spoke to his class for an hour, but that Microsoft employee was a fellow Jordanian like him and helped him to see that if that fellow Jordanian could work at a company like Microsoft, he could work at a large tech company, which up until that point he hadn't imagined for himself. And now he's at Google and now he's giving back and he's sharing that expertise with others.

So the experts on our platform, they're really enthusiastic about the prospect of giving back to the next generation, to the communities that they care about. The beauty of it is that they join in order to give back to their communities of heritage, so if you're, let's say, an Egyptian CTO of a large tech company in Silicon Valley, you're excited to hear that we've got Egyptian universities on the platform.

But what's really moving is that once the experts come on, they're actually ecstatic to be helping students who are in Mexico and in the United States and in Brazil and in Nigeria. So they come on in order to give back to their communities of heritage, but they stay on to make an impact and to help students, and that's been really beautiful to see. They really just want to feel like they can give the kinds of advice that they wish they had when they were growing up.


This is a true innovation, right, you're really pulling pieces from other experiences in life. I'm guessing there's a ton of great stories that are coming out of what you guys are doing. You must be very satisfied as an organization, everybody on your team. 

I'm really curious about… You're going across multiple countries right, and I know PMI is a global organization as well, so there's no cookie cutter way to address all the stakeholders and all the different nuances of organizations and universities and so forth around the world. 

Have you encountered specific, you know, and different challenges for Localized as you go to market, you know, from country to country? And how have you been able to, from a technology or otherwise perspective, make customizations to account for those differences?


It's a great question and I think we're gonna continue to do more of it. So we started in the Middle East and North Africa. So the first thing that we did was we built the platform in both Arabic and English, which is arguably, from a tech standpoint, one of the hard… you know, we took care of right to left and left to right from the get go. I think Arabic was Instagram’s 38th language that they added because it's technically complicated, even though it's, you know, it's a region that is… the mobile connectivity and literacy rates are off the charts, so very, very high. 

So we started there and so we definitely... And, you know, as the name suggests, we really did want to make it so that when you joined you felt at home, you know like a lot of people… we just after our virtual career fair a few weeks ago we asked, we took a survey of our users and words that came up a lot for students were these words of community, and so really feeling like, you know, family, community, on the platform. So we wanted to foster that by making the kinds of names and experts familiar, right, and so, you know, who the email is coming from and what their name is and where are the experts and the brands of the employers.

As we grew, we diversified that further, right? So our experts are Indian, they're Mexican, they're Brazilian, they're Nigerian, they're, you know, certainly across the MENA region, they're American. So we are continuing to do that. I think over time we will segment further so, you know, you only see events if you speak the language. You only see certain things if you are from, you know, we are segmenting based on language, we are enabling employers to target specific geographies, you know, which is understandable. 

We've also enabled private events, like private virtual career fairs. Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, for example, held a few private recruiting events on the platform this past year, and others have done so as well. You know, I think over time we will probably further segment. 

But the flip side is, and the thing that I really love about Localized, is that you have this diversity. You've got sessions where you have students from Bangladesh and from, you know, South Africa and from Egypt and from, you know, Colombia, coming at the same time. And the students really, I think… the feedback we're getting is that they really enjoy that piece of it. 

That being said, we do want to make sure for employers, we want relevancy to be very high. So if they're recruiting positions in specific geographies, they need to be able to, you know, only see the talent in the relevant geographies. And so we do enable that kind of searching and contacting talent, you know, and limiting that.

I think one thing over, you know, in the long term, we might have to segment our social media feeds, right? So you might have an Indian feed that looks different than MENA feed that looks different than a sub-Saharan African feed. We're not there yet but we're definitely weighing what gets lost and also what is gained by doing so.


So it's that balance between a global approach and localizing things, right? It's the challenge of most global companies. 
Let me ask - I know that you're an immigrant to the United States and I heard earlier, you mentioned that you lived or you grew up in Montreal. Did your personal experience, you know, from being an immigrant to the U.S., did it inform or impact you desire to start Localized?


Absolutely. So I think, on a number of levels. So, the culture, you know, people tend to think Canada's right next door to the U.S., it’s the same. But Quebec’s educational system is quite different. And so, you know, and I grew up in Quebec during a really, really intense recession.

There was about a decade of an exodus where, you know, thousands of people left Quebec for Toronto. They left it for the United States, and the economy was in really rough shape. And so when I was growing up, if you even if you had a PhD, which I do not, but if you did, you often couldn't find a job as a waiter, waiting tables. 

And so it was pretty… it was not a time for being ambitious or really dreaming big. And I think I absorbed the mentality of just take whatever you can get, you know, any job that you can get no matter what it is. If it has a paycheck attached to it, you just take it, you don't complain. Keep your head down and just do it. 

And so when I ended up coming with a fellowship to study in the States, and for me it was shocking, just to see the ethos of students who were choosing their internships and negotiating their comp for internships, you know, freshmen who are doing that. 

I'll never forget someone that I went to college with who, she got an internship at a large university in New York, and they paid her an enormous amount of money, from my perspective. And she negotiated a four day workweek as opposed to five days, for a paid internship. And I just thought that was like the height of audacity. 

It really made me realize that I had internalized lower expectations about what was possible for me, even though I saw myself as an ambitious person who, you know, was somebody who excelled, you know, in my academics and things like that. And so that really helped and I really credit… I do love that about the United States, that there's this feeling of potential and possibility.

And so I think having these experts be able to convey that, you know, be able to just talk to students and say, “Hey, you can reach higher,” is something that's very, for me, profoundly important. I think it's how I've always learned, is watching people, finding these role models, finding these mentors. Even if they don't know, you know, even if I just know that they're out there doing their thing, but there's somebody that I can relate to, that I feel like, “Oh, wow, that person could do, so why not me?”

A lot of my work before this I had done for many years human rights work and worked all over the world. And you see incredible talent everywhere but, you know, the cliches are true, you know, talent is distributed but opportunity is not. And so I think we're in a unique moment in history right now where for the first time, your geography and your knowledge are decoupled. 

And we're seeing this with COVID, right, you'd like you and I were talking from different cities, you know? You could be anywhere, you could be in Hawaii right now, you could be halfway across the world, and we can have this conversation. And that's really new. I mean that's, you know… the fact that you have mobile device penetration all over the world and you have this connectivity, and you have a knowledge economy, all of these forces coming together at the same time.

What that means is that people can learn from other people across geographies and across time zones and they can work with other people, they can collaborate with other people. Nothing I'm saying is rocket science, but it is a fundamental shift in how these interactions happen.

And so what that means is that places that historically you might have had a lot of talent, but that talent, the only way for that talent to really kind of make it at a world-class level was to leave, right? Up until recently it was all about brain drain, you would have to leave your home. 

I had to leave Montreal during this recession because the economy was in such rough shape, right, like I couldn't stay. I would never have been able to build, you know, the media organization I built before launching Localized from Montreal under those circumstances. You had to leave. But now you don't have to leave, like, you can actually be where you are, and operate using the technologies that we have, and using these new norms of working and collaborating.

So to me, I see it as incredibly exciting and want to make sure that we maximize the benefit for students, you know, so that we don't lose out on all of this amazing talent that just doesn't have the kind of inspiration that, you know, you would just expect to get in a more elite environment.


It's actually a new freedom, if you will, the ability to do what you just described. And actually, just hearing what you're saying in that answer - I can see that, perhaps that's one of the special sauce ingredients of Localized is the art of possibility. It seems to be right in the mix in everything that you're talking about. So that's a pretty powerful thing. 

So let me ask you about, I heard you say “brain drain” in a different context, but there's a social impact dimension of what Localized is doing. We can hear it pretty, pretty strongly, and you describe that as “brain gain.” So, what does that really mean and, you know, what attracted you to this concept?


So this idea of brain drain, right - so many countries lose 30% of their population to brain drain. So usually top talent, they leave, right? If they if they can go to a place where there's more economic opportunity, where there's no… there's more professional mobility, they'll leave their homes.

You know, they've been educated in their home, they've been raised in their home, and they leave. And the place that they've left often loses out as a result, right, because they're losing all this talent that they had nurtured and that goes elsewhere, and that's historically been considered brain drain. The phrase was coined, you know, over 50 years ago in the UK, and that was the idea. 

And now there's this new opportunity, right, which is that your, I call it “knowledge remittances.” We're getting a bit geeky and jargony here but if you think about it this way, right, if somebody leaves that home and they send money back, that's called a remittance, right? And remittances account for about $600 billion a year around the world. 

And the thing that I'm obsessed with is this question of knowledge remittances, right? Like the things you know - can you send what you know home. We’re in a new moment where we can give back, and we can share that expertise, and then it's really brain circulation. 

And the thing… so the thing that's built into Localized is this idea - it's not that the knowledge abroad is better than the knowledge at home. It's just sometimes if you're, let's say, operating in supply chain, you're dealing with supply chain management in Jordan, right, there's only so much scale that you can have. Jordan’s a small country with a small population. If you're, let's say, leading supply chains for Apple, out of California, right, you're seeing a global level of supply chain logistics challenges, right? 

And so one of our experts is actually overseeing that and he's originally Tunisian. And so when he talks about trends in supply chain, it's not that he's smarter than somebody who is working in supply chain in Jordan or in Tunisia. It's just that he's seeing it at a scale that he can really talk about global trends and just kind of industry standards, you know, around the world. 

And so what I'm interested in is, you know, folks like that who are able to share their expertise with students of supply chain management, students of logistics, to be able to say, “Hey, here are the best practices, here's what you need to look out for. Here's how robotics and automation are going to impact supply chains in the next few years. Here are the areas where we're still going to need humans, and so we really need you and we need your skills,” right?

And that that kind of information, if you're sharing that back to Tunisia, right, or you're sharing it back to Jordan, that's brain gain, right? You're sharing that knowledge and expertise, your knowledge is no longer lost if you can channel your knowledge back home. 

So that's a long-winded way of saying that I think we're in a new moment where people can share their knowledge and give it back to the communities that they care about, so that the communities can benefit from that expertise. And they don't just have to try to incentivize people to move back because it's proven to be impossible to do that in a meaningful way, and it's not even necessary.


So Ronit, you're a true entrepreneur. You've founded an NGO, you're a film producer, now you're a founder of a new company that's got some broad global reach and making some serious impact around the world. 

I'd like you to just spend a little bit of time to give the audience… what advice you would give them if they're thinking about founding a startup, right? And then, you know, what kind of lessons learned that you've picked up along the way, because I'm sure there's quite a deep reserve of lessons learned.


A lot of lessons learned. You know, I think first thing is really making sure that it's something that you want, and that you want it deeply, because launching something - and this was true when I launched my previous organization - it's true now with Localized. There are going to be really rough days, you know. There're going to be times where things look like they're on the brink of failure and you want to have a reservoir of passion for what you're doing. 

And so if you're going in just to make money or just to become famous, to me I think that those are reasons that are going to deplete you pretty quickly, and that people will come in and drop out. But if there's a deep why as to why you want to do something, that can be more sustaining. 

You know, I think then all the cliches apply. I mean, number one is do some listening, a lot of listening, talking to people and making sure, number one, is another startup needed, right? Is there someone already doing this and can you go join them or help them or take it to the next level. If there is, you know what, you know, can you join them. If you don't want to, why not? What is it that you're trying to do differently? 

And if there isn't really listening to your potential users and customers, validating the pain point, understanding it deeply, understanding if there's also an appetite for somebody to pay… if it's going to be a for profit, there's got to be some sort of monetization model. So making sure that it's something real and painful that people would be willing to spend money on, right, and that you can actually solve a problem for them. 

And then, you know, if you're doing all that listening, I would try to surround yourself with mentors. You know, I'm huge on the kind of mentors, role models, people who've done it - both those that have succeeded and those that have failed. I think that those are really important perspectives. 

So those are some of them. There are a million other lessons but… You know, and then I think specifically for earliest stage founders. The first, to me, you know, and this was true in my previous organization and it's true here with Localized, the first capital is the hardest to raise, because you don't have a track record yet. And it gets easier that people who initially say no, you know, in my prior organization, every funder that said no to us eventually became a funder. 

And it was a good lesson actually that, and I keep it in mind now. It's a little different in a startup scenario because their funders relate to stages now, you know, in terms of pre-seed and seed and series A, etc, so they don't always crossover. But it's a good lesson that a no can often be a not yet. And so keeping those relationships, you know, respectful and just keeping that perspective as well.


So you've mentioned the deep why, that was one of the things that caught my attention, in terms of having that deep why engaging in a start up, put all your heart and soul into something. On that, I guess, that thread, talk to us about what's inspired you, perhaps even as a young person or early in your career or even currently, what's your inspiration?


There are so many people that I take inspiration from, I think at this point it's more of a community of inspirers as opposed to any one individual. Just, you know, everything from, you know, my mom was a musician, which is really tough. My dad was an engineer who also, you know, built companies and, you know, one of them, you know, got acquired but the acquirer went bankrupt, right… 

So, you know, understanding that things are precarious, even success is precarious and can really turn around and so, you know, don't take things for granted. Do things for the love of doing them and for the, you know… I think neither of my parents were ever guided by material gain, you know. It was always either the intellectual or creative pursuit of, you know, loving to create, loving to contribute and build. 

And I think for me, you know the impact piece was really important. I, you know, I'm very moved by people who inspire others, right, and, you know, bringing those role models, bringing those examples. Because as I said, you know, I learned from watching others right, and taking inspiration from them, so trying to enable those inspirers to have a bigger platform is something that I'm very passionate about. 

But also, you know, I think one of the things that I try to… a decision-making principle that I have is, you know, this idea of no fear and no ego, you know. Don't make decisions based on fear, and whether it's fear about material sustainability, or whether it's fear about, you know, failure, but also don't make it, don't make decisions based on ego. 

And if you can kind of walk the path that is not governed by either, then that's a good thing. Then you tend to make clearer decisions about what you really want to do as a result.


That's fantastic advice and I would add data-driven decisions as well, that really helps take out those two things, the fear and the ego, and makes things clear. So great, this has been fantastic. Ronit Avni, we have had a fantastic time here today. The story of your company, it really resonated with me and hopefully the audience, it resonated with them in many different ways.

Certainly what I heard here today was very similar to what we do, so there's a lot of skills that we can help your organization with and your students with as well. So thank you so much for your time here today, your insights, the best of luck with you and your and your company, and I look forward to seeing you soon in the future.