Posted on February 22, 2021
Malak Yacout launched The Volunteer Circle some four years ago to connect people to volunteer opportunities based on their skillset. Little did she know that her startup would play a focal role during Lebanon’s most critical times.
We met with Malak over Zoom to talk about her entrepreneurial journey, how she started developing her idea while at university, how she built her platform and grew it from 3 users to 4300, with 14 staff members and 18 NGOs on board.
Malak’s journey started with a simple problem she faced. “I was a student at university who wanted to volunteer but could not find any opportunity around me that is meaningful to my skills, location or sectors of interest. After traveling to more than 35 countries, I noticed how volunteering was very easily accessible in some countries where entire institutions ran on volunteer work, like the public zoo or library. Lebanon fell in the category where access to volunteering opportunities was not easy, but then again nothing is easy to access in Lebanon, so you do everything from scratch.
While volunteering was something that mattered to me, I was sure that other people within my circle and outside shared that same struggle. I did my research, talked to people about my idea, and built a network in the NGO world. I understood the challenges that both organizations and volunteers face, so it became easier for me to imagine what a platform that matches both would look like because I was in full control of the pain points that I could address from both sides.”
While at university studying Business Administration, Malak used every opportunity she had to share her idea with her professors and get their feedback. She worked on The Volunteer Circle as a final project for every class that required one, getting to look at her idea from different perspectives. “Once I graduated, I was offered a dream job at an agency and had the option to pursue a career in advertising and communications, but it didn’t feel right, so I declined it. My mother did not understand what was going on, she couldn’t believe what I had done. I don’t think I believed it either! I held on to my idea and wanted to make it happen. I didn’t want to turn 30 one day and tell myself ‘oh here’s something I’ve wanted to work on all this time that is needed more than ever in Lebanon.’ I didn’t want to be too late.”
It took Malak 9 months of full testing and prototyping with NGOs and volunteers to design the platform, develop it and bring it to life. She launched the platform on March 27, 2019.
“Some people consider this date a second birthday for me because it marked me for life. The day I decided to launch, I locked myself in my room to avoid distractions. We launched the platform with three user profiles: mine, the developer’s and my mother’s, which we created to test the platform. Later that day my mother walked in on me to find me in tears. They were tears of joy. People that I don’t know signed up to the platform that same day. I was ecstatic. All I wanted was for this idea to touch people outside of my bubble and it resonated well.
At that point, I don’t think I had ever seen my mother this confused. First, I had declined a job, then I spent months working like crazy without making any money with her asking me every day when I would get a real job and now ,I was crying over strangers on the Internet,” says Malak laughing.
“The Volunteer Circle community grew very fast, not only because we did a good job but because the solution was needed. Every time I speak to someone about it, their response would be: where were you all my life?”
The launch of The Volunteer Circle was followed by an avalanche of social and environmental crises. From the October fires of 2019, the ongoing refugee crisis, the revolution, the economic meltdown to the spread of the coronavirus, the consecutive lockdowns and to top it all the Beirut Blast. “In humanitarian emergencies and crises, the first thing people do is find ways to help. People were not only looking to volunteer, but they were also trying to use their particular skills to benefit the community. With the Beirut Blast, The Volunteer Circle community expanded quickly. Our experience had special value because all NGOs needed skilled volunteers from architects, doctors, nurses, and social workers, to program managers, grant writers, graphic designers, data analysts, etc… The need for skilled volunteer support made people understand the value and importance of our work, but we wished we didn’t have to go through this. You don’t wish this upon your worst enemy.”
“In the minutes after the explosion, all I could think of was how we could mobilize our community immediately. How can everything we had built be useful at that point? We were ready for the huge challenge. We started to intervene directly by locating relief efforts and dispatching them to the different NGOs according to the mission or sector. When and if NGOs were not prepared for the work and capacity, we rolled up our sleeves and intervened on the ground. We got directly involved in some projects like rebuilding or providing basic assistance. The experience we had built was fundamental but there was a lot of learning and unlearning in the process too.” Learn more about the activities conducted by the Berytech Community after the Beirut Blast.
Malak joined Berytech’s MEPI-funded Impact Rise Social Entrepreneurship Program in October 2019. The social entrepreneur finished the first level of the program despite the intense months of 2020 and made it to level two. “We’re so proud of being part of the Impact Rise Program. We’re happy to have been selected to go through the second phase because it gives personalized attention to see the social enterprise succeed and become sustainable. We have had great progress from the day we started till today, it gave us the opportunity and the tools to work on our theory of change and internal operations.
The people we have met through the program, particularly the coaches and the mentors were amazing in a way that expanded our horizons. I hope to see a surge in similar programs because the community needs are increasing by the minute and we need more light to be shed on the social innovators. They are the ones touching the lives of millions. They are the ones who, in this critical time in Lebanon, can take the country forward.” Meet the other startups enrolled with Berytech in the second phase of the Impact Rise Program.
“The Volunteer Circle is not simply giving the youth voices but making sure those voices are heard, by helping them focus their goals and objectives and then build the right and necessary bridges to link them to the right organizations and therefore focusing attention on communities to nurture and sustain youth development. The team is dedicated and committed to the growth of their venture using all the available resources to increase their impact. After the Beirut Blast, we saw the importance of having this platform to surpass the challenges by connecting the right volunteers to the right organizations. Looking forward to the scalability of this solution and with the help of Impact Rise Phase II experts and the efforts they are doing am confident that The Volunteer Circle will find the right opportunities in Lebanon and fulfill high hopes,” explains Jessica Ghaoui, Program Officer at Berytech.
Roula Eid Sawan is the expert who has been coaching the team from The Volunteer Circle. She details that, “The Volunteer Circle has a triangular social impact: starting from the volunteers who found a trustful place where they can belong, and practice their dedication, the organizations and companies that were able to reduce time in searching for appropriate volunteers, and at the summit of the triangle there is the community who benefits from this joint effort. The energy of the team is amazing especially Malak who is a real leader and she is proving day after day that she will reach every goal she has set for her startup.”
Malak is hoping that the new year will give a new breath to The Volunteer Circle. She is working on reaching milestones that involve multiple programs to cover volunteering from the first touchpoint when a person wants to have a positive impact in the society and doesn’t know where to start, to the last touchpoints where they can measure their impact and spread it around, with all the steps in between.
“Volunteering is an entire world and we are dedicated to working on it. We have one of the most vibrant civil societies in the region. The more I dive into it the more I learn of the extraordinary initiatives coming from local NGOs and how the people running them are amazing leaders.
We want to raise the bar in volunteering. From a professional standpoint, volunteering can be a touchpoint for employment for the younger generation and can be a renewable resource that our institutions and NGOs strive for not only for the next two years of recovery but in the long run. We want people, through The Volunteer Circle, to tap into a new way to look at volunteering because it is aligned with how people view the world and how fast the world is changing: it is digital, up to date, instant, personalized. We started in Beirut, we want to solidify our work here and slowly take it to other countries in the MENA region sharing similar challenges. With that, we aim to go global with a creation from the heart of the Middle East.”
Malak admits to the difficulties of choosing social entrepreneurship. “There’s the risk of being self-employed, the insane amount of time it takes to develop a solution, the ways your startup is meant to change the lives of people.
When I was at university, I learned about entrepreneurship but not specifically about social entrepreneurship. There were no classes, no exposure to this concept, and I didn’t even know what I was doing was called social entrepreneurship. It wasn’t until after a year of graduating that I started getting acquainted with this term, thinking, hey! this is exactly what I’m doing! This is the core of what The Volunteer Circle is about, and I learned it all on the streets, not in the classroom. It’s only now, 4 years later, that Impact Rise is the first social entrepreneurship accelerator in Lebanon and social entrepreneurship is becoming more common. Yet, social enterprises are still not legally recognized in Lebanon.
I have become an avid believer in spreading social entrepreneurship knowledge to the younger generation especially if they are in their final year of school or university. The longer I work in this field and civil society the more I get exposed to the challenges that we are facing on different levels and the more I notice hands-on how social entrepreneurship can solve most of these problems. Today in The Volunteer Circle, I dedicate a lot of time to give our interns workshops on the subject and transfer my knowledge and experience as a social entrepreneur.”
About the Impact Rise Program
The Volunteer Circle team is currently enrolled in Berytech’s Impact Rise Social Innovation Program, which is funded by the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).They are among 16 chosen teams who joined the startup scaling track. They were chosen based on the startup’s business and innovation potential, business model, scalability, team compatibility and expertise, as well as their ultimate social and environmental impact. They are now continuing their journey with Berytech and are enrolled in the second phase of the Program. They are being coached by Roula Eid Sawan, an expert also enrolled in the Impact Rise Program.