Spandana Palaypu is the founder and CEO of Zoeasy, a Dubai-based startup supporting blue-collar job seekers to find the right employment opportunities in the UAE. Spandana is also the Vice Curator of Global Shapers Dubai of the World Economic Forum. She was featured on Forbes 30 under 30, Forbes 50 Startups, Ahlan 2019’s Most Influential, and One Young World. Spandana is a recipient of the Duke of Edinburgh Award and World Challenger, where she assists in building schools and teaching in Tanzania. Her initiative, Zoeasy, has won a few challenges, including Lead 2030’s United Nations SDG Challenge and Expo Live’s Innovation Impact Program.
Spandana Palaypu’s interview with Next Women Generation
[Below is the transcript of interview which is edited for clarity.]
Q: Hi Spandana! Welcome to Next Women Generation. What are you doing in Dubai?
Spandana (0:34): I’m originally from India, but I was brought up in the UAE all my life. I’ve always been super passionate about education and employment since I was a teenager. I never really put anything into concrete action until I started interacting with more people within the blue-collar community. What I mean by the blue-collar community is basically people from different backgrounds, different walks of life. These are people that are working either in the hospitality industry or as security guards. There’s a variation of industries that form this community. In the UAE, there’re almost 4 million blue-collar workers. That’s almost 43% of the population, which is the maximum number. I’ve always grown up here. I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of different people from different walks of life. That’s one of the biggest beauties of the UAE. You have so much diversity around you.
There was one person in particular that I had interacted with that interacted with, putting me down this path of starting Zoeasy. She was someone who was my age. She came to the UAE to provide a better life for her family back home. Before coming out here, she wanted to be a sales agent and eventually grow in that line. But the recruiter or the agent that she spoke to in her home country. He [recruitment agent] told her that it’s very easy to find that job. He showed her a very big flashy, and rosy picture. But, her dream was very different from reality. She ended up spending $3,000 in advance to be able to find a job in the UAE. When she came here, she realized that it was for a cleaning position; it wasn’t actually for a sales position. The salary was not what she was told by the agent. It took her almost a year and a half to be able to pay back the debt that she was in.
Hearing that story got me thinking. This is someone that was my age, but I have access to so many great opportunities, and she doesn’t. That’s purely because she doesn’t have the right guidance to navigate this process of finding employment and finding the right employment opportunities. So when I started speaking to more people, I realized that this was quite a prominent problem. It wasn’t because of employers either. It was mostly because some recruiter or agent of their own country would sell them this massive dream, which is different from what is actually out there. That’s when I came up with the idea of starting a platform to educate and match migrant workers and migrant blue-collar job seekers to ethical employment opportunities more transparently. That’s kind of where it started. That’s what we’ve been doing.
Q: That is wonderful. So when I started it?
Spandana: I started in late 2016. I thought about the idea after I graduated from college, which was around the end of 2015. It’s kind of doing research, talking to people, and getting all those things together. That takes a while. I officially began it in 2016. That’s a funny story because I was pursuing jobs while simultaneously exploring this as an option. The day that I was offered a job with a big four firm in the UK. I also got an interest in investment in the company. It was an interesting crossroads. I ended up choosing this path in 2016.
Q: So, how did you start it at that time?
Spandana (5:08): I was actually pretty lucky in the sense. My father is an entrepreneur. A lot of people that I knew around me were either from a business background or from an HR background. Somebody who was a mentor of mine from my college days has extensive experience in HR. I try to use a lot of these mentors to help navigate those first steps in how I go about setting up a company. What kind of structure are we supposed to have in place. If you have to raise investment, I need to create a special purpose for investors from different parts of the world. What is the best way of doing that? What is the best way of creating a business within the UAE to run it and understand the regulations and the pain points?
The most important thing we needed to do was actually understanding our customers, our job seekers, and our employers. If you don’t really understand their pain points and the kinds of difficulties they go through, you won’t create the right platform or create the right processes. So that’s one of the first things I started doing. I started reaching out to and speak to job seekers anywhere randomly I would go. I talk to job seekers to understand what their journey was like.
Similarly, I started reaching out to many employers and understanding how their current hiring process was like. What are the issues that they face? Then, I started to offer my services for free to get a clear understanding and learning experience. What recruitment process actually looks like, and whether we can actually make it better and move it online. There was a lot of stuff that we did at the beginning. There’s this so much that you can sum it up into one thing. It was 14 hours of work a day. There was it was tough.
Q: Do you remember when you first started, how your 14 hours a day look like?
Spandana (7:38): One of the first things I started doing was actually speaking to people that already had to burn out at this point. That’s always a good place to go to understand what it takes actually to build a business. There were many things to consider, from actual legal formation to raising investment to create a basic prototype and test with employers—the job seekers to start the actual placement itself.
In the beginning, you have to be really brave and open to things. I would say you have to be as open-minded as possible. In the beginning, you’re going to get a lot of “NO.” I try to talk to employers and investors to get their opinions on whether this is viable. One thing that really helped was actually going in from the point of asking for advice because people are more open to talking to you when it’s just about getting advice from somebody, understanding, and getting some guidance from them. That was helpful for me at that point in time.
I had access to a wider network, and I grew that network and spoke to people and get their advice on how to move ahead. That would be the main thing. When I was 20 years old, 14 hours a day doesn’t seem too bad because you’ve got the stamina to do it. I wouldn’t recommend that as a permanent solution. Initially, you will have to work 14 hours a day. It does get better as your team comes in to support you on your journey.
Q: You just mentioned that you received a lot of ‘no’ when you first started your company. So how do you deal with that?
Spandana (9:52): Initially, you do feel bad, especially when you’re starting, and you’re very new to this whole process. For my internships or projects at university, I always had somebody to refer to. There’s always a superior that you can go to when someone says no, and they will be able to sort it out for you. But in this scenario, when it’s a no, you either have to change their mind, or you have to just leave for the time being and then come back to it later.
Initially, I did feel bad. But over time, I realized that the great opportunity to collect feedback and understand the reason behind that ‘no’ and see if there’s a way that you can actually turn it into a ‘yes.’ That was like my primary objective. Some people will say ‘no’; you will get multiple ‘no.’ There was one period where I just got consistent ‘no.’ It didn’t look positive at all until you can really turn things around for you. But, one ‘yes’ can turn things around.
I would say, ‘don’t give up.’ Just keep looking out for that one. I try to understand why people may say ‘no.’ At this point, a lot of it can be constructive criticism. So, I try to work on it, improve upon it, listen to what people have to say, and keep them and keep them updated. Some people did say ‘no’ to me before. Now, they come back to me and say, ‘I think that you’re doing well on your journey; maybe we can reconnect now.’ That’s great to hear. They believe in it, which is a positive sign.
Q: How long did it take you to get the first ‘yes’?
Spandana (12:04): It depends on what the ‘yes’ was. In terms of investment, I got my first ‘yes’ in 2017. And then, the first major ‘yes,’ which really turned things around quite big for me, was towards the end of 2017. When Forbes featured us on the 50 startups to watch list, I think that was one of our biggest ‘yes.’ And then in 2018, we got a second ‘yes,’ which One Young World started driving us forward. The collaborations and everything really picked up after that point.
You have a lot of ‘no’ in between, but those two ‘yes’ made a big difference to Zoeasy. It did not only grow but also put that vision and the issues faced by the blue-collar community on a global platform. So for those two years, I’m super grateful.
Q: What motivates you to strive when you receive a consistent “NO”?
Spandana (13:21): The thing that really drove me, to be honest, was the fact that we had placed a couple of people. At this point, we’ve already had a couple of job placements. I’ll give you an example. This is something that we actually placed recently. But, still, it’ll put things into context as to why I’m motivated to do this.
There is a person. She came to the UAE about five years ago on a visit visa to be able to support her family back home. She’s from the Philippines. She worked in the hospitality industry. Unfortunately, she wasn’t paid very well back home. She had to come out here to support her family and her parents. She had the responsibility of taking on her siblings at this point. When she came here, she got a job at a cleaning firm at a very low salary. She was earning about 1500 dirham to 1700 dirham a month. She worked 10 to 12 hours a day. She moved to another housekeeping job where the salary went up. She was able to get 2000 dirham to 2,500 dirhams per month. But the work hours became even more brutal. She used to get up at 4:30 in the morning to be at the worksite by 6:30. She used to work until almost 8 pm. Almost all her day was gone in working. When we connected with her, we actually had an opportunity with one of our major clients. Though it was in the manufacturing space, and she’s from the cleaning industry. A lot of her skills would apply to that specific profession. She ended up going from earning a lower salary to 2,900 dirhams a month.
Now her work hours are also extremely stable; she only has to work eight hours a day. She’s paid extra for overtime. She has access to all those different benefits. She’s overall happy because she got to pick up on a lot of new skills to be able to get better jobs in the future. She doesn’t have to stick to the cleaning industry anymore. She’s widened her job prospects by gaining exposure to the manufacturing industry and working in the manufacturing industry. She’s moving up the ladder and will be able to provide a better standard of living for her family in the future.
That was kind of my main driving point. You’re going to get a lot of ‘no.’ It is a social enterprise at the end of the day, right? It’s for profit. But, my primary point is creating social impact and trying to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s kind of cheesy, but that was my main driving point. Honestly, it felt so good to hear that somebody’s life got better because of this little thing that you could do for them. That was my primary driving point.
Q: It is very inspiring that you dedicate your time to serving others and making other people’s lives better. I like to learn about your investor. How did you attract your investor?
Spandana (16:57): There are multiple levels of investment that we’re talking about here. I’ll tell you about my most recent ones. These were actually grant-based funds. For example, we won the 2030 SDG Challenge (Goal 4), supported by Credit Suisse in 2019. One Young World basically created this fund to accelerate youth-led startups that are focused on the SDGs. They’re doing this in partnership with multiple fortune 500 companies across the globe, who also have more similar visions. One of the challenges they boasted was SDG4, which is quality education supported by Credit Suisse. We had applied for that challenge consisting of almost three levels of application.
You have to submit a basic application. Once you’ve submitted that, you have to submit a business plan and a video about yourself and the company. Then, you have to submit an even more detailed application. After that, you have a basic interview; that’s a further explanation of the kind of things that you’re doing. Basically, [I] answered some of the challenge partner’s questions before kind of finalizing their decision. This was honestly something that I never expected to win. I just thought, let’s apply and see what happens. It was one of the greatest feelings to hear that we won. We were the winner of that challenge. We got $50,000 in grant funding from Credit Suisse and some amazing mentorship for one year. That was what I look forward to the most because getting that kind of high-level mentorship from such a massive organization like Credit Suisse was a very big deal. They were able to guide us in so many different areas. For that, I’m super grateful.
Another one that we raise funding from was Expo live, which is an expo 2020 Dubai initiative. It belongs to the government. It’s actually happening this year, which is super exciting. But what they do is they are leading up to the Expo. They created this fund to be able to support social impact initiatives from different parts of the world. It’s not just for somebody in the UAE, but it’s like a global call that they do. We were one of the winners of the fourth cohort. They had almost 4,600 applications from different parts of the world. Out of these 4,600 applications, they obviously have multiple rounds that you have to go through. I submitted a basic application, a very technical application, and then I did a live presentation. And from these 4600 applications, they selected about 53 startups during our cohort. We were the winner during that time and got some amazing support and funds from that. It was great to have a support system within the UAE that can guide us in the right direction. It was a great experience.
Q: You just mentioned earlier that you want to make the job-seeking process or the recruiting process more transparent to the employer and the job seeker. So how do you manage that?
Spandana (21:02): What’s happening is that most employers don’t really have access to any other form of recruitment besides reaching out to an agent or an agency that can guide them through this process. There’s no actual platform out there that specifically caters to the blue-collar community. I’ve realized that the employer is very clear about what they want and very transparent about what they want. But the problem is that it actually goes down about six layers of middlemen before it actually reaches the job seeker. That message gets lost in the process because it’s going to a recruitment agent in the UAE. Then, that person has a partner in India, for example. And then that agent in India has smaller agents in smaller towns. They have even smaller agency villages. It’s like a very long chain. By the time it gets to the job seeker, all messages are muddled up.
What we’re trying to do is actually create a direct connection between job seekers and employers. The way that we’re doing this is by establishing relationships with ethical employers that are providing good salaries on-time access to accommodation, transportation, and all those different benefits. So, we’re looking at those kinds of employers, and we’re looking at different forms of partnerships to be able to expand our database of job seekers. We actually did a pilot with about 150 jobseekers offline to understand where these gaps were and the main issues. Most of it honestly came down to communication as long as you’re clear with the job seeker and exactly what the employer is providing. You’re clear with the employer on what that job seeker has to offer. You’re transparent on both sides. Then your conflict will automatically come down. So that’s the primary area of focus that we’re looking at.
We also started experimenting with different tools like AI and video-based TVs to be able to showcase people’s skills a little better. So that’s also something that we’ve worked on as part of our online platform.
Q: Where is your job seeker mostly come from?
Spandana (23:47): Job seekers come from different parts of the world because that’s the beauty of the UAE. But primarily, I would say from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa such as Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia. So there’s a bunch of countries within Africa where people come from quite regularly.
Q: So, how do you support those job seekers in terms of communications? Do they speak Arabic? Or do you have a platform to support them?
Spandana (24:24): Arabic is not a must because most people can speak English here. For example, people who are coming in from the Indian subcontinent can speak Hindi here as well
People face a little more difficulty with actually different working conditions, lifestyles, cultures, and things like that. No matter what, home is home. If you move somewhere else, or you move far away from your home, the customs and everything is going to be different. We try to educate them on what it’s going to be like over here, what the cultural similarities and differences are like, whether migrating is even the right option and the pros and cons of migration? Is it worth it? Is it something? Is it a journey that you wish to pursue? Or is there a better opportunity that your country can offer you? We look at all these different things when interacting with our jobseekers.
We also give them an idea of where they would fit into the job market as well. For example, we had somebody come to us for a driving job in the UAE. To be able to get a driving job in the UAE, you need a UAE license, right? When we said that this wouldn’t be possible. That person [jobseeker] said, I’ll pay you; I will give you money just to get a job. I told him that we are not interested in your money; we just want to ensure that you’ve been placed in a good position. There are also things like that. You have to educate these job seekers on a regular basis and just keep them posted on what the job market is like so that they don’t end up going for something that isn’t in line with the skill sets.
Q: You started your business in your early 20s. How did this business challenge you personally and professionally?
Spandana (26:41): I’ll be honest, I’ve been quite lucky. As a person, I feel it’s obviously not been a smooth ride. But to a great extent, I’ve been able to navigate it fairly well. Some of the challenges would be ‘sometimes when you’re young and a girl, people don’t take us seriously, especially when you’re like a young entrepreneur trying to talk to somebody about a different idea or something new that you can implement.’ Most of the time, people are like this initially. I wouldn’t say that’s the case after like a year or so. I didn’t really experience that as much. There were times when people did underestimate me because of my age or my gender, unfortunately. But that was changed quite significantly. I haven’t experienced that in over the last two to three years, at least so that it was in the very beginning.
Q: You think it changed. I wonder if it changed because you gained more experience in the field and know how to manage it or because the social and cultural norms there had changed.
Spandana (28:06): I think what the most important thing is knowing your subject in and out. The first impression may still be super young, or it’s a girl. What would she know? That is the initial impression. If you start to engage with that person and that person understands what you’re talking about, and you have a stronghold on your subject, that perception automatically starts to change. That is the most important thing, to be honest, besides culture. The most important thing is to know what you’re talking about and your subject and be prepared when you’re walking into a meeting. As you start to grow and speak to more people and establish more relationships, things will automatically start to change as well. You will also start to hone yourself as a person, and you’ll know how to approach different people. You start to develop that timeframe yourself. That’s my perspective, at least. It has gotten a lot better for women in the region. We’ve had some amazing startups led by women who have raised great amounts of funding and are doing great things in the region. So, I would say things are looking up for female entrepreneurs in the region.
Q: Do you have any messages for young girls who want to start a business?
Spandana (30:05): I would say the first thing would be before actually starting something, look at your idea and see if this is an actual need in the market. And the only way to be able to establish that is by firstly investing in yourself. So, try to learn as much as possible about the subject that you’re looking to explore. But also learn about different things; open up your mind and learn about different things. You may be focused on one subject, but that subject doesn’t work. There may be something else. You have to keep yourself open, constantly invest in yourself, constantly create that culture of learning, and start developing that skill. I would say that would be my number one priority. And then, slowly start to validate your idea.
Advice number two is to develop a very strong network of people very early on. I was really lucky with the mentors that I had. I would really encourage people to reach out, speak to different youth organizations, participate in different youth summits, meet as many people as you can, and try to pick up new ideas. It’s always nice to expand your network. I think that was a lot of fun.
Thirdly, validate your numbers, but also combine that with storytelling. The reason why I say that is because numbers do say a lot. They will definitely give you an idea of the kind of resources you need to grow your company and do well in the future. But numbers aren’t everything; it’s really important to get people to invest in you as a person and invest in your idea as well. So I think it’s really important to be able to combine those two skills together and balance them out.
And finally, just persevere, don’t let anybody get in your head. Some people are going to discourage you. That’s inevitable. It’s a part of life. There will also be many people who will be your flag bearers and your supporters as well. So focus on the positive, just moving ahead, persevere, and don’t give up. Don’t let any doubt get in the way. And sometimes, you need to be burned to be able to rise and do something about it. So it’s just really important to persevere and just keep going ahead. If people have good advice to give you then take it. Sometimes it may sound really mean. But if it’s constructive criticism, and it can actually help you get better, not only as a business but also as a person, I would say just take it.
Q: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Spandana joining me today.
Spandana: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.