Abu Dhabi-based start-up ImInclusive is matching people of determination with inclusive employers by improving jobseekers' skills and consulting companies to improve diversity and equity in the workplace.
Pakistan-born founder Hafsa Qadeer, 27, believes that better workplace inclusion is a matter of social justice rather than a charitable cause.
“We don't want to be a social handout … this is not about charity, this is not a good cause, this is about sustainable, long-term impact,” she says. “It's how to treat disability beyond the medical and charity model of it and understanding that disability is actually something that's the community's responsibility.”
More than a billion people, or 15 per cent of the world's population, live with some form of disability, with a higher prevalence in lower-income countries, according to the World Health Organisation.
People with disabilities face barriers to accessing basic services including health, education, employment and transport, preventing them from participating in their communities, getting a quality education, finding decent work and having their voices heard, according to a World Bank report.
Employers' misconceptions that people with disabilities are less productive than their non-disabled counterparts and ignorance about available adjustments to work arrangements limits job opportunities, the Washington-based lender says.
People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and generally earn less even when employed. Employment rates are lower for disabled men (53 per cent) and disabled women (20 per cent) than for non-disabled men (65 per cent) and women (30 per cent), the reports says.
Employers can make reasonable adjustments by making recruitment and selection procedures accessible, adapting the working environment, modifying working times, and providing assistive technologies, the World Bank says. A range of financial measures, such as tax incentives and funding for reasonable accommodation, can be considered to reduce additional costs that would otherwise be incurred by employers and employees.
It is these barriers that Ms Qadeer wants to address through ImInclusive, an idea she began developing in 2019 at the Ma’an Social Incubator in Abu Dhabi before launching the start-up's Android app in 2021.
Ms Qadeer was raised by a single parent in a family of five other siblings, including her brother Ahmed, who has spina bifida and is the inspiration behind her start-up. Spina bifida is a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While the siblings were never treated differently from one another in her household, Ms Qadeer sensed there was a need to connect with other families and members of the community living with disabilities.
“I realised as I grew up that there were questions that started popping up: which doctor to go to? Is there a community out there? I realised many families in this situation are living in isolation, there's so much stigma where people don't talk about it enough,” she says.
The initial version of the app was designed to connect people of determination and their families from across the world.
Her brother took his first independent flight from Pakistan to Abu Dhabi to help Ms Qadeer pitch the idea to Ma'an and the pair undertook research, market surveys and interviews before introducing the product to market. The market insights, however, led them to change their idea to better meet demand.
“We found that the biggest solution we can provide was employment because … a workplace is somewhere you pick up social skills and life skills,” she says.
The gap in disability inclusion partly arises from a lack of education at an early age about this topic, where children are not taught skills such as sign language to better accommodate their peers living with a disability.
“Inclusion as a mindset is not taught in schools as widely yet, but it can be taught in the workplace,” Ms Qadeer says. “That gap still exists because we didn't have it in our education, so we have to find a means of educating people now. It's pretty critical.”
Launched in March 2021, the Android app features an inclusive job board that displays employment opportunities with filters based on the accessibility requirements of a candidate. If a jobseeker's profile matches an employer's willingness to accommodate these requirements, their profiles match on the app.
An iOS app is currently under development and is expected to be launched next year.
So far, ImInclusive has 50 companies registered on the app. The start-up is also consulting more than 100 organisations on inclusion, from understanding the barriers in the workplace to creating accessible retail designs.
This year, the start-up has set a target of getting 100 people of determination hired through ImInclusive.
The start-up has several revenue streams that include employer subscriptions to the app, consultancy services, employment services and helping organisations set learning and development goals.
It does not charge people of determination who are registered jobseekers on the app, Ms Qadeer says.
ImInclusive provides customised training for people of determination through self-paced online learning, assigning a career coach and teaching professional etiquette to ensure the best placement.
“We know there is demand for hiring people of determination, but our job is dual-sided, we have to prepare the talent and the employers,” Ms Qadeer says. “We want to make sure it's a win-win situation for everyone and that the talent has high retention rates.”
ImInclusive also trains advocates from within the community of people of determination who encourage the jobseekers to learn new skills.
“We've identified in them the skill to make an impact and influence their communities and to be strong advocates in telling their own community members that 'hey, you need to upskill yourself if you're going to land that job, it's not something that someone is just going to bring to you, you have to make the effort'.”
Training for employers differs by sector, with demand from the retail, hospitality, food and beverage, banking and IT industries, she says.
A five-level training module is customised for each industry and for the organisation, taking into account its management structure and hiring needs.
This ranges from the etiquette of dealing with people of determination, the basics of inclusion, empathetic listening and leadership to teaching senior executives how to make more inclusive decisions.
Companies are “very interested” in hiring people of determination, with rising demand from the retail, hospitality and healthcare sectors, Ms Qadeer says.
“They understand that hiring people of determination means having more customers that are people of determination,” she says.
Conscious consumer trends of inclusion and social justice, particularly among young people, also means that they are likely to make purchases from inclusive companies, she says.
Following the Covid-19 pandemic, more companies are operating hybrid models and are open to work-from-home options that give some candidates more job flexibility.
ImInclusive currently has 600 candidates from the region in its database.
“In general, there's not one candidate that I've met who hasn't had motivation ... to thrive and hustle and grow and win. We're all in the same boat,” Ms Qadeer says.
Nujood Al Otaibi, 34, was hired in Saudi Arabia through the app after a long job hunt.
“I have been kicked out every time I apply for a job … in my case, my disability could not be seen immediately and employers misunderstood me many times,” she says.
“I was looking to settle for a job for a long time and never got a chance to find where I belonged. With the help of the ImInclusive team, I found what I've always dreamt about.
“Working in a healthy environment is essential for my mental health. To be employed gives me the strength to be in the moment with the right people who share the same goals as I do.”
In its quest to ensure more inclusive workplaces, the start-up is emphasising to employers the importance of equality.
“We ask them: What can you offer as a performance driver that enables an individual to perform like their colleagues. It can't be an inequitable playing field,” she says.
“We cannot give one person a computer and tell the other person, 'this machine you're using won't work for you, but perform the same task'. It's like asking a fish to climb a tree.”
ImInclusive has so far been funded through bootstrapping and grants from UAE-based accelerator C3 and Ma’an Abu Dhabi.
It will seek additional funds from angel and impact investors soon, Ms Qadeer says.
The start-up, which is projecting sixfold revenue growth by 2025, is eyeing Saudi Arabia and Egypt as “feasible markets”, the founder says.
Name: Hafsa Qadeer, founder and chief executive
Date started: Pitched to Ma’an Abu Dhabi April 2019, incubation completed December 2019
Based: Abu Dhabi, UAE
Sector: Technology, social enterprise, people of determination recruitment and consultancy
Size: Seven employees/team members
Investment stage: Bootstrapped and open to angel investors and impact investors
Q& A with Hafsa Qadeer, founder of ImInclusive
What new skills have you learnt since launching your start-up?
I have learnt how to build sustainable long-term revenue streams while being impact-driven as an enterprise.
How has the pandemic affected your business plans?
The pandemic was challenging, but it showed us the skill set and culture we are looking for in our teams to grow with deep-rooted impact and agility while staying authentic at heart. The pandemic gave us time to observe and decide what a thriving culture at ImInclusive would look like and helped me put together a team that can truly execute.
How important is ImInclusive's service during the pandemic?
Aligned to the UN's vision of building back better, post-pandemic in a world of hybrid working models, everyone has an excellent opportunity now to build back better, ensuring that disability inclusion is no longer an afterthought.
How is your product different from other resources available for people of determination in the UAE/Mena?
We have built the ecosystem of inclusive employment in Mena from the ground up. Our consultancy and solutions make us an extended inclusion team to our employers' hub, providing dual-sided support for employers and job seekers.
Where do you see the business heading in five years?
We aim to scale the ecosystem we have created and become the most effective digital inclusion hub for all people of determination and inclusive employers. We will continue to welcome more employers and candidates to join us. And ours is a social chain of hiring. The more projects we grow, the more inclusive teams we train internally to take on those projects and execute them.