When Dalia Awad first saw a Facebook post promoting a programme that could get her a job with Google, she thought it had to be too good to be true.
Those initial doubts were soon swept away in a wave of hope for what may lie ahead.
Her decision to apply was one she would not regret.
“I applied anyway,” the computer engineering student told The National. “I’m not one to miss out on opportunities.”
The 21-year-old Palestinian was offered an internship with Google in June 2021, and flew to Germany for what she described as an "unforgettable experience".
The post she had originally seen was put up by Manara, a female-founded social impact start-up that is connecting computer science students and software engineers with world-class employers.
The company aims to “unlock the human potential of the Middle East and North Africa” at a time when companies are looking more than ever to hire young talent, co-founder Iliana Montauk said.
Although the programme is open to all computer engineers or computer science students from the Mena region, it has a special focus on women and Palestine.
“When you have a country that is full of talent, it’s hard not to want to do something to give that talent a platform,” Ms Montauk said.
Her desire to make a change was born out of her experience as co-founder and director of a start-up accelerator and tech hub in Gaza, where female participation was low despite women's obvious skills.
“When I asked women what's stopping them from joining, they said they either didn’t have the confidence, permission from their families, or pocket money for transport,” she told The National. “So I ran a pilot programme that hosted weekly meetings and offered a monthly stipend, and within a few months, participation rose to nearly 50 per cent.”
Ms Montauk’s work in Gaza was just the beginning.
Shortly after leaving, she teamed up with Laila Abudahi, a Palestinian who hacked her way into becoming a software engineer at top tech companies in Silicon Valley, to help other young women follow the same path.
“Gaza is full of women who are just like Laila, my co-founder at Manara and someone I admire deeply,” Ms Montauk said. “A lot more of them could get into big tech companies if they knew how and we decided to help with that.”
Manara initially started as a passion project but soon turned into a full-time job when the women realised its potential.
Over the past few months, Manara has been able to place 70 candidates in big tech companies such as Meta, Google and Amazon.
“Meta told us it was the best partnership they’ve ever had,” Ms Montauk said. “It’s being cited internally as an example of what’s possible if you pick your partners correctly.”
The first step for Manara’s success is activating a talent pool and encouraging young people to “dream bigger”.
“That’s our motto across social media,” Ms Montauk said. “It’s important for young and skilled students to believe in themselves and know they can work with big tech companies.”
While the end result may seem surreal, the process to get there is thorough and straightforward.
To join Manara, students are required to fill in a standard written application, undergo a coding test and sit for an interview.
Once the applications are reviewed, candidates are selected to complete a three-to-six-month training programme. Although most of the information is readily available online, the programme puts candidates in cohorts that encourage them to work and stay motivated.
They are then vetted for mentorship sessions in partnership with big tech companies to prepare them for mock interviews and provide them with recommendation letters. Finally, candidates are put up for job placement solutions, where they work closely with a talent representative to help them network and get access to the alumni community.
“Ultimately what we’re trying to do here is create a space where people support each other and share their experiences, because one story can always inspire another,” Ms Montauk said.
The success stories
Ghaid Ewawi is one of Manara's many success stories.
The young Palestinian woman, who graduated as a computer engineer last June, is working with Meta in London and got job offers from Google, Amazon and other companies.
“When I first heard about Manara in university, I didn’t complete the application,” Ms Ewawi said. “I knew nothing about the company and didn’t believe in what they were promising.
“But during my final year, I went back and filled it in after learning that a colleague got a job through the programme.”
Knowing that her parents might not have approved of the move, Ms Ewawi waited until she had a job offer at hand before she told them. She came back with five.
“If someone told me a few years back that I would get job offers with big tech companies, I would never have believed it,” she told The National.
“But it’s important not to restrict yourself and to believe in yourself. Give yourself the chance to show what you’re capable of.”