Interview with Mursal Hedayat from Chatterbox - MAZE - Decoding Impact

Interview with Mursal Hedayat from Chatterbox

Mursal Hedayat pitching at Maze X Startup accelerator program demo day event

Mursal is a co-founder of Chatterbox, an impact startup from the first cohort of Maze X

Can you tell us who is Mursal and a little bit about your background?

I am a graduate of economics from the University of Leeds. I am a “Year Here” social change fellow, which is a programme that I joined after university to learn about social entrepreneurship and social innovation. I am also a former refugee from Afghanistan who came to the UK with my mother and big sister. As a refugee, I saw my amazingly talented, intelligent and hardworking mother become unemployed in the UK despite having qualifications as a solar engineer and ten years of experience.

What is Chatterbox?

Chatterbox is the best online language learning experience for professionals. We hack learning and motivation with the perfect blend of technology and human tutoring from teachers who share that student’s professional background and interests. On our platform, we have engineers learning Arabic from Syrian engineers, and we have aid workers learning French from Congolese medical doctors. This is all happening in our platform right now.

The only reason why we can provide this otherwise cost-prohibitive service is that our teachers come from the marginalised and underemployed refugee community. With Chatterbox, this community finds a space to demonstrate their skills to people in their industries, and taps into better professional prospects on our platform and beyond.

How did you meet Guillemette, your co-founder, and where are you based?

Mursal Hedayat and Guillemette Dejean are co-founders of Chatterbox, a partiicpant of Maze X the impact startup accelerator based in Lisbon
Mursal Hedayat and Guillemette Dejean, co-founders of Chatterbox.

About a year into Chatterbox development, I had been able to hack the earlier MVPs myself, but the product was becoming technologically advanced. So, at some point, I knew that I needed help for Chatterbox to become the best online language learning in the market. Just by coincidence, one of my friends and one of hers introduced us because we were both interested in creating solutions to employ the refugee community. Guillemette had just left her last company, called UpLabs, Y Combinator alumni, which was a platform for designers and developers to build and sell features together. She was based in Lisbon for about five years at that point, so she knew a lot about the Portuguese ecosystem and loved it. I am still based in London.

After Guillemette joined as a co-founder, we were talking about where we wanted to grow the team. She was way more attached to Lisbon than I was to London, and I was also becoming very attached to Lisbon after visiting for the Web summit. So, we decided that Lisbon just presented a much saner place to grow an early-stage startup. Lisbon is an amazingly beautiful city, great vibes and culture, and it hasn’t been a mistake. Now we have two team members based here, and we are recruiting several more. It is one of the benefits, I guess, of working with a co-founder based in Lisbon is that we get to spend so much time there.

What is the most unexpected thing you remember from connecting the teachers to the students?

One of our tutors is from Iran and a graduate in humans rights in her home country. Three students have been meeting her almost every week and have booked appointments until the end of this year. The students get to talk about the Middle East and human rights with someone who is an expert in this field, in the language they are studying. The tutor legitimises her professional and personal background that no one would believe otherwise. So, the level of interest is unbelievable. It’s stories like this one that uncovers why we do better than any other language learning operator on the market.

Why does Chatterbox matter? Why is it necessary?

Chatterbox is necessary because it fills a gap in the help that we offer to refugees. 34,361 migrants and refugees are known to have died attempting to find a new home in the European Union. If you read some of the things that they have died of it is unbearable. One person was run over by a truck that was intentionally trying to hit refugees. Another one drowned trying to swim from the boat that was capsizing to the land. Refugees are trying to reach safety; essentially, they are trying to go somewhere where they don’t get stuck in a refugee’s camp in the middle of Lebanon or Turkey. Somewhere where they can actually rebuild their lives safely. Right now, we are completely failing at helping refugees reintegrate into society, either it is in Europe or the middle east or anywhere around the world. There are some attempts to improve the situation, of course, Techfugees, lots of new charities emerging to try to help the situation.

When it comes to work, somehow, we think it is ok for people to abandon the identities they had before. If you were a neurosurgeon, if you were a teacher, it doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. You should be happy to just work at Starbucks. You should just be happy to become a cleaner and have a job like that. You should just be happy that you are safe. It is an additional form of re-traumatisation that happens to refugees, and there is no solution for it right now. I am sorry but we, human beings, have a broader set of needs. And part of that is the fulfilment that comes from a professional career.

Right now, the only solutions available are requalification, so you can go back to university to be qualified. If you have children, that’s not an option for you. If you don’t have the money, that’s not an option for you. If instead, you go straight into work for a low paid job, that is going to make it even harder for you to find another type of work later on.

We are now the third option. We are providing easy to access to the job market that also helps improve your employment prospects. It builds your confidence and your network connections, and it gives you valuable experiences to put in your CV. And all these three things can improve your chances of getting a job that actually matches what you can do, that actually fulfils you.

Why did you apply to Maze X?

Maze X is really well known for its previous projects and accelerators. Strategically Maze X offered an opportunity to build a community for ourselves in Lisbon to develop new networks here. Then, above all, the idea of a corporate venture pilot was fantastic. We were incredibly lucky that we were one of the chosen ventures to entre a corporate pilot with BNP Paribas, one of the biggest banks in the world. Just simply being able to talk about BNP Paribas with other investors and clients have been game-changing. They take us much more seriously now that they know that this big company is interested in what we are making.

Finally, the idea of impact unicorn completely aligns with what my co-founder and I want to build. We have big ambitions, both in terms of the scale of our impact and that of our business. That came across in the branding and communications for the Maze X programme.

What are the three challenges you would like to tackle throughout the acceleration programme?

First, Pivoting from a B2C to a B2B model through our corporate venture piloting with BNP Paribas. Thanks to Maze X, we get a chance to learn what is relevant to a learning & development department versus individual learning. We get to build and test new features to offer an adequate solution to corporate clients. It’s a massive opportunity for us.

Xavier Jombart, Head of Change Management at BNP Paribas, Mursal Hedayat and Guillemette Dejean, Co-Founders of Chatterbox and Fabrice Segui, CEO of BNP Paribas Portugal.

From left to right: Xavier Jombart, Head of Change Management at BNP Paribas, Mursal Hedayat and Guillemette Dejean, Co-Founders of Chatterbox and Fabrice Segui, CEO of BNP Paribas Portugal.

Second, overcoming the impostor syndrome. The ventures of the first cohort are so good. They have great concepts, well delivered that makes me think ‘Oh my God if I wasn’t working on my project, I want to be working on yours, it’s so cool’. So, being around this awesome group of people can lead to slight imposter syndrome. But I think the programme does a good job of helping us learn and benefit from the same opportunities and be inspired by each other rather than turning into a kind of anxiety.

Which startups surprised you the most in the last year?

I’m thinking of the ones people thought was going to be really great and then weren’t (mostly because they just had a white male founder that convinced a lot of people to give them money), like Fyre Festival. It strikes me that investors do not acknowledge that less than 3% of all capital goes to any founding team with a women founder on it. And Guillemette and I are two female founders, so we are in the 3% statistically. Somehow, these ridiculous men, like the Fyre Festival guy, can raise millions of dollars easily with nothing and are not held accountable. It is surprising to me that investors haven’t realised like what good deal there is to invest in female founders and continue to throw money at this.

Where do you find wisdom?

Mursal Hedayat and Guillemette Dejean, co-founders of Chatterbox, at the Demo Day of Maze X the impact startup accelerator based in Lisbon

Mursal Hedayat and Guillemette Dejean, co-founders of Chatterbox, at the Demo Day of Maze on July 4th.

Always with my mother. She is my temperature check whenever I am being silly. So, when I come home to London and I speak with her about strategic questions of our business like ‘hey what you think if we change the pay rate to this’ and she is like ‘no, no, no, I would never work for that’, or ‘what do you think if we go here?’ And she is like ‘yeah, yeah, that is a good idea’. My mother reminds me of the annoying teenager I used to be, of all the needs of the refugee community and keeps me focused on the massive challenge we are solving every day with Chatterbox.

Maze X was conceived and initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations and MAZE, with the law firm PLMJ joining as a founding corporate member and BNP Paribas, Hospital da Luz Learning Health, Casa do Impacto as partners.

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