At many U.S. colleges and universities, former graduates volunteer their time to give career advice and guidance to students at their alma mater. But many higher-ed institutions elsewhere do not have such alumni networks and traditions, says Ronit Avni. And just as those students may lack access to career opportunities, employers also have little visibility into sources of local talent.
Having worked for more than a decade in the the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, she believes “there is fundamentally a massive, untapped talent pool that doesn’t have social capital.” So through her startup, Localized, Avni wants to bring the benefits of alumni and career networks to institutions across the globe. The company offers a mix of career advice and matchmaking tools that connect students with alumni and employers in their local communities and abroad.
To support her efforts, Avni has made some crucial connections herself. The Washington, D.C.-based company has raised $1.2 million in a seed round from investment firms including Bisk Ventures and Next Wave Impact. Also chipping in are a choir of angel investors including Esther Dyson, Jim Hornthal, Jacob Hsu and Sara Sutton, founder of two remote work companies.
Localized currently works with 70 universities and campus career centers to provide students with access to working professionals from across the world. The platform has the look, feel and features of a professional social network. Users create profiles where they indicate their interests and experience, and can sign up to follow channels where peers and mentors share tips, resources and employment opportunities related to the channel topic.
Mentors hail from local businesses and international professional networks, including the Arab Bankers Association of North America and Techwadi, a nonprofit that connects entrepreneurs in MENA and the Silicon Valley. Some of them are based in the U.S. but “have a deep connection to their places of heritage,” says Avni. “There is a diaspora of professionals who want to give back,” she adds, to “communities that have connectivity but not a lot of social mobility.”
For a fee, Localized also lets educational organizations white label the platform, where they can create private channels and communities. The platform can also function as a sort of customer relationship management tool to help university officials manage donor communications and relationships. Other features, including reporting analytics, custom webinar setup and industry roundtable events are available at an additional cost.
The idea of a professional social network connecting students with alumni and industry professionals may not seem all that novel. But outside the U.S., and especially in emerging markets, higher-ed institutions often lack the infrastructure or culture of alumni communities and career services, according to Avni. That’s why she says her team has focused first on markets in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.
The MENA region boasts an unusually young demographic that could pose a strain—or opportunity—for local education systems and economies. According to the World Bank, 15-to-24 year olds make up 22 percent of the population, and another 45 percent is under 15 years old. More students than ever will attend college, yet university graduates currently make up almost 30 percent of those unemployed in the region. (By comparison, the average unemployment rate for postsecondary degree holders across all OECD countries is a little more than 4 percent.)
Currently the platform is only open to universities, students and mentors. Funding from the seed round will support the company’s efforts to bring companies onboard who will pay to access Localized’s network of students. Avni hopes to attract businesses that are expanding into MENA regions for the first time but have little to no experience with the local labor market. Some companies even fly in executives and delegations to establish liaisons with local university officials. Such trips should not be necessary, she believes.
The company also plans to expand its headcount from its current team of nine. Founded in 2017, Localized has participated in StartEd, a New York City-based accelerator program that provides mentorship and funding for education technology startups. It is now also a part of Village Capital’s mentorship and investment program for companies aiming to bridge education and workforce opportunities.