March 26, 2018

Saudi Young Professionals in Silicon Valley

MbS Visit to Silicon Valley
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, with Abdulrahman Alfozan, right, and Abdulaziz Alghunaim, left, during the crown prince's visit to Silicon Valley, June 20, 2016. (Abdulrahman Alfozan and Abdulaziz Alghunaim)

On his first visit to the United States since becoming crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman is scheduled to travel to Silicon Valley. The crown prince has shown an admiration for the entrepreneurship and innovative spirit in Silicon Valley, and visited the area in 2016, meeting with Saudi professionals. There are currently 125,000 Saudis, men and women, studying in the United States, 84,000 of whom are receiving scholarships from the Saudi government. With half of the national population under the age of 25, education is one of the most important pillars in Vision 2030, aimed at shifting Saudi Arabia from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy.

In the 2018 budget, Saudi Arabia has allocated 192 billion Saudi riyals ($51 billion) toward education, prioritizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). During the Future Investment Initiative in October 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first country in the world to grant citizenship to a robot. Additionally, Mohammed bin Salman has announced plans to develop “NEOM,” a $500 billion megacity that would be powered by the latest technological advancements.

Ahead of the crown prince’s trip, AGSIW spoke with young Saudi professionals working in Silicon Valley: Abdulrahman Alfozan, a systems engineer at Facebook; Lamees Alkhamis, an environmental engineer at Stantec; and Abdulaziz Alghunaim, co-founder of Tarjimly. They discussed their journeys and experiences studying and working in the United States. Additionally, they talked about the role the Saudi education system played in helping them get where they are today, as well as how they hope to contribute to Saudi Arabia’s future.

Sunday at 6

“Sunday at Six” – a weekly gathering of Arab and GCC citizens working in Silicon Valley (Abdulrahman Alfozan)

Abdulrahman Alfozan (Twitter: @alfozan)

AGSIW: You are working in the biggest social media company in the world. How do family and friends perceive you back home?

Abdulrahman: They are proud of me. Most of my family and friends are active users on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which are platforms owned by Facebook. Facebook and Google, among others, are considered ideal places to start a computer science career, as they invest significantly in training their employees. Data analytics and data science and engineering are growing professions in Saudi and I see myself contributing to the field in the future.

AGSIW: Who is your role model? Did you have a Saudi mentor or someone who inspired you?

Abdulrahman: My role model is Elon Musk. I have two Saudi mentors. Dr. Fawzi Redwan was my mentor during high school. Also, I’ve been in contact with Abdulrahman Tarabzouni, since I was in high school. He studied at MIT and worked at Google in the Bay Area before going back to Saudi Arabia. He is one of the only Saudis I know who went through what I’m going through right now.

AGSIW: Saudi Arabia has announced plans to improve and tailor education to ensure a good supply of talent to the workforce. What do you think is most important to accomplish this plan?

Abdulrahman: I believe extracurricular education and internships are the most important components. Mawhiba is an organization for gifted Saudi students and provides various training programs. Mawhiba was the reason I became interested in computer science. MiSK Foundation recently launched fellowship and internship programs and partnered with leading companies like Bloomberg, Siemens, General Electric, and Cisco to provide Saudi students with firsthand experience in the international job market.

AGSIW: Is there a community of GCC nationals working in Silicon Valley?

Abdulrahman: Yes, to my knowledge there’s about a dozen Saudi professionals in the Bay Area as well professionals from a few other GCC countries – Kuwait and the UAE. We have a WhatsApp group called “Sunday @ 6” and try to meet on Sunday evenings. We speak in Arabic and often discuss technology and recent reforms back home. Furthermore, we often receive visitors – government officials, other professionals, investors, or friends. Also, most of us have private advisory and consultancy jobs on the side to consult for companies back home.

AGSIW: What do you think is the future of jobs for the next generation of Saudis?

Abdulrahman: I imagine there will be more economic mobility and that a larger percentage of jobs in the country will be held by Saudis, especially with the recent Saudization mandates by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development. I see proud and motivated Saudis working in all kind of jobs.

Lamees Alkhamis

Lamees Alkhamis visits a wastewater treatment plant in Cusco, Peru as part of a water and sustainability learning abroad program. (Lamees Alkhamis)

Lamees Alkhamis (Twitter: @lameesThursday)

AGSIW: Why did you choose to study environmental engineering in the United States?

Lamees: I got a King Abdullah scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education to study abroad. In my first semester in the United States, I took one class in computer science and I hated it. I realized that computer science was more of a hobby in high school. I changed my major to chemical engineering. As part of the program, I looked at environmental engineering classes. They talked about water scarcity and the California drought. I realized how important and relevant this subject is for Saudi and decided to study environmental engineering.

AGSIW: What made you decide to work in the United States after graduation, and what has been your experience?

Lamees: When I first graduated I was looking at opportunities back home. There were no entry level positions. Also, most of the positions were in the government and I wanted to work in the private sector to get the opportunity to learn and grow. I decided to do my master’s. I had an internship at MWH, which is one of the leading firms globally in water resources. I learned how to design systems in water-depleted areas – from how to design a well to how to design a multimillion-dollar project. I joined the company after graduation. I’m studying to be a certified engineer in California. The office culture is what I care most about. People in my office are very supportive and they appreciate diversity.

Lamees Alkhamis

Lamees samples wastewater in Naivasha, Kenya as part of a summer project through University of California, Berkeley. (Lamees Alkhamis)

AGSIW: Is there a community of Arab or GCC women working in the Bay Area?

Lamees: There is a group of Saudi women living in the Bay Area. We have a WhatsApp group and meet once a week. A lot of them are coming back from their vacations in Saudi and talking about the changes happening there. I can’t wait to go back to experience these changes first hand. My mom used to ask me when are you coming back. I used to tell her when women will drive in Saudi, I will come back. I have no excuse now!

AGSIW: What do you think is the most significant barrier to Saudi women entering the job market? And, what do you think is the future of jobs for the next generation?

Lamees: I think the economic reforms have helped reduce many of the barriers Saudi women have. The only barrier I see right now is finding the right job opportunity. We have a lot of qualified people in all fields, but not enough jobs.

Growing up, the women I knew were working in education, health care, and social sciences. In my generation, I know many Saudi girls who studied law, business, and banking, and a few engineers who worked at Aramco. Now, we can see increasing numbers of Saudi women working in the service sector with Saudization efforts. I think the next generation of Saudi women will have more options to choose from. I also see Saudi women in leadership positions like ministers and ambassadors.

Abdulaziz Alghunaim

Abdulaziz Alghunaim in an official Tarjimly team tee shirt.

Abdulaziz Alghunaim (Twitter: @azizkag)

AGSIW: You recently quit your full-time job as a software engineer at Palantir Technologies to focus on your application, Tarjimly. Can you tell us more about the application and what inspired you to create it?

Abdulaziz: Tarjimly is a nonprofit technology company that connects refugees to real-time volunteer translators to bridge the communication gap between refugees and aid workers. I met a volunteer to ask him about his experience volunteering in Europe. He told me that he spent 90 percent of his time translating and he thought that technology could play a role here. That conversation planted the seed for Tarjimly.

AGSIW: What is special about Silicon Valley?

Abdulaziz: Being in Silicon Valley is more of an organic path for me after studying computer science at MIT. All the talent and expertise were based there. I spent two years with Palantir Technologies. I worked on delivering data analysis solutions for Fortune 500 companies. There are a handful of places around the world where you can do that. We had our foot in the door in Silicon Valley. One of the biggest catalyzers of our work at Tarjimly was Y Combinator. Companies like Dropbox and Airbnb are Y Combinator alumni and it is a great opportunity to be mentored by them.

AGSIW: What was the role of education in your journey as an entrepreneur?

Abdulaziz: Education is the core of why I am here. I grew up in a family that highly values education. My father did his PhD in computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He was a computer engineering professor at King Saud University. He encouraged me to play with robotics kits and go to science fairs when I was in elementary school. I remember my father buying robotics kits and giving them to my school. My classmates used to stay after school to play with them. I also joined Mawhiba, which facilitated my participation in international robotics competitions and Olympics in the United States and Saudi Arabia. In addition, I did a summer program at MIT, which made me want to go to MIT after high school.

AGSIW: What do you think is most important for Saudi Arabia in its aim to improve and tailor its education system?

Abdulaziz: I go to Saudi quite often. A lot of my friends are interested in technology and entrepreneurship. There is a large percentage of young people with a lot of ambition. One thing that Saudi and the Gulf need is technical talent. I see university graduates who are not ready to join the job market. There are thousands of computer engineering graduates who can’t write code, for example. Most of the technical jobs are outsourced to Egypt, Pakistan, and India. We need Saudis who have the technical talent to do these jobs.

AGSIW: What is the most valuable advice you have gotten? What advice do you have for young technology entrepreneurs in the Gulf?

Abdulaziz: Enjoy what you do and have fun doing it. I wake up every day excited about what I do. I enjoy sitting at my computer and writing code and getting feedback from the consumer and working on it. So many people pursue the latest trends. People like being entrepreneurs because it’s trendy. These are wrong incentives to work and choose a career. If you don’t enjoy it, you are going to give up with the first problem you face.

Thuraiya Alhashmi is a visiting fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.