Women of the Year 2021: Nouhaila Chelkhaoui is Helping Immigrants Succeed in Tech
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Founder, Scale Without Borders; Women Founders Programs manager, The DMZ
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: Scale Without Borders (SWB) helps immigrants access resources to succeed in tech, while providing tech employers a brilliant under-tapped tech talent pool.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: I’m currently working on two things in parallel: my full-time job heading the Women Founders Programs at the DMZ, and my own startup outside the DMZ, Scale Without Borders. What excites me the most about both is getting knee-deep into how startups grow, including their challenges and wins, and solving global challenges through innovation. With the DMZ, I get to support and learn from leading women tech founders. In fact, seeing their successes and challenges is what inspired me to start practicing what I preach, hence launching my own business.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: I think Scale Without Borders has made the most impact in building a great community of brilliant immigrant tech talent (2000+ and counting) by helping them connect with each other, prospective jobs that match their skill sets, and general resources in navigating the tech ecosystem. SWB also helps Canadian tech employers secure talent, which has been challenging in recent months.
With the DMZ, the Women Founders Programs, alongside other programs like the Black Innovation Programs and Bootcamp have made an incredible impact on underrepresented tech founders. Having streams dedicated to underrepresented founders, alongside our core Incubator program, has proved fruitful to founders who unfairly face barriers when starting a business.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: When it comes to work, I’ve found myself gravitating towards one common outcome: working with underestimated communities in tech. Tech is a space that has been dominated by the same groups for far too long. The issue with this is that when there are notable wins in the tech ecosystem that involve the same groups of people, the returns go back to the same circles, perpetually excluding the same groups. This is largely why it’s been challenging for underrepresented founders to access funding or for newcomers to integrate into the tech ecosystem in a way that is fulfilling and commensurate with their qualifications. Finding ways to shatter these barriers has been a passion of mine.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: The good news is that today more and more people are working towards challenging biases and the underestimation of certain communities in tech. I think of our work as complementary rather than competition. We need various players collaborating in order to succeed.
The DMZ is certainly unlike any other incubator. It prides itself on its programming devoted to Black and women founders. Offering streams that devote additional benefits, specialized mentorship, and peer-to-peer support to underrepresented founders. We’re really trying to make an impact by leveling the playing field for underrepresented founders, and creating a more inclusive innovation ecosystem. One of our underlying values at the DMZ is equity over everything.
For Scale Without Borders, we found a way to authentically build a community of incredible newcomers and immigrants in tech and provide them with a support system for free, all the while building a recruitment and partnership model to support the community in collaboration with top tech employers.
Why is your work important?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: For me, it’s personal. I’m an immigrant in tech and I’m also a woman entrepreneur. When I came to Canada from Morocco by myself when I was 17 for school, I realized the importance of a network and community of people who resonate with you. I am also aware of the barriers that women founders face from working at the DMZ, and from my own experience as an entrepreneur.
On a more strategic level, unlocking access to resources for groups that have previously faced barriers is not only the right thing to do but is key for the global economy. I believe today we rely on tech and entrepreneurship more than ever, especially after the pandemic. Tech and entrepreneurs are solving some of our biggest challenges. It is so important to have equal representation in these high stake fields.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: A fundamental point in my career was ironically a time where I did not have a full-time job. It’s when I decided to temporarily leave Canada and live in another country. I spent 10 months in Turkey teaching English and a couple of months back home in Morocco. This gave me the time, space, and clarity needed to step back and truly figure out what I wanted to do in life and go after it. I don’t think I would be here if it weren’t for the time I took.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve led your company?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: Courage with a hint of naivete can be helpful when starting a business. When maintaining and growing a business, resilience, and consistency are crucial. I try to tap into those parts of myself when leading my company Scale Without Borders. I also learned that I can use my limitations and weaknesses to my advantage by focusing on what I can do well and reaching out for support in things I’m not so good at. In my opinion, there is no definite skill set that makes a great company. Rather, it’s the combination of diverse skill sets.
What has been the most challenging part of building the business?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: A challenging but key part of building a business, especially in the early stages, is continuing to have faith in spite of not having much evidence that what you are doing is going to work.
I also find that having a healthy balance of different approaches to your work is helpful—although it can be tricky at times! For example, having urgency but also patience; being committed to your goal but also detached from the outcome; knowing it’s a marathon with a few opportunities to sprint.
What has been the most rewarding part of building the business?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: For me, one of the most rewarding parts of my business is when I have the opportunity to connect with attendees at the end of a Scale Without Borders event, and one of them reminds me of how much impact the community has had on them, whether they landed an interview, found a tech job through Scale Without Borders, or just made a meaningful connection. I also find working with and supporting Canadian tech employers very rewarding and fun.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: Is this what I see myself doing day in and day out for the next decade? Why?
Ok, but why?
In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: For me, having a mission that people can relate to personally has been quite effective. When we were building the Women Founders Program at the DMZ and calling on mentors and speakers to help, so many women and allies were on board to help because the mission resonated with them.
When I was building my own startup Scale Without Borders, I always led with my own story as an immigrant from Morocco. Little did I know that so many people would resonate with this story whether being newcomers themselves or children of newcomers to Canada.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: My mission with the work I’m currently doing is to see a tech and entrepreneurial scene where people from all backgrounds and walks of life can contribute to it meaningfully and also reap the benefits of their contributions.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: Success is waking up in the morning and feeling like I can be present doing my work because it is so fulfilling and fun. Success is seeing what you envisioned in your mind not only take shape but benefitting a number of people. Don’t get me wrong, though. Success is also dependent on validating your business model, and finding out what people genuinely need. I find there’s something harmonious about this.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: Investing in and supporting underestimated groups in tech is a very smart thing to do.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: All is well. Things will work themselves out. You are okay where you are right now.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui: I admire so many women in the community, so this is hard. I’d say Monika Joroszonek, Co-Founder and CEO of RATIO.CITY.
When I first joined the DMZ, I had the opportunity to run an early-stage women founders accelerator program with eight women founders. I’m in awe of how far they have come. Monika, for example, came to the DMZ with just a prototype and a co-founder. She ended up graduating from the program with a large full-time team, a close seed round, and solid recurring revenue. I learned a lot by working with her at the DMZ, understanding her thought process, and watching her dedication and resilience. She’s also given back to the Women Founders community at the DMZ since graduating!