Changing the world, one country at a time

Changing the world, one country at a time

Some life journeys are, well, more interesting than others.

Take, for example, Teaneck’s Arielle Sandor, who went to Princeton, majored in Chinese history, and then moved to Nakuru, Kenya, to launch a tech startup.

Profiled in Forbes magazine (as well as in other publications) as a leading college-student entrepreneur, Sandor has brought her company, Duma – the Swahili word for cheetah – to Africa. The venture, co-founded with Princeton student Christine Blauvelt, is designed to make job searching easier and faster.

Describing her unusual career path, Sandor – who communicated with the Jewish Standard via email – writes that she attended the Frisch School in Paramus “and fell in love with foreign languages. It started with my first Spanish word, calabasa.”

From left, business partners Christine Blauvelt and Arielle Sandor founded a high-tech startup in Kenya.

Not only did she embrace Spanish, but subsequently she ventured into Latin and polished up her Hebrew during visits to Israel. At Princeton, she took on Mandarin, which, she says, “was like trying to chew and swallow silverware.”

Planning to pursue a career consulting for foreign companies entering the Chinese market, the 2012 Princeton graduate changed direction, developing an interest in theater.

“I developed a passion for characters – what they felt, why they felt it, what motivated their actions,” she wrote. “This carried over to my life as a history major, and I focused my studies on propaganda campaigns.”

As luck would have it, Sandor met a professor from Kenya, who spoke with her at length about the ability of theater “to heal, to educate, and to change people’s perspective.” That summer, traveling to Nakuru to study educational street theater, “I fell in love with the country and wanted to return,” she said.

Midway through her senior year, in yet another twist of fate, Sandor and Blauvelt came up with idea for Duma, a mobile-phone-based social job-matching platform. They developed the idea after spending the summer working on research projects in Nakuru, when they noticed that people had a problem finding out about job opportunities and showcasing their skills.

“Christine and I began talking the fall of our senior year and began developing the idea for Duma then,” she wrote. “Thankfully, Princeton had many opportunities to hone our concept at business plan competitions and hackathons – weekends where computer programmers and other students converge in a competition and each set out to build a prototype of their own technology. Christine and I had some early successes and Duma began turning into a tangible path for us to pursue after graduation in June.”

Accepted into the eLab, a summer incubator program at Princeton that gave them the opportunity to create a working prototype of software they could bring to Kenya, the two moved to Nakuru in September and have been running Duma since then.

The software was created by the team’s computer programmer, Eric Kuto (Princeton ’12) and its summer intern, Luke Paulsen (’14).

According to the program’s co-founder, the venture “provides workers and employers with an accessible and reliable network to connect with one another, based on their social contacts, location, job skills, and hiring criteria.”

In most developing countries, Sandor explained, “people have a fantastic web of family, friends, and colleagues spread throughout the country. It is upon this foundation of interconnectivity that people find work and workers. It’s informally called the word-of-mouth hiring system, and people use it all the time.”

The problem, however, is that “employers don’t always know which of their friends has a qualified worker with the skills they’re looking for, and workers don’t have an easy way to advertise their availability, especially to people outside their immediate social circles.”

Duma, she said, “mimics the word-of-mouth hiring system. We offer employers information about skilled workers nearby whom they know through a friend, or maybe the friend of a friend. We help workers expand their friend network exponentially, making it that much easier to find out about job openings. We also offer a post-job rating system so workers and employers can be held accountable for the quality of their performance.”

So far, she said, Duma already has matched more than 1,000 people to jobs and has created a database of more than 2,000 workers.

Sandor wrote that “Kenya is an incredible amalgamation of things Western and things entirely ‘other.’… Some people meticulously iron their pants and check their newly purchased iPhones every morning while rubbing their heads with lard to protect them from curse-throwing witches.”

But, she said, “Other things are not so different…. Most families have electricity in their homes and watching the 7 p.m. news is a nightly ritual.

“Everything is different in Kenya and yet nothing is. People have similar problems, you make friends, you develop family, business is business, and friendship is friendship. So the framework is the same. It’s just everything in between that you have to learn.” The biggest change, she said, is that she has to wash her laundry by hand now.

The young entrepreneur notes that “Kenyans overall are very religious people. In every town, no matter how small, there is a bar and a church. The majority of the country is deeply religious and operates under the firm understanding that they are not the only ones in charge of their own destiny.”

That is why “many people understand my religious background. People are also very open minded [about] other faiths and more curious than dubious. As long as I explain Judaism in a way they can relate to and not include too many Yiddishisms, they get the hang of it. I have definitely explained eruv and kashrut to a few people.”

In fact, she noted, “celebrating Jewish holidays has been a lot of fun. For Chanukah I bought candles and potatoes to celebrate with my friends. I transliterated the blessings into English and we sang them all together. We then dug into the latkes I had made. Hamentashen – however, I found a bit difficult to prepare without an oven.”

Sandor said her next goal is to bring Duma to East Africa “and grow from there. We believe that Duma has the potential to carry a huge social impact in job discovery and creation and are incredibly passionate about pushing for its growth and impact.”

The young entrepreneur noted that one of the greatest challenges of implementing the venture has been the amount of multitasking it involves.

“When you think about it, Christine and I weren’t just launching a startup,” she wrote. “We were moving to a foreign country, learning how to run a business right out of university, learning how to speak Kiswahili to actually interact with people, developing our product while performing market research – [all] while launching a startup.”

Since arriving, she said, “it’s been good, but hard,” although she has already made good friends.

“When I couldn’t understand the conversation around me, I just sat down and sketched drawings. Now that I can speak Kiswahili, things are much easier.

“I will stay until Duma succeeds,” she said. “I’m not sure how long that will take and when I will feel success has been attained. It might be two years, it might be five years, and it might be ten years. It’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.”

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