Alumni and Friends

Wafaa Arbash, MA SID/MA COEX'17 | 2020 Recipient of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award

Wafaa Arbash
Wafaa Arbash, MA SID/MA COEX'17

Wafaa Arbash, MA SID/MA COEX’17, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. She is founder and CEO of WorkAround, a startup company that connects refugees and displaced people with remote work providing data-tagging services for machine learning. Arbash, who is originally from Syria, founded WorkAround in 2017 while she was a student at Heller, winning several Brandeis and Boston-area startup competitions to get her business idea off the ground. She was interviewed by Bethany Romano of Heller Communications in 2020 about her Heller experience and her journey as the founder of a mission-driven startup company.

Bethany Romano: Let’s start at the beginning: How did you find out about the Heller School? 

Wafaa Arbash: I found out about Heller when I was studying abroad in Utah, in March 2013. I saw an ad on Facebook, and I thought ‘huh, that’s what I really want to do.’

But I misread the deadline, I thought I had plenty of time to apply. I told my American host family that I found this great school, and they looked at it and said ‘Wafaa, the deadline is today!’ We sat for five hours straight to fill out the application and submitted it that day. Then on April 1st Heller sent me an acceptance letter—which is April Fool’s Day—and I thought it was a joke.

Romano: What do you remember most fondly from Heller?

Arbash: Heller was really awesome. I got to meet all these people from all over the world. I remember sharing lots of meals with other international students, each of them bringing dishes from their home country. I took away a lot from that, meeting so many people at the Heller School.

Romano: Tell us about WorkAround.

Arbash: WorkAround provides data tagging for machine learning by hiring refugees and displaced people overseas to do that work. Our mission is to provide work for refugees and displaced people, to restore their dignity and provide them with income.

Basically if a company is trying to train a robot to select items from a warehouse, or drive a car, they need to provide the robot with thousands and thousands of images that have been labeled, or ‘tagged,’ with every important visual element. This is a traffic light. This is a pedestrian. This is a stop sign. Humans have to do that labeling work. That’s what companies hire us to do.

We also built our own tools for labeling images. Machine learning engineers can use this tool, but if they have a large data set, then they can hire our workforce to do the work. It’s been challenging for the last few months; we’re a startup and we’re working on our product-market fit. We’re getting feedback from users to scale up to the next level.

Right now, we have a pool of more than 3,000 people registered on our workforce, ready to work, all over the world. The majority are in Turkey, but also Jordan, Venezuela, Kenya, all over the place really. The number of people working at any given time depends on the projects we have and how many hours each worker wants to work, or is able to work. Could be several hundred.

Romano: Did you already know about data tagging and machine learning when you started WorkAround?

Arbash: No! I learned about it when we went to MassChallenge. We were trying to find work that was doable for this workforce and could be highly scalable. We realized that data tagging for machine learning was perfect.

This work takes a lot of grit. It’s really challenging work, because you always find yourself in very uncomfortable places. I had to learn a lot about machine learning, about data tagging, and I am taking courses in that, still. But I need to know about it so that when I’m on the phone with a customer, I can speak intelligently about the topic. You have to learn, to embrace the things you don’t know. And I believe you have to surround yourself with people who believe in you and who are smarter than you, to help you grow as a person.

Romano: Did you ever see yourself running a startup?

Arbash: Never. When I was young my dream was to work for the United Nations. When I got to Heller, I still had that goal. But the more I studied about international development, the more I realized that the bureaucracy would drive me crazy. I want to see direct impact. So that’s where I started thinking about this idea. I reached out to many companies that had the resources to implement my idea, but nobody wanted to do it. So I started thinking, maybe I could do it. And here we are, three years later.

Romano: Throughout your career, would you say there’s one big question or problem you’re trying to solve?

Arbash: The biggest problem, the biggest thing for me is providing people with income. No matter where you are, in order to thrive you need a sustainable income to survive, to pay your bills, live in a house, send your kids to school, pay attention to your health. Income is a basic need, and it’s the main cause for so many problems. My theory and my belief is that people want to feel valued, and by giving them a job, when they earn money they feel valued. Especially if they’re doing something meaningful to them. I think that’s where the biggest impact can be.

My dream is to provide sustainable income for as many people as possible. I want to grow the company to the point where we have a lot of revenue, a lot of customers. Whenever we have a job, I love to go online and see people working, see the job getting done. I know that means income for people, that means food, that means so many things. 

Romano: Why does that motivate you?

Arbash: If you think about quarantine—imagine what it’s like to sit at home and have someone just pay your salary for no work. Maybe for the first month you’d be excited. Yay, some time off! But after a while, you feel useless. You’re not doing anything meaningful. You might get depressed. But if you’re working and feeling the meaning in their life, that all changes. I focus on refugees and internally displaced people because they’re the most vulnerable.

Romano: What advice would you give a Heller student looking to found a start up?

Arbash: Just start! It takes a lot of courage to not have a salary, not have a paycheck. But for the last three years I’ve grown so much professionally, met so many great people in the startup world that I would have never met. It’s a great, great experience 

My advice if you see a problem that keeps you awake at night, you have to do something about it. And if that means you have to found a startup or an initiative or a nonprofit, you have to do it. You don’t have to have it all before you start. I don’t have it all! And I don’t know if I ever will. You take it step by step and solve one problem at a time. And find people you work well with. I started this company with other Heller students. I wasn’t doing this alone, I had people working side by side with me for the first several years.

About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.