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Dignify connects the displaced to the global economy

Dignify provides a platform for displaced people and refugees to connect with much-needed work and the rest of the global economy. 

With a successful pilot in Greece last summer, a pitch at the United Nations, and a vision to do good while addressing an often neglected sect of the world’s population, Dignify has been generating lots of attention.

In light of the buzz, I sat down with Dignify’s CEO, Laura Oller, to discuss the company’s mission to connect millions of displaced people into the global economy.

Dignify aims to connect displaced people with online freelancing.

Dignify is a digital platform aiming to connect the world’s 65 million displaced people with the global economy.

Founded by five students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Dignify brings online freelancing to the world’s most economically isolated people in 2017. The five-person team — Laura Oller, Marta Milkowska, Ziad Reslan, Sara Rendtorff-Smith, and Alex Choi — represent eight nationalities, 11 languages, a passion for human rights, and extensive business development and entrepreneurship experience. CEO Laura Oller and her team have found that, of the 65 million displaced people across the globe, very few resettle in their country of origin and an increasing number relocate to urban centers in host countries as opposed to refugee camps. Underdeveloped labor markets, unfamiliarity with the local language, and discrimination mean few are able to find jobs, with even fewer able to find non-exploitative working conditions (1 in 2 employed Syrians displaced in Lebanon reported exploitatory working conditions in 2016).

Named for its goal of dignifying the often degrading circumstances facing displaced peoples, Dignify is aided by the global proliferation of smartphones. Oller points out that as many as 80 percent of displaced Syrians own or have access to smartphones, but because of the UN’s move away from refugee camps, most have little monetary assistance. Dignify has seized the opportunity to bring digital freelancing to a previously untapped cross-section of society with qualifications diverse enough to fill nearly any role.

Dignify CEO Laura Oller hopes to connect an often overlooked segment of the population with the global economy.

An unusual need

But who needs digital freelancers and for what?

This is where Dignify is capitalizing on a counter-intuitive trend: job-creation through automation. Oller points to the massive need for the manual review of digital license plate images. In northern Texas alone, 1.5 million damaged, muddied, or otherwise obstructed plates need to be manually reviewed annually. Image recognition technology also allows work to be outsourced en masse, specifically for self-driving car development. Drawing a circle around a tree, truck, or pedestrian and entering the digits of a license plate are tasks that can be done on a smartphone anywhere in the world.

Yet, Oller stresses though that it isn’t just these simpler tasks that can be outsourced to displaced people. People from all walks of life and with all levels of education and expertise have been affected by crises in their countries of origin. Many have also been trained by the UN in digital skills and Dignify strives to match workers to freelance jobs matching their qualifications. 

Many displaced people have graduated from great universities in their home countries and can only find jobs as taxi drivers. We are trying to change that.” Laura Oller, CEO of Dignify

Dignify uses tests to match workers to relevant jobs that they are qualified for, a unique feature setting Dignify apart from competitors who require both digital fluency and soft skills to negotiate and win work. Oller and her team observed that this often resulted in the marginalization of displaced peoples on such platforms and as a result, designed Dignify’s test-taking and job-matching process to minimize the inherent disadvantage faced by many displaced peoples. “These tests are user-friendly so that people know which tests they can take, what they need to know to do well, and the type of jobs they can attain through good scores,” explained Oller.

Room for growth

The online freelancing market was estimated at $4.8 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow 30 percent annually, reaching $15-20 billion by 2022. Digital microwork alone accounts for $450 to 900 million of that market, giving Dignify plenty of market space to grow into.

A conservative estimate places the number of displaced, working-age people with smartphone or computer access and payment registration at 17 million globally. Dignify plans to launch full-scale operations in Jordan, Lebanon, Uganda, and Greece in the first half of 2018 and to scale from there. The team visited these launch destinations last summer to establish partnerships with local work-host centers. “Though a lot of the work available can be completed remotely, we are partnered with universities and connectivity centers that allow people to access free internet and computers,” said Oller.

Challenges going forward

Going forward, Oller and her team face three main challenges. The first: product development of effective tests and the subsequent matching of workers with jobs. In a pilot run in Greece last summer, a small group of refugees worked on a project for an educational institution. The pilot demonstrated the Dignify platform’s ability to consistently produce quality results for employers, but providing work that caters to the varied levels of expertise of displaced peoples — a central goal of Dignify’s — will be a key next step.

The second big challenge: payment. “For those workers who are unbanked, payment methods are case-by-case,” said Oller. “In Uganda, we have had success setting up payment through mobile money and in Lebanon and Jordan many of the displaced people have prepaid debit cards which are commonly used and widely accepted.” Navigating labor laws in certain nations also poses a potential hurdle, but the team is reassured by favorable laws and attitudes held toward freelancing platforms in most of their target markets.

A third challenge Dignify will face is building trust with the employers looking to outsource work. “That is on us as the platform to have good quality controls in place. There are models of triangulation for double-checking that we are looking into, but I think our platform will ultimately benefit hugely from the inexpensiveness of labor — we can even have two or three people working on a project through Dignify for the same price as one person on another platform,” explained Oller, who remains optimistic on this front. But ultimately, Dignify’s goal is to charge competitive prices for refugee-labor. The degree to which they are able to do so will be largely determined by the quality of their vetting and qualification testing.

A challenge that the team foresaw and adapted their business model to is the stigma that many refugees and displaced people face as a result of what can be perceived as favorable treatment from NGOs and platforms like Dignify. “We decided to change our model to target 50 percent displaced people and 50 percent locals,” said Oller, citing the weak economies in many host countries. This plays into what Oller hopes will be Dignify’s second role: serving as a deterrent to illegitimate activity in host cities.

Dignify won second place in the 2017 Hult Prize competition

Next steps

How does Dignify plan to monetize? The answer is simple enough. “We charge a 1 percent fee on any payment made through our platform,” said Oller. The team has not yet decided if Dignify will evolve into a for-profit company, but in the meantime, their business model focuses on sustainability and the ability to expand to new markets.

As one of six finalists competing for the 2017 Hult Prize, which awards the winner $1 million, Dignify received the opportunity to pitch their idea to the United Nations. Although they ultimately did not win, Dignify received positive feedback from panelists such as Bill Clinton, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, and Kiva President Premal Shah. More recently, Dignify secured a $50,000 grant from the Tent Foundation, Chobani Yogurt founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya’s personal foundation, that will be primarily used for their large-scale pilot in Uganda this summer.

Oller and the team see Dignify not only as a platform connecting unemployed displaced people with work but also as a pioneer of a fresh twist on corporate social responsibility. “We envision companies using Dignify primarily for business, but with the benefit of doing good on the side. The future of corporate social responsibility is more integrated with the central business,” predicted Oller. If this holds true, Dignify is poised to be a player in this trend.

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