“It’s been a really interesting adventure,” says Jacob Korenblum (BA 2004 UC) of his evolution from a student of international relations in Toronto to the president and CEO of Souktel, a company based in Palestine that has pioneered using text messages as a substitute for Internet-based communications in low-income communities.
Studying international relations at U of T sparked Korenblum’s interest in global affairs. While still a student, he worked on a project in Senegal funded by the Canadian International Development Agency; later he studied Arabic in Morocco. Both planted the seed for Souktel, he says, and a later fellowship in social entrepreneurship at Harvard helped him build the idea. “The fellows are encouraged to develop an entrepreneurial solution to a social challenge,” he says. Korenblum’s solution was Souktel, which he co-founded in 2006.
Linking young Palestinians with potential employers – using simple cell phones – was Souktel’s first initiative. Most Palestinian youth still don’t have computers or access to the Internet. Although many do have mobile phones, smartphone availability varies dramatically, Korenblum says. “And unlike in Canada where every university has a career centre,” he adds, “no Palestinian high schools or colleges offer resources to help graduating students.” Souktel’s platform allows each job seeker to post a mini CV and employers to post ads, all of which is uploaded to a database. For the equivalent of a few pennies per request, users can instantly access listings – by text or audio – that match their criteria. Korenblum says, “It’s a lifeline for youth entering the workforce.”
From that start, Souktel has branched out to serve communities in Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East. Its subscribers now include nomadic peoples, rural farmers, refugees confined to camps and families fleeing regional conflicts. It’s all-important that the staff is “almost entirely from Palestine and Jordan,” Korenblum says. “Because our team is based in a conflict zone, we directly understand the challenges communities face, looking for work or seeking social services.” Users need “affordable, on-demand information that can be accessed safely,” he says – services that are culturally appropriate and offered in their own language.
While Souktel is “primarily a business,” Korenblum says, “knowing that I’m running a venture that’s really helping people” is what he’s most proud of. “Whatever social challenge you find in the world, you can go out and tackle it in your own way. At the end of the day, you can go home feeling like you’ve helped make society better.”
Souktel CEO Jacob Kornblum explains how his company links employers to schools and job-seekers
Video courtesy Clinton Global Initiative