Radically rethinking global hiring with Ronit Avni of Localized

Radically rethinking global hiring with Ronit Avni of Localized

Ronit Avni, a tech and media entrepreneur, cut her teeth on the intersection of media, tech, and social impact when she joined Witness in 2000. For almost 2 decades Ronit worked alongside human rights champions all around the world through Witness, and her company Just Vision. During this time she noticed “a lot of young talent that was not having access to the kinds of social capital, the kinds of strategic networks and employers that they would need to be able to launch their careers and succeed.” She saw an opportunity to help companies radically rethink not just hiring, but global hiring. In 2018, she launched Localized, a talent-tech platform that connects university students and recent grads from emerging markets to industry experts and employers. Ronit believes that the employment landscape is ripe for this new way of approaching hiring.

You’re seeing companies that are now much more open to hiring remote talent, you’re seeing students who are now well versed in how to manage themselves and their work habits remotely, you’re just seeing an entire shift on a mindset level.

Maren and Ronit discuss the value of startup founders baking in remote-first best practices and strategies from the beginning to gain a competitive advantage. Companies that fully adopt a remote-first mindset will be able to hire the best talent, regardless of geography, and be able to build more robust systems that function across multiple time zones.

Ronit had some advice to share for hiring early-stage talent:

  • If you’re looking for early-stage talent be really open-minded about geography because with early-stage talent there’s not a lot of daylight between top performers.
  • Rethink some of your assumptions about the pitfalls of remote hiring because so many of those pitfalls have been either technologically or culturally or experientially addressed in the last couple of years.

Whether you’re a student or recent college graduate of a business or engineering program in the global market looking to expand your career opportunities or an employer looking to hire remote young talent globally, Localized would be a great partner. Young professionals will get exposure to industry experts and career coaching, be able to attend virtual career fairs, and have access to apply for open positions. Companies will be able to attract global and diverse candidates to apply for their open roles and build brand awareness across the globe. It’s a win, win for both sides.

If you enjoyed this episode, listen to our conversation with Malinda Coler of LessonsUp.

Photo of Ronit Avni

CEO of Localized, a tech and media entrepreneur, and Peabody award-winning producer where she has been named a young global leader through the World Economic Forum.

Maren Kate
Today, my guest is Ronit Avni, a tech and media entrepreneur and Peabody award-winning producer where she has been named a young global leader through the World Economic Forum. And the reason we're talking today is she is the founder and CEO of Localized, which is a talent tech platform that connects university students and recent grads from emerging markets to industry experts and employers. And I was actually planning on using Localized very soon so I'm excited to have you here. Thank you, Ronit, for joining.

Ronit Avni
Thank you so much for having me.

Maren Kate
So my first question, what was your first job?

Ronit Avni
My first job, I was actually 10 years old and I was hired in fifth grade to watch kindergarteners while their parents dropped them off at school and the teachers weren't ready to come yet. And I remember I was paid $5 a week. So I started early.

Maren Kate
That's awesome. I always think about that. I did a lot of babysitting when I was a teenager as well and I look back and I'm like, “why did people let children watch other children?” Like this is such a normal thing. And I don't even have kids but I background check my petsitter so I guess we live in different times now. So from there, what was your first paycheck job? Or what was the first job you had to pay taxes on is a good one?

Ronit Avni
Okay, that's great. So my first job was with an organization called Witness in New York. It was founded by the musician Peter Gabriel, in collaboration with the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. Peter had gone on tour singing during the 80s and he had seen apartheid in South Africa and he'd written a famous song called Biko and, at that time, realize that I think it was at the time a little bit of an optimistic vision, the idea that if human rights defenders only had video cameras and could only document what they were experiencing, the world would act, and they would galvanize, and they would combat apartheid. And so his vision was to equip human rights defenders globally with video cameras, this was before digital cameras, and train them to document abuses and try to bring these issues to light. And the organization only took off after the Rodney King beating in the 90s. And I joined right after college, not in the 90s, a little later than that. But we were pre YouTube so we were among the first entities to put video online. It was about 200 universities, the porn industry, and us, and that was it. And so I cut my teeth on that intersection of media, tech, and social impact right off the bat.

Maren Kate
And so how did you go from there to starting Localized? Obviously, you know, it's a circuitous journey but I'm curious.

Ronit Avni
Yeah. So, you know, when I was at Witness I was working with human rights champions all around the world, right. So whether it was in Sierra Leone, or Afghanistan before 911, or the Philippines, or frankly even, you know, I worked with Van Jones, who at the time was at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. So I worked with really diverse communities, also a lot of immigrant and ex-pat communities, and got hooked on this idea of tech and media for social impact. I left that and founded a media and human rights organization that was focused primarily in the Middle East. It was called Just Vision and we produced feature-length doc films and a news site. I was taking essentially some of the methodology of Witness but applying it in more of, I would say, entertainment length films that you could see on a Saturday night in a movie theater or on Netflix or iTunes, to really try to bring to popular culture issues that before then were a little bit more academic. I did that for about 11 years and during that time really spent a lot of time in communities across the Middle East. I saw a lot of young talent that was not having access to the kinds of social capital, the kinds of strategic networks, and employers that they would need to be able to launch their careers and succeed. I was working a lot in Palestinian society. So it was even deeper than that, in the sense that these were communities that if they stayed on their lands they would not have access to educational professional mobility. But if they left for those opportunities they would lose their homes and their lands. So originally, the idea of Localized was somewhat of a radical rethinking of how hiring could happen. This was back in 2012 so way before remote work was a big thing. I was spending time in this community and realizing that there might be another way to have access to professional and educational opportunity without having to forfeit access to their homes and their lands. So that was the beginning of the thinking of Localized but I only acted on that thinking many years later. So just a few years ago, I came to realize that it wasn't just about this particular population, it wasn't just about the Middle East, it was actually that we're in a new moment where knowledge and access to social capital and access to employers is so much more available because the technology and the connectivity are now there around the world. And so I left my old job, spent a couple of years researching the space thinking that I would just join whoever was out there working on it, and then saw that there wasn't in fact a company or an organization that was working on this issue on a global scale and so that's how Localized began.

Maren Kate
I guess my first question is, I assume that everybody having been forced to work remotely for the first 12 months of the COVID lockdowns, I assume that really sped things up for both your thinking and Localized. Is that correct or how did that impact the journey to where you are now?

Ronit Avni
Oh, it's a sea change. It's funny, I just got off a call a minute ago with somebody in Enugu, Nigeria and we were talking about the fact that we, for the first time in history, you have, on a global scale, an entire public population of young people graduating from university, going into the workplace, using the same tools, and the same methodologies around the world, because everyone or almost everyone has been working remotely for at least some stretch of time. And so all these collaboration tools that people are using, all these ways of working, they're now so much more similar than they were a couple of years ago. So the acceleration, I would say, on every level, you're seeing companies that are now much more open to hiring remote talent, you're seeing students who are now well versed in how to manage themselves and their work habits remotely, you're just seeing an entire shift on a mindset level. And what that means is that you have talent pools that were never available before because not only do they have the connectivity so that you could hire them but you also can have confidence that they actually know how to work and to fit into your team at a level that is unprecedented. Doesn't mean it's always going to work, or it's always going to be a fit, and that you don't have to be deliberate about it and put a lot of good systems and practices into place but the probability is so much higher that you'll have that kind of seamless international collaboration than you had in the past.

Maren Kate
My first venture-backed company. We started end of 2010/beginning in 2011 in San Francisco, and the company was always fully remote and I remember having conversations with VCs and other people in the tech industry and at one point we actually for years had an office in San Francisco for our small little team. I think we had pressure from one of our VCs to get one because they were like, “Listen, you need an office, you need to have that face time”. And it's been amazing to see how the world has shifted and the opportunities that remote work have created for workers and also for employers. And granted obviously I'm very biased but my gut is that building in the infrastructure to have remote teams is going to really be kind of a make or break or maybe even just a really big distinction over the next 10 years for companies because we could never predict the future and just like no one ever would have imagined we'd be on years of lockdown rolling over the last few years. It seems like even companies that want to be in-office or want to have a hybrid policy seems like the systems and the processes for being able to work from anywhere, and your teams being able to work from anywhere, are really beneficial both in the short term in terms of productivity and prioritization but especially in a long term when we think about how companies are going to be able to be competitive and how you're going to get the right person for the right role.

Ronit Avni
Absolutely, we did a survey of employers three times over the first year of COVID, so May 2020, November 2020, and then May 2021, and what we found is that, as their remote roles increased, which you would expect in COVID, right, so they went from 8% of their roles being remote to 48% of their roles being remote, they also went international. So, in the beginning, 15% of the roles were international and now 43% of their rules are international or a year later. Which is a massive change in thinking, right, because you would imagine if they were just going to whether this and just allow people to go remote they would be very likely to just hire people in their own vicinity, right. Like, if you're a Texan-based company, you would just hire Texans remotely but with the idea that you're going back to the office in six months or in a year. But if you start hiring internationally, that actually is indicating something very different, which is that you're restructuring and investing in a different way of operating. And so what we found is, number one, absolutely employers need to and would be wise to make sure that they have policies for remote workers, telecommuting workers, distributed teams, and they are, by and large, but then also, what we find is that once they make that mental shift, suddenly, geography looks very different, right. Where they suddenly rethink if you're gonna go remote if you're not going to be in the same office, why not look for the best talent you can find at the price point that you can or in the timezone you need, or in the geography where you're looking to expand your market, or whatever other factors might drive your decision making. There's a lot more, I would say, imaginative space and flexibility, and that's also been supported by the introduction of companies like remote.com, and Deel, and People 2.0, and other what you call POS and EMRs that make it seamless. So now today, if I want to hire somebody in Nigeria, let's say, or in Turkey, I can pay in U.S. dollars to a U.S. company under U.S. law and they will ensure that I am legally compliant, that I am paying somebody properly, and that person is getting full benefits in about 160 countries around the world. And so that's all-new, right, that's just the last few years. So I would say that we're in an absolutely new moment than we were several years ago and for sure for Localized that's had a big impact.

Maren Kate
So walk us through, maybe starting with the candidate, what the experience is with Localized and how they go on to find a job, and then flipping the lens to how an employer would work with you to find great talent and what types of talent that is right now.

Ronit Avni
Absolutely. So our focus has been primarily graduates of engineering, and business programs, right. So top business and engineering schools from Turkey all the way to South Africa to Beijing, some in the United States. We work with really diverse talent pools, usually by partnering with top universities, or alumni networks, or talent networks, so let's say the Junior Achievement alumni or the Global Business School network. So they'll partner with us, they'll come onto the platform, and then the students and the recent graduates, they'll sign up for three reasons I would say. Number one, they're trying to get a job for sure or they're trying to learn about an industry let's say the crypto space, or whether it's FinTech, or AI, or med-tech, or robotics. They want to learn more and they want to learn from industry experts who have up-to-the-minute insights because we are constantly hosting these experts, sharing best practices, sharing what a day in the life of their job is, talking about what they're hiring for. So we have a lot of talent that comes onto the platform to make sure that they're up to date because they really want to understand what's going on in the market. And then the third category are those that are trying to figure that out, right, where maybe they don't know yet whether they want to go into IoT for medical devices, right? They know they want to go into med-tech but they don't know exactly which way so they're doing a little bit more of that career exploration. So those would be the three scenarios why someone might join Localized. And so they're coming on and we have an HR and Career Coach in Residence who used to work in career services at Stanford. He now is the head behavioral scientist at a tech company in Silicon Valley but he's multilingual and originally Syrian, right, so he really knows what it's like to be from one of the regions that we serve very heavily, speaks many languages, and can help guide international talent around their job hunt. So they might come in and come to one of his sessions. They might come and hear from a CEO of a crypto analytics or FinTech remittance company talking about what their company does and what trends they're seeing in the market. They might come on for one of our virtual career fairs which we host at least twice a year. They might come on because their university, like Carnegie Mellon, for example, is one of our partners and they have a campus in Qatar, where they might have a career fair on the platform that they're hosting. So the talent may come on for any of those reasons. Or they're just coming on to look around for jobs and to apply. So that would be the talent side of it.

For an employer, I think there are a number of reasons why they would come on to Localized. Number one is they're trying to build a global and diverse pipeline of talent and what I mean by that is that we've got tons of top universities. Some of the universities we have, over 50% of the engineering students, as an example, are women, right, so we have some companies that come to us and they say, “Hey, we're equal opportunity employers, we're noticing that our pipeline of engineers is skewing in one direction or another and we want to make sure that it's a really vast and diverse pipeline so that we can choose the best candidate for the job, irrespective of a whole bunch of characteristics, but just making sure that that pipeline is reflective of the population at large”. And so they might come on to the platform to diversify their pipeline. They might come on to build brand awareness, right. Like, let's say you're a crypto exchange and you've just gotten a certification in a particular country or region that we serve, you might want for the top students and fresh graduates in that particular country or that region to know about you, right? You might want to build your brand, right? Maybe you’re a FinTech company that no one's heard about in the region. That your a remittance company, and you're operating, let's say, in Africa but you're not a well-known name in Africa, we're a great place to come on because we've got the University of Johannesburg, but we also have universities from Egypt and Tunisia, all the way through Ghana and Nigeria and beyond. Or let's say you're just coming on to look for international talent on an ongoing basis or more affordable talent if it doesn't matter to you where you're recruiting from. So those would be some of the reasons why. We're not for everyone. You know, like, if you have an employer that's very much an in-person hyperlocal company that's very small that's, you know, let's say you're an Indian company only operating in India and you're not looking for international or remote roles, we might not be a fit for you. But if you're looking globally, or you're looking for that diverse pipeline, or you're looking to build brand awareness, then we're really great place to start.

Maren Kate
That's amazing. It makes me so excited to actually use you guys and leverage that. It's interesting because, obviously, one of our businesses is doing recruiting for early-stage tech startups. And more and more we're actually recommending to people where they'll say, “Hey, we need this back end developer” and we'll be like, “is it remote-friendly?”, and it's 99% remote-friendly now which is great, and then we'll be like, “Well, where can you employ versus where do you want to employ?” and, usually, they still want to hire within North America. But everybody, especially the earlier stage companies that are not a Facebook or a Google or whatever, they are always reeling from the sticker shock of what an even five-year experienced engineer or product person in North America will cost them. The base salary, the competition, the amount of people that they'll get to the finish line and then they'll take a job with Netflix or something, and so we're now suggesting more like, “Okay, if timezone is important, what about Latin America, or if you work more asynchronously that opens up the entire globe”. It seems like it's gonna be more of a mental shift, like, a way of thought. That seems to be the biggest hurdle is thinking in terms of global talent and then, from there, it's setting up the systems and processes to make sure that your teams can work fluidly together because there are going to be everything from timezones, is like one of the most simple examples, to cultural references, or just ways of thinking and making sure that different teams understand and are able to interact that way.

Maren Kate
Absolutely. I think that it is a mental shift. We see this a lot. It's courageous hiring, right, to think about geographies or locations. It shouldn't be courageous hiring but often it is. Where people may have an idea of where they can find the talent that they're looking for but, often, there are many other locations where that talent is also concentrated that just requires looking outside the box, right? I joke, I'm from Montreal originally and my sister teaches at a university in Montreal, not a very well known university, but they have I believe it's more either Oscar recipients or nominees per capita than any other university, more than NYU, more than UCLA, but they're little known. They're this modest Montreal-based university that people don't know is exceptionally strong for producing filmmakers, and animators. You have pools of talent and locations and geographies that have really exceptional talent that you may not have heard of, right, and so I think it's very important to keep an open mind. Because we do work with earlier stage talent we're not the place you go to find the person with 15 years of experience. We're the place you go to find that students into the first five years of experience and what frustrates me, sometimes will talk to companies, or entities that train fresh talent right, they look for an engineering grad and they do all the training. And they might say, “Hey, we're only going to look for that talent in, let's say, Poland”. And we'll say, “but for the exact same timezone you can, Poland is great and that's terrific, we have team members from Poland, nothing wrong with that, but if you're struggling to find the talent that you need we also have talent in Egypt and there are some excellent engineers there and it's the same timezone or Nigeria”. You can find a lot of talent in the same timezone in different geographies. And so I think it really depends, for employers, especially if you're looking for early-stage talent to be really open-minded about geography because early-stage talent there's not a lot of daylight between top performers in, let's say, the number one Engineering University in Turkey versus, we've got, and again I mentioned, we work with top universities, we also work with the MIT Arab Alumni Association. We have really strong networks on the platform, but there's not a lot of daylight between students who are hyper-motivated at an early stage. I think where you start to see differences are in ecosystems that get more and more sophisticated and complex over time, right? So by way of analogy, I used to be in the film community. If you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker in the U.S., New York was really the epicenter of that. Now, you could certainly find documentary filmmakers in other cities in the U.S. but you would find it in New York. That being said, you can find an incredible concentration of those filmmakers in Toronto and in Berlin, and like there are other geographies. There's a growing film industry in a variety of places. So there's no question that there are ecosystems where you might find talent but that tends to play out a little bit later in people's careers where, if they're in the center of an epicenter, they might get more sophisticated jobs and things that they have to tackle over time. Whereas at the early stage, you know, it almost makes no sense to be adamant about a particular geography if you're talking about a remote position.

Maren Kate
Got it. Yeah, I totally agree. And I wonder, what do you think the pushback is? Do you think it's, kind of, ignorance? Do you think it's bias? Do you think it's kind of doing things as they've always been done?

Ronit Avni
I think it's a combination, right? So I don't want to impune people's motives but I do think, certainly, there's a combination of comfort, bias, having done things a certain way, expectations, and ignorance about the realities of how infrastructure has advanced over the last 10-20 years in different geographies, the connectivity. On my team we've got team members in Cairo, Enugu, LA, London, Dubai, Istanbul, I'm in DC, I usually have the connectivity issues, right, and Ramallah is another center that we've got team members so a lot has changed in the last five years, in the last two years. Also, now, culturally, people are so much more accustomed to consuming social media from around the world. So I just think that the barriers and the friction to this kind of hiring have diminished so significantly. And then there are best practices, right? So I would recommend…There is a shift. If you're going to hire remotely there are certain things you're going to want to put in place. You're going to want to ideally get together twice a year or four times a year with a whole team if you can. You're going to want to have more transparency around communication and calendars and accountability. I mean, there's all kinds of ways to make sure that it works for people but it is not the same as it was even three years ago for teams to collaborate. So I would say if someone who's listening is on the fence, I would encourage them to rethink some of their assumptions about the pitfalls of remote hiring because so many of those pitfalls have been either technologically or culturally or experientially addressed in the last couple of years.

Maren Kate
So we have a lot of listeners that are startup founders, and a lot of listeners that are looking to make a career change but I think, coming at it from the founder lens, this is one of those things that if you bake in early enough it gives you a competitive advantage. So if you're a seed or series A or whatever size company, if you're small enough where you have to be careful about your burn rate in your runway, you only have so much money, you don't have a lot of brand recognition, this is one of those hacks that I don't think is as well known as the other kind of startup hacks that there are in terms of competitive advantage. Because you can get high-quality people, you can get them for less than you would be able to get someone in your locale if you're in North America or something and you're building a moat around your talent systems too because if you have team members in Cairo, in LA, in Johannesburg, you're going to be building more robust reporting, documentation, and communication systems from day one. And by the time you're 50 people, you'll need those regardless. By the time you're 500, you won't be able to function without them. And so if you build that in from ground zero, you not only have a talent edge but you have a people edge.

Ronit Avni
I love that. I think that's absolutely correct and it's such a great way to frame it. In fact, I think you should write an op-ed about that, I mean, write a piece about that because that's so true and I think it does. That's such a great response to those, you know, there are still investors who question the viability of remote-first teams even though there have been many, many success stories. I laughed at the beginning of COVID. I can't tell you how many investors I spoke with, primarily from Silicon Valley, that were suddenly pleasantly surprised that they could have investment meetings, they could meet founders effectively, via zoom, right? They really didn't think it was possible to build rapport and to do proper diligence virtually, and then we're suddenly realizing so many investors…

Maren Kate
Oh, I know. I was like, “Yeah, I've been saying this for a decade now, I know”. Like, “oh wow, we just closed a round and it was completely via zoom” and I'm like, “you could have done that before”. You know, you don't have to meet in a coffee shop in Palo Alto, like, it's not a prerequisite. I think at the end of the day that's one of the edges that you get as a startup, as a founder, as someone coming into something at any age with fresh eyes. You get to say, “Hey, you know, I've not spent 20 years in Silicon Valley so I don't have this bias of, 10 years ago, if you weren't meeting on Sand Hill Road, then is it really a startup, or maybe 20 years ago, whatever that bias is, is gone now. But there's still biases that exist, obviously, right now and as a founder seeing those biases and being like, my competition, their investors, and their founders are probably going to think this way so I'm going to go the complete opposite. And then by the time they catch up, and they're like, “Oh, we can have a completely global team that's across all time zones”, I will already be way ahead of them and we'll already have had all the systems set up. So really quickly, as we touch on investors, as we touch on the money side of things tell us about how do you guys, what's your pricing? And then as a startup, how have you funded? Are you guys bootstrapped? Did you raise money? Like, what can you share publicly about that?

Ronit Avni
Yeah, so we're not Bootstrap. We do have investors including VCs. We’re going into our series and we're a seed-stage company. So we're still an early company but growing really rapidly. And that process, I would say, personally, like fundraising via zoom I loved. So we've had two rounds of funding and the first round I did in person and the second round I did via zoom. And the second round was just exponentially, obviously, it's faster the second time anyhow because as we get bigger brand names and more traction it gets easier but I think also, for non-traditional founders, so I'm not like a 25-year-old, it was actually much easier for me to raise funding via zoom than it was in person.

Maren Kate
And I think also, personality-wise, there's people that are maybe a little more introverted and appreciate being able to be in their space, to be on their best game, versus there's some people that thrive in-person. So that's kind of another benefit.

Ronit Avni
And also, for a lot of startups, you know, I was not the founder that would like suddenly plunk down $2,000 to take quick trips to go meet investors for the off chance that they might invest in us at a pre-seed level, right. But like, there are a lot of founders that, before the last couple of years, they would just spend a ton of money just trying to get in front of those investors.

Maren Kate
Or wouldn't have the opportunity.

Ronit Avni
Yep, or just wouldn’t have the opportunity and so I think that this is really great, I'm a big fan of this shift. Now, obviously, things are going to change. You know, the one thing that remote doesn't do as well is serendipity, right? So you do want to create opportunities for people to come together, whether it's in regional pods, or local pods or the whole team’s coming together a number of times a year but you do want to make sure to carve out that space but overall I'm just super excited with this global direction of collaboration. To your question about how we work with companies. So companies sign up. It's a subscription. It's an affordable subscription and then there are things that the company can decide whether they want to have included in their subscription or not. But basically, a company that joins the platform, an employer, would be able to search for talent, they'd be able to message candidates there, they would be invited to our two curated virtual career fairs that are heavily marketed. And then there are other benefits like we can do special events, we can do targeted events. So for example, if you're looking at a particular country like we have nine of the top business and engineering schools in Turkey, where let's say you were expanding into Turkey and you wanted us to curate an event with you just for that market, or the UAE, or Saudi, or Qatar, or South Africa, we can do that. So there's a lot that kind of happens under the surface on the platform of curating connections between the talent pool and the employers. And there are other benefits, but basically, like an employer that signs up, we would have an intake, with an intake meeting really understand what it is that they're looking to achieve. Is it building their brand in a region or is it building their pipeline long term or is it more short term in terms of filling positions? And from there the different options would be selected based on those needs.

Maren Kate
That's awesome. Well, I'm really excited for us to try you guys out soon. I know we have some hiring picking up in Q3. Ronit, it was so great chatting with you. I love this conversation. How can people find out more about you and Localized after they listen? What are the URLs?

Ronit Avni
Absolutely. So it's localized dot world. So L-O-C-A-L-I-Zed or Z-E-D, whichever you say, dot world, W-O-R-L-D. And folks can find me on Twitter @Ronit_Avni or they can find me on LinkedIn and happy to connect and provide more information and I'm really excited to serve your team as well so thank you so much, Maren, for the opportunity.

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