She's helping refugees to become tech entrepreneurs

Joséphine Goube is the COO at London-based Techfugees, a startup that’s teaching refugees everything from 3D printing to app development. 

The West seems full of at-white-slurping startup workers talking tech with few of them promoting the rights of refugees. But Joséphine Goube, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman living in London, has made her name by doing both. Goube is chief operating officer at Techfugees, which – as its name hints – encourages smart tech types to help solve, or at least ease, the myriad problems faced by refugees.

It is one of several posts held by Goube that combine her two key roles, if you were to clumsily label her, as migration campaigner and tech evangelist. Many people view the refugee crisis as an intractable problem. But Goube sees a concrete role for technology in helping empower refugees – many of whom have access to smartphones – and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) struggling to assist them.

“Basically we’re in the 21st century and charities and NGOs have been operating on a 20th century model,” says Goube. “People at sea have been able to be rescued because they were on WhatsApp, so they could [send] their location. So it’s a totally different game, as a NGO or charity that you’re navigating. We provide tech support to NGOs and refugees.”
Goube speaks breathlessly over the phone from Paris. Her schedule is busy – her emails are certainly short and snappy, with one clocking in at two words – and she travels a lot. Her work has seen her visit refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and France. She has seen the impact of the crisis up close – and recognised the need for more help on the ground. “They’re desperate. The sector is not getting any funding any more, because the funders don’t think they’ve been successful,” she says.

Techfugees is based in London but has global chapters across the world, from San Francisco to Dubai and Sydney. Its focus is more around advocacy – organising conferences, workshops and ‘hackathons’ – rather than creating technology itself. It has built an online platform called Basefugees, a kind of Crunchbase – the online entrepreneur and investor database – for refugee technology. It lists challenges faced by NGOs and hopes to connect them with tech-minded volunteers that may be able to provide a solution.

So for example, an NGO may use the service if it is looking for an engineer to install a low-cost Internet service in a camp, or a so ware coder to create an app to aid education. Techfugees has five main focus areas, namely infrastructure – providing access to the Internet and technology – education, identity, health and inclusion.

Such work is undeniably valuable, not least because of the reported signs of “donor fatigue” in the ongoing refugee crisis. According to press reports before the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, France was demolished, there was a shortage of food, tents and blankets, as public donations dwindled.

So why focus on promoting technology, when such basics are so badly needed? Goube says she gets asked this question o en – and has a good response for it. “One of the projects we follow in Jordan provides 3D-printed limbs to refugees. When doing this, they teach the refugee how to become a 3D-printing designer. So when that happens you create a job for that person, you create a skill. And that’s very different from the traditional approach [of] ‘I’m going to give you food and blankets’,” she says. “This is the core of what we do. Whatever we create, we create it with the refugees, and refugees get the job through helping build technology.”

Goube’s LinkedIn page reveals a string of roles since graduating from the London School of Economics in 2011. Prior to joining Techfugees she was head of Partnerships & Communications at Migreat, which provides information for those looking to settle in new countries, using algorithms to guide them through o en complex immigration processes. Other previous roles included Co-Directing Manager of Girls In Tech UK, which held monthly events designed to help women advance their careers in the field. Goube continues to work as an ‘Technology Evangelist’ for YBorder, which helps European tech workers find jobs abroad, and also advises the European Commission on immigration issues.

All this has helped her pick up several honours, including being named by Forbes as one of the ‘30 Social Entrepreneurs Under 30’. Marie Claire magazine, in its Women At The Top Awards, called her “one of the ten game-changers who have shaped 2015”.

It’s a busy CV for a busy woman, spanning the areas of technology and migration she knows so well. But while Goube speaks the lingo of the former – it’s all “disrupting” this, or “scaling” that – it is on the latter topic that her language becomes more emotive.

She describes meeting a Syrian woman in Jordan. The woman, who had been a software engineer in her home country, was desperately looking for a job. She ended up taking a coding course with ReBootKAMP, a San Francisco based non-profit organisation focused on providing technical training and employment to refugees.

What was key in that case was that the woman was treated as a person, not a ‘refugee’ ”, says Goube. “We looked at her as someone capable. And that’s what most people don’t do. And I think this is where they suffer the most. They don’t want to be labelled ‘refugee’. They’re proud of what they are and what they’ve done in life.”

But although technology, as promoted by groups like Techfugees and ReBootKAMP, can be part of the answer here, even Goube, a millennial through and through, acknowledges it has its limits. Many of the refugees are extremely enthusiastic about such tech initiatives – without immediately realising it is not a quick fix to all their problems, she says.

“Their expectations are not going to be met in six months or a year. And then they’re going to realise that what we said from the beginning – ‘we provide tech support, we don’t create magic’ – is a reality,” says Goube. “But we’re getting there. It’s not rocket science we are working on, we are just making it more efficient, and more accountable and more transparent.”

And there are positive stories coming out of the promotion of technology in such difficult environments. Just ask the young Syrian coder in Jordan. “She was having nightmares that would make her wake up at night,” says Goube. “Now she wakes up to build apps.”