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Bettina Hirsig & Mannar Hielal, founder & graduate Powercoders, Swisspreneur Podcast

EP #195: Bettina Hirsig & Mannar Hielal: The Powercoder Who Escaped The Syrian War

Bettina Hirsig & Mannar Hielal

October 21, 2021

4:12 - Having the courage to be yourself

17:35 - The beginning of Powercoders

27:59 - The power of telling stories

31:27 - Cultural shock in Switzerland

36:34 - A purpose-driven organization

About Bettina & Mannar

Bettina Hirsig is the co-founder and lead at Powercoders, a coding academy for refugees. She has a background in marketing and business administration. Mannar Hielal is a junior software engineer at Liip, a Bernese digital agency. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, Mannar fled her war-torn country for Turkey, and then eventually Switzerland, where she would join Powercoders.

Just after the birth of their second child, Bettina's husband Chris was invited to the Global Entrepreneur Summit in San Francisco. There he met two female entrepreneurs: one who had founded a coding academy for women, and one who'd founded a catering company which hired exclusively refugees. It was then that the Powercoders idea was first born.

In the beginning, Powercoders was funded partially by the Switzerland's state department for migration, and partially by a number of foundations. Nowadays, it is funded by the canton and by the companies to which Powercoders provides employees — the Powercoders graduates.

One such graduate is Mannar, who back in Aleppo studied Computer Engineering and constantly went against her mother's expectations of her by working two jobs and even practising martial arts. When the Syrian war came to Aleppo, public transportation stopped working and water and electricity were cut. There was no internet, Mannar couldn't get to work and neither did she feel it was safe to call her co-workers — there was no way of knowing whose hands would pick up the phone. Aleppo was being bombarded, which forced Mannar to move to a safer neighborhood within the city (one which experienced bombardments less frequently). Though she was not afraid of death, Mannar did not want to end up a nameless corpse on the streets of Aleppo, and so she left for Turkey, which is just 45 min away.

However, she soon realized that Turkey used Syrian refugees as political pawns, and that the threat of repatriation hung above her at all times. She also was deprived of several rights in Turkey (since she did not actually receive asylum, but was only there on some sort of humanitarian stay), and could only access a bare minimum of healthcare services. She decided to leave Turkey for Switzerland. In Switzerland, Powercoders seemed like a natural first step, considering what she had studied back in Aleppo. It was during the Powercoders career day that she was introduced to Liip, her current employer.

Nowadays, Mannar dreams of perfecting her skills as a developer, bringing her mom over to Switzerland, and buying a house by the lake.

Memorable Quotes:

"Being a leader means being open to constructive criticism. You need to have a beginner's mindset every single day."

This episode was produced in collaboration with Startup Days.

If you would like to listen to more conversations about Powercoders, check out our episode with Christian Hirsig.

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